Saving the Game Letter - Problems & Possible Solutions

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Frodo
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Joined: Tue Apr 18, 2006 5:09 am
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Saving the Game Letter - Problems & Possible Solutions

Post by Frodo » Fri Oct 24, 2008 5:55 am

“Saving the Game of MECCG: Problems and Possible Solutions for Keeping Our Community”
(*Note: you can download this very long letter as an attachment for easier reading)

Dear Players and Friends of the Middle-earth Card Game and Community,

I am writing this letter in an attempt to analyze some of the very important obstacles that still stand in the way of our great game, obstacles that are creating frustration, unhappiness, and disinterest in many old players, and preventing new players from taking the ranks of those who have fallen. Although this letter will focus on the problems, I do not wish to deny the incredible progress that our game has made. Many of us have put forward an incredible amount of work over the years, and if it was not for the collective efforts of projects like GCCG, LURE, national and Worlds tournaments, and the maintenance of the rules, the game would have gone the way of the Elves long ago. Rather, it is because I respect these efforts and wish for us to keep and even expand our audience that I am offering this new call to action for the community.

My call will break down the problem as I see it. You are free to disagree with me, play down the importance of some observances, add to the importance of others. I am basing my analysis on personal discussions with representative players, personal experience, and sometimes just intuition. As Mikko might say, I have “incomplete information.” That will have to do.

Last summer I was at a gaming convention called GenCon in the United States. At it, I saw hundreds of games on tables and floors, and thousands of players, young and old, greedily taking them all in, happy to explore something they had never heard of. With the familiar burning eye cards in my box, and the familiar faces of ten middle-earth players in chairs at our own small table, I thought to myself, “This game is a work of art. Even if it wasn’t, people are obsessed with Tolkien. People are also obsessed with plain old fantasy art. There is no reason why hundreds of people shouldn’t be lining up to play our game, to join our world.”

Of course, that is not true. There are many reasons people cannot become obsessed with the game, or have lost their obsession. At Worlds in Belgium this year, I spoke at length to a famous pair of players who told me how they watched their country’s playing community dwindle year after year, until one day they went to a scheduled tournament and… they were the only ones who showed up. This discussion grew more poignant as I grew to understand that one of these players himself was debating leaving. And even a World organizer, someone I had thought untouchable and would stay in the game forever, narrated to me a similar story of disenchantment. Where all we all going?

Towards a solution, I hope. I don’t think these reasons of frustration are inherent to the game’s design. I think they are inherent to the game’s presentation, and can therefore be addressed, albeit with a great deal of work.

Problem area 1: Current Players
Why are we losing them? What’s making staying in the game a frustrating experience?

Problem area 2: New players
How do we reach out to them? Next, how do we continue to make them feel invited, and want to remain, so the game can grow?

Let’s start with Problem 1.

A- RECRUITMENT PROBLEM: LACK OF OPPONENTS/COMMUNITY
Most players don’t leave the game right away. They fall away with from it gradually, by attrition of time and attention, or by an accumulation of frustration with the way things are going. They may have a lack of face-to-face opponents, and do not enjoy the electronic game play as much as the social experience of playing in-person games. Even if the old players we knew are still around, we all end up moving to different places in our lives. With the loss of old playgroups, we are forced to find players in our new cities. As long as we can make enough new friends, there is little chance of losing the ability to find someone to share our more common interests with: such as watching action movies, or playing poker, or a popular game like Dungeons and Dragons. But since MECCG isn’t popular, we must constantly recruit new playgroups/friends for it. This is the “Recruitment” problem, which revolves around the related problem of teaching the game’s rules and sharing the game’s cards (and brings us to Problem Area 2, which I will address after finishing the rest of Problem 1’s issues).

B- LACK OF TIME/CASUALNESS (THE NEED TO MAKE GAME APPEALING ENOUGH TO CASUAL PLAYERS)
Now if you’re really so busy with grand things in life you don’t have a measly two hours free per month for games, there’s nothing we can do for poor you. But if you do have some time, and the thought of taking up that time with MECCG sounds desirable yet overwhelming, that’s the place we players must begin to think about fixing.

We have an unusual game. The players who play MECCG are almost always older than 20 years; compared to other CCGs, even strategy games, that’s a rare fact indeed. What this means is that we will have a higher percentage of players who will have to deal with the routines and demands of REAL LIFE, and thus have less time to give to games. Now these players will still have some time, they will possibly even seek to enlarge that free time as much as possible, they will even gladly give it to games; so what kinds of games will they choose?

They will choose games that can be played casually. They will not choose games that demand a constant upkeep of new card product (like Magic), or new rules. Luckily, our game does not have that. They will also not choose games whose playing structures are so alienating (GCCG) or inhibited so as to reward or encourage only tournament-level, competitive play. Finally, they will be turned away from games where it is harder to find co-players, if only because they must play something after dinner, and friends (because of the issue with “recruitment”) have given up having MECCG explained to them, and are clamoring for the self-contained, easy-to-understand Scrabble board.

This leads us to the next sub-problem, one of the biggest ones:

C) TOURNAMENT SCENE FRUSTRATION/ DECK STAGNATION

What creates frustration? Some easy reasons to begin with are simply the lack of tournaments, and the lack of prize support (especially interesting, aesthetically-appealing prize support). Even a rankings system would be welcome, since it feels like a kind of prize support to those who have even a light streak of healthy competition in themselves. Unfortunately, prize support, though generous in some areas, has become mostly about booster packs and cards; and for some reason, rankings systems have gone the way of region cards.

But there is a more complex reason for tournament frustration. At the Worlds level, and any other national or local tournament with a decent attendance, frustration with tournament scenes is happening (when they happen) because of a lack of new deck ideas. The same strong deck types are consistently doing well, even as (thank god) some brand-new deck types are popping up and taking the first-place spot now and again.

