Example of Play

Commentary on Games Design

The horror of card game design


“This card game is great! I’m going to design my own card game and make millions!”

The thought process goes something like this:

  1. Having played Magic: The Gathering/Race for the Galaxy/Fluxx/Munchkin the subject boldly considers that they are capable of designing a game of comparable style and grace
  2. The subject rationalises that Artscow decks are cheap to produce and they can use art ripped from the internet and a generic card generation package for the layout
  3. About 300 cards is considered adequate for the base set, although it the game is expandable beyond that (a selling point, right there)
  4.  “It’s a cross between Game X and Game Y; but with mechanism Z”
  5. Polite dissuasion from game design forums at this stage is politely ignored. They don’t understand.
  6. ‘Stats’ are drawn up.
  7. A ‘Work in Progress’ thread is created on a design forum
  8. The most critical part of the project is completed: the card back image
  9. Ideas are noted down furiously. Potential mechanisms expand. Number of keywords and icons approach 100
  10. The enormity of the project starts to dawn. Typing up the card text to 300 cards gets underway
  11. Months pass
  12. With 100 cards written and the rules in version 2.6 an overhaul is required. The WIP in progress thread is updated with a revised and scaled down brief
  13. Subject’s interest in game starts the wane.
  14. A new game is released! These mechanisms are included into the revised version of the subject’s magnum opus
  15. Rules tweaked. Version 4.1 published
  16. Rules reverted to version 3.9 and prototype version 1.0 is printed!
  17. Cards are pasted up and many text changes are made. Some in ballpoint pen.
  18. Months pass
  19. Version 1.0 has 167 cards, 42 symbols, 5 keywords and 13 power icons. No artwork as yet
  20. The initial playtest lasts 7.5 minutes until the game breaks down. Subject concludes that game design is rather more difficult in practice than theory

The allure of card game design is a strong one. They are, I am beginning to realise, a poisoned chalice of the most dangerous kind. The sheer number of interactions between the components is insanity, why not start with something easier? A game with a board and counters moving around is a lot easier to get your head around in terms of how the pieces interact with each other, the board and the rules. Deck-driven games, by contrast, are a living nightmare to balance.

Playing cards are great: they have the following information:

  • Value
  •  Suit

(you might argue the jacks have one or two eyes and that they have colour and suit, but humour me- the point is that the amount of information on a playing card is pretty limited)

Compare that to a CCG card which might have:

  • Faction
  • Strength
  • Type
  • Keyword(s)
  • Value
  • Abilities
  • Unique rules

And it quickly becomes clear that only the criminally insane or masochistic would start at that end of the scale, because all those pieces of information could interact. Change one thing and the impact is on many, many other game pieces.

Some of the best games are simple. Botswana is a flat-out fantastic game with massive replay potential and it is a small deck of cards and some plastic zoo animals.


These are manly game components. Embrace them.

Designing a game that your peers will consider ‘worthy’ is one thing, designing a game that will make it off the drawing board is quite another. Simple can still be worthy: ‘R’ is a 16 card game but an example of fantastically clean design. String Railway captures the feel of bigger train games using bootlaces. Think differently by all means, but ‘Think Achievable’ too. In the long run your masterpiece of design, whenever you design it, will be the better for it.


3 thoughts on “The horror of card game design

  1. Pingback: Language (in)dependent games | Example of Play

  2. Pingback: Let’s make a card game: Part one – Research – Explorative Design

  3. Pingback: Game Design Resources – Nearly Infinite Productions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s