Re-Shaping the Shapely Cards

I love graphic design. It is one of the skills I've taught myself on my tabletop journey, and it's one of the most important ones. Many designers are content to write in pencil on index cards, but I personally cannot do that, for a few reasons. Firstly, the vast majority of the feedback I receive from testers - even if I stress exhaustively that the layout is both bad and placeholder - is about layout. People cannot ignore it. Therefore, if you do not take graphic design seriously, you're going to hear a lot of pointless feedback, which lessens the effectiveness of your testing. 

Secondly, when you ask people to test a prototype, you're asking them to play an unfinished product instead of one that is finished. You're asking for a favor. The more seriously you take a game's presentation, the more seriously your testers will participate. It's like showing up to a job interview in torn jeans and a t-shirt versus slacks and a tie. Look the part, and others will participate more sincerely. 

Thirdly, the greatest hindrances to the growth of the tabletop space are rules and learning games. The longer it takes players to get past the learning phase and entering the gooey decision making phase the worse the experience will be. You might have a great design, but if it's buried under lousy UX, you may find yourself fixing the wrong problems. 

In a nutshell, I sincerely believe that taking graphic design seriously is one of the best things you can do for improving your designs and making better games faster. 

Today, I wanted to show the evolution of the cards for Shapely, my new deckbuilder. I want to explain my thinking at each phase, and why I think the cards are better. Hopefully the is interesting and instructive to you! If you want to know more about Shapely, you can read the rules here. Comments are allowed in the document! I also want to provide a shout out to Game-Icons.net, the most essential tool for any serious designer. Their amazing library of consistent, great icons allows you to quickly make a prototype look good. For those curious, I use Adobe Photoshop as my primary tool for layout, though I frequently use the Drawing program in Google Drive to create rough mock-ups. 

Before I dive into things, I have a few quick caveats:

  • I am not an artist. I'm terrible at aesthetic design and know that these cards could look better. My priority and capabilities are in layout and improving functionality. I know the yellow doesn't read well, I'm sure the icons can be better. Please spare the aesthetic critique! I will hire someone to do this, or my publisher will. 
  • There are aspects of these cards that are not color-blind friendly. I am fully aware of this. In the short term, I'm fine with it because none of my testers are color blind. In the long term, I'm fine with it because the issue is easily solved, and I already know how I'll solve it. In context below I'll note which things aren't colorblind, why they aren't, and what the solution will be. 

A little context on how Shapely works will also help this article, so let me summarize it quickly. Players are building a Civilization. On their turn, players will play one card for its action. Cards belong to one of six types, and all have a modifier symbol. Most actions in the game can be enhanced by playing modifiers. For example, if I play a Farming action that gives me Crops, I can play more Farming cards to gather more Crops in a single action. This is a reason to focus, like buying red cards in Star Realms. However, other players can play a card of the matching type to "follow" the action. So, you might get 5 crops, as the active player, but I can follow to get a crop as well. This is a reason to diversify your deck. Key inspirations for the game were Race for the Galaxy, Star Realms, and Concordia. There's more to the game, but that's what you need to know for this article.

Let's get started!

Version One: The darkest of days

In the beginning, I set about to do a few things with the cards. My typical starting point for any card is Magic: The Gathering or Dominion. I start there, then see what I need that's unique to my design. At first, you have the name of the card in the top center, and in the top right, an icon denoting the card type. At the bottom, though, you have the same symbol, but this is the modifier. My belief is that affordance, specifically the proximity of the name and symbol on the top, would indicate that this is about TYPE, whereas the bottom has another use. I added a line on the bottom to seperate it. In particularly, when you "modify" an action, you tuck the modifying cards under the main card, so that you only see the symbol below the line. This is me thinking about how players might physically use the components on the table. BUT, I complicated this visual language by adding other things, like the 1VP.

In the center of the card you have its action. The action is basically using the modification symbol as X, as in, gain crops equal to X, whereas X in this case is Science and Farming modifiers. This mostly works, but we'll get to how I improved it soon. One thing to note is that this typeface (Wide Latin, I believe) is a bad one to use. For one, it's a large, bulky typeface. This is only 10 or 12 point, yet it looks enormous! This means it sits on the page strangely and creates odd line breaks that are distracting to players. 

