Why you shouldn’t attempt a TCG (and what kind of game you should make instead)

posted in: Game Design, Unpub | 0

Trading card games (or TCGs) are some of the most fun and complex games in existence. Not only is there an actual game to play, but there is also the meta game of deck construction which can come in a myriad of formats like drafting, singleton, a limited card pool, etc. With all the formats and ways you can play a TCG, mixed in with a never-ending pool of cards to construct with, means endless replayability and fun. Some TCGs boast the most committed of communities with some gamers exclusively playing just a single TCG for their hobby.

So why wouldn’t you want to design a TCG? There are a few ways to answer this question: from the game design side, to the production side, to the publisher/business side.

A disclaimer: I’m not saying you can’t design and publish a TCG. What I’m saying is that if you do and you are not prepared, don’t expect it to be as successful as TCGs that already exist. The truth is, many TCGs have fizzled and died across the years and there are reasons why that happens.

The Game Design reasons why you shouldn’t design a TCG:

(I won’t dwell on this part too much because if you want to design TCGs, you should already know these things as a player.)

  • An infinite number of card relationships: To design a well-balanced TCG, you must be a master of the craft. Unlike in standalone games, TCG players can customize their own decks which increases the permutations of card interactions. You need a team to analyze and playtest all the possible combinations because if you don’t, the players will be the ones to find out how to break your game. Even established TCGs with their teams of developers have had problems in the past with their R&D (I’m looking at you Mirrodin).
  • Avoiding Power Creep: Power Creep is the phenomenon in which cards in newer sets of a TCG become more powerful than cards in a previous set to urge players to buy new cards. Power Creep is a no-no if you want your TCG to survive because as soon as players figure out they need to keep buying cards to win, they will jump ship to a less pay-to-win TCG. So how do you make players buy cards while still not forcing them to with Power Creep? Therein lies one of the biggest challenges in developing a TCG (which is beyond the scope of this blog.)
  • Avoiding Broken Combos: Infinite card combinations mean an infinite number of ways you game can be broken. At this point, it’s already a meme that some decks can win the game on Turn 1. A good designer has to mitigate these through good design work, by putting in restricted formats to lessen the card pool, making restricted lists, etc.
  • Avoiding Dominant Strategies: Just because a TCGs has no broken combos, it doesn’t mean that it is a good TCG. A TCG should also have a lot of possible dominant strategies to win the game (aka the meta). If only one type of deck is winning your tournaments, it defeats the whole purpose of having deck construction since players will only choose the tried-and-tested one way to win the game.

The Production reasons why you shouldn’t design a TCG:

  • The Production Costs: Producing a TCG is different than standalone games. The more customized a product is, the more expensive it will be. Unlike standalone games where everything in the box is the same, TCGs come in randomized boosters with customized card counts (for rarity) which will definitely add to the cost. TCG print runs are also at much higher quantities than standalone games. For reference, Magic’s Alpha set printed 2.61 million cards.
  • The cost of higher Quality Assurance: TCGs need a higher QA than normal standalone games because of competitions and the secondary market. Colors and cutting have to be more accurate (to make card backs indistinguishable for competitions), anti-piracy measures need to be added (like the holo stickers) to avoid piracy, and better-quality print and card stock is needed compared to standalone games.
  • The costs of Unique Art: It’s expected in a TCG that every card needs it’s own art and art is expensive to have commissioned. Unlike in standalone games where you can have less unique components, TCGs are all about unique cards and so there’s no way to avoid it.

The Publishing/Business reasons why you shouldn’t design a TCG:

  • Maintaining the Community: This is probably the most overlooked and underestimated aspect of running a TCG business. A TCG lives and dies with its community. This is very different from a standalone game which can survive with pockets of players just playing with friends and relatives. TCG Players need to be able to go to a community and interact/play with other players for a TCG to survive and a publisher cannot afford to take the chance for this to happen organically. A TCG publisher has to constantly create new buzz through tournaments, promos, casual game nights, lore updates, etc that cater to their community. This requires a crazy amount of logistics, retailer and distribution networks, marketing, etc to keep alive. Once a TCGs community starts to dwindle and players have a hard time finding other people to play with, the TCGs last days are close at hand. Here’s a list of musts just to keep a TCG alive:
    • Organizing Tournaments (and having prizes)
    • Organizing game nights and other events
    • Going to conventions (or hosting your own)
    • Hyping up new releases
    • Writing new Lore and Stories (to cater to the Timmys)
    • Marketing collaterals and materials to help your retailers sell your game (like giant cardboard cutouts)
    • Maintaining an active and interesting social media presence
    • Giveaways
    • Some TCGs even have video trailers
    • and so much more, just at the chance to keep your community alive
  • Competing with established TCGs: The biggest barrier to publishing a TCG is convincing TCG players to leave the TCG they already invested so much of their time and money in to switch to yours. As I said earlier, some TCG players exclusively play only their favorite TCG. What compelling reason can you give for them to jump ship to yours? Be aware that many TCG players also don’t dabble in multiple TCGs at once because TCGs are expensive. They would rather focus all their energy and funds in the TCG they already enjoy and understand. And even then, can you compete with the marketing and logistics budgets of famous TCGs enough for your game to be heard through the noise of the others?

So if all of that sounds too overwhelming, I don’t blame you. TCGs are really a whole different beast compared to other kinds of tabletop games. So if you want to capture the same feeling of a TCG without all the headache, what can you try to design instead?


If you haven’t played a deckbuilding game yet, then I urge you to try one and see if it scratches the same itch as a TCG. It probably won’t be exactly the same thing but it can feel very similar. Deckbuilding is the TCG deck construction experience in a standalone game format. If you haven’t tried it yet, there are lots for you to try such as Dominion, DC Deckbuilding, Legendary, and many others. Play a few then see if you want to try your hand at designing one!

Follow Nico Valdez:

Game Designer

Nico is a game designer, programmer, songwriter, ex-audio engineer, amateur fiction writer, and president of Balangay Entertainment®. One of the less competitive members of Balangay, Nico only wins against 2k, Marx, and Aya when he's played the game before and they haven't. Nico always wins against Aa. He'll play almost anything as long as it's not loud. He likes euro games for their strategy and thematic games for their roleplaying. He doesn't like party games that much because they get too noisy for his ear disability.

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