The 54 Card Guild: #1

54CardLogo

I want to invite you to join an elite and secretive organization. It is exclusive, difficult to find, and reserved for only top individuals.

Actually, it's none of these things. I want you to join me in making games so that we can all improve our craft of design. I want you to join the 54 Card Guild!

A peer recently said "Be mindful of the people from whom you take your advice as many of them know just as little as you." Over the years I've evolved my blog from sometimes pompous "this is how to do a thing" instruction, to philosophical meandering, and finally to more case-study styled pieces based on my own work. I don't think I'm the worst offender of unworthy instruction, but I do worry that sometimes I'm too quick to make my own thoughts and work front and center when in reality, I want others to learn by doing. It's how I learn and I think it's a great method to improve design.

I've always been flustered by Game Design Books and GDC talks. They seem to opine in a vacuum bereft of reality, constraints, market conditions, you name it. They seem to be one sided and I feel there are far too few absolutes for monologues in this space. I think there's more room for dialog, open thought, and experimentation.

The Content

Every 1-2 Fridays I'll post a written blog and sometimes provide a short video. The idea is to start from the beginning (brainstorming) and continue through a variety of topics, including some layout basics, testing tips, rules writing, and more.

I will likely veer and swerve and hopefully the content is concise, interesting, and useful to you. All articles will be tagged with 54 Card Guild so they'll be easy to find and reference.

The Work

All of us, me included, will be making a game. I have already begun working on mine so that I can stay ahead of things and use my efforts to guide the content.

The only limitation is that your components are strictly limited to 54 cards or fewer. These can be any cards, not just a poker deck, though doing that is encouraged!

This means no dice. No pennies. No board. Just 0-54 cards. Great creativity is spawned from great limitations. Focus on the core essence of the experience you wish to deliver and do it with a mere 54 cards. You'll be surprised at what you craft.

We're doing a similar exercise at work and my friends are making simple deckbuilders, heart variants, and party games. One even said he wants to make a hyper distilled version of Fief that strips out the board and war game and focuses on the social dynastic building.

I'll try to provide weekly assignments. This isn't homework. I'm not grading it, and nobody will mind if you miss a date. The idea behind these assignments is to provide milestones to guide your work. I find deadlines and measured goals help me, so perhaps they'll help you. Feel free to ignore them!

So many words...Let's simplify.

I want you to make a game with me that contains 54 cards or fewer. I'm going to provide notes and thoughts to aid and guide, but want you to feel free to pursue your own path and borrow what works for you and ignore the rest.

Let's begin Guide #1...

Note: In order to facilitate sharing, I've created a group for us on Slack.com! Slack is a great website and smart phone app for easily sharing ideas and chatting. Email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com if you want to join!

Guide #1: The Brainstorm

A good brainstorm will often emerge if you provide yourself freedom from distractions and a way to quickly record a wide range of thoughts. I do the majority of my brainstorming in 3 places:

  • Driving in silence
  • Walking my dog + iPhone Notes
  • Showering

At work, much of what we do is team based. A good method we have found is to pass out sticky notes and sharpies and individually jot ideas that we then stick to a big white board. This lets us individually focus while also collaborating.

Do yourself a favor and bury your cell phone when brainstorming. Get away from your computer. While Google Docs is a great place to type, having the Internet at your finger tips is just inviting distraction.

This is the easy part. The difficult part is finding your inspiration. There are a variety of nodes from which to draw, and you may be surprised to find they match your preferences in games to play!

  • Classic games. Do you love Poker, Black Jack, Bingo, or Scrabble? Well, games like Rise of Augustus, Battle Line, Samurai Spirit, Hocus, and more draw from these foundations. Hell, Richard Garfield likes making Hearts variants.
  • Favorite games. Think of your favorite 10 games. What is your favorite element of each? Is it that moment when you betray your friend? Do you love rolling that pile of dice? Do you like building a deck before the game? Or creating broken combos? Think of that core and write it.
  • Brainstorm Algebra, or X+Y=Z. Think of combinations, strange and intuitive alike. Drafting + Worker Placement. Zombies + Civil War. City Building + Winter. These combinations can be Mechanism + Mechanism, Theme + Theme, Experience + Experience, or any combination thereof. See where these threads lead. In fact, take items from the first two bullets and plug them in as variables.
  • Real life experiences. What are things you like to do? Cook? Perform stand up comedy? Exercise? Great designers draw from life experiences.

