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A tad bit late perhaps, but the creation of Gwent in The Witcher 3 PC RPG game has got me thinking: would a modern trading card game(hereafter referred to as TCG) like Magic: The Gathering be able to catch on and be commercially successful in the Early Renaissance period? If not, what do I have to change to make it work?

To be more precise, the setting would be heavily based on 13th to 15th Century Europe. The people behave like you'd expect them to(similar levels of education, no change to human nature). No magic exists; this point is negotiable though I'd think wizards would not get directly involved in any way for a host of reasons like salty players blaming everything on them. The exact mechanics and theme of the game don't matter so long as it runs on the TCG model, roughly meaning cards of varying rarity, buy 'booster packs' to get rarer cards or get them directly from a trader or win them in prize matches.

EDIT: In order for any product(especially one that is revolutionary or unprecedented) to be commercially successful, the society in question has to be able to accommodate it(I'll call this 'cultural success'). If not, said society has to change to allow for it. Once said product hits the market it in turn usually changes society as well. A real life example of this would be the advent of consumer personal computers(PCs). Some might disagree with me, for the purposes of this question I don't see any way to decouple the two kinds of success.

This is why my question isn't solely about the commercial aspects of a TCG enterprise in this time period, but also the surrounding cultural/social/political obstacles(if any) inherent in such a world and how I can tweak this world to allow for TCGs to succeed. I was alluding to this when I mentioned 'catch on' in my original question, but it seems I need to state it explicitly so I have now. It's also why I went with 'viable' rather than 'economically viable'.

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    $\begingroup$ What a great and unusual question. But I don't 100% get what you are asking? Isn't it all about producing and distributing cards economically, marketing and selling it? Assuming human nature hasn't changed, what exactly is the question? How to start a trading card business in 15th century, let's take the most obvious one, Italy? And if so, how much detail do you expect from answers? $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jul 2 '18 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ This is definitely NOT about worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jul 2 '18 at 13:15
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    $\begingroup$ This is definitely about building an element of a world. There are enough criteria by stating the time period in terms of our real-world history, but allowing for change as you see fit to answer the question. The closer to a real-world-solution the better, therefore not opinion-based. I am voting to Leave Open. $\endgroup$ – Secespitus Jul 2 '18 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @ValerioPastore yes, but in a medieval world. This could be for a d&d world, a novel about those times, etc. Just because it's a small aspect of a world, does not mean that it's not a part of the world. $\endgroup$ – dimwittedanimal Jul 2 '18 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ xkcd.com/593 $\endgroup$ – Robert Columbia Jul 2 '18 at 18:40
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Almost impossible.

Issues:

Production

Production is going to be expensive. Either the cards are drawn by hand, or you have to produce some plates for every design to print them (and in this last case, forget about colours). You will not get those cards on nice, plastified cards, but in more fragile (and susceptible to wear and tear) paper or parchment (even more expensive).

There were card games, but the designs were way more basic.

Market

Very few people have money to pay for such an expensive entertainment. And on top of that, this is a "social" entertainment, one set of cards by itself is useless if there are no opponents around. And by "around" I mean "near", traveling 50 km for a match is not a one hour travel by car, it is a couple of days of travel (including a considerable risk of robbery or worse).

Complexity

There are the descriptions in the cards, the game manuals, an official organization. There are wikis, forums, even a SO mostly devoted to explaining how the game works, and people still have doubts.

How do you plan on getting your players informed about how to play the game. Yes, I get that you could say "once they buy the cards I no longer care", but if the players find the game too complicated or become frustrated because everyone understands the rules differently, they will not induct more users to the game.

Intellectual Property

Ok, I was wrong about all of the above, and now you are the only producer of a successful game.

Except that you are not.

Because right now, everyone with the basic skills needed to reproduce your cards (or create new ones) is already undercutting your market. Intellectual property laws were not "a thing." If you did make a living by producing intellectual property it was because you were employed by some rich noble, not because you were getting royalties.

This is the worst issue. Even in the 17th century, Cervantes was complaining about how unauthorized copies and sequels of Don Quixote were being freely printed.

TL/DR Maybe you could popularize the game if you spend enough resources on it, but it is highly unlikely that you would ever recover your expenses, let alone make a profit.

