CCG Overview: Doomtown
It’s probably not a wild bet to say that some of the people reading this likely remember the CCG boom in the 90′s. Magic: The Gathering was making piles of money out of nowhere, and everyone else wanted a piece of the action. This led to an absolutely huge amount of CCGs flooding the market; many were knock-offs, several weren’t very good. And they were everywhere, too. I remember my local chain supermarket even had a big glass display with a few dozen different titles lined up. However, as with all booms, it was unsustainable. By the end of the 90′s, most of the new games had folded (some taking their publishers down with them), leaving only a few at the very top of the heap left.
The problem here was that not all of the new CCGs in the boom were unoriginal, or bad. Some brought some really inventive mechanics to the table, and only died out due to the difficulties in marketing during the boom, and problems selling afterwards. That’s why I decided that if I’m going to talk about CCGs, I want to start with one of my favorites, one of the classics. So, let’s talk about Doomtown!
Doomtown, originally known as Deadlands: Doomtown, is a card game based in the world of the tabletop RPG Deadlands (a topic for an article all its own, perhaps). In a nutshell, the world of Deadlands was a traditional Wild West setting gone wrong; magic abounds, mad scientists run rampant, and horrible monsters prowl the wide open spaces. Specifically, the card game took place in the town of Gomorra, just outside of California. The town is in just the right place for a whole lot of different people to pass through it, making it the center of all kinds of weird activity. That’s where the players come in; they build decks representing one of the factions fighting over the town, and the game plays out with them making their ‘big move’ against another faction.
So who are these factions? The game started out with three of them: the Law Dogs (representing the sheriff of Gomorra and his posse), the Blackjacks (a local gang of bandits), and the Collegium (a think tank of mad scientists). Later sets brought the Sweetrock Mining Co (who came to Gomorra looking to mine the mysterious Ghost Rock), the Whateleys (a strange family versed in black magic), the Sioux Union (a coalition of native american tribes), the Maze Rats (pirates who prey on the boats in the huge canyon where California almost fell into the sea), the Texas Rangers (the law from down south), the Agency (ditto for up north), and the Flock (a group of apocalyptic religious zealots; later replaced by the Lost Angels). Each one had their own look, as well as their own gimmick and playstyle. For example, the Whateleys used magic to hamper enemies’ actions, while Sweetrock produced resources faster than the other factions, and could win without dirtying their hands fighting.
One of the most unique and well remembered aspects of the game was its combat. Put simply, when two posses met and threw down, you played poker to determine the winner! You see, each card, in addition to its picture, tags, effects, and everything else you’d expect to find on it, also had a poker suit and value in one corner. The more powerful the card in regard to the main game, the LOWER its playing card value, meaning that balancing your deck was a thin tightrope. Plus, you had to be careful; if you threw down an impossible poker hand (like 5 aces), your opponent could play a Cheatin’ card, a powerful counter to punish you for, well, you know.
If Doomtown has a flaw, it was its complexity. With so many cards on the field at once, representing town locations, characters, equipment, and events, it could sometimes be difficult to keep track of it all. But with the complexity came narrative detail. Every game felt like its own little story (helped along by the excellent accompanying fiction written by Steve Crow and others). It’s something that was really new to the whole genre, and is still hard to find today (M:tG may be a solid game, but it’s a numbers game first and foremost). On top of that, the makers of the game ran regular storyline tournaments, where events that happened in the championship game (as in, what cards were played and how) would affect the overall storyline of the game. This led to some tense situations (how would YOU play if you knew that if your favorite character died in the game, they could die in the story?) and even cooler cards (like Meredith Kills The Hooded Figure, featuring a schoolteacher with an experimental ectoplasmic rifle taking out the Grim Reaper himself).
If it was so good, you say, what happened? Well, aside from the usual economics of the CCG Bust, Doomtown had its own behind-the-scene problems. A large gap in new sets caused by a change in publisher drove away a sizeable chunk of the fanbase, and they never quite recovered. Today, the game rights belong to game company AEG, who say they’d like to personally bring the game back…someday. Whether they will or not, time will tell, though obviously it’d make me nothing short of giddy. For now, options for checking out the game are limited. The game still goes for fair amount on eBay, so that’s out. LackeyCCG allows you to play, and online, too, but the experience loses something when you’re not able to see and talk to your opponent. On top of that, the Deadlands RPG is still going strong in its third iteration, so there’s definitely interest in the property.
CCGs are anything but dead right now. There’s not quite as much money as there was in the hobby’s heydey (when ESPN2 aired the Magic National Championships), but several games, like Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and others still hold a strong presence in the market. Me, I still play a few card games, but I’m just hoping that someday I’ll get to head back to Gomorra, one last time.