If the experience or thematic angle isn't working for you, perhaps think of ways that you can use and manipulate cards. Cards are intensely flexible! Below, I'm going to show you a handful of common and perhaps less common ways you can use cards in your game.

The Action Card

Example_ActionCard

This is a very common case that maybe doesn't need to be mentioned. If you've played Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner or Munchkin, you've seen cards used in this manner. The core concept is that you have a card with text or a symbol that indicates an action. On a player's turn, they choose a card to play, and resolve its text.

Action cards are great for having great variety, but don't get too carried away with complex text. Try to avoid conditional phrases, such as "If another player has 3 or more Coins, you may play this card." Instead, just say "Take 1 Coin."

Try to rely on a few key words and see how far you can stretch that before adding complexity.

Drafting

Example_Drafting

This is a beautiful two step process. Step 1: Choose the card you wish to play, for its action (as mentioned above) or to build a new building or structure, or for something else. Step 2: Pass the remaining cards to the player next to you.

Drafting is great because you can present your players with a wide variety of choices, but limit them to only one. You want 3 of the 8 cards in your hand, but you can only grab one. Drafting also allows for the fun method of interaction known as counter-drafting. You might take a card that's less useful to you in order to prevent an opponent from grabbing it. This method of indirect interaction is friendly, yet potent.

The Military Unit

Example_Military

Think of a miniatures game, but instead of plastic figurines, you use cards. Cards work well for this as you can put all pertinent information on the card. You can use cards as a ruler even to measure and allow for a free form miniature-like environment. You can even use cards for Terrain. One card is a town, the other is a hill to fight over.

Cards are physical objects that don't need to be in your hand. Summoner Wars shows us you can turn them into units that are just as viable as Memoir '44's plastic tanks.

When you use cards as units, be careful about having too much information. Players naturally want to read and know everything. If you have 20 cards out, each with 2 sentences of text, don't be surprised when players stop constantly to read them! It's really about slowly building the player's army, limiting the complexity on individual units, and limiting what you need to know about another player's units.

Multi-Use Cards

Example_MultiUse_AMulti-use cards are a favorite mechanism of mine that I have used quite often. Put simply, what if every card has two or more uses? Instead of having to perfectly tune a deck distribution, you can instead say that every card has a unique element (the B shown above) and a shared element (the A shown above). You can then play the card for either use. That A can represent a category. In your 54 card deck, you might have 6 categories of 9 cards each. The As could be a Building, a Politician, Infrastructure, Roads, Power Plants, and Wonders in a city building game.

Example_MultiUse_B

You can also take the 7 Wonders approach and give every card a unique attribute, then have global rules. For example, in 7 Wonders you can play a card for its attribute, or chuck it for 3 gold, or use it to build a structure. As long as your global rules are simple, this is a great way to go that doesn't add complexity to the card's layout.

Deduction and Peeking

Example_Peek

I've been trying to design a deduction game. So far, my efforts haven't born fruit, but it has been a fun thought process. While thinking of examples for this article, I thought about Hanabi. In it, players can see the cards of other players, but not their own, as the cards are held backwards in front of you. Players can reveal clues by saying "All of these cards are this color," or "All of these cards have this number."

What if you hold your cards privately in a competitive game and you must inform an opponent of a shared property of all the cards that share it? So, in the example above, "these two cards have a blue building." Your opponent then chooses any card to reveal. After so many clues and revealed information, they must make a guess about the contents of your hand.

For what purpose, I don't know! Maybe you'll find a gem?

Pre-Constructed Decks

Example_PreConstructed

This is a feature my design will use. Pre-constructed decks take a pool of cards, up to 54 in our case, and challenge players to combine them in new and exciting ways to create a new whole. These games are all about creating powerful combos and exploiting loopholes in the card ideas. Much of the fun comes from the deck construction, though the "actual game" must also be fun!