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    $\begingroup$ There is not only the problem of money but also the problem of reading, as not everyone is literate. In both cases, only a minority of people can buy your product. $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Jul 2 '18 at 13:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also: It's not just disposable money, it's also a matter of disposable time. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jul 2 '18 at 13:51
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    $\begingroup$ All of these problems seem solvable if you target the nobility. 1) Fragility = rarity = increased value. 2) A small (but very rich) target market will support your game just fine. 3) People love complexity if it lets them prove how smart/superior they are. 4) Persuade people that counterfeiting is for knaves. If you can sell your game as a luxury product for the smartest and richest, your game can succeed. $\endgroup$ – DawnPaladin Jul 2 '18 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ The production issues are easily solved by the invention of the printing press, as long as it's a merchant's(or higher) game. The main reasons for that are the availability of time to play, a company willing to spend the time marketing it to those of wealth and power (read Royalty), and means to make it a status symbol of those well off. Many merchants and nobles would emulate whatever the royalty of the time was doing, and were a price taken with the game, it might be found to be a symbol of status saying "Oh you don't play Strink? How quaint". $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian Jul 2 '18 at 22:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung What do you mean? A few very specific exceptions barred, people in the middle ages had more spare time than we have now. $\endgroup$ – DonFusili Jul 3 '18 at 11:38
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First Off...

The ability for something like magic the gathering to take off is mass distribution and marketing. along with a general acceptance for that kind of entertainment. Pre-Renaissance medieval times also were incredibly strict on religious doctrine, ANYTHING that would have distracted from that would have been frowned upon at minimum, if not banned outright. And this took a long time into the Renaissance period to degrade. add to the fact that most people back then couldn't read... these factors would make it close to impossible in the timeline you're wanting.

However

Art has been regularly traded since the Renaissance Times, if your peoples had a greater percentage of reading ability and the doctrine of the time was reduced, then it comes down to the maing of them...

Each of them would need to be hand drawn which in itself is quite limiting. however if they were made out of wood or maybe brass, the art could be painted on afterward and the process of making them the same could be performed with a press. this would not be cheap but it would allow them to be made more practical, but they would also be quite expensive...

UNLESS

Perhaps it could have worked if it was played by the upper echelons of society. then cost wouldn't matter, the ability to read wouldn't matter. if it was the idea of a member of a royal family, they could more easily stop counterfeiting, and allow it as a way to increase their own ego, by having the one card to beat them all. but again, card wouldn't be a good base for them in this time, decent hard wood, or metal ones could though.

The royalty could decree it as being acceptable to the church, and then they could hire the artists to make them, it would be unlikely for them to have "booster" packs as upper class people rarely like leaving things like this to chance. perhaps the boosters could be sold in auction. then it would be almost like gambling ad well, another popular upper class past time.

If the royal family organised the tournaments then it would encourage its popularity. they would also be able to offer better prizes, and those prizes could be some booster packs. also possibly the rare cars could easily be gilded with Gold, or silver. making them even more sought after.

Conclusion

probably not possible, but could be made possible with creative writing

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Instead of trading cards (which as others have pointed out would either be expensive to produce or easy to counterfeit, and would not last long either way), why not try:

Challenge Coins

If the coin of the realm were somehow standardised to a modern-style system, divorcing the value of the coin from the value of the metals used, you could have the ordinary currency depict the current ruler on the "Head" and the value of the coin on the "Tail". Then you could have a feudal system of nobles with Duchies, Earldoms and Baronies each minting their own 'Favour-Coins' where the value of the coin is replaced with their own motif.

The manner of collecting them would be to earn the trust of a noble who would present you with a Favour-coin to cash in at a later date. Such a coin may then be presented in exchange for consideration by that (or another) noble in any matter that may come up; for example, a Farmer who previously presented the noble with his best calf for a feast may have had a bad harvest, and might wish to pay less taxes for one season until he could grow more crops.

The Game

A simple chess- or checkers-like game using regular coins as pawns and the Favour-coins as higher-ranked pieces could be devised, leading to an outcome closer to a Table-top Miniatures game rather than a card game, but still with the "Gotta-collect-them-all" incentive. Taking the chess example a little further, captured pieces may also be kept by the winning player.

