Category Archives: Card Game Design

Design Challenge: Design a Card Game Using a Standard Deck

Here’s another card-game design challenge and a case study for you:

Design a game that can be played with a regular deck of cards. You don’t need to use all the cards in the deck. You can use each suit as a separate type of card, if you want to limit yourself to four types of cards. For instance, you could use the numbers to differentiate levels, so if hearts represent health, you can have 1 (Ace) through 10 (including face cards) represent how much health is involved, setting aside the Jack, Queen, and King of Hearts.

Example: Wizardly Duel



You are engaged in a duel of wizards. Can you cast the right combination of spells that will defeat your rivals?


Take a regular deck of cards and remove the jokers. Then sort all of the hearts (♥) into a pile. Deal each player 3 hearts face up in front of them, then set the remaining hearts aside. Shuffle the remaining deck of diamonds (♦), spades (♠), and clubs (♣). Deal each player 3 cards face down, representing 3 spells they have at their command.


The last player to lose a game goes first.

On a player’s turn, they may conduct one of the following attacks, saying the magic spell if they wish:

  • Arcuballista!” Play a spade (♠) magic-missile spell on any rival they select. The targeted rival must respond to the attack (see below).
  • Incensus!” Play a club (♣) fireball spell on any rival. The rival must respond (see below). The attacker may then repeat this step for each fireball spell they have in their hand that they wish to play. Note: An easy way to remember the difference between the power of the two cards is that a spade shape (♠) has 1 point on it (at the top) and a club shape (♣) has multiple points on it (top and sides).
  • Oblivioso!” Play a diamond (♦) counterspell, discarding a card chosen at random from their rival’s hand.

The current player may then draw 1, 2 or 3 cards, so that they have 3 cards in their hand.

A targeted rival must respond to an attack. They must either play a diamond (♦) counterspell from their hand to ward off the attack (“Diffugio!”), or discard a heart (♥) healing spell from in front of them (“Curatus!”). If it is their last healing spell, they lose! Play continues until only 1 wizard remains standing.

Design Diary

Inspiration – “Bang! meets Suits”

The inspiration for Wizardly Duel was to have a better alternative to the classic card game of War. In War, you play a card from your deck and, if it is higher than your opponent’s card, capture their card and add it to your deck. This is a great way to teach greater than, equal or less than. It is a bad game, though, as you do not have any decisions to make. Just flip the top card and do the comparison. Plus the game takes forever, though I have fond memories of playing it with my dad when I was 8 years old. In fact, ranks War as the fifth worst game in history, ranking 15,697 games as better than it!

In contrast, one of our family’s favorite card games about battle is called Bang!, which is an award-winning card game designed by Emiliano Sciarra. You are a cowboy in a Wild West shootout with a specific goal (shoot the sheriff, save the sheriff, shoot the outlaws, be the last one standing, etc.). The core of the game involves playing a card called Bang! (from which the game gets its name) that represents a gunshot, then trying to fend off that gunshot with various other cards. Wizardly Duel was conceived as a version of Bang! played with a regular deck of cards and just 4 types of cards.

If you know the game of Bang!, then you may recognize that the healing spells are like the three bullets (cardboard cutouts) representing your cowboy’s life. The counterspell card is the Missed! card when played after being attacked, and the Cat Balou or Mistress card when played as an attack. The magic-missile card is the Bang! card unmodified by any effects; the fireball card is the Bang! card on repeat (typically through use of a Volcanic, when playing as Willy the Kid, or – sort of – when using the Duel card).

Now, were this a game being prepared for publication, it would be wrong to base it off Bang! so closely, and in fact Bang! has been cloned and its publisher has sued the company cloning it. But we’re just using Bang! as an example for a home-brew game, and for better understanding game design. (If you don’t own Bang!, check it out.)

When considering using another game as inspiration, I like to look at its list of cards. Bang! has these 80 cards (not counting roles and characters):

  • 25 Bang! cards
  • 12 Missed! cards
  • 4 Cat Balou cards
  • 3 Duel cards
  • 8 weapons cards (5 types of weapons)
  • 5 object cards (3 types)
  • 7 healing cards
  • 5 cards to draw more cards (3 types)
  • 11 special-event cards (5 types)

The good news about this analysis was that a lot of the cards were attack cards, as they would be in Wizardly Duel. And there were almost twice as many Bang! cards as Missed cards, while Wizardly Duel has exactly twice as many damage spells as counterspells.