To make these games work, you need to think about the handful of nodes and elements every card needs to have. You can then use other cards to play off of these. In a battle game, a Unit might have health, a cost to play, an attack strength, and a one-time bonus that occurs when the card is played. You can then have other cards that manipulate and modify those properties.

They key is to consider these properties from a high level, then begin experimenting with the details and evolving your foundation as needed.

Role Selection

Example_RoleSelectionPlayers have a hand of cards, much like drafting. Also like drafting, they play one every round, often simultaneously, that determines their power, action, or capability. You want every role to be distinct and present upsides and downsides.

Perhaps Robin Hood shown above is good at getting gold, but can be caught by the sheriff. The Fez is good for scoring points, but a bad role for remaining hidden. And so forth.

Due to the simultaneous nature, you often want a way to resolve ties. Whose card goes first? Above, I added a number, so that the person who played the 1 goes first.

Think about providing players with non-obvious times to play certain roles. Work to ensure that the Fez doesn't have an obvious time to play. This will lead to tougher, and more interesting decisions.

Throwing Cards

Example_Throwing

You can make a game about throwing cards on a table! Yes, truly! Your cards can have symbols that, when covered by latter throws, provide points. Or, when covered, provide bonus abilities. Dexterity is a wonderful medium that provides great laughs and establishes a casual atmosphere. Cards are physical, have weight, and can hold an image and instructions. Why not throw them?

Tile Game

Example_TileGame

Cards can contain pictures that link up and when placed adjacent form a map, or panoramic picture, or a galaxy, or anything really. The cards might have a strict orientation, like in some games where the cards must be placed in order, or their placement can be up to the active player. With this latter method, players create the map and you have a more random, but dynamic experience.

What surface can you create with cards? And, can you then cover the existing cards? Perhaps you cover a mountain with a snowy mountain to indicate weather? Or remove all water to turn a river into a desert?

My design will feature tiles.

Combining Cards

Example_TwoCardPairing

This is another weird idea I had when trying to think about crafting an AI for a game. What if you need a deck that can work in a variety of situations with only 54 cards? Here's an idea. What if every player has a character, represented by a card. Each side of the card has a level, indicated by the 4 colors shown above. As you explore the world, you draw a card from the deck. It has 4 pieces of text or symbols on it, each with a color code that matches the colors on your card. If your blue side is facing up? You resolve the blue text. Another player might resolve the red text if that's where they are at. Suddenly, every card has 4 uses that are contextual.

Not all 54 cards have to be the same! You can mix and match different types, then have them speak to each other in different ways. Think of your cards as Lego pieces.

The Assignment

Find yourself a good, quiet, distraction free location and begin jotting ideas. Think of 5-10 fun ideas using any method possible. Narrow it down to 1 or 2 favorites. Then, using an idea from above, or one of your own, begin thinking about the mechanisms and experience you will leverage and provide. Write these down, loosely, and begin thinking in a more focused manner. Give your brain time to stew and think about these 1 or 2 ideas in the context of a more specific arrangement.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed! Use the comments or email me.

Comments

I really like the idea of this Grant! I'll be following along and maybe joining in. Your list of mechanics has given me some interesting ideas, though I have no idea of how to theme them yet :p

Restricting yourself to only a limited number of components is a really nice way of getting the creative juices flowing. Just narrowing down the creative space from "any imaginable game" to "any game using just 54 cards" gets the mind working immediately. Since components are such a practical restriction on publishing too, it makes sense to be thinking about them right from the start!

That sounds great, Dennis. Tell me how it goes!

Hi Grant,

I like the guide you've created here. I'm "teaching" a game design course for continuing ed at a local school next month and you've got me thinking about how this could be the class assignment...

Thank you! That means a lot to me.

Hello Grant,
I really like the idea of starting a blog series from the ground up exploring game design. I feel you're doing a good job of this series, and reading this article was quite inspirational.

Keep up the good work, and good luck!
Suman Jampala