But these rare new deck types are not enough. I believe that most people play Middle-earth for the creativity of it. They may still be competitive players (or they may not be… it’s important to remember that many game players are not competitive in the tournament-level sense), however, if they see the presence of a few uber-types that constantly win, these players feel mired by creative stagnation, because they look at their own deck and think, “This deck is working, therefore it isn’t fun, and if I want to play a deck that does work, I have to choose between one of these silly solitaire decks…”

This isn’t just a question of whether it gets creamed in worlds play or vs. uber players, but also if it just gets beaten too many times on GGCCG because too many players regardless of individual skill are using these same tested, nearly perfect decks. So the counter-argument of, “There’s plenty of interesting hobbit-lore decks to make, so stop complaining and just play those, newbs” isn’t enough. Deck strength matters. With a limited player pool, decks that work become necessary for fun. Not losing massively, not losing all the time, defines “work.”

Additionally, those who play MECCG for the sheer thrill of competition are also saying, “Okay, I get it, these deck types have been proved already!” Many such competitive players, including the ones who designed these Death Stars to begin with, are (respectably) standing far away from these decks now, even informing other players on how to beat them.

But it’s not enough. Now, the Council of Elrond could keep applying laissez faire economics theory and say, “Well, just let the players decide when too much is too much. We’re not going to interfere: we will not issue new errata, new guidelines. When players don’t want to play these decks anymore, they won’t play them, plain and simple.”

The problem with this approach is that it’s too slow. It leaves out the fact that when players don’t want to play against these decks anymore, they will simply stop playing altogether. I’ve heard numerous stories about local/national playgroups that have disintegrated in this fashion. Such a laissez faire policy also does not address the problem of creative stagnation… unless you are an exceptionally talented or exceptionally obsessive player who swears by what I’m about to describe in my next paragraph:

I am sure that some players won’t see the point to democratizing our game so that it appeals to more or even weaker players. Why not keep the game going for those who still appreciate it, and screw everyone else who doesn’t, who just wants to complain? There will always be a certain group of players who love the player-versus-player purity of the game, so much so that even if they were playing a similar deck, even the same deck, versus their opponent, they would still get excited about the match. But eventually, we will end up with roughly 8 players in the entire world who are eager to alternate between the same 4 deck types, who pin all their strategic hopes to metagame tweakings of individual hazard strategies or a few resource cards, year after year. On some level, this kind of Platonic competition sounds interesting—even to me. But I bet that’s not a level the majority of players care about. Worse, there is already a name for the science fiction scenario I’ve described above. It’s called, “Worlds.”

Some Solutions for Problem Area 1
So to recap Problem Area 1: Current Players, we have the specific obstacles of:

*Recruitment (I will hold off on Recruitment suggestions until after my analysis of “Problem 2: New Players.”)
*Lack of Time/Community
*Tournament Scene Frustration/Deck Stagnation

I see the issue of lack and time and community, and the tournament scene/deck frustration, as being interwined, so I will throw out a bunch of ideas related to these problems.

Create More Casual Play:
I have already argued that there exists a large coterie of MECCG players who will forever remain casual. In fact casual does not necessarily mean non-competitive; I have some friends that will only show up to one MECCG tournament a year, then they will do their damnedest to beat everybody! In this case “casual” means that we must be able to appeal to player who will only be playing rarely and have a lack of time. In the other case we must appeal to the non-competitive player, though these players may be playing quite often on GCCCG and with nearby friends.

One solution to the desire for casual play, then, is to better develop alternate scenarios that appeal to casual players. We can build-up both strategic and fun non-general opponent-events, create variations of Sealed, etc. Rather than guessing in the dark, thought, let’s take a poll and do some research. Poll Question: Is sealed deck working? How satisfied are you with sealed deck events, or would you prefer some changes to spice it up? If the level of satisfaction is not high, let’s change it’s rules, such as creating altogether different fixed packs of cards that you get, allowing virtual cards in sealed, etc.

The Players Committee that runs the Star Wars game, for example, decided that Sealed Play had become static and dull. The Committee put their heads together and created a list of more than 400 fixed cards that would go into a box that they called “The Cube.” It was from this box that henceforth all sealed decks in tournaments would then be made. Since the list of cards was so finely chosen, it created a much more balanced and interesting play environment than regular sealed… and more players, thusly, began playing sealed format. In addition, as you’ve probably already figured out, this method does not use any existing sealed product, and that product is getting more difficult for even us MECCG players to come by.

The ARDA Shared-deck MECCG Game:
This format reminds me of what I tried to do with my created “ARDA shared deck” game, a game that I played many times in Belgium Worlds to popular success, and this game can also be used as a sealed-deck generator. Finally, I realized this format was so popular for a reason I had completely forgotten about: you don’t even have to make a deck! That’s right, you just draw from a shared pile of cards, and play with what you get. I never realized before just how many players would love to play a game of middle-earth, but don’t have the energy or even hate to make a new deck, and of course they’re sick of the ones they already have. So why not play from a fixed box of cards that promises a totally different game each time? I think this format is very promising for certain types of middle-earth players, and I recommend its use at major tournaments.

More Poll Questions: Is the Challenge Deck format working? What about Minion sealed? Let’s not fall into the trap of Are being purists, committed to some archaic “let’s play from the pack!” experience? If it’s our game, let’s do what we want with it.

Worlds Tournament: Okay, here’s the biggie. At Worlds in Belgium I spoke with countless people who had heard of many MECCG players that didn’t attend Worlds because of the Friday qualifier, because of the competition, because of the deck types. Some of these same players still went to LURE or other events, but Worlds was out. Now, it is the intention of the community to make Worlds more than just about the Worlds events, which is why there are so many side events offered. However, it was pointed out that the overarching feeling or aura associated with this event is one of uber high-level competition and uncreative atmosphere for playing games.

The Solution: A somewhat radical but still heavily favored solution was framed by several of the Worlds organizers and attendees, and now awaits discussion by you, the community. The solution is to dump the idea of the Worlds-centered event entirely, and replace it with a annual week-long MECCG gathering that is held in a different country every year, as per the rules for Worlds. This gathering would focus on countless tournament and side events, designated and pre-planned site-seeing trips, good food and cheer, and two Worlds rounds positioned at the end of the gathering, the semis and the finals (thus abandoning the Friday qualifier). Even the name of this gathering would change; it would now be called, “The Long Expected Party” (and kudos to Kris for this stupendous title), and Worlds itself would become one of the (hopefully still attended) side events.

