Handful of Fun

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I believe very strongly that cards are the best component with which to design great games. Perhaps it's just how my mind works, but every time I conceive a mechanic or way to do something, I ultimately replace it with a card driven system. Cards are a fantastic tool for your design arsenal and I intend to elaborate on this point fully. However, like all tools, cards come with their own downsides. I'll try to cover those as well.

Oh cards, how I love thee! Cards are amazing! So many of my favorite games (Memoir '44, Dragonheart, Dominion, Ascension) use cards masterfully.

Cards allow for private Information and player ownership. There's something delightful about knowing something your opponents don't know. It's really as simple as that. What I have in my hand can fundamentally alter things for you, my dear enemy, and you have NO clue what's coming! This sounds a bit like a take-that only pro, but that's not the case. Can you imagine poker if everything was visible? No, you can't, because that notion is foolish.

True, if everything is on the table, it's possible to consider every possible outcome and plan accordingly. But, the element of surprise and, more importantly, surprise that only I can plan for, is great fun.

Cards also give players something to own, something to hold. The card is more precious because it's yours and only yours (or, something you share in limited quantities).

Cards allow for exceptions. As you've heard me and several others say on this blog, it's key to keep a game simple, elegant, and free of undue complexity. However, if you build a solid foundation, cards give you an opportunity to really spice up a game and making it sing.

The game of Dominion is fundamentally built upon an absurdly simple set of rules (draw 5 cards, 1 Action, 1 Buy, discard) that is broken by acquiring Action cards. Summoner Wars, as I discussed in my column about factions, is a series of thematic, coordinated exceptions. If wielded correctly, cards turn your game into something truly special.

Cards provide a canvas for gorgeous illustrations. Custom meeples are neat, but I'll take a beautifully illustrated card any day. Never overlook any of the sensations and elements that your board and card game can provide. One of the most essential sensations is great art, as Farmageddon's successful Kickstarter can attest.

Beautiful art immerses your players, tells a story, excites the imagination, and helps your game fly off store shelves. Without cards, you immediately have fewer opportunities to leverage this benefit.

Cards allow (some) games to be infinitely expandable. Magic: The Gathering is an unstoppable juggernaut. So are the previously mentioned Dominion and Summoner Wars. Cards are relatively easy to manufacture and with a little bit of shuffling they can keep a great game vibrantly alive for a very long time.

Furthermore, because you can do so much with cards in the way of functionality, a few cards can really change a game in fundamental ways. Ascension's constructs really help to make Ascension a unique deckbuilder. Same component and layout, just a few key words make all the difference.

Cards help players learn and remember the rules. A few weeks ago I was working on a simple, pure dice game. One of my biggest frustrations with the design was that players would have to remember every symbol and rule in the game because you cannot print lines of text on a normal sized six-sided die.

Every time I added a rule or tweaked something, I would say aloud "nobody will ever remember that!" As a result, I switched to cards. Cards allow me to have a greater variety of incredibly simple spells. Why? I can write the text, use icons, and reinforce all of this with a clever layout when using cards.

Cards are one of the best uses of luck. When it comes to games, I'm an absolute probability junky. I love it. With a six-sided die, you always have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling one of the sides. Obviously, if a symbol is duplicated OR you have a way to modify the dice roll (see: Alien Frontiers), then the probability is modified somewhat.

However, if you give a player a deck of cards, as he draws from the deck and plays cards, he will begin to know what he has, what he doesn't have, and when he might get it. Dragonheart is an incredibly simple game that does this very well. There are only so many cards and you begin to know the pulse of your deck. Dominion is a bit more complex, but YOU build the deck, so you know the approximate chances of drawing that card you need.

You have to be careful with this. Early iterations of Farmageddon had limited appeal because the distribution of Action cards wasn't really even-handed. Essentially, the player who drew the Dust Bowl or Foreclosure cards tended to win most of the time. However, in the final version of Farmageddon, there are now 12 cards (up from 8), the distribution of the more powerful cards is lessened, and there are other cards to balance things. Now, victory tends to go to the player who plays his cards the best, not the player who randomly draws the best cards.

But, I thought you were perfect? Cards aren't perfect. As much as it pains me to point out my lady's flaws, I must.


Art is expensive. Meeples may not allow for gorgeous illustrations, but they do have a fairly straightforward cost. Art, especially good art, gets very expensive very quickly. One of the reasons I shelved the current iteration of Poor Abby Farnsworth is that I designed it in a way that it would require an inordinate amount of art. Nobody would ever publish it and there was no way I could afford to self-publish it.

When designing with cards, keep your art costs in mind. Try to find ways to tastefully re-use art, find ways to do things with a small set of icons and symbols, and more. Yes, this is and should be a component of your design process. Don't wait for a publisher rejection to think about this.