Merchants who gain duplicates of a far-away noble may be willing to trade with others who are heading in that direction for coins from a more local noble. Some, who find themselves particularly good at the game or are simply well-favoured by many nobles, may even set up shop trading exclusively in Favour-coins.

Of course official tournaments or tasks sponsored by a given noble may have Favour-coins as part of the rewards.

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  • $\begingroup$ Though it's not exactly what I'm looking for, I quite like the idea of a medieval tabletop clix game without the clix. +1 to you sir $\endgroup$ – nullpointer Jul 3 '18 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @nullpointer TBH, I was thinking of Warhammer as I wrote that. $\endgroup$ – EvoGamer Jul 4 '18 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ I was about to suggest almost exactly this, good thinking :) $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jul 4 '18 at 16:59
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Base it on Tournaments

You have some institution where wealthy people gather—perhaps a casino, but maybe a church, university or social club—develop and sponsor the game, including commissioning the official cards and rulebooks. The objects might not be cards as we understand them; etched wood blocks are a good possibility.

If you want to enter the tournament, you need to buy (or rent) the official game pieces made by the tournament, and since all of them were made there by hand, the officials can spot fakes. If you want a copy of the rules ahead of time, so you can make a strategy or practice with dummy cards? You have to pay for it. There might or might not be rules about what you can have in your deck other than how much money you are willing to pay the house to win the tournament.

When the printing press arrives (Cai Lun’s printing press without movable type was well over a thousand years old at the equivalent point in OTL.) it will be possible to make the backs of the cards exactly the same, so they are not all marked. If those are not in use, the rules probably have to make the game an open game, where all cards are known to all players at all times. An alternative is to keep hidden cards behind screens and have servants manage the decks.

Sell it to Gamblers

Some cards are deliberately rare and powerful, and for the right price, might be sold or even given out to the right customer so he can be sure he will always have it to play, not his opponent.

At that point, the house might start keeping the game fresh by limiting what cards are available and issuing new themes. (If you paid them for the right to bring a card to any game, you probably keep it, but maybe there are exceptions.) Other competitors might copy the game (with their own made-up cards and rules).

As with the other tournaments, the house knows what artist made each of its cards and whom it sold them to, so it can easily spot forgeries. Or it might simply keep the cards in its vault and give them to you whenever you walk in.

You don’t want to let the same people buy too much of an advantage, or else others will stop coming to play with them, but social stratification means that aristocrats will want to play with each other, not the riff-raff, and will feel the need to own a respectable deck. Especially dedicated players who invest a large amount of money in their decks get their own table to play each other, but sometimes others accept a game with them—at least they’ll get to see the unique and expensive handmade cards. (The house surely has a policy that new players get to start with good cards, so their first experience with the game isn’t miserable.) If someone powerful gets some great cards and wins over and over, that at least keeps them happy with your establishment. Besides, as long as they come in the door and pay to try out your latest cards for a week, or buy their lucky card, the house wins regardless of who takes home the pot.

An example of a rule meant to ensure the house always takes its cut: if you win the pot with a card the house lent you, you either pay the house rent on it, or you may buy the card on the spot.

Play it at Home

People might start commissioning their own cards and playing each other at home, If social roles are anything like the real world, this is especially how women would play, so perhaps the game played by noblewomen entertaining guests evolves into something different from the game played by gamblers in casinos or men in tournaments. (In your world, social roles on how noblewomen are allowed to socially mix might of course be looser.) An aristocrat would not want a reputation of being a poor sport with her guests! And often, you want the person you’re entertaining to win. So, the home version has an incentive to keep a level playing field. This game probably lays out for display all the beautiful, expensive cards the hosts had made for them, has all players select an equal number of cards from those, and gives the guest player the first pick of them. In the common case that two married couples play each other, lady guest first, then hostess, than gentleman guest, then host, round-robin. The servants then arrange the decks and shuffle them.

Maybe it Catches on

If there’s a reasonably-standard set of rules, it might be possible for people to make and bring their own cards to play each other; you can’t just draw your own Black Lotus because everyone knows what the real cards are. It might also be possible to show your decks first and have the players or a judge decide whether they are reasonably fair. Otherwise, the model the game probably follows is the guest-host convention: the “host” brings enough cards for all players to build a deck, and the guest gets first pick. Perhaps a competitive match involves each player taking turns as the host.