The advantages of this format would be many. The only possible disadvantage I can think of is that some players may like the purist aspect of a Worlds-only occasion. Such players may not even be interested in mixing fun and sociality with the competition known as Worlds. But the problem with keeping this separation can be spelled out in one simple sentence: nobody is coming to Worlds. That’s right, the numbers have dwindled to very few. The average MECCG player is a social person (witness the success of LURE), and we need to give that player what is wanted. If we continue to keep holding separate Worlds events, who exactly are we holding them for? Our game can only survive by evolving to the needs of its players. Let’s give them what they want—and increase our numbers at the same time.

GCCG:
I hate to say it, but GCCG needs serious help. It’s amazing, but it’s also been years; why don’t we have people dedicated to updating the installation rules for all major platforms? I’ve had players tell me that they’ve tried to install, had problems, posted questions in the forms, and got limited or no responses.

Solutions: There are many. Why not design a “How to Play GCCG” Book, with color pictures and everything? Also, in the long run, a Gccg 2, or just a MECCG 2, would be a dream. Can’t we get developers? Wigy has expressed interested in working with developers who are willing to do projects. Just see the current version of the newsletter on what kinds of jobs GCCG needs. If we can’t find developers/programmers with time now, not to worry; they will come, as we advertise and bring in new players. That’s right, new players mean new resources.

Rules and Official Expansions:
If necessary, let’s seek to actively limit the power of cards, including issuing errata, if that’s what it takes to curb the power of certain deck types. Let’s seek to create official expansions to the game, like the Virtual Card effort, especially if these new cards are geared towards “tweaking” the game and raising the power of other decks’ (like other RWs besides Ankhorohil). A Virtual Set #1 has been released, although the cards’ texts are still subject to minor edits at this point; I have met few people who have not found playing with these cards to be highly satisfying, and they’ve observed that they help eliminate creative stagnation and opened up the use of so many previously “dead” cards. In fact, the main objections to the set have come from people who simply don’t want to have to read new cards. I was surprised to hear this, but evidently there are many MECCG players who seem to NOT want any new sets. In their own way, even if they attend tournaments, even if they win Worlds, they have become “casual” at heart. It remains to be measured how many of truly want new expansions and change to happen, and thusly whether new expansions should only form part of an “alternate” tournament format, or whether they should be made legal for all tournaments.

Other Rules Documents: Minion Rules Summary
Let’s make a summary of those complicated minion rules! This isn’t even just for newbies, it’s for veterans too. Make it a nice color glossy summar, standard letter-size document, double-sided, with pretty images throughout to make the rules bullets seem less imposing. Would help during minion sealed events. This goes along with those helpful guides and articles like “Timing Tutorials,” etc. except that I think this one would be even more widely used, and appreciated.

COMMUNITY
Newsletter: I think the newsletter is a good idea, and I’ve received some suggestions for it, like to have it published every month in order to stay in player’s minds more. Every month won’t happen, but every season should now be possible, thanks to certain volunteers responding to my previous call for assistance. In addition, I had some creative ideas of my own, such as a special section that is a “community shout-out” page, where like a newspaper classifieds or “Job Wanted” section I collect short paragraphs about players from all over the world describing where they live and play and what decks or formats they play and who they play with. In this respect, we will see a picture of just how many of us there are, and even hear the voices of those scattered across the globe that are still playing.

COE Site: This site is a godsend; tons of necessary, collected information that players need and want. But I think it can go further. Let’s totally update the site so that the pages become a sort of “clearinghouse” for new and old players. Explain on the cover page that there is a place in the middle-earth community for every kind of player, casual, thematic, etc., and give immediate links to the sections of the website that talk more about those resources and scenarios. For example, I thought it would be great to have an “Open Letter to the New Player of Middle-earth” where we welcome that player and tell him or her everything necessary to get involved in the game, the types of tourney structures, etc.

Patrons: Finally, since I am including even dreamy suggestions here, we should keep our eyes open for rich people that might become patrons of the game. Sounds impossible? Not really. Consider this: independent films and independent art theaters might also have tiny audience communities and be making no money, but they survive because one of their fans considers their product to be a work of art, something beautiful that is worthy of keeping alive, and this fan agrees to support the cause—and is RICH. This might be our only hope, in fact, of ever getting the license back from Tolkien enterprises; unless an actual company decides they can make money of the game again. (But how much control will we, the players, lose in that case? Hmm.)

Done with the problems of current players! Time for the next problem area: appealing to new ones.

Problem area 2: new players
This can be put categorized into two sub-areas, which I’ll call “Recruitment” and “Product Availability, Community and Advertising.”

A Short Anecdote:
At the GenCon convention, while our group of 10 was quietly involved in our respective games, players from the tables of other CCG games like Game of Thrones and Star Wars or who had playing a fun board game wandered over and began watching us with interest, sometimes fingering (with our permission!) the pretty pictures of Aragorn, Arwen, Orcs and Balrogs, etc. At one point, I was just about to begin a casual game with an established player, and one of these new people smiled at me and said, “Looks pretty cool. So how do you play?” “Um, well you have these companies…”

And at that moment, panic struck me. I realized the game could not be explained in a few minutes. Worse, I realized there was no established, proven system by which I could teach the game: demos, documents. Much worse, I realized there was no central authority I could direct him to either that would answer his questions even if he was willing to teach the game to himself. And on top of everything else, I felt so overwhelmed that I just wanted him to go away, and play an enjoyable game with someone who already (sort of) knew the rules… and thus guarantee that the game would eventually die off from no descendents. But I did my best, rushing over dangerous-sounding sentences like, “the rules haven’t been updated yet… scattered in different documents…uh, there’s not really many cards left on the market, or players… sure you can play online for free! if you can figure out the software…”

A – RECRUITMENT: OFFICIAL DEMOS, LEVELING OF MASTERY, FINISHING THE RULES

One of the first big issues related to recruitment of new players is how to explain this crazy game to them. It’s a complex game, and most of us I’m sure have not spent dozens of hours figuring out the best, most standardized way to teach it to someone. Ok, let’s do that:

Explanatory Documents: “How to Teach the Game to New Players”
The first item I see a need for is an explanatory teaching document or documents, COE-produced, that can be disseminated to already existing players. Such a document would explain the best way to teach this game to a prospective new player, taking into account such things as how many minutes you have for that person’s attention (she saw you fiddling with your cards at your office cubicle! now she’s standing at the water cooler asking you questions and your hair’s a mess! so you have like—five?), their previous understanding of card games, etc.