In Bang!, as in many card games, you draw cards to your hand, then decide what to play. I absolutely hate this mechanic, since it slows a game down. (In the language of game design, a game mechanic is a type or category of rules. More on this later.) The player has to read the cards, then decide what to do. Instead, I prefer to have a player draw their cards at the end of their turn. They can look at them and decide what to do while the other players are taking their turn. This makes the game go faster in actual elapsed time and be perceived as faster too, since the player now has something to do when it is not their turn.


The first version of the game my son and I kept all the hearts in the deck but dealt each player 3 heart cards to start their hand and then 4 other cards. Unfortunately, it meant the game would go on a long time. So halfway through the deck, we decided to change the rules. We removed the hearts, and the game went much faster. We started over. Sometimes, when playtesting, especially early in the design process, be willing to stop and change the rules and try again.

The second playtest, the first complete play-through until one of us won, we felt the game worked well but could be improved. At this stage, we kept the three heart cards in our hand. This made for a big hand, so we decided the three heart healing-spell cards would be played up in front of us instead. For a game with more than two players, it will make it easy to decide who is winning. We also decided to shrink the hand size to 3 cards.

The third playtest of the game we decided to mix it up and have the clubs allow you to draw cards, and be only way to draw cards. But I quickly ran into a problem. I didn’t have any clubs! We stopped that playtest after a few rounds.

It still felt wrong not to have different powers for the two types of black cards, so I decided that clubs would be the only spell that you could play multiple times during an attack. The fourth playtest went great, with one problem. I had a hand of all diamond counterspells, which at that time could only be used in response to an attack. So, on the fly, we changed the rules so that you could play counterspells as your attack, seizing a card.

With the rules seeming almost final, the next step was to play the gave some more and make sure that we still enjoyed it. My son started shouting spells from the Harry Potter books!

After that, we had to conduct what is called a blind playtest. In a blind playtest, you give someone the rules but don’t teach them how to play. Then you listen to their feedback and find out what was unclear.

Here’s how the game changed as we playtested it:

1st version 2nd version 3rd version 4th version
Hearts (♥) Healing spells in deck and hand Healing spells removed from deck Healing spells played face up during setup
Diamonds (♦) Counterspells when attacked Counterspell attack takes a card, defends the same
Spades (♠) Attack spell
Clubs (♣) Attack spell Draw cards Attack and repeat
Hand Size 7 3

Now that’s for a game with only four types of cards. Imagine how much experimentation and replay is needed for a more complicated game.

And that’s why this blog is set up as it is, with simple design challenges to get you started on game design.

Common Card Areas and Actions

Card games typically have different areas in front of the players. These areas have a variety of names, depending on their purpose:

  • Arena – A common area to which players play cards face up to a contest, such as a “battle” or “war” in the game of War.
  • Cascade – A set of face-up cards built on one another, with the value and suit of each card in the cascade visible. (For instance, Solitaire builds 7 cascades, from highest to lowest.)
  • Cell – A spot that can hold only one card.
  • Community Card – A face-up card whose properties or value are shared by all players.
  • Discard Pile – An area where cards are placed that have been used or can’t be used. Typically played face up, though some games require the cards to be played face down. Also known as trash or waste. Some games cascade the discards, which can be drawn from.
  • Draw Pile – The deck of cards to draw from, typically face down.
  • Foundation – A face-up pile that cards are played to. For instance, in Solitaire, there is a foundation started by the Ace of each suit.
  • Grid – A rectangle of cells. For instance, in Concentration, 4 rows of 13 face-down cards each (the entire deck, excluding Jokers).
  • Hand – The cards dealt to a player, typically face down, and known only to the player, who can look at all of them.
  • Hole Card – A card dealt to a player face down and not revealed to other players until the end of the hand.
  • Kitty – Additional cards dealt face down to the center of the table.
  • Layout – The cards played face up in front of a player and specific to that player. For instance, in Solitaire, the 7 cascades. Another word for layout is tableau.
  • Pot – The amount of chips that can be won this round. Usually played to the center.
  • Stack – A draw pile turned upside down, with the top card visible. Each time a card is taken the next card is revealed.
  • Stock – A face-down draw pile available only to a particular player, as in War or Simultaneous Solitaire.
  • Upcard – A card or group of cards dealt to an individual player face up.

Each area might represent a different part of the theme. Your game might have multiples of any one of these, with different names. For instance, a dungeon-exploring game might have a Room draw pile, a Monster draw pile, and a Treasure draw pile. A player might have a Left-handed Weapon cell and a Right-handed Weapon cell and an Armor cell. A player playing a Wizard might have a spell stock. And so on.

