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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tools of the Trade 3: Playing Cards

This is the third in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes. Today's session: making playing cards that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting.

Company Plug. I’m happy to say our new Havoc Expansion is currently the number one seller at Funagain, and Havoc itself is selling at number three. Funagain just had a big sale that a bunch of our play group got in on, so I’m sure our games will not stay on top for long, but it was fun while it lasted.

This is the most typical way I print cards for prototypes. They’re going to come out with plain white backs (some options below), and they will be fairly easy to shuffle and play. They will not resist water, and with hard play they will get bent, etc. I use Classic Crest cover stock, “solar white” color, letter size, medium weight (it says “Sub 80 216 g/m/m 28.76M” on the package.)

Here’s an example of the cards I did for an early version of Havoc: the Hundred Years War. I use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign for professional print work. But for everyday prototypes, Powerpoint works fine. I have a basic setup for 9 cards per page (1 of the three lines shown here). You can see how each card has a narrow black border, rounded corners (rounded at the same radius as Magic: the Gathering) and are fairly easy to read. Possibly you can also see a thin blue line that separates the cards – that’s the cutting line marker.

Print the cards directly on card stock. Sometimes it’s smart to do a test print in black and white on regular paper to make sure everything looks good. Card stock isn’t that expensive, but if you have a lot to print making sure they’ll look good makes sense.

For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the cards out one at a time, starting with longer straight lines for efficiency. One level up in quality is to use a straight edge with razor knife or rotary blade to cut the edges. If you’re careful, this method allows you to go much faster. However, in the long run I don’t find that the cards produced that way are that much better than hand cutting; but that may speak to my habit of making razor cuts slightly off line!

If you want a non-white or prettier back for your cards, you can print the reverse side of the card stock directly. If you go this way, I recommend a semi-random back, like the background in the cards shown above. With no repeatable pattern, you don’t have to line the cards up with the back image. To do this I print the backs first, a straight 7.7 x 8.3 inch image or as big as my printer will print. Thay way when I print the cards on the reverse side, each card is covered edge to edge with a color back.

You can laminate cards for a longer pasting product. Since you’ll be cutting these cards out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this, and you probably want to laminate both sides to keep the cards from curling too much. I think they’re a bit harder to shuffle this way, but they do last.

Last article, I talked about using peel-and-stick full page labels for game tiles. Same general principles apply here. The Avery standard numbers are 5165, 5265 and 8165 so anything compatible with them should work pretty well.

This time though, the size of the card is made to exactly fit on a standard black bordered CCG card, like Magic: the Gathering, Wyvern, etc. We have tons of commons for these games lying around. The label stock fits right over the entire graphic portion of the CCG card, and our black border melts into their black border. With thin label stock, the resulting cards shuffle and play well, and they are even-edged with a color back.

Below are three cards from a sample game based on the movie Caddyshack. This uses the same template as above, but note how each card has a lot more information. Again it’s 9 cards per page, done in Powerpoint. And if it were a real game, we’d need to get HBO’s approval to use the movie images.

This is sort of a standard CCG approach, with a card title, graphic in the upper middle, text below, and numbers or game information in the corners, plus at the bottom and left side in this sample. This is printed on full-page label stock, then the cards are cut out, stripped of their backing and mounted on the CCG card.

Print the card images (color or whatever) on regular 8.5 x 11 full page labels. Test the paper once it’s printed to see if the image will hold up under use – rub it with your thumb or something. If the print is frail at all, you can laminate your tile after it’s stuck to the backing.

Same as earlier, I prefer plain scissors, but straight edge and knife or rotary works fine. The main difference here is I often try to curve the corner a little (following the rounded edge) so it will drop more easily onto the CCG card face.

Peel off the label for one card backing carefully and expose an edge (like ¼ inch) of the label. Place the CCG card (face up) behind the exposed sticky edge and arrange it so the printed image will cover the original card art all the way around. Carefully peel the label backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the sticky label image onto the card face as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image.

I don’t use these much, but some other designers swear by them. I tend to use sleeves if I have a game (like New Eden) where I’m actually changing some cards almost every playtest. In that case, using sleeves to quickly try out other card ideas works well.

On the down side, I find that card sleeves made for CCG’s are not that easy to shuffle, are sometimes prone to splitting, and are often expensive. One can make the argument that one set of sleeves can be used for multiple prototypes. However, I carry around 5 or 6 prototypes at a time, so I wouldn’t want to do that much switching in and out typically.

Print the card images directly on card stock or even regular paper. Cut the images out (you can go fast, since these images only need to fit inside the sleeve.) Place the images face-up in the sleeves. If you want a more solid card, you can place a regular CCG card behind your prototype image. The resulting card has a nice back, looks nice on the table and has a nice solid feel to it.

Next time – I’ll run through my card ideas and see if I missed anything with this first attempt. If not, we'll move on to printing game boards and maps.


  • At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Or the old quickie standby: 3x5 cards with pencil scribbles, or for smaller tile-like cards, 3x5 cards cut in half with pencil scribbles (possibly also inserted into CCG card sleeves).

  • At 11:26 PM, Blogger KC said…

    Good point - fast and easy. If I'm just trying an idea out, 3x5 cards or similar is fine. But once I ask friends to play, I give them a card to look at, even if the game eventually is found to be not so good.


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