Feature Article

How Marvel Snap Puts A New Spin On The Card Game Formula

A new indie studio from ex-Hearthstone devs is looking to shake up the CCG genre with fresh ideas and one of the biggest franchises in the world.

Marvel Comics characters have been adapted into countless mobile games, but few have the heft of Marvel Snap. The new game from Second Dinner, an indie studio formed by ex-Hearthstone developers, looks to capture that game's approachability while attempting to innovate with a fast pace and unique bluffing and zone control mechanics that set it apart.

Marvel Snap is the debut project from Second Dinner, an indie studio founded by veterans from Blizzard's Team 5--the division that created its hit card battler, Hearthstone. That game from Blizzard was already known for simplifying card battler mechanics to make the genre more welcoming to newcomers, and Marvel Snap appears primed to extend that philosophy even further in some ways. Your deck is smaller at just 12 cards, and each match only lasts six turns, so the games are quicker as a result. Second Dinner says each game lasts about three minutes--decidedly shorter than Hearthstone and most other CCGs.

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Now Playing: Marvel Snap - Official Announcement Trailer and Gameplay First Look

Marvel Snap is a card battler about zone management, similar to a control point map in a shooter like Halo or Overwatch. In each match, you and your opponent are dealt three random zones from a collection of more than 50 recognizable Marvel locations like the Hellfire Club or Stark Tower, each with their own special properties. You and your opponent take turns simultaneously, guessing at which cards they'll play and in which locations. At the end of six turns, whoever controls two of the three zones wins. For an added layer of complexity and strategic decision-making, players can choose to "Snap" to raise the stakes by wagering they'll win.

It's a simple concept, and one that lends itself to the mobile-first approach. Though Second Dinner is planning a PC release, with an early access version coming around the time it launches, Marvel Snap is designed first and foremost to be a mobile game. That starts with the quick gameplay with no downtime and short rounds for a concentrated dose of CCG.

"We managed to make the games much faster without cutting out decision-making," Brode told GameSpot. "We cut out waiting. So you're still making decisions all the time; you're just making decisions much faster than you would in games where players take turns back and forth."

The fast gameplay means the structure of the game itself isn't built for some traditional CCG ideas. I asked if the quicker pace makes for a more aggressive game with less room for control- or combo-oriented decks, as we see in many CCGs, and Brode was demure. It's not that Marvel Snap is faster or more aggressive, necessarily, but rather that it exists outside of that paradigm altogether.

"None of those exist in Marvel Snap," he said. "There's no aggro, there's no control, there's no tempo because it's so different. It's not about board position. You're not creating a wave of minions that are going to be hard for your opponent to deal with. Instead, it's all about mind games, bluffing, and trying to control the board. So there's cards that can make it harder for your opponent to play where they want to play, and cards that manipulate the locations so that you have an advantage based on what the locations are. It's a very interactive game, but in a completely different way."

As an example, he cites card advantage. In a traditional CCG, like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering, some players organize their deck around survival and forcing their opponent to run out of resources so they're still standing at the end. That relies on card advantage, having more value in your hand at the expense of aggression. That's not really a factor here, according to Brode. Instead, your games are a tight six turns, every time, so there's no bleeding out your opponent.

With the Marvel license in tow, though, Brode said one of the best parts of development was coming up with unique power sets for each of the cards. But this was also a unique challenge. In the case of popular heroes, they had to find flavorful ways to make their powers match the game mechanics.

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"That is one of the most fun parts about making this game, is taking Marvel characters that we love and then imagining like, okay, what would Spider-Man do in this game? Spider-Man shoots webs out at the opponent's side of the location and says, 'Okay, that location's webbed up. You can't play cards there next turn.' So you can really control the game with his webs. Or Hulk is just this massive card that has a huge amount of power. Wolverine, every time he's destroyed, he's got a super-healing factor so he comes right back and jumps to a random location. No matter how many times he's killed, he's always coming back into the game. Gambit's one of my favorites: He takes one of the cards in your hand and charges it up with energy and throws it an enemy card, destroying it."

But Brode says the design process sometimes works in reverse. Rather than imagining a power that fits a hero in a flavorful way, the designers come up with a fun mechanic and then have to find a hero to match. With Marvel's massive roster of heroes, that meant scouring the archives.