Usable by All Players Usable by Specific Player
Face-Down Group (Draw Piles)
Face-Down Pile Draw Pile &


Stock &
Face-Down Card Grid Hole Card
Face-Up Group Arena
& Community Cards
Face-Up Pile Discard Pile &
Foundation &
Face-Up Card Cell Upcard
Other Components Pot

Many games have actions that involve moving cards between areas. Here are some common actions players can take:

  • Burn – Discard the top card of a stack.
  • Cover – Play a higher card of any suit.
  • Crawl – Play a higher card of the same suit.
  • Deal – Move cards from the draw pile to each player’s hand.
  • Discard – Move a card from a player’s hand to a discard pile.
  • Draw – Take a card from the draw pile and add it the player’s hand.
  • Go out – Get rid of all the cards in a player’s hand in a game where that specifies an ending condition.
  • Hit – To take another card from the dealer face up to a player’s layout.
  • Layoff – To move cards from your hand to a rival’s layout.
  • Pass – To not play a card on your turn but let the next player know they can go.
  • Show – Turn a face-down card face up for all to see, then place it face down again.
  • Shuffle – Mix the cards together multiple times to randomize the order. Often used when making a discard pile a new draw pile.
  • Stand – To decide not to draw any more cards for the rest of the round.

Using these terms, and ways of thinking about card games, you can come up with specific actions for your own card game such as “Steal” (move a card in a rival’s layout to your hand), “Destroy” (move a card in a rival’s layout to the discard pile), “Damage” (move a card in a rival’s layout to their hole cards), and “Level” (move a card in a rival’s layout to their hand).

(Photo by Moroboshi, used by permission.)

Design Challenge: Add House Rules to a Standard-Deck Card Game

If you’ve never designed a card game before, it can be easier to start by adding house rules to an existing game.

Here are the top 10 card games that Americans played in 2016 (excluding gambling and adult games):

  1. Uno
  2. Rummy
  3. Spades
  4. Solitaire
  5. Go Fish
  6. Euchre
  7. Hearts
  8. Pitch
  9. Cribbage
  10. Phase 10

Take a card game you like and make it better. It can be a game played with a standard deck of cards, or a game played with a dedicated deck of cards (for instance, Uno, Skip-Bo, or Phase 10). Here are some of the things that you can do:

  • Remove some cards you don’t like.
  • Write a few of your own cards.
  • Change some rules or even the victory conditions.
  • Figure out how to make the game work with more players or solitaire.

If you don’t have access to many card games, there are thousands of card games that you can play for free. Get a deck of traditional cards and a library book on card games. Some libraries also let you check out card games for use in the building. Or buy these great Dover books: A Gamut of Games and Card Games Around the World by Sid Sackson, Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations by R. C. Bell, Games and Fun with Playing Cards by Joseph Leeming, and Favorite Board Games: You Can Make and Play by Asterie Baker Provenzo and Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr.

You can also download many card games as free apps from Google Play or the Apple App Store. And the online site has many modern games that you can play for free against other users.

Looking for ideas for new rules? Make some actions for special cards. Here are some nicknames for cards in a traditional deck:

  • Black Widow – The Queen of Spades (Q♠).
  • Court Cards – The King, Queen, and Jack of any suit.
  • Deuce – A card with the value of two, of any suit.
  • Face Cards – Same as Court Cards.
  • Honors – Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and Ten.
  • Knave – Jack.
  • One-Eyed Jack – The Jack of Spades (J♠) or the Jack of Hearts (J♥).
  • One-Eyed King – The King of Diamonds (K♦).
  • One-Eyed Royal – A One-Eyed Jack or a One-Eyed King.
  • Suicide King – The King of Hearts (K♥).
  • Trey – A card with the value of three, of any suit.

Different traditional card games often have certain rules involving named sets. Add some other named sets, or change around the winning value of certain sets. Some named sets for inspiration:

  • Doubleton – 2 cards in the same suit (like a 2-card flush).
  • Flush – 5 cards of the same suit.
  • Four of a Kind – 4 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck).
  • Five of a Kind – 5 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck and with wildcards).
  • Full House – 3 of a kind, plus a pair of a different rank.
  • Long Suit – 5 or more cards of the same suit.
  • Marriage – King and Queen of the same suit.
  • Meld – 3 cards with a value when scoring.
  • Pair – 2 cards of the same rank.
  • Pinochle – Jack of Diamonds and the Queen of Spades.
  • Roundhouse – A marriage in every suit.
  • Royal Flush – Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and Ten in the same suit.
  • Run – 3 or more sequential cards in the same suit (e.g., 5, 6, 7 of Hearts, or 9, Ten, Jack of Clubs).
  • Straight – 5 sequential cards of different suits.
  • Straight Flush – 5 sequential cards all in the same suit.
  • Three of a Kind – 3 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck).

