Game Design

legends of runeterra and player agency in collectible card games

Riot Games’ new collectible card game Legends of Runeterra is, in a word, frustrating.

This is a game with high production value – polished graphics, animations and sound design as expected from the creators of League of Legends.  And yet, it misses the mark in so many ways.

First, the gameplay is super confusing.  I’ve played a few matches versus the AI and versus other players, and I still couldn’t tell you with confidence the turn order and how casting spells and attacking work.

Then there’s the issue with pacing.  Part of the game’s mechanics is trying to upgrade cards to make them more powerful.  When this happens, the game goes through a fancy seconds-long animation that takes you away from the card game completely.  Among other effects, this slows down the game and pulls players out of the immersion.

Level up animation of the champion Braum, whose effect is to summon a mighty Poro, shown swinging a hammer above the card here.

But the biggest problem with the game is that it felt totally out of my control.

Player Agency Sets Games Apart from Other Media

In the realm of entertainment media, games stand out because they allow the consumer a vast amount of control.

In films, for example, the viewer must follow the specified storyline, point of view, pacing and dialogue already laid out by the creators.  In contrast, games are compelling because players have the ability to affect the outcome.

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This comes down to the concept of player agency.  Player agency is the extent to which a player feels like they have control over what happens in a game.  It is whether players feel like they can do things that they should be able to do in the game’s environment.

The best games with high player agency allow players to do what they want to do within the rules and boundaries of the game’s design.  Open world games are popular for this reason.  A high player agency increases immersion and fulfills the player’s fantasy of what it’s like to live in the game’s world.

A tutorial game of Legends of Runeterra, introducing the level up mechanic for cards.

Games are Made of Meaningful Choices, Big and Small

In video games, player agency is easily found in the large decisions players make, like deciding on a specific weapon to use to fight a monster, choosing a dialogue option when interacting with an NPC, or wandering in a certain direction in a maze.

These decisions can very obviously affect the outcome of the game.  Your chosen weapon could make you win or lose the fight.  What you say to an NPC could make them an ally or a foe.  And going a certain direction could mean finding the treasure or running out of time.

But there are also lots of smaller decisions that allow the player to have a sense of control and agency, and they are just as important.

Being able to customize your character to look exactly how you want, though it doesn’t affect the outcome of a battle, gets players invested in their characters.  Getting to customise the user interface, or bind certain abilities to certain keys, lets players set up a way of interacting with the game to suit their play style and habits.

A character selection and customisation screen from World of Warcraft, similar to many role-playing games.

Even the simple act of being able to choose whether to walk, run, fly, teleport or ride a horse through the land lets players choose how they experience the game world, and puts them in control of their own experience.

All of these things contribute to player agency.  But what does this have to do with card games?

Where Does Player Agency Fit in the Game Design of Collectible Card Games?

The big outcome-affecting decisions are what cards you choose to play at a turn, any spells you cast, or attacks and blocks.  These decisions have a direct correlation to whether you win or lose.

However, it’s the smaller decisions that allow the player to really feel in control.  One simple example is being able to inspect a card, to see close up what its attack, defense, and special powers (often written on the card face) are.

Because digital collectible card games are virtual versions of a traditionally physical medium, there’s an expectation that they should deliver everything possible in a physical card game, and then some.

Inspecting a card is really easy with a physical card, because all you have to do is pick it up and read it.  In digital format, this is improved by being able to hover over keywords and see what they do.  It’s a fairly obvious translation to digital, and Legends of Runeterra does it fine.

The ability to closely read text in digital card games replicates and improves upon what players can do with physical cards.

Moments of Frustration in Legends of Runeterra

But here’s the catch.  It’s not the obvious things that Legends of Runeterra slips up on.  It’s the little things that make a world of difference by affecting player agency.

Ending Your Turn

When you play a 1v1 card game in real life, there’s a moment at the end of your turn when the other player asks, “are you done?”  Or maybe you’re the proactive kind of player who ends their turn by telling your opponent, “ok, you go.”

Either way, there’s a necessary communication between players, and this is where you have the agency of agreeing that you’ve come to the end of a turn.  There’s an expected rhythm of player acknowledgment that ends each turn.