An important part of the strategy, as the guest, is quickly analyzing the cards the host presents and deciding which to choose and which are traps. The tradition of being a good host and a good sport remains important—as a way to trick the marks. Sharks love tricks like copying a well-known card with small changes to the wording that the guest won’t notice until you point them out in play. And it’s a mistake to agree to play anyone who’ll lawyer any card in the game unless you have some way to force him to accept a fair ruling.

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Wizards, you said?

Set up ye olde magic system so that it's based/allows for use of magic invested cards.

A wizard can cast a fireball, sure, but any rouge with a fire card can use it to shoot a fire arrow. Shame about the card being destroyed/nullified in the process, but hey - you can always buy/win more! Play on!

The rarer the card, the better/greater the magic invested in it.

Playing by official rules is required to retain the magical investment, but there will always be loopholes and scoundrels looking to exploit them. Mind you, arguments about cheating in your game can get pretty heated :-)

"Anybody up for a game of G... *building goes up in a lightning storm * ..?"

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  • $\begingroup$ The thought is hilarious but unfortunately, this segues directly into why I'd prefer to keep magic and magic users out of it. The game would become inextricably tied to society's trust of magic in general, because without a high level of such trust players would blame everything bad on them wizards. Imagine whole swathes of land rendered infertile because the game caused a literal rain of salt $\endgroup$ – nullpointer Jul 3 '18 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ Well, you can play with the level of power to whatever degree you like, but to get an incentive for your average low/middle class guy to play the game, it'll have to amount to something. The wizards who charge the cards with magic can be the ones behind the game, to keep the populace familiar with magic and let them have a taste of power, without giving them too much. $\endgroup$ – Nahshon paz Jul 4 '18 at 17:11
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In medieval times paper was unknown in many places, parchment too expensive. But I would contend that people have been making game pieces from wood, stone, and bone for as long as there have been people.

Wikipedia says the Vikings played these games until chess came along in the 12th century: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tafl_games

Senet is from ancient Egypt: https://discoveringegypt.com/ancient-egyptian-game-senet/

Then of course there is "Druids and Dicotyledons": https://xkcd.com/593/ ;-)

Medieval TCG

This large population follows a polytheistic religion. Each temple is devoted to a different god with varying aspects and rituals of worship. But the unifying thing that ties this diverse people together is the ancient practice of "gaming". When visiting the local temple on feast day, everyone in the village is given the local "starter pack". A handful of intricately carved and painted, totems and symbols for use in the worship of each person's deity of choice. The priesthood teach the rules and ensure a certain amount of consistency in how the game is played. During festivals, rest days, or early winter nights, old and young can be seen, seated at a table worshiping and playing with the tokens and dice. The games are one part religious devotion, the rules taught by the priesthood, and part social fabric. The shared experiences and activity bind people together in friendship and family.

Devotees make pilgrimages to far flung shrines and are rewarded with exotic souvenirs to add to their collection. Traders from afar bring never before seen advanced collectibles that totally unbalance the local games and turn into a rush for the latest and greatest religious symbols (and cards), until the priest weighs in, releasing a new token to keep the local deity in charge.

The relative powers and abilities of individual cards would vary widely from region to region. Charlatans and con men would try to sell knock offs made in the back woods and that practice might be totally acceptable in one region while gross blasphemy in another. Some people play with what they have, and house rules are adjusted accordingly. The most devout only play by the rules of the priest and with "blessed" playing tokens. Children make their own crude imitations out of sticks and stones. The basic rules are pretty consistent across the world. The differences ebb and flow with time and place and people keep playing.