Many popular mainstream card games are just versions of traditional card games with a dedicated deck and some house rules:

  • Uno is a version of Crazy Eights.
  • Skip-Bo is a version of Spite and Malice (also known as Cat and Mouse).
  • Phase 10 is a version of Liverpool Rummy.
  • Balderdash is a version of Fictionary.
  • O’No 99 is a version of 99.

Still uncertain where to start? There are lots of varieties of Rummy out there, with many collections of house rules. Start with a grab bag of house rules collected from others, then organize those into your own game.

Example: 99 Game

One of the favorite games of Grace Mary Gilchrist, my great aunt, was 99. Each player had 3 lives (represented by 3 pennies apiece). Each hand involved dealing everyone 3 cards. A player would then play a card of their choice on the discard pile, announce the new running total, and draw a replacement card. For instance, the first card might be a 5. The next player might play a 7, making the total 12. The first player to go over 99 would lose the round and would surrender a life (a penny). The game would continue until all but the final player were eliminated.

On an index card my great aunt had written the special values for certain ranks of cards:

  • Ace: +1 or +11, as desired.
  • (2, 5..8: Add that value.)
  • 3: +3 – Skip the next player.
  • 4: +0 – Reverse play.
  • 9: =99 – The running total is set to 99, no matter what the prior total was.
  • 10: +10 or -10, as desired.
  • Jack, Queen, King = +10.

(Note that some families play by slightly different rules for these cards and that there’s a different card game also known as 99 that involves trick-taking.)

I always preferred 99 to Uno because it was quicker, built to a conclusion (had a story arc). It also has some interesting strategy to it. The game is often described as a good game for teaching children to add yet it is not great for that, as you can’t add by 4 or 9 since those cards have special meanings.

So here are my house rules for 99:

  • Ace: +1 or +11, as desired.
  • 2..9: +2..9.
  • 10: +10 or -10, as desired.
  • Jack: +0 and skip the next player. (Mnemonic: “The Jack is a fool and skips.” A mnemonic is a memory aid.)
  • Queen – +0 and reverse play. (Mnemonic: “The Queen changes her mind.”)
  • King – The running total is set to 99, no matter what the prior total was. (Mnemonic: “The King is in a hurry”.)

Games that eliminate players aren’t always fun, especially with big groups. So instead, if you lose, you take a penny. The last player with no pennies in front of them wins!

Agile Development for Card Games

Designing a card game is messy. You will have what you think are good ideas that, when you play them, you find don’t work that well. With that in mind, start with a simple game and add complexity over time, as you play.

Here are 7 steps to follow:

  1. Think of a game idea.
  2. Document the current state of your game idea.
  3. Create a playable prototype.
  4. Playtest.
  5. Apply feedback. Go back to step 2, as often as necessary.
  6. Develop and polish. Go back to step 2, as often as necessary.
  7. Publish or share!

The key to agile development is to apply feedback and iterate. The breakthrough realization of the software industry was that people can’t anticipate all user requirements in advance but need to discover needs through exposure to prototypes and feedback. The same process works well for game design.

“Small projects […] are entire projects — and what I mean by that, even very small projects still incorporate the entire project development life cycle. The lessons learned in small projects are no less valuable than the lessons learned on large projects, but the failures hurt a lot less.” – Clint Herron, game designer

1 – Think of a Game Idea

Inspiration strikes, and you get an idea for a game. Or you are challenged to come up with a game idea for a design contest, a homework assignment, a Scouting exercise, or a design challenge in this book.

Where do ideas come from?

For good or ill, I conceive of boardgames the way Hollywood pitches High Concept movies:

  • Toy Story with video game characters!” (How I would describe Wreck-It Ralph.)
  • Star Wars: A New Hope with new heroes learning from the original heroes!” (Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)
  • Castaway meets Apollo 13!” (The Martian.)

Thinking in terms of mashups might help you come up with ideas for card games as well. “If you steal from one author [or game designer] it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research,” said the playwright Wilson Mizner. Don’t feel bad about starting from such a point. Your idea will change and diverge from this initial inspiration as you develop the game further. In fact, your playtesting and development will consist of original research that will make the final product your own.

