Since the first cards for Disney Lorcana were shared in September of last year, Disney fans and hardcore gamers alike have had just one question on their minds: What are the rules of the game, and how do they differ from established franchises like Magic: The Gathering and The Pokémon Trading Card Game? Well, as it turns out, it’s hard to keep a lid on this magical little game, and those rules leaked a bit early on Monday. But perhaps the most important part of those rules — their context and their intent — has been missing until now.
Earlier this month, Polygon sat down with Disney Lorcana co-designer Ryan Miller to learn everything we could about the hottest new Disney collectible. What we discovered is a product that has been engineered with a surprisingly light touch. In fact, the rules fit fairly well on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. But don’t mistake that brevity for simplicity.
“What we wanted was something that was accessible. And I like the term accessible, because it doesn’t mean simple,” Miller said. “It’s generally got concepts and things that are easy to pick up for folks who’ve never played this type of game before — and that bore out in our early playtests.”
In Disney Lorcana, players take on the role of Illumineers, powerful individuals who use a unique resource, called ink, to bring versions of classic Disney characters and items to life on the table. Each player comes to that table with a unique deck of cards from their collection or a pre-made starter deck they bought at the store. The goal is to gather up “lore,” a kind of magical macguffin that stands in for life points, or hit points, in similar games. Lore is gathered by sending characters on quests, and the first player to accrue 20 points of lore wins the game.
In order to bring those classic Disney characters to life, first you’ll need to generate a pool of ink — the main resource that Disney Lorcana uses to power the action in the game. So, true to what Miller said, the process is approachable — generate ink to create characters, who you then send on quests to gather lore — but it’s not all that simple. And getting the resource system just right, Miller said, was one of the hardest parts of designing Disney Lorcana in the first place.
In the two most popular trading card games, Magic and Pokémon, cards and their abilities can’t just be played at will. They have a cost that must be paid in resources first. Those resources are represented by their own special cards in both games — land cards, which generate mana in Magic, and energy cards, which get attached to creatures in Pokémon.
In order to put land or energy into play, however, you first need to draw those cards from your deck into your hand. In the case of Magic, you might actually need several different kinds of resources — different kinds of land, each yielding different colors of mana — to play the different cards from your deck. That can make the first few opening rounds challenging, as players size each other up and make the first few tentative steps out onto the table with just a few resources in play.
Miller and his co-designer Steve Warner spent six months trying to find a different solution, and ultimately they settled on something unique.
At first, virtually every card in Disney Lorcana could be used to generate the resource ink, at a rate of one per turn. That solved the problem of not having enough resources in the early rounds fairly easily. Then they started removing that ink ability from some of the more powerful cards, lowering their utility in one respect while enhancing it in another. Today, many of the cards in the game cannot be turned into ink, but it’s up to players to decide whether or not to include them in their custom-made decks.
“It allows a really interesting balancing tweak that we can do,” Miller said, “because by taking the ink off of a card and saying this card doesn’t provide you ink, it really changes your valuation when you’re building your deck. It’s really got to justify itself now because I can’t use it as ink. [...] I believe that the experienced trading card gamers are really going to find that very interesting.”
As written, Disney Lorcana’s ink system moves resource generation away from luck-of-the-draw chance and instead makes resource generation a choice — one informed by experience and skill — that players get to make on their own, both during play and when building their custom decks. Further adding complexity, any cards that are converted into ink can’t be used for any other function later in the game. That makes melting down your more powerful cards to generate ink a really bad idea — unless it’s necessary to keep from being backed into a corner.
“[I’ve] got to decide which of these cards is the least useful to me this game,” Miller said, “and I’m going to decide that by looking at the [other cards on the] table. That’s the best kind of decision to make, because I feel — as a player — I’m using my skill now. I can see from what they’re playing, they’re doing this strategy. [...] So I’m gonna go ahead and ink that [high-value card]. I feel good about that decision: I feel like I’ve used my skill.”
Another key advantage of the ink design that Miller enjoys is that it expands what he calls variance. By giving every card in that 60-card deck multiple functions — being used as ink, being used to gather lore, or being used for some other unique action — further compounds the amount of variance in every deck. And it’s that variance that should make Disney Lorcana so much fun to play and collect — and to experiment with, even if it means losing a hard-fought game.
“The reason I want to add variance is that variance gives hope,” Miller said. Without that added variance, players that start losing the race to 20 lore could have a higher chance to continue losing the race over time. Higher variance gives players more things to do, more cards to play in the attempt to narrow that gap. It’s not a blue shell from Mario Kart by any stretch, but it gives each game more drama.
“Without variance,” Miller continued, “there can be no hope.”
With the ink system in place, Miller said that many of the other elements of the game’s design began to crystallize throughout repeated playtesting. Among them were the three card types that will be available at launch: characters, items, and actions.
Characters, called glimmers in the universe of Disney Lorcana, have been sourced from the vault filled with Disney’s back catalog of classic animated films and given unique, thematic powers to play at the table. Items, like Ariel’s dinglehopper from The Little Mermaid, leaped from the margins of movie scripts to fill important roles, like healing other damaged characters. Meanwhile, iconic actions, like Maleficent breathing green fire while in the shape of a dragon at the end of Sleeping Beauty, were a natural next step in the game’s evolution.
But one sub-type of card, called a “song,” stands out. Songs are drawn from Disney’s immense catalog of cultural touchstones that also happen to be potent earworms. Any song can be played, for its cost in ink, by any player. But songs can also be sung by individual characters that have been played to the table, thereby freeing players up to use their ink for other tasks. Mechanically, they’re yet another way to add variance to Disney Lorcana.
As an example, Miller points out a card called One Jump Ahead, named after the song by the same name from Disney’s Aladdin. Players can pay two ink to play One Jump Ahead themselves, which allows them to draw a card from their hand and immediately turn it into ink — placing them one jump, or one ink as it were, ahead the following round. Alternately, players can have any character they control, worth two or less ink, sing that song instead, turning their action that round into an opportunity to generate more ink essentially for free. But that choice — exerting the character instead of using it to generate lore — is a trade-off that could have further consequences down the line.
Ultimately, time will tell if players are as excited about these clever design choices as the team at Ravensburger are. The rules themselves are purposefully skeletal, Miller said, and much of the meat of the game exists on the hundreds of cards included in the first of many sets — the vast majority of which haven’t been revealed yet.
But the real magic of Disney Lorcana can only happen if fans show up primed to play it when the final game arrives at retail stores this summer. Miller is hopeful. The source of his optimism? It goes back to those earworms.
“One of the things we noticed,” Miller said, “is you’ll sing the song, at least the [first] line of it. So like ‘One jump ahead of the bread line!’ [...] It’s almost like it’s a rule of the game because it happens so much, that people will sing the song as they play it.”
Miller, an Army veteran with a beautiful baritone singing voice, said he particularly enjoys crooning “Let it go!” as he banishes his opponents’ glimmers with Elsa’s powerful song.
“Just imagine a room full of folks, and randomly you’ll just hear people singing snippets of Disney songs,” Miller continued, a wide grin spreading across his face as he shuffles and bridges a stack of pre-production cards. “It’s just wonderful!”
Disney Lorcana will first be available at this year’s Gen Con, and soon after at hobby stores beginning Aug. 18 — followed by 12 weeks of organized community play. Fans can find it at major retailers starting Sept. 1 and on ShopDisney.com.