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In Legends of Runeterra, you can’t always do that.  The game calculates whether you have any available actions for a round, and then skips you through clicking the button that says “End Turn”.  Sure, you can’t do anything in that given round, but the button with action text appears, misleadingly green in colour, and then skips through as if you had pressed it.

Except you didn’t.

In Legends of Runeterra, although the inviting “End Round” button is bright green, you don’t actually click it, and the game blasts through a series of animations.

This is a problem because it totally takes away player agency.  If I’d blinked, or turned away from the screen for a moment, I wouldn’t know what phase of the game I was in.  More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to look at my cards, realise for myself I couldn’t do anything, assess the situation, take a deep breath and say, “ok, you go.”

In Hearthstone, you have to click “End Turn” to acknowledge that your turn is over.  The button is green when you have no available actions left.

To understand the design solutions to this, I looked to two other digital collectible card games, Hearthstone and The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Both of them handle it much better, highlighting the “End Turn” or green arrow button when no further actions can be done, but still making the player click it to progress to the next turn.  This puts the control into the player’s hands, and provides an implicit structure and pacing for each turn.

In The Elder Scrolls: Legends, you click the green arrow to end your turn.  If there are no possible moves, the button has a shiny yellow animation around it.

Opening Card Packs

Another point of focus for virtual collectible card games is how the player acquires new cards.  With physical card games, when a new set is released, there’s often lots of marketing followed by a special release.  This builds up player anticipation, so opening a shiny new card pack to see what you got is all the more thrilling.

Hearthstone manages to translate this feeling perfectly into digital format.  Opening a card pack in Hearthstone is one of the most exciting things in the whole game.

Opening card packs is a crucial part of Hearthstone, and the animations are some of the best in the game.

As you drag a card pack into place, there’s a very satisfying animation that “explodes” it into its five cards.  In the spirit of improving over the physical card experience, a clever hover-over effect shows you the rarity of each card before you turn it over.  Then, the animations of flipping each card over are exquisite and scale with rarity, with the Innkeeper’s “Legendary!” shout becoming iconic of the game.

Similarly, in The Elder Scrolls: Legends, you drag the card pack out, and get all the sparkly satisfaction of turning each card over.

You can flip over cards individually while opening card packs in The Elder Scrolls: Legends.

As a result, I’ve always looked forward to opening new packs.

To my dismay, in Legends of Runeterra, you don’t even get to flip the cards over.  The cards reveal themselves automatically, with hardly any fanfare, and the player gets zero control.  This takes away player agency and removes what could, and should, be one of the most fun things about a collectible card game.

With new cards, the game automatically shows them all at once, without giving the players the opportunity to flip over each card individually.

The small choices, like hovering over a card and seeing the orange glow that means it’s a legendary, or scrubbing the pack back and forth before opening it for good luck, or even choosing an order of which card to open next, don’t exist in Legends of Runeterra, and it’s to the game’s detriment.

Those choices in opening card packs provide key emotional moments for the player, and though they aren’t necessary to gameplay, they are an inextricable part of what makes collectible card games fun.

By simplifying the card opening process, Legends of Runeterra removes the moments of agency, of feeling like you were responsible for opening a legendary card, even though the game was always going to give it to you.

Being able to open each card is visually and emotionally satisfying in The Elder Scrolls: Legends.

Legends of Runeterra’s Biggest Failing is a Making Things Too Easy, Thus Taking Away the Player’s Control

Player agency is incredibly important in all kinds of games, and it’s the little things that count.  While playing Legends of Runeterra, the bulk of my frustration wasn’t wrapped up in cards being overpowered, or decks being unbalanced, but in the lack of control I felt in the turn sequence and in opening card packs.  These aspects of the game don’t even have to do with winning or losing!

In some ways, digital collectible card games have a higher bar because there’s a physical precursor to how certain parts of the game should feel.  But these only serve to highlight the moments that need to be designed well.  Sadly, Legends of Runeterra falls short on understanding and capturing the important moments of collectible card games.

Just because something can be automated for simplicity when translated into digital format, doesn’t mean it should be.  Creating a digital version of collectible card games allows for many great improvements, but game designers should always prioritise the player’s experience over making something easier to use.