KARDS: Creating digital collectible card games as an indie developer

From kids collecting monster cards, such as Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh, to pro gamers competing for $500,000 (~£360,154) at the Hearthstone World Championship 2021, collectible card games (CCGs) have grown a lot.

With the increasing popularity of digital CCGs -both casually and within esports – the sector’s market size is expected to hit $572m (~£412m) by the end of 2021. Though this is only a small proportion of the global online gaming revenue, it seems like giants such as Blizzard Entertainment (Hearthstone) and Riot Games (Legends of Runeterra) have monopolised the CCG market. 

Nevertheless, titles such as Gwent and Thronebreaker (CD Project) and Loop Hero (FourQuarters), which come from significantly smaller developers, have managed to rise to fame. 

Image credit: 1939 Games

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KARDS, a free-to-play digital CCG by 1939 Games, has also succeeded in making a name for itself by focusing its theme around the tactics of World War II. The game combines traditional CCG gameplay with innovative mechanics inspired by classic strategy games and real battlefield tactics.

To learn more about how KARDS came to be and the reality behind being an indie game developer, Esports Insider spoke with Guðmundur Kristjánsson, Creative Director and Co-founder of 1939 Games

Deciding to make a new game

In 2015 brothers Guðmundur and Ívar Kristjánsson decided to create 1939 Games, years after working together at Icelandic gaming studio CCP Games. Ívar co-founded and served as CEO of CCP Games for a time, whereas Guðmundur was a Project Lead.

Pictured: Ívar (left) and Guðmundur (right) Kristjánsson. Image credit: 1939 Games

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Throughout his time there, Guðmundur was always reminiscent of playing war games, card games and strategy games with his friends, leading him to regularly join CCP Games’s tabletop group. That’s when the idea for a non-fantasy CCG was born, especially for one based on one of the most notable human conflicts in history, World War II.

Guðmundur said: “KARDS is the game we wanted to play ourselves and when we didn’t find it out there, we decided to do something about it. A lifelong interest in WWII and strategy and card games led us to believe that this would be a great mixture and we had the know-how and passion to do this in the way it should be done.”

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Over the next few years, Guðmundur would carry the idea of KARDS around in his head. Finally, when the time was right in 2015, the two brothers founded 1939 Games and started working on building a new experience in the CCG space.

Starting with a very small team the studio started prototyping the product and working towards what ended up being KARDS. Thousands of hours of testing, developing, gathering feedback, iterating and so much more eventually lead KARDS to early access on Steam in 2019.

This was a huge step for 1939 Games as the company finally got to share KARDS with the world and enter a new phase of development.

Working on KARDS in early access with a dedicated community

As soon as any game goes into early access or beta, developers get a steady stream of new opinions. It’s usually a period of constant change and can be a challenging time. 

For example, some areas that might have been thought of as great within the team, might not be having the same success in the open market. The team at 1939 Games remembers the early access stage as a fantastic part of the game’s history. However, ‘the last meters to the finishing line are often the hardest’. 

“Nailing down some of the core game design concepts and simplifying some of the initial designs was definitely a challenge, but at the same time finding good solutions to hard problems is also very rewarding,” said Guðmundur.

“However, I think the development of KARDS is an ongoing process and the PC release on Steam was just one milestone in a long and iterative process that is far from completed. “

Up to this day, KARDS fans can offer feedback through a volunteer tester group and the game’s active Discord server. 

Launching a game as an indie developer

Launching a game as an indie developer can be very different across studios and genres. In 1939 Games’s case, the firm wanted to compete on value for the player against the biggest names within the digital CCG genre.

When thinking about what went through his mind, leading up to the launch, Guðmundur said: “Excitement! I was always pretty confident that the game would be relatively well-received, but it’s hard to estimate beforehand how it will go exactly, and what the numbers will look like. So the excitement was also mixed with some butterflies in my stomach.”

After five years of hard work, KARDS launched in 2020, with multi-language support and a long term roadmap in the team’s mind, as they wanted to make sure everything was set in the right direction. 

Pictured: The 1939 Games team in 2021. Image credit: 1939 Games

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The team was confident about the gameplay, but as with any new release, the biggest fear was that it would not get many new players right away. For KARDS, this was particularly important in the beginning as the matchmaking system required a pool of players to work well, otherwise waiting times would get too long.

“When you have a game that has a community of passionate players that expect a released and polished product, there is a bit smaller margin of error. Players aren’t quite as tolerant of bugs and instability, and such, as players that opt into an early access version. As you guys can imagine this also applies especially to competitive play,” Guðmundur explained.

Fortunately, this was not a major issue at release and KARDS gathered fans from the get-go. However, the team still plans to grow the player base for all these systems to work completely smoothly and for players to get suitable matches almost instantly. 

Maintaining and growing 

Even though KARDS has been out for a little while, it’s still in its first steps considering the lifetime of a service-based game. This is something that has fundamentally changed in the gaming industry over the past two decades or so and requires developers to come up with new ideas and content on a much more frequent basis. 

Specifically for KARDS, this presents a unique challenge for the team, in striking the perfect balance of developing new features, keeping the game fresh, and building everything to reach new players and grow the game.

Right now, the developer is looking to make KARDS available on more platforms outside of Steam, with most of the focus being on delivering the game to mobile, whilst also building its distribution network on PC.

As for their near future plans, Guðmundur said: “KARDS has always been developed as a multi-platform and cross-platform game, so what I look most forward to is the mobile release.

“CCGs are particularly well suited for mobile, and most players play them on multiple devices, so I think KARDS will get much closer to its full potential when the mobile version is out. I can’t wait!”

The KARDS esports scene

1939 Games has also expanded into the world of competitive CCGs through the launch of KARDS Esports. The division is expected to feature regular tournaments and broadcasts with the game’s top players.

One of 1939 Games’s key partners is US-based production company 983 Media, which collaborates on production and tournament operations.

983 Media specialises in the production of CCG events and has worked with multiple studios across popular titles such as Gwent, Mythgard and Magic The Gathering.

1939 Games also works with an experienced casting team that consists of resident KARDS community experts as well as casters from the CCG esports scene. The studio’s casters and on-air personalities include: Admirable, Flake, Olikrummi, Innocent Bubbles, Darkness and Spooz.

The ecosystem consists of two primary tournament series and two championship events, each serving a different type of player: the Officer Club Championship, the KARDS Open, the Mid Season Championship and the World Championship.

KARDS competitive overview for 2022. Image credit: 1939 Games

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The Officer Club Championship (OCC) is a monthly tournament and the KARDS Open are bi-monthly open tournaments anyone can enter. 

Each Open tournament has a prize pool of $1,500 (~£1,099) and features two qualifiers. Winners also qualify for the top 128 of that year’s World Championship.

The Mid Season Championship, set to commence in 2022, is a yearly tournament featuring a prize pool of $10,000 (~£7,338). 

Meanwhile, the World Championship is a yearly $10,000 (~£7,338) event where KARDS crowns its World Champion. Competitors can qualify through the OCC and the Open qualifiers. 

According to current plans, 2022 will feature a total of 19 tournaments with a combined prize pool of over $44,000 (~£29,107). 

When talking about the exciting 2022 season ahead, Guðmundur said: “The constant rise of the competitive scene around KARDS has been exciting to watch!

“During these past few months, we have seen increased outside interest in our competitive scene, with strong players from different titles interested in competing in KARDS, and us surpassing our concurrent viewer record multiple times.

“This makes us extremely excited for our biggest competitive year yet – 2022!”

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