Marvel Snap and the Inherent Unfairness of Card Games

Marvel Snap can be random and unfair. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. Here’s why.

I started this as Marvel Snap Week, but now it’s Marvel Snap Weeks, because I didn’t get these posts finished in time. You can read part 1 and part 2 here.

Let’s talk about something that everyone knows, but nobody really says out loud. Okay, nobody except game designers. They say it, but no one else does. Game designers and… Maxamillion Pegasus from Yu-Gi-Oh. Who, in-universe is a game designer, so I guess it’s still all game designers. Anyway.

This is the ideal game designer. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like.

Card games are not balanced. They are not inherently fair. In a game between two players, the strongest player won’t always win. The strongest deck won’t always win.

This isn’t a design flaw. Allowing weaker or unskilled players to beat stronger or higher skilled players is intentional.

Marvel Snap’s mechanics lean into this in several ways, both with card effects and core gameplay. But they also offer an out, allowing players on the receiving end of the RNG stick a way to minimize losses.

So let’s talk about Marvel Snap’s gameplay for the first time in this short series, and how it handles both having a wide variety of RNG, and controlling RNG’s effects.

Marvel Snap is played with a deck of 12 cards over 6 turns. Each card starting in a deck must be unique. Players draw 4 cards to start, and an additional card each turn. Cards have a cost and power. The cost is energy, and has to be paid to play the card. You start at one energy, and get an additional energy each turn. Leftover energy doesn’t carry over.

The game itself is played across 3 locations. To win, you just have to have the most power at two of the three locations when the game ends. Each player can only play 4 cards at any location. In case of ties, whoever has the most total power wins.

Locations are where the RNG first comes into play. There’s a fairly wide pool of locations, and when a game starts, three are randomly selected and placed face down. A single location is flipped face up when the game starts, and additional locations are flipped on turn 2 and turn 3. Locations can have a wide range of effects. Some buff or debuff units played on them, while others might give additional energy, or create copies of cards at random locations. One location will even play your cards for you. (And he’ll do it very badly, screw you Ego The Living Planet.)

Locations provide a huge amount of variance. Playing to an unrevealed location can be a big gamble. Sure, it might be the location that gives a free 6 drop if you fill it first, but it might be the location swaps the units located there to the opposing player after turn 3.

And this just the start of things that can randomly go wrong. There are plenty of cards with semi-random effects, or that can pull random cards into your hand or from your deck. In short, there’s a lot of space to “lose to” RNG.

The thing about Marvel Snap, though, is that losses and wins are not created equal. Let’s talk about the “Snap” system.

There is no unranked mode in Marvel Snap. Every mode is ranked, and in every game, you’re competing for cosmic cubes. The wager starts at one cosmic cube, and if the game reaches the last turn, the wager is doubled to 2 cubes. That’s if the game reaches the last turn, though, because both players can retreat at anytime. Retreating counts as a loss, but in exchange, you only lose cubes you’d already wagered.

But while you can retreat, you can also choose to snap. Snapping doubles the number of cubes staked, and you can only do it once per match. Your opponent can also choose to snap.

In a normal game, you’ll generally lose win or lose 1-2 cubes. But if both you and your opponent end the game confident you can crush the other player, the amount can go up to 4-8 cubes. And I think this mechanic, where players can state their confidence (and bluff) about whether they’re going to win is part of what balances out RNG. You’re likely to get lucky and unlucky in generally even amounts in the long run. But if you push when you’re winning, and retreat when you think you’re going to lose, you’ll come out ahead.

Players can always retreat, and simply take a one-cube loss. Choosing to push into poor situations with higher losses is an active decision you choose to make. There’s no “I have to play it out” mentality where every game is equal. If you’re doing badly, you can surrender and minimize the pain of RNG.

As a brief side note, I think it’s also interesting that retreating is displayed with the message “You Retreated” and a friendly color scheme, while losses use a harsh aggressive red. There’s a definite goal of making retreating feel like a smart choice and a good option.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about Marvel Snap and RNG for the moment. Come back later this week, for part 4 of Marvel Snap Week(s), where we’ll talk about convergent game design, and wrap this series up. Or follow me on Twitter to see when that post goes up.