But the most important point this document should teach is that you can’t teach all of MECCG at once. You need to give prospective players just enough of a taste that they can immediately start playing some version of the game—which is, after all, the main goal, remember?

Here is how I envision such leveling mastery:
a. level 1: demo level game (northwestern side map only)
b. level 2: hero-only challenge deck level (they are already very competent if playing at this level, but they are not ready for skilled sealed deck play)
c. level 3: sealed deck/ “ARDA” deck / or “intermediate” challenge deck (at this point we must show them more cards. This also encourages collecting cards, at this point)
d. level 4: constructed deck, and casual tournament or playgroup play
e. level 5: high-level tournament play

Explanatory Documents: Level 1: The Demo-level Game (introductory)
I’m not sure what this game should look like, exactly. But I do know it should be a simple as possible in turns of site selection and available choices, and also lend itself to a descriptive, immersive narrative. I believe this was what ICE was trying to do with the Saruman/Gandalf Starter Deck game. However, it is my understanding that this game is boring and doesn’t appeal to new players. If that’s correct, then let’s design our own. Some ideas: it should consist of a fixed-order opening hand, a fixed-order draw pile of 10 cards, then another 10 cards that are fixed but can be in any order. And of course, an exciting, recognizable starting company (a hobbit, Aragorn, a Wizard, a scout, a diplomat) that can take advantage of the different types of resources you will be teaching the play to play (Concealment, Risky Blow, Ford, etc.). There should be a separate hazard deck or perhaps just a hazard hand (for the teacher): fixed-order, at least 8 cards, plus another 10 fixed but random in order. Finally, the only sites involved should be those in the upper-left corner of the map: the regions adjacent to the regions of Arthedain and Rhudaur and any regions adjacent to these (ending with the water and the Misty Mountain regions). In addition, I truly believe we need an altogether new region/site map to made that contains only this northwest section of middle-earth and, in addition, has every site and its picture and text running along the perimeter of the map, much like the Northern Waste and Bag End Scenario Games (but these should be real, standard sites). Such a map could be printed nice and large, bigger than the standard maps, to help new players instantly see where they can go, etc.

Projects Needed to Be Done for the Demo Game:
--Demo game decks
--Demo game directions
--Demo game MAP (I have some ideas; contact me if you wish to do this!)

Explanatory Documents: Level 2: Hero-only Challenge Deck
Not too much to say here. Challenge Decks are a very good thing; they have always been extremely popular, and even die-hard veterans love (prefer?) to play them, in part because not everybody likes to make decks (especially at first). However, the fundamental rule to remember, a rule that I have certainly broken, is that unless a player is already quite skilled at CCGs (beyond Yu-gi-oh) AND has a great pre-interest in the middle-earth game: Don’t start off by teaching a player a challenge deck! Use the demo-level approach, or you will scare them off too soon. Also, please: do not teach them minion challenge decks in the beginning! Only use the hero ones, and ignore sideboarding rules for a while as well. Challenge Decks are most complex to new players than they might seem to us.

It is quite possible, even likely, that after the demo or challenge deck game a player will want to purchase his or her own cards. But if not, they will probably get addicted to the collecting idea at the point which you show them sealed deck play.

Projects and Obstacles to the Challenge Deck Game—To be discussed later, in “Product Availability.”

Explanatory Documents: Level 3: Sealed deck / “ARDA” deck / or “intermediate” challenge decks

In order to get players ready for the “field” of players and decks they will face in open casual play, we must introduce them to the wealth of MECCG cards out there. Sealed Deck is perfect for this. The new “ARDA Shared-deck format”, developed by myself, Joe Bisz, is also perfect; I am starting to wonder if it is even better than traditional sealed deck. Finally, there have been discussions of an “intermediate-level challenge deck” project, where a new closed set of decks would be designed that used advanced combinations and strategies BUT were designed to be played only against each other. Rather like the regular challenge decks. Such decks would meet the needs of players who never become drawn to playing middle-earth on any level higher than level 3, because they only want to face a closed field of equal-strength decks, so as to put the onus of success or failure entirely upon their playing skills, rather than on the whimsical chance of someone stumbling upon a “broken combo” and making up a new killer deck. These types of players are sometimes players who do NOT play any other kind of CCG, but rather only strategy board games or video games that are not customizable, but have more of a “what you see is what you get” comprehensibility to them. We have to recognize the fact that many MECCG players will simply never wish to leave this level; and then make this level as attractive as possible for them.

Projects and Obstacles to Sealed Deck—To be discussed later, in “Product Availability.”

The other two levels do not need discussion at this point. I do want to point out one other issue that may not be obvious: it is not enough to rely upon ourselves to teach people this game. We need to have a method on the COE site whereby people who stumble upon or are directed there can teach or refresh themselves on the game. Solution: This seems so obvious, and it’s cheap and highly effective too: create a You-Tube video. Heck, create several You-Tube videos, and post links to them on the COE website. They should be staggered in terms of leveling what they are teaching. For example, one short video introduces people to the game in an overview, talks about the website itself, the newsletter, the community resources and tournament scene. The next video basically covers the Demo Game. Etc, etc. The point of videos is that they can be very friendly in tone but also more effective than standardized documents because they are visual. Some of the videos can even have the narrator referring to a rules sheet at one point, in order to illustrate the watcher how to use the rules. This can really take off: people might even see the videos on You-Tube itself because of the middle-earth tag, and become interested in the game that way. We don’t necessarily have to hold someone’s hand through every step of the rules. Give someone just a starter level of game knowledge, and if it’s well-presented so that we hook them, they will teach themselves the rest.

In short, I think we can do this, through proper scaffolding and creation of supporting documents and media. Feed any player limited enough information—that is, information in doses—and they can learn anything. It’s a fundamental rule of teaching.

Finishing the Rules:
Even if we explain the basic concept of the rules to players well-enough, the rulebooks themselves are still thick, complex, awkwardly written, scattered over several documents. Then there’s the expanded rules, or CRF… that’s right, it gets worse! And for anyone who doesn’t think this is big deal, remember even veteran players still get confused—constantly!

