Why I Like Zarcana Better
By Andrew Looney
December 2002

To judge from reading Jake's essay on the redesign of Zarcana into Gnostica, the newer game is so totally superior to the original that no one would ever wish to play Zarcana again. I went along with this thinking during the decision to include Gnostica, and not Zarcana, in Playing with Pyramids, since it only seemed appropriate to include one tarot card game in the book and I wanted to give Gnostica a chance to find an audience with as little interference from its predecessor as possible. However, after giving the New Kid on the Block ample time to impress me, I have come to the conclusion that I greatly prefer the original game. As a counterpoint to Jake's article, here are my reasons for disliking Gnostica.

Let's begin with Jake's summation: "Gnostica is more aggressive, interactive, strategic, consistent, clean, exciting, and fun. In comparison, Zarcana was too stodgy, tactical, inconsistent, fiddly, random, and difficult."

On some of these points, I disagree; on others, I find that my preferences lie with Zarcana. For example, anyone who's played Fluxx will know that I'd rather play a tactical game filled with randomness than a strategic game filled with aggression. Moreover, while Gnostica may have a cleaner and less fiddly ruleset, the greater range of choices its players must make cause it to be just as difficult (or even more so) than Zarcana. Stodgy? Here again, I have to disagree... with wacky powers like the Lovers and the Moon stricken from the game, I'd say Gnostica is the more stodgy of the two. But most of all, for me at least, I'd have to say that Zarcana is the game that is the most fun. I just don't enjoy an intense game of Gnostica the way I've always loved a game or two of good old Zarcana.

One of the things I've always really liked about Zarcana was the short, snappy nature of the turns. With many options available but each rather limited, you could think several turns ahead and be ready to quickly take your turn when it came around. In Gnostica however, you get to accomplish more each turn, which makes everything that much more complex. The option to reorient the active piece after each turn effectively gives you two turn options to deal with every single time, and the way rods allow you to cover great distances on the board also adds considerably to the turn complexity.

The new feature seen in Gnostica that I dislike the most is the power of rods to push other pieces around. I have a hard time rationalizing it, but I just hate it when my pieces get pushed around without my consent. It also adds yet another layer of complexity to the gameplay which I didn't think was necessary or desirable.

I also intensely dislike the codification of the "kill-whoever-calls-the-end" strategy into the structure of the end-game. It means that a player who is hopelessly behind doesn't even have the power to force the game to its conclusion, and it intimidates those who are doing well but fear being destroyed and ejected from the game early, left to twiddle their thumbs on the couch while the others duke it out.

While I certainly agree that it's nice being able to easily count the score, I also dislike the whole pip-based scoring and space-upgrade thing. The numerical values of the various cards are an important part of the tarot, and to ignore them just seems wrong to me. More importantly, the widely varying range of values adds a texture to the gameboard and injects a key element I think Gnostica is lacking: luck.

I've never understood why the Gnostica designers felt the need to strip Royalty cards of their power to be used as wildcards when played from the hand. To me, this is the special power of Royalty; without it, these cards are boring.

Speaking of boring, I find that my favorite card of all, the Moon, no longer does the fun thing it used to do. Same is true for the Lovers and various other Major Arcana cards. I understand the reason they did it... it all has to do with balance, Jake's middle name. Indeed, one can certainly argue that the Lovers is an overly powerful card, particularly when it shows up on the board. But I would also argue that balance itself is an over-rated concept.

For example, one of the original re-design goals was to even up the usefulness of the four basic suits. In Zarcana, Cups are of vital importance, particularly at the outset, while Swords are often useless and clutter up your hand. However, by making everything equally useful, it's harder to know what one is supposed to do. That may sound a little odd, but knowing that you need to start by getting cups and growing your pieces gives you a plan to follow, a direction to move it, a sense of where to start. Most of all, imbalance adds randomness and increases the luck factor. What difference does it make if I get a 2 or a 9 when all the lower ranking cards are worth the same amount?

When John, Jake, Kory, and the Other Kristin started re-designing Zarcana, I encouraged them to go wherever the ideas took them. I didn't take an active role myself because they already had a kitchen filled with cooks, and I had plenty of projects of my own to tend to. As ideas I didn't like came forth and were added into the game, I trusted in their skills and hoped the end result would make it all worthwhile. But I've tried the finished product, and I've tried hard to like it... and I have to admit that I just don't like it. Whereas Zarcana was a game I wanted to play over and over again, Gnostica just isn't the type of game I care for.

So what does all this mean?

Having reached these conclusions, I'm now officially launching a new era of Zarcana appreciation. I think I speak for a lot of old Zarcana fans when I say I want the old game back. In supporting Gnostica, I've been helping send a message that this new game is the one to play and that the original is to be forgotten; now I wish to say, in no uncertain terms, that Zarcana is a great game and that I like it better than Gnostica. If you favor the kind of games I do, I think you'll agree.

Moreover, since I'm the Creative Director and I get to make these decisions, I've decided that Zarcana is the game we'll be publishing someday using the tarot card artwork Alison and Petra are gradually developing. (Don't hold your breath, though, it'll still be a long time (i.e. years) at their current rate of production.) I'm also calling for a return to Zarcana tournaments at the Big Experiment - and yes, I'm planning to compete.

All that said, however, I *don't* plan to replace Gnostica with Zarcana in future editions of Playing with Pyramids. I think the Gnostica team did an great job of creating a game that met their design criteria... it's just that my design goals differ from theirs. But I recognize that many other gamers will indeed prefer Gnostica, and I have no wish to stop them from discovering it. Indeed, the most important point to understand in all of this is that the two games, while fundamentally very similar, are also very different and appeal to different types of game-fanciers. I'm a Zarcana player. Jake is a Gnostica player. What are you?

Copyright © 2002 by Andrew Looney.

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