Above is another version of the previous card. You score equal to military modifiers. This is a good place to provide context on how follow works. Let's say the active player plays this, then two other cards with military symbols (one each). They therefore play three military symbols: one on the action itself, and two from modifiers. They would score 3VP. An opponent can play one card with a military symbol, and score points equal to the modifiers on that one card (typically just one). 

Finally, you have a card with a little more text, but also a palm icon. This is meant to say "stop," and is the icon that denotes "cannot be followed." As noted above, many actions can be followed. This one, however, can only be taken by the current player. This icon works here, but as you'll see, it doesn't work in many places. 

These cards honestly worked fine, but they had some issues. Fine isn't good enough, and the purpose of design is to experiment and try until you reach good, then great.

Version Two: Let's change our visual language

Good friend and tester of my games Antonio suggested that I could use primarily icons for most of the cards. I took a step back, examined them, and noticed he was right. The game has 4 Starter cards (each player gets a set) and 48 cards, most of which are unique. Most of them are basically build, gather resources, score points, and store resources. I took a stab at turning them into icon driven cards. At the outset I recognized that not all cards could be icons only. For example, the card preceding this example should just have text. I used Game-Icons.net to find key icons for every primary action. Let's look at one now.

I chose the open hand for gather resources. Inside the hand is a little gardening spade, which is the icon I chose for the Crop resource. This is currently colorblind friendly as it's a distinct shape, but it causes issues because there are too many intricate shapes in such a small space. The spade, the hand, and the watering can. We'll look at how I solved this in the next iteration, but keep this in mind. 

The idea here is: You gather crops equal to 1 + watering can modifiers. My thinking was that players read from top to bottom. But, I'm mixing this a little and it's not the most intuitive cluser of information. But, this is a simple card. What about a more complicated one?

Colony team has two distinct actions: Score cards and expand the town. AND, furthermore, expand cannot be followed - see the palm? But, where does one action begin and one end? Plus, look at the complexity of intricate shapes in such a small space. This is a bit of a mess.

Another problem is that I'm not presenting the verb, the action, in the same way. In the card above, gather shows an open hand. With Colony team, I use the arrow to indicate "store," but it's a different weight and placement. Basically, it's not intuitive what the verb of the card is. 

But, these cards worked. They were easy to read across the table - which is a key aspect of the game - and were easy to scan in your hand for functionality. Unfortunately, I knew that even if someone made it prettier, it would be a bear to learn on your first game. It's key to think about how new players, not just your experienced test group, will interpret information. 

I knew I needed a fundamental overhaul. Up until this point, I was slowly trimming away problems and addressing them one at a time. But frequently in a project, I find I need to create a new PSD file and start from scratch. No translation, no copy paste. It has to be fresh to make it better.

Version Three: Now we're cooking with gas

With the third major iteration, I wanted to commit fully to the primarily icon based card language. I needed to think about it more holistically, but also in a way that supported a diverse card pool. Let's start with a simple card. 

Firstly, I wanted to more clearly denote the difference between card type and modifier. Therefore, I paired the card type in the top right with a colored banner. Shown above, all military cards are red. This is easier to quickly scan in your hand and it's easier to see across the table. It's also a "two-factor authentication" (color plus symbol plus placement) that it's not the same as the modifier. Now, while the banner alone isn't colorblind friendly, I believe adding textures and modifying shape further with an aesthetic pass would make it so. Plus, the illustrations would help drive the theme and premise of the card. 

Next, I replaced the pointless name of the cards with a functional category. I discovered that cards fell into one of a few categories: Gather, Score, Store, Build, Assist, and Actions (aka utility). I put the category at the top, which improves the card in a few ways. One, it's easy to read across the table. Two, it gives you an indicator for what the action does in the middle. If you see gather, you then progress down the card to see the symbol and your mind can fill in the blanks. Basically, I'm trying to bolster and support every idea on this card with multiple different pieces of information. 

