deckbuilding requires a fairly large pool of cards to select from. variety of different options to try, different ideas to build around. but having such a large space to explore is overwhelming. typically you'll limit access to cards (/things) so players aren't presented with the full problem immediately. so i have been thinking about exactly how to do this. various methods exist. standard videogame method is to unlock stuff as you play, opening up new things as objectives are completed or earning currency to spend unlocking things. boardgames typically sell expansions for conventional currency (in videogame language, "microtransactions").
in 868-HACK i used a simple approach: each time you complete a game an ability is unlocked. but there it made less difference because having more abilities unlocked doesn't increase the number you're choosing among at any given time, just more possibilities overall. (also there's a different concept of "completion"; i'm not certain yet whether the new game has an end but if so it is very difficult to reach, it is more about measuring how long you can survive.)
Hoplite has a list of 20 achievements, 6 of which are interesting; each unlocks an ability. i really like the way some of them reveal different games hidden inside the main one. i wish there weren't all the arbitrary "kill ten footmen" quests too but i understand they had a certain number of abilities to unlock and there just weren't that many interesting possibilities. Dream Quest goes way further down this path with 109 achievements almost all of which are numeric variations (kill 20 undead, walk 12000 steps, deal 20000 damage). i've considered doing this, unlock the mask by killing a ghost, unlock the totem by killing two enemies in one turn, but i don't have any that are actually good variations in the way some of Hoplite's are.
Deck de Dungeon has rare approach. earn currency as you play, making strategic choices that trade off currency against points. spend currency to include cards in your starting deck. critically, this isn't a one-off spend to unlock cards, it's paid every time you start a game. so you might play for money for a while to save up and then spend big to play for score. i'm not considering this but i haven't seen it anywhere else so i wanted to mention.
selling expansions is quite an appealing approach. as well as addressing the problem of dividing things up into manageable chunks, it probably makes more money. a lower base price might allow more people to play it overall (though this is unclear, a higher price can signal value) & a higher total price can be paid by people who might be unwilling to risk that much on a new game. (this is pushed to extremes by CCGs and many "free to play" games which turn the act of buying the game into another mode of play; profitable, exploitative, broken.) i might sell expansions but it doesn't seem like a complete solution - deckbuilding is a key part of the game and i'd want the initial purchase to have enough cards to support it even if i save some of the more complex possibilities for later. and "enough cards to support it" still seems like a lot.
i've tried a few different unlock schemes. get a new card each time you play; felt bad because it encourages losing quickly to get stuff. so require scoring, unlock a card every 4 points; felt bad because score distribution is non-linear, you'd make a discrete improvement and score twice as many points and suddenly your card pool doubles too. maybe exponential score targets? but there's not enough of those for all the cards. getting a currency as you play that you spend to unlock things - the problem with giving a choice what to unlock is that if i tell you enough to make an informed choice, we've already crossed the complexity barrier and you may as well just have those cards to play with.
Zach suggested unlocking cards by leveling them up (so each card would have to be present in a preset deck). it is a good idea! i don't think it quite works for me, it means you play a bunch of games with presets for no other reason. it is not particularly challenging to level up a card if you decide to focus on that to the exclusion of all else. (maybe that is itself a lesson worth communicating, but not sixty times.) also it has the same problem with making informed choices - you've still had to learn what the cards do to play with them in the presets.
in testing these schemes i kept getting bifurcated responses. some people found that unlocks were too slow for them, they valued playing with a custom deck and wanted to do so as soon as possible with the full range of possibilities. others complained that the unlocks came too fast, before they'd fully processed what was already there. they were very happy to play with presets for a long time, and found it intrusive to be told they'd unlocked new things while doing so. how can i accommodate two groups of people with directly conflicting preferences? usually i will just shrug because i'm not trying to please everyone, but critically these were all people enjoying the game just with different preferences about how much to engage with the deckbuilding side of it. why was unlocking was getting a negative response from the second group? it was being taken as communicating "you should have mastered all that by now", which wasn't the intention at all. and if even a small version of the problem is intimidating, having it growing faster than you feel you're 'solving' it is even more so.
ok forget unlocks, this game can just be a big bucket of stuff to search through at your own pace— Michael Brough (@smestorp) May 15, 2015
so i've come back to where i started. thinking about boardgames, a lot of boxes come with expansions and alternate options already included and people are happy to ignore them, but obviously if someone's bought an expansion they want to play it. if it's the act of expanding that creates pressure, maybe it makes sense not to. just let everything be available from the start and it should be clear that you're not expected to know everything instantly, and there's nothing to stop you exploring at your own pace. in theory the first group of players will be happy because their exploration isn't being interrupted by someone else's idea of what that pace ought to be, and the second group will be happy because the unexplored region isn't growing and nobody's telling them to go there. feels pretty elegant to solve everyone's problems simultaneously and require less systems to do it.
i hesitate to actually commit to this.
the unlock is so much expected. when i show this version to people they say "ok but in the final version i'll have to unlock these right?". and i'm like "NO see i am trusting you to do it at your own pace" and they look at me like i'm some kind of motley unkempt hermit. if everyone expects a thing then maybe i should just do the thing and not confuse them.
i have backed off a little bit. as well as cards there are characters, these function like Netrunner's identities, giving different deckbuilding constraints and abilities to build around. currently you must achieve a certain score with each character's preset deck to unlock the option to build your own, and you unlock more characters by achieving higher scores. but once deckbuilding is unlocked for a character you have access to the full card set. is this right, i don't know. maybe if i'm not doing the slow grind then i shouldn't have any unlocking at all for clarity.