The Design of Five Ravens

This is the third part of a designer diary series on Five Ravens. You can read the rules here. You can download the Print and Play here

The design of the cards, and by design I mean the visual layout and design, was very important to me from the very start of Five Ravens. One of the self-inflicted mistakes I made with Solstice was trying to handle all of the design myself. The result was cheap looking cards with poor visual aesthetics that was downright disrespectful to the great art by John Ariosa. Thankfully, Jason Kingsley was able to help me on short notice and the final result was quite nice. But, I didn't want this to be the case for Five Ravens.

I enlisted the help of Fredrik Skarstedt early. In fact, he and John were given the same initial visual direction and we all reviewed the sketches and layout ideas together. It helped keep our visuals and ideas cohesive. Fredrik is a cool guy I follow on Twitter, but more importantly for this job, has done things such as the art and design for Card Dungeon. We'd discussed working together a while ago and I thought Five Ravens was a good fit.

But, before Fredrik joins the story, we need to discuss the initial layout. A great deal of work was done before he showed up, and it's this early, tedious work that gives designers like him a better starting point once they enter the picture.

The inital task of Five Ravens' design is made simpler by the fact the game doesn't have a great deal of icons or conflicting visuals on the cards. For a minute I considered 4 different icons to denote the category of bonus for the card (New Action, Passive Effect, Immediate Effect, Scoring Effect), but these were unnecessary once I wrote the final text and thought about it further. To offset this initial simplification is the fact that the cards had two text bodies.

In many of my multi-use card games, the cards will have a text use, then a global, systematic use. Consider in 7 Wonders. You can use a card for its icons, or you can discard it for money, or discard it to build a stage of your wonder. Those last two functions don't take up visual space on the card. However, in Five Ravens, the cards had three pieces of information:

  • An Action. Think of this as the text on the card in Dominion.
  • A Capture bonus. This is the text that takes effect once the card is Captured.
  • A Rank. This is a number (1-9) that indicates the order of choosing a relic. 

If it were just the rank and one text field, I would use the standard visual style from Magic: The Gathering. Number in the top-left corner, text on the bottom-middle of the card. But, what to do with a second set of text that also comes into play under certain circumstances? This is text that needs to be read so you understand what will happen, but it shouldn't be as prominent as the Action text, which is used over and over again.

A few things helped in my design efforts. You see, often when creating a design and layout, you only think about manipulating the elements you have. But, you should also consider manipulating the elements themselves. More specifically, I was hyper focused on using very short text strings for my cards. This meant the cards needed to have very simple functionality and it also meant I needed to use key terms. For some cards, this is just easy. For others, it means players will need to read the manual to ensure they fully grasp the card. I debated this, but in the end, felt the one-time learning cost in exchange for much cleaner cards was the right one. 

Another unexpected decision gave us a little more room as well. I chose to use the tarot size for the cards. This gave us just a hint more width, but quite a bit more length. This gave us significant room to let the illustrations breathe, but also have longer capture bonus text sections without line breaks. It is a good thematic choice for the setting, with tarot feeling appropriate for the Poe vibe, but also a good one for the design. 

My first thought was to put the action text in the bottom middle, as is standard, with the rank in the top left, also standard. Then, I put the capture bonus on the left side. Yes, this meant players had to tilt the card slightly to read it, but I made sure this text was simpler than the action text. Furthermore, it lead to an intuitive form of placement to help players build their tableau. Once a card was captured, players would rotate it and stack them on top of previously captured cards. It helped make it clear which cards in the play space were captured, and which were just played and discarded. 

I experimented a few times with other layouts. Most notably, I made put both the action text and the capture text on the bottom middle. They had different visual treatments to distinguish. The plus side of this was that you could easily read both at once without the head tilt. But, this made the play space more cumbersome and my testers really appreciated being able to scan the functionality on the left side of the card in the previous iteration. So, I reverted back.

It's time to bring Fredrik into the picture. I sent him the mock (shown below) of the card layout. This showed him space I thought we could allow for text, for the illustration, and the overall size. Red was the rank, green the capture bonus, and blue the action text. The little grey box is where I originally thought the icons would go. One of the first discussions was a typeface. The art was so vivid and stylish. We really wanted a typeface that was equally stylish. For a bit we fell into the CLASSIC pitfall of something visually cool, but almost illegible. But, we did some spot checks with folks and knew it was the wrong call. We settled on a typeface that I felt was a good compromise of form and function.


We then dug into the layout. Fredrik offered some new ideas, experimented, and we discussed them all. Some were things already considered that didn't test well, but others he suggested were good and well-liked by the group once I printed them out. Looking at the illustrations, Fredrik noted that it made more sense to focus the eye towards the top. After all, the number would be there as an anchor, indicating both its importance in choosing a relic, but also how it's connected to the capture bonus. It felt nice in the hand, looked good on the table, and played well.

Fredrik then brought up subtle visual cues to distinguish the cards in your hand. This was a savvy suggestion and the sign of a designer keeping his mind on the gameplay. Over the course of the game your deck is clogged with Relic cards. You can largely ignore them in your hand, which means it's useful to distinguish them. Fredrik gave them a reddish, crimson hue the didn't dip too far outside our monochromatic style. But, it provided indication to the player what it was. We were allowed to keep these cards dead simple. We put the points in the bottom right, making them easy to read as this only matters when they are in the middle of the table to be stolen. Those that need a title for functionality have them, otherwise, we left them blank. The most visual exceptions were in these cards, and Fredrik came up with simple, elegant solutions for all of them. 

Finally, Fredrik noted we needed a little more oomph on top of John's illustrations for the ravens to make them visually consistent. The result is the soft, velvety, black-blue texture you see on the Raven cards. This puts all of the cards in the same world and made them visually cohesive.

I'm so thankful that both John and Fredrik were such passionate, engaged partners in Five Ravens. They committed fully to this design, pushed back on many of my initial ideas, and challenged me to ensure the game looks as fantastic as possible. The result is a unique, stunning game, and one that plays well thanks to its thoughtful design.