The Trouble With Harry

August 27th, 2001: Mike Sugarbaker says...
The Trouble With Harry

Two weeks ago I was all set to write this snarky post about how Richard Garfield had, in record time, become the Paul McCartney of gaming – alternating between Wings-esque abominations of pablum like What Were You Thinking? and Beatles Anthologies of retreaded former glories, like the Harry Potter CCG. Well, it turns out that Garfield’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits of Harry Potter, despite the interview he did about it in an interior design magazine, of all places, and the fact that it is basically Magic Lite.

I thought there would be no game there at all, with the creatures game missing. Technically, there are creatures in Harry Potter, but all they really are is direct damage that recurs every turn until you kill them with a spell. The Items are enchantments, the Adventures are enchantments that say “your opponent suffers this until s/he does this, at which point this happens,” and there are Wizard (character) cards that give you a special ability for the whole game. As far as the cards themselves, nearly all of the interest (for people familiar with Magic) is in the one-shot spells in your hand, and their special abilities. Truly an exception-based game. Given that the starter sets are static, small, and devoid of Items or Adventures – and that boosters cost $3.29 for just 11 cards – you could be forgiven for thinking the HP CCG was designed from the ground up to drive card sales, rather than create an interesting game framework. No more pretenses of being able to beat Mister Suitcase with a properly tuned starter.

But something is going on in Harry Potter. On one level, I say that because too many people, particularly women aged 18 to 25, are going gaga over it, but I have also found – yes, firsthand – that there is a there there, as far as game design. Firstly, lapsed Magic players should have a look at it to see how it simplifies some of the basic mechanics we take for granted. And it simplifies them in elegant and ingenious ways, not in Portal ways. You’ll be breathing sighs of relief over some of them. Secondly, where are my NetRunner peeps at? Represent. Um, yeah, this game takes the quasi-resource-management in NR – namely, the management of your time in the form of turn actions – and ties it in nicely with the new life-points mechanic, which is your deck. Yes, decking is the only way to kill and die – therefore, the decision over whether to draw cards late in the game can be a matter of life and death as well as a matter of finally drawing that combo.

Then again, I actually thought there might have been an interesting game hiding somewhere in Pokemon, back when it was new. Fortunately, I had the wisdom not to buy any expansion cards, and therefore I was never disappointed. We’ll have to see how Harry fares.

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