Player Agency in Mythgard
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Here is the third of those articles:
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Kryptik Gaming.
Today we'll be discussing a term that is used often in game design and is really shown off well in Mythgard. Player Agency. What is it? What does it mean? Why does it matter?
What is player agency and why is it spoken about so much in the card game genre? Let's tackle this question in two parts. First, let's establish a definition of "Player Agency" and then we'll move forward to its application in the card game genre.
Defining Player Agency
If you go searching around online, you'll find a few forum discussions relating to defining player agency. I think my favorite comes from Joey Gibbs at Gamasutra.
Well, player agency describes the ability of a player to interact meaningfully with gameworld. More than simple action/feedback interactivity, agency refers to knowing actions taken by the player that result in significant changes within the world.
This definition doesn't really fit perfectly into card games, but it's very close. We're not really affecting the game world in Mythgard, in the same sense that we might be by shooting an explosive barrel and blowing up half a building in a shooter. So, what IS player agency, then? The definition we'll assign to it for the purpose of this article is this:
Player Agency - The level of decision making available to a player at any given time which would result in meaningful impact on the game state varying moderately to greatly on the decision tree taken.
So now we've got our fancy wordy definition... but.... what does it mean? How does it matter in a card game? Put simply, the higher the average player agency is per game, the more "skillful" or meaningfully impacted by player decisions the game becomes. The team at Rhino Games has taken some steps to greatly increase player agency in Mythgard compared to other card games on the market.
Player Agency In Action
The mana system is a great example of increased player agency in Mythgard. If we compare our average starting hand in a game of Mythgard with an average starting hand in Eternal, Hearthstone, or Magic: The Gathering, this becomes rather apparent.
For Eternal and Magic, my decision(s) on turn 1 involve playing one of my dedicated resource cards and then playing a 1 cost card to match. There is some nuance in the Eternal hand as I decide whether to play my Insignia or my Seat (as playing Seat gives away that I have a Sigil in hand as well) but other than that, the turns are fairly straightforward. This process is even somewhat easier, thus lacking more agency, in Hearthstone where I'm simply playing a 1 cost card to match my 1 resource, or in this case having a bit more agency with deciding whether or not to use the coin and play a 2-drop.
My Mythgard hand has many factors to weigh. I'm obviously burning for green to play my Grinning Kolobok. Do I burn Wake the Bones in hopes of drawing it back later when it's more valuable? Do I burn Raid the Tombs since I won't be playing it any time soon? Do I burn Baba Yaga's Den because I want to burn blue on turns 2 and 3 for Fossegrim? Doing that might mean I don't see my Mythic again, as there's only 1 of them in the deck. Maybe I should burn the highest cost instead. Do I want to give up the chance to drop Gamayun on curve to keep cards that are more readily playable in the upcoming turn or two?
Going beyond just deciding what to do with our opening hand, Mythgard's player agency shines throughout the course of a game as well. The average turn in a game of Mythgard is more likely to have more nuanced and meaningful decisions than the average turn of most other card games on the market.
Mythgard's lane system provides another great point of player agency. For example, if I play that District Infantry in my Eternal hand or that Acidic Swamp Ooze in my Hearthstone hand, it will be placed on the field and ready to fight. In my Mythgard hand, once I've decided which card to burn and I'm ready to play my Grinning Kolobok, I need to decide where to play it. Playing it in the middle lane is normally the correct call when going first, as I'll be able to move it and apply pressure to any of the 5 center-most lanes. However, I'm on the draw here and need to be mindful of the the Carny Lug on lane 3. I'm better off playing the Kolobok anywhere but lanes 2, 3, or 4. If my opponent had Impel as their power, lanes 1 and 5 would be unsafe as well, meaning I'd be best off placing this Kolobok in lanes 6 or 7.
Another way that player agency is increased in Mythgard is an open turn structure. Being able to attack throughout the turn, interwoven with your other actions allows for your decision making to play a greater role in your play. Hearthstone does this as well and I feel it is one aspect of gameplay that should really be standard from any new card games coming out in 2019 and beyond.
Player Agency In Deck Building
Does player agency only exist during game play? Can we extend this concept to areas of the game outside of the time spent actually casting cards? We absolutely can. Every new card that comes out allows for any given deck to play a card it could not previously play. This is agency.
When analyzing the application of player agency in the deck building aspect of the game, there are some factors which must be considered. The most pressing of which is the available card pool for any given deck.
Most games feature a "color" or "class" system through which cards are sorted loosely based on thematic elements. The more limitations placed on the player through such a system, the less player agency is allowed to shine. In Magic or Eternal, you have colorless cards which can go into any deck. This is equivalent to the generic card pool available to every deck, regardless of class, in Hearthstone. From there, we begin breaking cards down into their respective pools.
Hearthstone is the game of the 4 we're looking at today which allows for the least player agency in the deck building phase, card pool size notwithstanding. By limiting a player to only cards from the generic pool and their chosen class, you don't get to see decks where card pools of different classes are mixed together. This would be equivalent to multicolored decks in the other games we're discussing.
Color wheels for MtG and Eternal, repsectively
In both Magic and Eternal, we can build our decks with whatever colors we want to jam together. You can combine the card pool any way you choose. This allows for more expression of skill in putting together a deck from various colors. The limiting factor here is that your deck will still need the required dedicated resource cards to make your non-resource cards playable. This means you're still adding in a given number of Power or Mana before you start to flesh out the other parts of the deck. These constraints become harder to work within as you increase the colors in the deck.
In Mythgard, every card is a resource card. By removing the need for dedicated resource cards in the deck building process, the player can more freely mix and match cards of different colors without having to assign some arbitrary number of cards in their deck to the corresponding resource cards. One example of this that comes to mind is old Raid the Tombs from alpha. With it needing just 1 green gem to be castable, you could easily play 4 of them in any non-green control deck and they would make for a very strong draw engine.
By not needing to devote Justice Sigils or Forests to your deck, you can more freely play around with the tools at your disposal in the deck building process. There is definitely still some agency in the more traditional dedicated resource card systems, and players of Magic or Eternal are going to be all-too familiar with the bevy of multicolored resource generation available. However, every card you're weighing the possibility of using for a resource also does something else as well.
Why Does Player Agency Matter?
What does all of this player agency actually amount to? We can go on and on about the ways in which the player agency is incredibly high in Mythgard, but why does that matter? Who cares about the higher player agency?
Put rather simply, the higher average player agency per turn of Mythgard lends itself to making the game one of the most skill-dependent on the market. This is a game that can often be decided more on the back of the better player playing better than their opponent than it can on the card pool itself meaning the player with the most Mythics wins.
I've long said that the one thing that scares me about this game is that the very thing I love about the game, being its incredible player agency, could be the one thing that makes it hard for more casual players to really sink their teeth into it. Nobody likes losing games. It's not fun. The abnormally high amount of player agency puts newer players on the losing end of their own inexperience more than other games in the genre.
With a game like Mythgard, there are going to be a naturally higher number of games lost due to poor decision making than bad or good draws by either player. These losses are the type that are hardest for the average player to analyze and understand the cause of and that can lead to a feeling of "being sacked" or "not having the right cards" when really the game was decided on a matter of player skill.
This is not to say that there aren't games decided because your opponent drew Magnus and wiped your board or because you didn't find Gigantomachia against their Sapo and Twins. However, the increase in player agency does lend itself well to these cards having such a high power level. That's a topic for another day, though.