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Adding to other answers, I want to point out that scarcity of resources makes it unlikely that 14th century people would get swept-up in a collectible card game. Collectible card games are not only a luxury, but a particularly wasteful one designed for people who either have plenty of disposable income (or don't, but fail to allocate their limited income in responsible ways). When I say that collectible card games are wasteful, I mean that there are plenty of Magic: The Gathering players who purchase 5,000 - 25,000 cards over the course of their playing, and sell them back to dealers sometimes 5,000 or 10,000 at a time. The very nature of randomized booster packs and stratified rarities guarantees that you will open certain cards (commons) significantly more times than you open others (mythic rares); and that goes double for a particular common that you opened more copies of than the other commons, contrasted with the mythic rare that you opened the least copies of. Having to obtain lots of useless duplicates of a particular common just to open a particular mythic rare is a form of waste (both the physical resources, as well as the labor that goes into producing them by hand without industrial methods).

Can a Medieval society afford to mass-produce a bunch of common cards that don't even get used? Don't they already have enough scarcity problems related to the production of food, clothing, wagons, shelter, etc.? Can they really afford to waste large shares of their productivity on trifles like useless, excess commons? This is much different resource-wise than making a one-time purchase of a chess board or a pack of Bicycle playing cards.

If you want this kind of thing to exist, and you want it to be realistic, you need to provide for...

  • A way of recycling / reusing the useless extras. For instance, if they were printed on arrows, slingshot ammo, or patches of cloth that can be used to make quilts.
  • If the stratified rarities were not all contained in the same booster pack. For instance, if you traded-in your extra commons (to the vendor), plus some additional money, to buy an uncommon pack. Then you later traded-in your extra uncommons, plus some additional money, to buy a rare pack. This system would also help solve the recycling and mass production problems, because then the vendor could resell your traded-in commons instead of producing new ones.
  • If the uncommons and rares were simply an upgrade that was added to a common, then this could help with production and recycling issues. For instance, if you trade-in 40 commons with the vendor, and he then initials a common, then the initials could give it a +1 bonus. If you then trade-in 40 uncommons to the vendor, he could write his signature on it, which could give it a +2 bonus.
  • If you trade-in 40 rares, then the vendor could add a super signature and stamp, which could give it a +3 bonus. All of this could slightly mitigate intellectual property concerns, because the higher-valued cards would all have authentic signatures from the vendor, and the lower-valued cards would not be worth counterfeiting.
  • Another unlikely way to avoid the uselessness of excessive copies of commons is to allow as many duplicates as you want in a deck, and reduce the downside of large deck sizes (for example, I've seen card games where damage taken results in discarding cards from the top of your deck, and you lose when you run out of a deck, so larger deck size is better). If you do this, then quantity really prevails over quality. In order to ensure that card quality is still important, there would have to be clear, not subtle, power level differences between rarities.
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  • $\begingroup$ Hello, John, and welcome to Worldbuilding. This is a great answer for a new user! Please take our tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have a nice day! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon Jul 3 '18 at 16:41
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A type of card game using a system similar to a TCG is possible, but having official rules, booster packs, etc, is not likely at all.

Tarot cards were originally made on wooden blocks, and they had several different purposes. Italian nobles used them for a game like Bridge. Other Italians would choose a card at random and use the imagery to create poetic verses about another player.

Well this is less certain, it is believed that tarot cards were also used in story telling games. Pick a card, make part of a story using that imagery, then either pick another card or someone else does.

Before tarot cards became intricate divine instruments they were simpler and easier to understand.

Caitlín Matthews, who teaches courses on cartomancy, or divination with cards, says that before the 18th century, the imagery on these cards was accessible to a much broader population. But in contrast to these historic decks, Matthews finds most modern decks harder to engage with.

So, if some really bored soldiers got a hold of a cheap tarot stack, they could develop a game using the imagery. It would be fairly simple, each person picks several cards at random, and they assign different values and affects for each card, trying to stop or trump their opponents.

If it was easy to follow, more soldiers would get involved, figure something a bit simpler than original magic, draw a card, put a card down, do a spell/prayer, attack and defend. If it got a couple of people interested in the initial game it would spread relatively quickly. The rules would change by the group, but they'd follow the same basic principals. Soldiers would have the time to carve their own tarot cards out of wooden blocks, so production wouldn't matter too much. The basic figures would remain similar, so it wouldn't take more than a brief talk to figure out which card was which.

Better made cards would be sought after, although probably rarely used to keep them safe. As players interact they'd bring in new cards, new ideas and rules. When soldiers settled down, they'd also spread the card games in their villages and towns, spreading it even further.

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