Solution: We must make it a high-priority to get the rules book at least to the point that a highly motivated player with a reasonable intelligence can make heads and tails out of them and thus, “teach the rules to himself.” Even an imperfect, one-book rules document would be better than nothing at this point—it could always be updated and perfected later. In addition, going along with the idea of leveling the game’s rules to new players, there should be a very short summary of the rules that’s available for players right away (and as a teaching aid). This could be Craig Ichabod from ICE’s summary, this could be a summary already being worked on that I don’t know about, but regardless, this needs to be done. A small example: I taught the game to a very intelligent friend of mine who loves Tolkien, loves games, and loves card. Sounds like three home runs, right? Then he asked me if there were so many new rules and erratta, where were they published? I hesitated… and when I started mentioning the internet, the forums, the COE digests, everything went downhill from there. If we can’t get HIM, who on middle-earth do we think we’re going to get??

B- PRODUCT AVAILABLITY, COMMUNITY AND ADVERTISING

Okay, let’s say we explained it well enough to some friends we’ve met, and—wow!—they like the game! Not only that, the rulesbooks have been streamlined and—double wow!—they say they can actually understand them. Now, the players greedily ask us… so where’s the CARDS?

This is probably the single-greatest challenge our game presents us. We can streamline or simplify the rules, we can develop demos all day, we can advertise like professionals—but there’s the product?? How do I play this game?

Solutions: These are only attempts at solutions, some ideas to keep in mind, and finally, some very controversial ideas I will propose:
i. We must be give away SOME product at tournaments to new players. In addition, we must be able to SELL a little to new players who want more—then redirect them to a stable source/website where they can get the rest.
ii. I fear that the above is getting harder and harder. Therefore, I offer an idea for discussion: effective immediately, no new sealed product is to be given out as prizes at tournaments, EXCEPT where the player receiving the prize is a new player.
iii. Are we comfortable existing completely as an ONLINE game only? Because if we run out of product, this is what will happen, at least for new players who cannot gain access to the cards the collecting players have. Remember, I am speaking about a scenario in which we are really receiving dozens of new players a year, thanks to the efforts of projects I’ve already described.

Even hoarding the prize support will not solve all of our product problems, though it may delay Judgment Day a few more years. Therefore, I ask that we give serious thought to another long-debated solution: reprinting all of the cards (illegally). Or else, provide the knowledge and the methods so that players can print them themselves. Printing technology is getting cheaper and cheaper. Providing such methods—for example, 9 card image sheets hosted on a server—would be legal because we are not printing the cards, we are displaying the images/pieces of this game in order to give a perusable library. Players would be choosing to do the illegal actions.

Even before we reprint the whole set, there is perhaps a more pressing issue: the challenge decks. Players who reach level 2 will want their own set of decks, or at least a few. But the supply of decks is nearly exhausted. This is a very real threat. I would suggest that as a test, the community considers “broadcasting” the challenge decks card images on a server somewhere, in a 9 card sheets that would fit on a standard piece of paper (both American letter and euro A4). On the famous game site boardgamegeek.com, our wonderful MECCG is ranked the 3rd best game of all time… not just out of a pool of card games, but a pool of hundreds of all games, even board games! This is quite a compliment. Some of the posted comments there mention the difficulty with getting into the game, and stress the importance of reprinting the challenge decks. This will greatly expand our ability to meet the growing demand for cards.

Proxies: Finally, I offer one other idea that I’m sure will also prove controversial. Current players, but especially new players, will feel a certain unfairness in the difficulty of obtaining particular hard-to-find cards, and this will only add to their frustration with tournament-level play. I believe that the GCCG model, where everyone can play with whatever card they like, has proved to be successful: you don’t see any players anymore claiming that you should actually “own” the GCCG card to be playing in GCCG tournaments, etc. Still some players in the real world (those with the cards, of course) might feel that having the hard-to-find cards should count for some kind of detriment when composing a deck for tournaments, otherwise the whole collecting market could change too much.

Solution: I propose a middle-of-the-road solution, which is thus. All Worlds, nationals, and local tournaments should implement the “at least one-of-a-kind proxy rule.” This rule states that: for any card that you have multiple copies of in deck and sideboard, one of these copies must be original, but all other copies can be proxied. For example, if I had three Longbottom Leafs in my deck, one of these must tbe the original, and the others may be proxied. If I had a unique card in my deck, it would have to be the original. This solution also prevents a negative situation where one player needs to know the text of the card but the proxy does not have the text (just the title); by my suggested rule, the original card can now always be hunted for.

Community and Advertising:
Okay, got the rules, got the cards. Got game. Where’s the COMMUNITY?

I have to say, our web forums are amazing. Never is there a better time for small communities to thrive then now. Without the miracle of electronic communication that these forums provide, and the equally great miracle of GCCG, our game would have died long ago, like any esoteric hobby that requires a platform to keep it going. A strong community is needed to attract new players to the game, and if we keep working on the community ideas I previously mentioned (newsletter, bigger GCCG… larger tournament structure, newer and more inviting WORLDS) we should be fine.

But we still need to streamline our approach to advertising the game. Also at the American GenCon convention, our players saw many attendees peeping at the dealer tables asking dealers if they “had any middle-earth cards for sale?” These questions came from convention attendees unknown to us. Luckily, some of us had business cards I had hastily developed with the game’s basic contact information—COE website address, description of newsletters, etc.—and we ended up giving out all 20 business cards to random people we met at the convention!

Convention Advertising:
So here’s where I ask some questions. Are big conventions merely an American thing, or do they happen a lot in Europe and South America as well? Do our European and South American players go to these conventions? I ask because I can’t think of a single, better venue for advertising our game than a gaming convention.

Use the Conference Programs: Think about it: there’s a program guide listing hundreds of games which thousands of players are scanning, and suddenly there’s a line about “Middle-earth” and “Tolkien.” If you’re a fantasy buff, who wouldn’t be curious? Also, if allowed, in that two-line description you get to advertise your event, you can use that opportunity to list the COE website address. Now of the thousands of people who have scanned your information but don’t actually show up to the event, maybe a few dozen will look up our game.