Thirdly, I thought about a single core symbol for every action. But, not only that, using it as the root. I decided upon a core image for every core verb (score, store, build, gather), and made sure it is always in the same place, with the same weight. Here, the chest is the visual piece for Score. Is it the best one? I don't know. I'm using Game-Icons.net and trying to choose distinct symbols. A dedicated artist can certainly improve this. But, the language and thinking behind it, the design, is stronger. I'm also using ink-friendly color choices. Right now this is white with an outline. This is another area where color and bigger shapes can help me. So, while I know it's not as good as it is now, I know this. I'm choosing to preserve ink. 

Finally, I put the "how" above the what. My thinking here is that a player sees "Score" at the top, sees the chest to confirm that - it's the biggest thing - and then looks above. Here, it's points per military modifiers. Points behind the gold bar...which goes in the chest. Wealth, riches, success, that sort of thing. 

Here's another simple card before we go on. I'm showing you this to once again demonstrate the power of the category word on top. Here, it says assist. Why? Well, this card's ONLY value is to follow another player or greatly modify your own action. It's an assist, not the person scoring. Speaking of scoring, I moved the VP information to the top. Previously it was on the bottom, below the line, and was always missed. Why was it missed? Well, players were focused on the modifier on the bottom left. That is their key concern. 

Now, I moved it to the top right. It's a piece of information that is only relevant at the end of the game. Plus, now that it's next to the card type, the proximity strengthens that notion. Card type matters at the end of the game. Points matter at the end. The top right, therefore, is later. The bottom left, therefore, is now. 

Let's look at a more complex card. 

Remember how Colony Team was a mish-mash of concepts? How many actions? What can I follow? Eesh! Above is the new Colony Team card. Firstly, I decided that cards with multiple actions and/or bonuses would have their actions encapsulated in a box. The rules note you can do either, or both, and do them in any order. Complete one box, then complete another box. But, remember how previously one of those actions coudn't be followed? Now, I communicate that by making the box red. If it's in a red box, only you can do it. No more wanton palm that makes you wonder "to which action does this refer?"

Here is a place where my game isn't colorblind friendly. Some people can see red and black, but others cannot. To make this colorblind friendly, I would instruct my artist to ensure the shape and texture surrounding the "no follow" boxes is clear and distinct. I do not have the aesthetic skills to make that look good. Therefore, I chose a simpler option. 

Another thing you might notice is that this card has two key terms at the top: build and store. Instead of having one useless "thematic" name, I now tell you right at the top that this card lets you build and store. You see the Colisseum with an up arrow as my symbol for Build. This colisseum is also all over the building cards, so it's a nice match. For Store, I used a barrel, as in a barrel you might have in a basement or ship's hold filled with apples or something. This card, therefore, lets the active player build. Then, the active player (and those who follow) can store one card per Construction modifier. 

Above is another version of this type of multiple action/bonus card. The active player can gather Materials equal to Scavenge modifiers played. Others can follow. However, only the active player gathers one more additional Material. That is their perk for playing the card. 

Here is another case where the game is not colorblind friendly. I use green cubes to indicate Crop and black cubes to indicate Materials as those two things manifest in my prototype as black and green cubes. Furthermore, remember how there were too many complicated shapes in the previous iteration? I'm deliberately using simple, basic shapes for the components to distinguish them from the verb of the action. Again, some people can see green and black. But, to make this properly colorblind friendly, I should both use colors that don't conflict AND use distinct shapes. 

My plan in the final version of this, if I am the one who publishes it, is to make the Crops green disks (circular) and the Materials black cubes (not-circular). That will solve the problem while keeping the shapes and visual language simple. 

Oh, and in case you didn't notice, I switched everything to Times New Roman. It's cleaner, takes up less space, and isn't distracting. A good designer can help me choose a typeface that is both functional and attractive, but I'm incapable of it. Therefore, I went with the simple approach. 

I love graphic design! I love learning this new skill set and seeing how much it improves every test. I think you'll find that, like writing rules, if you dedicate time to improving this aspect of the craft, it'll pay huge dividends in how well the game itself plays. Not only that, but how quickly you can "stand up" your prototypes and go from early ideation to making quality tweaks, balance, and finding unique mechanisms. Improving at graphic design is one of the biggest low hanging fruit to get out of the way of early, poor decisions, and be focused on making your designs more intuitive, more innovative, and more fun.

I hope this was a useful and quick case study. If you have any comments, note them below!