"When we started working on this project, I bought every trading card from the '90s, all the Marvel trading cards, and I bought the Marvel encyclopedias," Brode said. "And so I just flip through the encyclopedia looking for someone who's got a power set. Like, 'I need a teleporter. Let me go look for all the teleporters in Marvel. Oh right, I forgot about that character.' There's so many Marvel characters, there's always somebody who matches a design really well."

Collecting characters and earning cosmetic upgrades is a big part of the progression, and you'll collect more cards as you raise your collection level through play. Brode said that the team wants to introduce a way to target a specific character, if you have a favorite hero for example, and is currently exploring ideas for how to do that.

Your progress in Marvel Snap is measured in Cosmic Cubes, so as you play through Ranked mode, you constantly compete to get more Cubes. That's also where it gets another mechanic, as well as its name: the ability to "Snap" is essentially placing a wager on yourself and daring your opponent to come back that much stronger and deny your extra earnings.

"So if I'm winning, I could Snap. And now I'm saying I'd like to play for double the stakes," Brode says. "Every game is played for stakes, just like in other games with the rank ladder. If you win a game, you gain some rank points. If you lose a game, you lose some rank points. Our rank points are Cosmic Cubes. So the more Cosmic Cubes you have, the higher your rank on the rank ladder. When you're playing a game, you can say, 'I want to play for more Cosmic Cubes. I'm going to Snap.' And my opponent then has to decide, 'Okay, do I want to bail right now and lose one Cube or do I want to stay in and play for double the Cubes?'"

The Snap mechanic also allows you to bluff, since your opponent can simply surrender at that point rather than risk a bigger loss. But as in poker, you may also choose not to Snap if you don't want to scare your opponent off too quickly. Brode says that in practice, it also means players who are losing get to save face--and some Cubes--rather than limp to the finish line in hopes of eking out a slight chance of victory.

"You just bail and you feel smart for bailing because you saved yourself some Cubes. So you're like, wow. I avoided a disaster there. I only lost one Cube. Now I'll go play again and hopefully win a bunch of Cubes. And so it actually ends up feeling like a non-zero-sum game because sure you lose a bunch of games, but the games you lose, you feel like you've won sometimes because you avoided disaster."

No two games should feel exactly the same, because on top of yours and your opponent's created decks, you'll also be contending with the randomly dealt location cards. Second Dinner wants to keep the game "always fresh and exciting" by introducing new locations on a weekly basis. When a new location is introduced, it will be marked as "hot" for two days, so you'll see it a lot more frequently before it gets shuffled into the overall pool. But not all locations in the pool are weighted evenly. Brode said that some locations are more fun if they only appear once in a while.

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"One of the locations is Galactus' ship, and when it's revealed it says, 'Destroy the other locations.' So you're going to play like the smallest game in one location. Each of you gets to play four cards. Choose your best four cards wisely. And that's really fun sometimes, but it's not fun every game. And so it's very rare; it doesn't show up that often. It creates really cool stories when it does. And then some locations are just really, really fun to play on all the time. They create really interesting gameplay scenarios, so those are a little bit more common."

As a more common location, Brode cites Central Park, which adds a 1-power squirrel to every location. That takes up spots where you can no longer play cards, but it also enables you to, for example, play Captain America, who grants extra power to any other card in a location. And it dissuades you from playing Namor, who gets a power boost if he's the only card occupying a certain spot. Wakanda throws up a power shield that keeps cards within from being destroyed. The Baxter Building, headquarters of the Fantastic Four, radiates power outward to other locations if you're in control of it, giving all your cards in other locations three extra power. It's the constant push and pull of controlling these zones that gives Marvel Snap its complexity.

"When you're designing a game, you want strategic depth," Brode said. "That's super important. And you want complexity for the ability for people to learn the game to be super low. That's super important. Maximizing the difference between those two things is the goal. So I think we've done that. We have the lowest complexity with the highest strategic depth."

Marvel Snap will have a limited closed beta on Android ahead of its launch on mobile and PC, and sign-ups for the beta are open now at the official site.

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Steve Watts

Steve Watts has loved video games since that magical day he first saw Super Mario Bros. at his cousin's house. He's been writing about games as a passion project since creating his own GeoCities page, and has been reporting, reviewing, and interviewing in a professional capacity for 14 years. He is GameSpot's preeminent expert on Hearthstone, a title no one is particularly fighting him for, but he'll claim it anyway.

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