Cards encourage exceptions galore (naughty designer!). Wait...a positive and a minus! That's right. Just because you can fill your game with exceptions doesn't mean you should. Long time Magic players will freely admit that at times the Wizards of the Coast R&D department has gone off the deep end with crazy exceptions and ridiculously fiddly cards.

Be smart about your exceptions. Make each one matter, be useful, and be clear. If it doesn't really improve the game, don't add complexity for nothing.

Cards lack the tactile qualities of dice, meeples, and tokens. There's something fun about moving your token around the Monopoly board or rolling that beautiful wooden set of custom dice in Memoir '44. In most instances, holding a handful of paper cards, no matter how well crafted (linen, matte finish, yum), just don't match up to a hefty set of dice. Yes, games like Gloom, with its transparent plastic cards and clever mechanics, show you can do something special even still with cards.

When it makes sense, use all the tools at your disposal. People loving chucking dice and making irritating tapping noises while waiting for their turn with tokens. Or, stick with cards and know you might be missing a little something. Perhaps you could create a mechanic based upon shuffling?

Cards tempt designers to write flavor text everywhere. Again, just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Designers love flavor text. I'm not sure what it is, but there are so many times when I open a new game to find a card with .08 font size functional text and a wall of useless, italicized flavor text. Incursion comes to mind immediately.

Your focus must first be on functional text and symbols. Be sure to write everything in a reasonable font size so that it's easily legible for players of all ages and eye site quality. Once you do this, your next step should be to ensure there's room for great art. A picture is worth 1000 words and a great picture is worth far more. It's more interesting to let the player create a story in their head.

If you solve those two priorities and STILL have room to spare, sure, maybe, consider some flavor text. But, I'd still encourage you to focus on great art and great gameplay. The rule booklet is a better place for flavor text, even better, your website with supplemental materials. I know I'm being overly pessimistic, but good designers aren't necessarily good writers. It's key to not get bogged down with distractions. That goes the same for what you show your players.

What's your favorite game component? Where was I right above? Where was I wrong? Note it in the comments below!


What are your thoughts on the various sizes and shapes of cards available? Square cards, as in the Catan Card Game? Large cards, as in Dixit?

Interesting question! It really depends on the role of the cards. For Dixit, the game is all about the illustrations. You want as much space as possible, so the jumbo cards are essential. For my war game, the cards are very simple: a number and silhouette, title, *maybe* a small illustration. I'm using mini-cards for them.

If the game requires a lot of shuffling and hand management, you want to use standard poker cards. Dominion or Ascension would be really tedious with tiny cards or overly large cards.

Another good reason to use jumbo cards is if they are the foundation for something else, i.e. if you are using the cards in a board-like fashion. For example, at one point in Poor Abby's development I considered printing the jurors and court members on large, jumbo cards, especially as the player's deck of poker cards would be played on top of them.

In all things, you want to make sure it's the right tool for the job. Consider how the art will be displayed, how much text, and things like that.

I would add that cards of unusual shapes are almost never justified and very hard to handle. Square cards, extra long cards and novelty shapes (a pumpkin/halloween poker deck comes to mind) are much harder to shuffle and fan. That said, if your game justifies the shape, as a square card with four sides certainly could, then players will more likely forgive the physical inconveniences.

This is gonna be pretty abstract, but cards are great design components because they're sorta like flexible data structures in an object-oriented programming language. Cards can represent entities of their own, with their own unique sets of values and functions, and can be as standardized as necessary.
It's almost a crutch to overuse cards, perhaps. Most eurogames use very few or even no cards, which goes hand-in-hand with the perceived elegance of eurogame design.

Also, art may be expensive, but after that cards are cheap. On a per-component basis I'm willing to bet that cards are one of the cheapest things to produce, even cheaper than standard-colored wooden discs.

Not abstract at all! That was somewhat what I was going for regarding my "cards allow exceptions" point. Cards, as a component, are very cheap. Good stuff.

Secondary question, regarding the costs of art coming from a personal scenario: I have a handful of art already commissioned for a card game. Unfortunately, it would require quite a bit more. How much art would a publisher want to see already completed in a card game, if any? Does having more art done act as a selling point or would most publishers rather hire their own art team anyway?

I'm currently not a publisher, but from my own experience, it depends on the publisher. More experienced, established publishers will probably hire their own art team and/or having art already isn't as much of a plus. With smaller publishers who have less money to spend, it's definitely helpful.

From what I've gathered from others, having a great presentation with a prototype helps. But, final art, or some quantity of final art, isn't necessarily a plus or minus. But, I've pitched one game (to many publishers, but only one game). I had final art for that game and it didn't seem to help. I'll learn more with Empire Reborn soon.

I don't think commissioned art would be needed at all. Most publishers will handle the art for you. Your art and graphic design just needs to be functional and not a hindrance to your game's mechanic and rules. An experienced publisher will not be swayed one way or the other by fancy art. Save your cash unless you're self-publishing.