Chest & Card System: The new gacha

Opening chest in Clash Royale, Mercenary upgrade menu in Mayhem, and reward from an opened crate in Tom Clancy's Shadowbreak (left to right).

What is the Chest & Card system?

Popularized by SuperCell’s Clash Royale, the chest & card system is a modern take on the booster packs used in trading card games. The typical booster pack would contain a small number of cards and have a chance of containing rare cards. People often buy these packs with the hopes of obtaining rare cards, while not caring about the rest, as they have already had those in their collection. What the chest & card mechanic changes is not the concept of a booster pack, but what players want to get out of those packs.

Duplicate cards are often useless (unless you traded them away, or needed multiples for your deck as in certain trading card games) in trading card games. On the other hand in games utilizing the chest & card system, they can be combined to create more powerful versions of the same card. Combining duplicate cards could take the form of, for example, combining two cards that do 100 damage to upgrade that card so that it does 110 damage. You could then further upgrade that card by using four more of the same card.

While gacha games focus on collecting the most rare and powerful heroes or weapons, chest & card games focus on powering up your units or gear. That means that even if you get an extremely rare card in a chest & card game you might not use it because it’s not as powerful as your powered up common cards. However in a gacha game, as soon as you obtain an ultra rare hero or weapon, that will typically become a crucial part of your game-plan going forward. Chest & card games will typically have fewer different units or weapons to collect than gacha games, but it will also have fewer units and weapons that players will never use.

Tom Clancy's Shadowbreak crate reward
One of the rewards from a crate in Tom Clancy’s Shadowbreak

Which games use Chest & Card Mechanics?

Notable examples of games that use chest & card mechanics include:

How is this mechanic typically implemented?

The most common use of the chest & card reward/monetization system is built around giving players chests that require time to unlock. An example of this is when a game rewards you with a chest after every victory, but to open that chest you have to wait 3 hours (or more). That reduces the rewards for players who play for hours at a time. It also creates an incentive for players to come back to the game every few hours to open up their chest and begin opening a new one. Games will often limit the amount of chests you can have at any one time. Chests may also be offered as rewards for completing certain tasks or quests, achievements, or just given out on a regular basis (every 4 hours in many games). Unlike victory chests, reward chests are opened instantly, making checking in regularly and completing daily goals critical to maximizing rewards.

The next part is the reason players want to crack open as many chests as possible, cards. Cards are used to obtain and power up the units or skills used within the game. The first copy of a card you get will typically unlock a new unit, and every subsequent card will be put towards an upgrade for that unit. An upgrade from level 1 to 2 might require only 2 cards, but that amount will increase quite quickly to the point that you need a hundred copies of a single card for an upgrade.

Of course, upgrading your units is not free. It typically requires a certain amount of basic currency which can be earned through gameplay or from chests. The problem is that most games will be set up in a way that the demand for basic currency outstrips supply. Inevitably, this leads to players either skipping upgrades for units they rarely use, or purchasing more basic currency using premium currency.

Premium currency is of course where things get controversial. Because it is how free to play chest & card games generate revenue, premium currency is a necessary part of these games. However, critics of premium currency will argue that it gives players who use real money too great of an advantage. Moreover, because of the nature of unit upgrades, it gives even more of an advantage to people who spend thousands of dollars. These people are not wrong, premium currency can often be used to unlock chests without using a timer, purchase premium chests that contain more cards, and to acquire more basic currency. That might not be a deal breaker to everyone, but there are ways to reduce the “pay to win” aspects of the chest & cards system, as discussed in the next section.

Mayhem upgrade menu
A look at the mercenary upgrade screen in Mayhem

Why does this system matter?

What the chest & card mechanic does is effectively uncap the amount of cards a person needs to perfect their deck or get to the maximum power level. That means that people who spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on premium currency to buy chests will have an advantage that’s hard to match. That can often translate to the end game becoming pay to win, with those who spend obscene amounts of money having a significant advantage.

The advantages given to those who spend money in chest & card games can be diminished in a number of ways. Most commonly, players will be divided into tiers based on their rank and/or card strength, so that those who have extremely powerful cards will rarely face players with weak cards. However that usually doesn’t help those in the highest tier which usually has everyone above a certain ranking. The second way that you can minimize the advantages of spending tons of money on cards is to minimize the difference between card level. So that a level 5 card will only be slightly more powerful than a level 2 card for example. While this has an impact on end-game PVP, it helps make things more fair for everyone early on. The last and least common method is to implement a separate game mode wherein all players are on equal footing. A balanced mode might set every card to level 5, regardless of the actual level. An example of this is Clash Royale’s tournament mode.