Use the Conference Goodie Bags: Conventions also give out bags of free stuff that different game companies provide. What if we gave out free common middle-earth cards, that have a sticker of text explaining that we’re doing events, and listing our website address?

Use your Own Body: Additionally, I started wearing some homemade Middle-earth t-shirts a few years ago to cons, and I was really surprised to see how many players just walked up to me because they recognized the giant burning eye symbol, and asked, “Hey, is that game still going? I have all these cards I bought… how do I find out more information?” In fact I was so convinced it was the EYE that attracted them that this year, even when I had on a normal shirt, I taped real MECCG cards to my left and right sleeves (and backside) with the burning eye facing out. I looked like some kind of game-geek-freak (who didn’t??), but hey, I had three to five people approach me every day about the game!

Create Business Cards: Like I said, we should create a standardized business card, targeted either to people who know about the game and left, or else to people who don’t know anything about the game (great for posting in random game stores in your city in case you don’t attend conferences), or probably two different cards entirely. If even one or two people respond, that’s huge. I will post my example later. Most descriptions of MECCG should target newbies, so we need to think about what language they want to hear.

Advertising through the COE Treasury:
We have a COE Treasury. It has money in it. Highly aesthetic prize support is one good solution for the money, but another solution, a solution that is appropriate for the games’ leadership to implement and share amongst themselves, is to use it for advertising. For example: at conferences I have seen thin, aluminum-cased tripod devices that hold giant, slick, glossy-cloth posters about the size of a person. They are used to advertise games and game companies, and with such huge images, such as characters from Game of Thrones or Warcraft, they are tremendously eye-catching and beautiful! Wouldn’t THAT be an absolutely fabulous use of the COE funds? Ah but what about image rights, you ask? I suggest two tracks to explore: analyze the fair use law to see if we can simply make a collage that uses parts of different images (e.g., the heads of characters) into one new image, or else just use the art of artists who have graciously agreed to allow anyone and everyone to reprint their art for non-commerical purposes (such as Ted Nasmith). In the Nasmith example, we could take his minion image of Bag End, for instance, blow it up on a giant poster, and have the middle-earth logo underneath (so we wouldn’t use the actual Bag End card template). Even just the burning eye, massively sized, would be great. Does anyone know of a company that makes such rollable, cloth posters?

CONCLUSION
If some of these projects are implemented, we will suddenly start to get players jumping on the forums, telling us they are here, and they have questions. Are we ready for them?

The next step to do is to have some discussion on the many points I’ve raised in this memo. For example, are there conventions in Europe that people attend? Do they advertise our game at these gatherings? Again (despite the fact that this letter is 30 pages long double-spaced, and has taken me weeks to write), I have probably missed some points. If the discussion gets too long here, the next thing to do is to have lead people take what they’re interested in and give it a title in a forum, and continue the debate or project-building there. I also need people to volunteer to spearhead the various projects/solutions that I’ve outlined, provided that you (and the community) agree with my reasoning. You will then become the committee director assigned to deal with this problem, and fix it.

There is a lot to do. It is easy to think, why does it matter if people drop out, if they think the game is flawed? Why does it matter if we don’t attract anyone new, as long as we continue to like the game? I don’t see it that way. I see our presentation as being flawed. I think we can do more, reach more people and introduce them to this game, even if only casually. Introducing even 10 new committed players per year in a given country… heck, I’d settle for five more in North America… could have dramatic results, giving our community an influx of energy but also an audience for all our work and efforts.

Thank you for listening, and please feel free to comment on whatever sections interest you the most.

Sincerely,

Frodo (Joe Bisz)
Council of Elrond Member
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marcos
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Post by marcos » Fri Oct 24, 2008 7:44 pm

i just posted a link to this topic at meccg.net forum i think there are plenty of people that still visits that forum often and should help a bit...

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Post by Jose-san » Mon Oct 27, 2008 6:30 pm

Well, it took me several sessions but I finally finished reading your letter. First of all thank you for this very needed effort, I agree in general with all of it. Since its scope is overwhelming to me I just want to throw some especific ideas about player recruitment.

Please, forgive my poor English. These are the actions that I think are more important.

I think that the game is too complex for new players. You have to put a lot of effort to learn playing and there are many discouraging aspects. Not to mention card errata (extremely discouraging for new Spanish players). The rules need to be rewriten. When I read the rules of some recent games (not just CCG) I notice how well writen they are. They are concise, clear and without ambiguities. Now even experienced players have many doubts about rulings, card playing, etc. I think that before tutorials or programmed learning documents/decks, we need new game rules. We would have the opportunity to correct the rules and make a ruleset that doesn't need a rule-lawyer interpretation. And I wouldn't fear actually changing the rules. Maybe the rules can be simplified (I think they should be), they can be changed for balance, I don't know. But I don't know why they should be static. They could be a living ruleset with a ruling body council updating them as needed.

I think proxies should be allowed in all events with the only restriction of a minimum quality. I love my collection and I love playing with the actual cards, but it's very unfair for new players. Got 3 Longbottom? Great, but we want new players and only a very small fraction of them can get those cards. Also proxies are a chance to correct card errata.

It would be great to have a standard (localized) poster that everyone of us could print and hang at our local game store, comic store, game events, conventions, etc. By the way, I'm worried about the lack of activity both in this forum and in meccg.net (in contrast with the Spanish one). I think it's easier to bind new players in the darkness with active forums. If a new player reach the forum and weeks pass without seeing any activity, he would think that the game is already dead. I don't know what the causes are.

Finally, GCCG, as good as it is, needs a face wash. Most of all it needs a friendly installation and a good tutorial.
Last edited by Jose-san on Mon Oct 27, 2008 8:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

wlk
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Post by wlk » Mon Oct 27, 2008 6:48 pm

Jose-san wrote:Finally, GCCG, as good as it is, needs a face wash. Most of all it needs a friendly installation and a good tutorial.
Actually, I though the gccg installation was rather easy: just click on the correct .bat to download the module, then run metw.bat.

What part would you like to be more automated/simplified ?
Post ideas, I'd be glad to help here.

But indeed a short tutorial might help for the game anyway.

