Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”

I enjoy a night of playing card games, specifically I enjoy trick-taking games. One of my all-time favorite trick-taking games is Hearts. I am particularly partial to this game. This may be due to the fact that I may have spent every night for almost 6 months playing but hey, when the sun is down and you can no longer sunbathe on top of your CHU while wearing a luchador mask, you got to do something. (It’s a military thing.)

Anyways, I bring up playing cards in that I have toyed around with the idea of creating a deck of playing cards. This idea originally came up as the art for Cult of the Deep was being created. I thought quite a few of the Characters would look good being converted into the various face cards.

This idea has popped into my head once again as we continue to develop as a business/company. The reason I say this is we have paid good money for the artwork that we have used for Cult of the Deep. Assets are everything to a business. If you can convert an asset you own, such as art, into other uses, it is just good business sense. Every penny counts and I have yet to meet a rich board game designer/publisher. (If you meet one let me know, I would love to pick their brain for a couple of hours and learn their secrets.)

Moving on, I thought I would do a little research into playing card norms in the few moments I had here and there. I thought it would be a good exercise for me as a game designer/publisher. Whether this project will ever see the light of day, it exercises my development muscles in looking at what is currently happening in playing cards, what are the norms in custom/collectible playing cards, and what people expect out of a quality deck of cards.

For this blog post I am going to limit myself to a few graphic design elements of playing cards and maybe make a few observations relating to game design elements.

Tuck Boxes

The first thing you notice when buying a collectible deck of cards are the tuck boxes. It tells you what to expect thematically and graphically for that particular deck of cards. They usually stand out with some intricate detailing, bold colors, metallic inks, embossing, foils, and often a custom seal (sometimes numbered). The whole idea is to draw in customers, and let the customer feel what is in the box without having to see all of the cards. Tuck boxes will often mimic the card backs but not always. The point is to tell a story or to tell the customer what the deck is all about.

The above directly corresponds to how we should be packaging board games. Outside of the normal playtime, number of players, and all of the wording on the back, is the box cover just some pretty artwork? Does it catch the eye and that is all or does it tell a story and convey what the gameplay is all about? Is it just thematically correct or does it actually convey some of the feelings you will have as you play the game?

Card Backs and fronts

Playing cards most often have symmetrical card backs and fronts. This is to aid the players so a card is never upside down and opposing players cannot tell if a card is upside down. That being said, some decks designed for magic tricks have a small design element that would allow someone to tell if a card is upside down. Currently the most common symmetry is one that is drawn horizontally across the card. Earlier in playing card history there were parts of the world where symmetry, more often than not, was drawn across the card diagonally.

All of this was a vast improvement from early cards that did not have this element. Another design element that was added to cards was the number and suit in the corner. This was not always the case and it allowed players to hold the cards easily in a single hand as opposed to having to hold cards in two hands to know what you have.

The relation to board game here might be a little bit of a stretch but board games with cards should follow a similar principle. Useability, readability, and versatility are paramount. While symmetry may not be a thing on card backs with many board games, readability and differentiating between decks is. Nothing is as frustrating as trying to separate multiple card decks in a game when they are all exactly alike or look almost the same.

Another item to look at is useability. There is a reason that most games have some sort of artwork and title of the card on the top half and reserve the bottom half for text. If you are not going with this tried-and-true formula it would be beneficial to make sure that one, it is necessary and two, you are doing it for a reason and that reason isn’t just because you think it looks cool or to be different.

A great example of breaking with the tried-and-true would-be Gloom Haven Character Decks. They have a wall of text on the top and bottom half of the card. This creates a mechanic in the game where the player has to decide not only which two cards to play but which top half and which bottom half of the card will get played. This eliminates half the cards needed for each character and also introduces meaningful choices to the players through card design and game mechanic.

Easter Eggs

We all know about court cards (more commonly called face cards) and how there is the one eye-jack, suicide king, etc. However, there is even more involved in these cards when you look at the history and the “easter eggs” that can be found in their design. The face cards used to be generic royalty but became attributed to specific historical figures. The suits have changed over the years to what we have today which are said to represent 4 different classes of medieval society. The ace of spades pip is usually very large and decorative and often has the manufacturer/company logo. This in particular stems from a tax that was levied on playing cards once upon a time.

I think it is always a great thing to find all the little “easter eggs” or nifty little bits in the art and graphic design in a board game. Whether this is something that is theme related in the game or “call outs” to other games, the real world, or people. I think it helps tell the story and as a designer/developer I think it also helps keep that fire alive in game design because no matter how much you love designing games there are always parts that will be work. So, it is important to find the small things that help keep that joy around. For me I have found putting easter eggs into the design helps with that.

One thought on “What We Can Learn From Playing Cards

  1. Lora V Brooks says:


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