Tucked away in the trailer for Genshin Impact’s forthcoming 3.3 update is perhaps one of the greatest additions the wildly successful free-to-play game has presented thus far: an in-game collectible card game. Dubbed Genius Invokation, the game, according to developer Hoyoverse, “combines the fun of Genshin Impact’s element-based combat system with strategy development.” This is a really dry way of saying that in addition to all the myriad things to do in Genshin Impact, it’s now possible to bliss the hell out as you role-play a card shark, beating every character in this game you learned moments ago and building an unstoppable deck of lovely character portraits.
There really isn’t anything better than a good card game in a video game. How cool is it to learn that some mad game developer out there, like Xzibit, wants to hook you up so much that they didn’t just create a baller video game that you love, but they put another game inside that game — one that, in its compelling simplicity, might even be better than the full game it’s in? It doesn’t even have to be a bespoke in-universe game like Genius Invokation. It can just be a basic card game, like Lansquenet, which you can play in this year’s medieval murder-mystery Pentiment, or straight-up Texas hold ’em in Red Dead Redemption 2.
It also doesn’t have to be a card game. One of the best additions to Horizon Forbidden West compared to its prequel wasn’t just the vast new locales or machine-hunting tools, but Machine Strike, a tactical strategy board game that encourages you to travel around the world and collect more pieces. On the other end of the open-world game spectrum is Star Ocean: The Divine Force, a game that has a far less dense world to explore but is very happy to populate it with characters that are absolutely nuts for Es’Owa, a board game that’s kind of like backgammon with stats and miniatures.
A game’s scope also seems to have nothing to do with the decision to include fully-fleshed-out tabletop games as a diversion. One of the more amusing things about the Voice of Cards trilogy of RPGs from Square Enix — besides their astonishing turnaround time, with three entries released in less than 12 months — is in their presentation, in which every element of the game is represented through cards.
Naturally, this makes the player wonder if they can actually play a card game in the, uh, Card Game, and it turns out that you can! In every town there is a game hall, which lets players take on a card game that’s kind of a variant of gin rummy, but with some RPG flair. You can even play it with others via couch co-op, which is a particularly funny feature — even as someone who really likes the Voice of Cards games, it is very funny that they presume that two to four people will gather around one to play some Weird Rummy.
But maybe none of this speaks to you. Perhaps you are someone who thinks (reasonably): If I wanted to play a card game, I would buy a card game. This is fair. Consider, however, the things that are gained from the fusion of the two. In their most minimal form, they can flesh out the fiction of the world — characters have lives and jobs, so why not diversions? Letting you participate in that diversion is a good way of getting that highly sought-after “immersion” that many games seek. Part of the magic of Pentiment is that it is largely concerned with demystifying a period of history that, in the popular consciousness, is thought of in unusually sterile and flat terms. In including Lansquenet, Pentiment can subtly elaborate on its 16th-century cast, making them seem more human.
In bigger games, adding a persistent card or board game — as opposed to the one-off “minigames” that are a video game staple — is a rewarding way to encourage the player to go off the beaten path in a manner they might not otherwise. It gives players a secondary, smaller game that they can only get better at if they get better at exploring the game they’re already in. At their very best, like in Final Fantasy 8’s Triple Triad or The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s Gwent, the card games themselves fold back into the main game, becoming either a plot point in an optional story (The Witcher 3’s Gwent tournament) or a mechanic (Final Fantasy 8’s card refinement).
While these are all wonderful things an in-game card or board game can do, it’s also worth noting that they are valuable in a way that needs little justification: Sometimes it’s just hard to find other people to play a weird tabletop game with, and the greatest fantasy a game can offer sometimes is simply one where there is a whole world of people ready to sit down and play a board game with you.