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Post by Jose-san » Mon Oct 27, 2008 8:34 pm

wlk wrote:What part would you like to be more automated/simplified ?
Post ideas, I'd be glad to help here.
I'm more than happy with GCCG as it is. But I know of several people that have sadly given up because of difficulties with the installation or the interface (I think with the learning of the interface). Me and others have tried to help GCCG users in the Spanish forums, Agustin even posted an installation tutorial, but we haven't been succesful in all cases. Maybe if all installation was completed from a single file it would be easier. A configuration utility for setting up the parameters within metw.bat would be fine too (part of the installation process?). A desktop icon? Many users don't feel comfortable managing or editing files. But I'm just guessing.

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Thorsten the Traveller
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Post by Thorsten the Traveller » Tue Oct 28, 2008 6:45 pm

oh boy, where to begin. Well first off, big kudos Joe for a sharp and encompassing analysis of the current situation and offering some directions towards solutions. The problems are as divers as the game itself and it's community :wink:

Personally I don't share the sense of urgency you're experiencing with smaller numbers attending events. Sure, in the long run the 'survival' of a meccg community might be at stake, if people drop out some fresh blood is needed, but I'd rather fight boredom with the game than gradually decreasing numbers. I'd rather play the same few people over and again but face different decks, than different people playing the same deck...

Therefore my attention would focuss on the development of the game itself, to keep people in (myself included). Unfortunately the community lacks the authority or system to carry through real change in the game. Thus several sub-communities tend to develop. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, we are casual players and everything seems to be grass root, so the most popular way of playing the game will survive. Nevertheless it is a surprising difference with the SWccg where everybody just automatically seems to accept the authority of the Committee that designs new cards, up to 100+ a year...how can we learn from them, the way they approach the community for renewal in the game?

Speaking as one of the 'digitally challenged' players I do think that if gccg interface or handling would be improved I would play some more online, but not much, since it does not represent the meccg experience for me. I love board games, but I don't play those online either unless in dire need. :wink: Playing games is a social thing. In other words, I don't know if there's much to win here.

As far as events goes, your idea of Worlds as a week long festive social event is nice, but drawing on that, why not really create a worlds that takes into account the whole scala of meccg games? We could create an allround tournament, you'd have to participate in a general individual constructed, a non-constructed (or even shared deck) game, a scenario game, and possibly a Virtual or dreamcard game, or a pair game. Let's leave out the drinking game...and at the end of the 4 days or so you have the allround world champion.

Apart from boredom (same strong decks) I'll just give my personal experience/reason for why I stopped playing competitive play already long ago: people abusing the cards (and the spirit of the game) by too literal and in my view incorrect reading of the cards. So unless new rulings are made to binding effect to counter this, I will refrain from competitive play out of self protection. I must say though, that there might be a self correcting mechanism at work currently, since many players don't want to play the tricks and ueberdecks anymore either, it's not just a metagame effect.

Last note: the Arda concept is not refined yet, but already I can say it works very well as an addition to an agreable meccg event, for it's social and interactive setting, so every event should stage this. As it's multiplayer, it might be rather slow, a game takes several hours, so I'm not sure it's useful for attracting new players.
Stone-age did not end because man ran out of rocks.

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Post by thorondor » Wed Oct 29, 2008 5:16 pm

wow, thanks a lot, joe!
there is practically nothing i do not agree with.
now we cannot start to discuss things here, cause that would end in a mess very soon. when reading i got quite a lot questions ans suggestions and ideas. so my first suggestion is to split the text into topics and start new threads for each of them.
MECCG is on the move. and i definately want to be part of this journey ...

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Post by marcos » Wed Oct 29, 2008 5:46 pm

Im posting a link to this thread in argentinian and spanish forums...
wow, thanks a lot, joe!
there is practically nothing i do not agree with.
now we cannot start to discuss things here, cause that would end in a mess very soon. when reading i got quite a lot questions ans suggestions and ideas. so my first suggestion is to split the text into topics and start new threads for each of them.
MECCG is on the move. and i definately want to be part of this journey ...
I agree with wolfgang with multiple topics will be easier to discuss

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Post by Jambo » Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:57 am

Frodo wrote:But there is a more complex reason for tournament frustration. At the Worlds level, and any other national or local tournament with a decent attendance, frustration with tournament scenes is happening (when they happen) because of a lack of new deck ideas. The same strong deck types are consistently doing well, even as (thank god) some brand-new deck types are popping up and taking the first-place spot now and again.

But these rare new deck types are not enough. I believe that most people play Middle-earth for the creativity of it. They may still be competitive players (or they may not be… it’s important to remember that many game players are not competitive in the tournament-level sense), however, if they see the presence of a few uber-types that constantly win, these players feel mired by creative stagnation, because they look at their own deck and think, “This deck is working, therefore it isn’t fun, and if I want to play a deck that does work, I have to choose between one of these silly solitaire decks…”

This isn’t just a question of whether it gets creamed in worlds play or vs. uber players, but also if it just gets beaten too many times on GGCCG because too many players regardless of individual skill are using these same tested, nearly perfect decks. So the counter-argument of, “There’s plenty of interesting hobbit-lore decks to make, so stop complaining and just play those, newbs” isn’t enough. Deck strength matters. With a limited player pool, decks that work become necessary for fun. Not losing massively, not losing all the time, defines “work.”

Additionally, those who play MECCG for the sheer thrill of competition are also saying, “Okay, I get it, these deck types have been proved already!” Many such competitive players, including the ones who designed these Death Stars to begin with, are (respectably) standing far away from these decks now, even informing other players on how to beat them.

But it’s not enough. Now, the Council of Elrond could keep applying laissez faire economics theory and say, “Well, just let the players decide when too much is too much. We’re not going to interfere: we will not issue new errata, new guidelines. When players don’t want to play these decks anymore, they won’t play them, plain and simple.”

The problem with this approach is that it’s too slow. It leaves out the fact that when players don’t want to play against these decks anymore, they will simply stop playing altogether. I’ve heard numerous stories about local/national playgroups that have disintegrated in this fashion. Such a laissez faire policy also does not address the problem of creative stagnation… unless you are an exceptionally talented or exceptionally obsessive player who swears by what I’m about to describe in my next paragraph...
Other than commitments of real life (which is probably the numero uno reason for people leaving), I believe this is the crux of the problem.

