Here’s why Marvel Snap’s game design is so ingenious
I’ve already mentioned my struggles researching a new mobile game, and it seems the Second Dinner team has heard my prayers. marvel snapwhich launched this week on iOS, Android, and Steam, is a fun and “catchy” collectible card game that scratched the “play on the bus” itch I’ve been craving.
Developers who have played Blizzard Entertainment Foyer will recognize many of the game’s design principles in this Marvel-themed free game. Cards crash onto the board with a satisfying “crunch”, there’s a tiered energy system that builds tension as the game progresses, and there’s a good amount of CCG synergy which encourages players to experiment with niche heroes and villains from Marvel history.
After assembling a deck, players compete in showdowns where they don’t try to destroy each other’s heroes, but rather control at least two of the three lanes (called “Locations” in marvel snap). Slots also contain bonus powers that can either benefit both players or reward the player controlling the slot.
This design gives the game a nice narrative setting (the player is not a superhero himself, but rather a superhero team leader sending his favorite characters into battle), but there is a more mechanic subtle in play that brings the whole experience together: players take turns playing simultaneouslyrather than one at a time.
Why is it so exciting? It’s game theory time.
marvel snapSimultaneous spins make games short and enjoyable
Okay, actually, we need to put a button in game theory. First, let’s do some math.
Second Dinner was founded by formerFoyer developers like Ben Brode, and in their previous game, matches could go on for a long time.
Transforms Foyer max in 75 seconds, and player-collected data shows us that in February 2022, the average game lasts about nine rounds.
Whether Foyer players make quick decisions (say they take 15 seconds per turn), you might have turns that last 30 seconds, or an average game of 270 seconds. Games like this will only last about four minutes and 30 seconds.
But what if players use their full 75 seconds every turn? This sometimes happens for organic (players are in touch and willing to think things through) and inorganic (players are trolls) reasons. A 9 rounds Foyer the game could then run as long as 22 minutes and 30 seconds.
It doesn’t happen often, but I’m sure some Foyer the games I played around 2014-2015 were at least 15-20 minutes long. Sometimes they looked like big tough duels; other times I was run over by trolls.
There’s an obvious multiplication issue here that makes the potential match length so long: the length of each round is determined by the combined time each player spends on their hand. If one player is rushing and the other is acting slow, one of them might get irritated by the other’s pace.
In marvel snapplayers select their cards in the same turn which caps out at 35-40 seconds (I was trying to juggle a timer and play a card, it wasn’t accurate).
With games locked at six rounds (less than Foyeropen average of nine), each match has a fixed maximum duration: approximately three to four minutes.
Right away you can see the difference: marvel snap rounds are short and fit very easily into someone’s lunch window, bus ride or commercial break. But the length of the trick is not enough to guarantee the enjoyment or the interest of the player. What do simultaneous spins do to make the game so engrossing?
Now is the time for game theory
All turn-based multiplayer games rely on some level of projection or patience for what your opponent is going to do. What marvel snap illustrates is that there’s a huge difference in how you try to make those guesses when you and your opponent are playing your cards at the same time.
In Foyer (or Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic the Gathering, the Pokémon Trading Card Game), players take turns and can make assessments based on the choices their opponent makes in an isolated environment.
There is still strength in this kind of design! When games are structured with individual rounds, CCG players begin to learn the same skills as poker players. They look for clues, watch how their opponent reacts to their own decisions, and observe the minute choices that can define a player’s turn.
But when players play their cards at the same time, the only information each of them has are the cards that were played the previous round (especially true in a digital environment. Second Dinner also does not rely on cursor arrows that appeared in Foyer).
There is a lot of information in these maps. And with marvel snapIn the three-slot structure of , players are also asked to guess not only what types of cards their opponent will play, but where they will play them. The early cards in the games starter deck actively encourage new players to start making that judgment, and it’s a call that’s easier or harder to make depending on what’s been played.
Want to replace Nick Fury? The Marvel Universe is in your hands when you play MARVEL SNAP. Congratulations!
Download and play now on iOS, Android or Steamhttps://t.co/IIb4a8maKm pic.twitter.com/4LGcpAgL0c
— MARVEL SNAP (@MARVELSNAP) October 18, 2022
For example, the starting Hawk’s Eye card gains more power if its owner plays another card in the same Location on the next turn. If I see my opponent playing Hawkeye, I know I can safely play a card like Star Lord, which gains power if my opponent plays a card in the same location in the same turn.
But what if my opponent is willing to give up Hawkeye’s bonus power in a digital head fake? What if their strategy was based on another card that could act alone in another place? What if the place where we place our cards turns out to have a secret power that overrides someone’s strategy? These choices are all amplified by marvel snapis the simultaneous game.
You can find examples of this type of design all over the world of board games, and it has already influenced video games through games like Teamfight Tactics Where Automatic failures. But Second Dinner’s introduction of the mechanic to the CCG’s digital marketplace brings freshness to the genre.
This mechanic also feels like it does more for user retention than other gadgets in use right now. Do players really want to own digital cards? Or are they more interested in fast rounds that tickle their brains and give them a dopamine hit?*
It could be both! Maybe there’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich of a game waiting to happen. But for now, I want to commend the Second Dinner team for preparing something so fresh in a crowded market. It’s not just the Marvel brand that makes this game so compelling, it’s a good set of design and programming principles that should inspire other developers.
*Yeah yeah, we can’t get out of here without acknowledging the sometimes dodgy ethics of dopamine shots in video games. The always excellent Celia Hodent has talked at length about that matter.
Update: This story previously misspelled the name of Second Dinner co-founder Ben Brode. It has been updated to correct the error.