After playing a gazillion games on GCCG, many of which I thoroughly enjoyed, I will now play vanilla MeCCG only on very rare occasions. This will be either if it's a casual game and I know my opponent well, or, if I know my opponent likes to play with experimental decks. Tournaments (other than VC ones) are a definite no-go area. I've had enough of playing against Short Rests, squatting FWs, and various tedious minion affairs, usually involving a Great Shadow'd Balrog, Hoarmurath, or the LE, to last me a lifetime...

Sure, I admire those that continue to advocate that we should be playing MeCCG as ICE left it. It has a certain "keeping it true" feeling to it. But then we have to remember that ICE left it because ICE went bankrupt, so we can only speculate as to what ICE's intentions may have been or would have been had they still been around to this day. ICE issued errata, issued errata to correct errata, removed errata, or did whatever they thought was right. It was a fluid, ever-changing environment. To a certain extent, our NetRep does the same, making the best of rule ambiguities and basing digests on existing rulings and of course the CRF. Ultimately, however, there are occasions when the NetRep has to issue a ruling that's based solely on their own interpretation and in that sense, it is a form of non-ICE errata. I would love to see this expanded upon in a sensible and democratic manner, if only to see some new creativity brought back to MeCCG.

Look at Worlds now. In terms of the main constructed 2-deck event, it's now all about the meta game. Every deck has to try to cater for a Red Hills (e.g. Witch-king of Angmar), Short Rest, Dunk, squatter, Roadblock, whether it is done by their hazards or their resources. This means that creativity is always constrained and in the end we find that hazard decks in particular are almost scripted affairs. Who doesn't take 3 Rivers, Daelomin at Home, Mouth, Uvatha, Cave Drakes, Sellswords, etc? Creativity? Not much. There's perhaps space for one or two "unusal" cards, but that's about it. While the resource portion remains a bit more flexible, if you're seriously thinking about winning Worlds then picking one of the tried and tested decks is usually the best option. How many of the Worlds winners can really say they won it solely with their own creativity (Mark, for one, excluded ;))?

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Post by Manuel » Wed Nov 05, 2008 9:32 pm

After reading the whole thing, I think I agree with all of it. As Wolfgang said, we need to subdivide it on different topics, discuss each thing apart and form a team and decide who's doing what.

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Post by Sfan » Thu Nov 06, 2008 10:30 am

First of all I want to gratulate Joe for this huge summary of MECCG problems. I appreciate it very much. It is a big chance to get our game back to business.
Things started to roll. Let's keep them rolling...

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Post by thorondor » Sat Jan 17, 2009 4:37 pm

so i have split up this long document into several threads. joes initial part is still quite long. anyway, lets go there now and discuss things more focused on specific topics ...

Liber
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Re: Saving the Game Letter - Problems & Possible Solutions

Post by Liber » Fri Nov 23, 2012 7:15 pm

I agree with every word you have written. I am a ARDA player. Is it possible to have tournements in this format? If we had 4 players to a deck, a little revamping of rules to support, single elim, playing 2 deck games, I find it takes about 4 hours. 2 games a day, we can run these at a con over 3 days. I have never been big into anything but ARDA, It is balanced, fun, and there isn't need of proxies or anything stopping new players.

I have just posted a map I have spent months putting together here on the forum. It can be printed to about 4 feet by 3 feet. It has helpful info at the bottom to help new players. I can take out all the dream card sites from the map. If I can help with any projects to get the game going again, ill do whatever I can to help. I can make posters, books, print cards, and whatever else graphic you need help with.

I'm really happy frodo posted this, the game does need our help.

One suggestion I can make is, we could always make the game digital. We would need to get rights, but there are some good ways now that a small team could use to redesign the physical card game into a iPad, pc, and android game. Players can have card collections, this could solve the problem of players being all over the planet, but able to play. This would be a full business idea and take money, a business plan, and a group of skilled people to make happen.

Whatever help I can be to whatever direction we as a group comes up with, I'm happy to help. I think this is the best game ever and want others to have a chance to be part of it.

Todd

dirhaval
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Re: Saving the Game Letter - Problems & Possible Solutions

Post by dirhaval » Mon Sep 16, 2013 5:17 pm

Thank you for the post.
My opinion has been voiced before - the errata and nuances are too complex
for the newbie. I favor the Rewrite aspects that is posted at this forum
so get new players.

The question is: What am I going to do?
I will first get FATE completed, then consider being a one-man show
advertising MECCG: Rewrite locally. No promises okay.

cdnlife
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Re: Saving the Game Letter - Problems & Possible Solutions

Post by cdnlife » Wed Sep 25, 2013 5:46 pm

@Frodo and Thorsten:
I totally agree with you all, the future of the game MECCG is at stake. I want my children to play this game but it is not ready. I want this fantasy world to live.
The game is too complex, for sure. The Starter or Region move, by itself, is already quite challenging to figure out. The whole idea of un-playable cards is omnipresent. Maybe there should be some kind of recycling of useless cards like in Spartacus. Maybe a currency could be added.
I, for one, decided to "merge" Middle-Earth-Quest, especially the map, with MECCG which would benefit from a bigger beautiful map. I decided to print proxies for all my missing cards, up to designing my own Balrog cards, to make Under-deeps more Dwarf-friendly, less Elf-friendly, to make Balrogs walk more often the surface land. While I'm at it, I'm thinking to recycle my unused Magic cards into Under-deeps style cards, adding the "Magic" keyword to treasure types. Using sleeves, it is extremely easy to put into play new cards at your leisure, like Dream Cards.
I thought deck-building could be parted with, and ARDA was a nice format to start from. I imagined "Arda Janus" variant which allows players to have 2 faces on the same head, like Gandalf+Balrog, or Fallen Saruman+Ringwraith#9, each face having 20 General Influence. This way, the deck is really mixed between all sets and new sets can be easily added or removed.
I invite anybody interested to send me their e-mail, so that a GoogleDoc, that I've setup, could be used to develop the prototyped rules.
cdnlife@lycos.com

Roger

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