Another way to proceed is to take an existing game and constrain it. What would Monopoly be like as only a card game? What might Magic: The Gathering look like with only 104 cards?

Constraints help fuel ideas. And, as you look to develop experience by designing games, constraints make everything easier.

And constraints are realistic. Professional developers often have design constraints. They are asked to come up with a sequel to an existing game. They are asked to come up with a board game about a movie, a comic-book character, or even about a video game. They are asked to use components that will fit under a specific budget, so the game can be priced at $6, $16, or $60.

You will find that the hard part isn’t coming up with ideas: that’s a myth. Once you start looking for ideas for games, you’ll find them everywhere. You will quickly come up with more ideas than you develop. Keep a notebook handy to record your ideas as they come to you.

At this moment I have 36 ideas for games in my idea file (a list of games that I haven’t produced prototypes of yet) and I have 12 prototypes that I haven’t developed into finished games yet. Keep track of your ideas and you’ll find you have plenty. The hard part will be sticking with an idea, and then seeing it through to completion! So pick an idea and move to step 2.

2 – Document the Current State of Your Game Idea

Some game designers skip this step and immediately create their prototype. I don’t because I find that the act of writing down notes about the game often helps me come up with new takes on the idea. It’s easier to write down notes than it is to start making cards.

You don’t need to write the type of rules document that you would present to a player. You just need a short outline of the key parts of the game to help you organize your thoughts and explain the game to playtesters. It’s also helpful to create a quick table or grid of the ideas for cards.

For instance, here’s a grid of the cards in the first edition of Bruno Faidutti’s Citadels, by cost in gold coins and by district color, with the quantity of that card in the deck in parentheses.

Citadel cards distributionEach purple building also has a special power, but many of those would probably be missing from a first draft and would be the subject of iterative development.

3 – Create a Playable Prototype

One mistake I’ve made is to spend a lot of time on the first prototype. I used to find great pictures from the Internet, carefully develop a graphic design of the cards, and even proofread and edit the text on the cards. Then set it all up on the computer, print out the cards, and play the game only to find out it was lousy!

Having spent all that time on graphic design, I ended up being reluctant to make the changes and to do the hard work of revision and iteration that is typically necessary to make a good game.

So don’t stress yourself about making the game pretty!

Instead, use basic cards. I’ll often just list the properties of a card on it. If I want some icons, I might make simple sketches. Like me, you can look at The Noun Project for quick ideas on how to make a simple drawing of an object:

examples of Noun Project icons

Keep the card design simple for your playtests. If you’ve created a game worth playing, playtesters will be engaged even with simple graphics.

I still often end up spending too much time researching the inspiration of the card – the history of the Greek city of Olympia, railroad stock in the 1880s, the types of new planets being discovered – rather than spending time making sure the game is fun and playable.

So don’t worry, yet, about making the game a more accurate portrayal of the time period or theme. Don’t worry yet whether or not you have the right name for a card. You can do all that later.

Your goal at this step is simply to create a basic version of the game that you can use to make sure the game is fun to play and works the way you expected it to. Scribble on pieces of paper; write on index cards; even write on old playing cards.

Get your ideas down in a playable format, with the goal to move on to the next step as rapidly as possible!

4 – Playtest

Some games you can initially playtest just by yourself to make sure the basics are working as expected. However, it is always helpful to have someone to playtest with. But you need to make it clear to your playtester that you are not asking them to play a real game, and they should look at is more as an experiment. Often the best playtester is a good friend who is also designing games. That way you can return the favor and playtest their games.

Often much will need to be changed. In fact, don’t be afraid to stop play and write on cards to change them and start the game over. (Another reason to use rough rather than pretty prototypes, so you don’t mind writing all over them!) Remember, you are trying to see if the game works and is fun. You don’t need to play it through. My son and I were playing a game and kept changing the rules to make them work better when at one point we decided to start the whole game over. That’s fine!

If a solution is obvious to you and easy to implement, then by all means try it, but don’t feel you need to solve the problem during the play test. That can be the wrong time to fix big problems. Instead, during the game concentrate on identifying problems: solutions can come later.

After you have gone through these steps a few times (see below), you will want to playtest without changing. And eventually you will want to give the game to others to play without you around, just as they would if they bought the game or printed it out from the Internet. (This is called blind playtesting.)

But before you get that far, be prepared to playtest the game a lot. If you don’t want to play it lots, why would other people?! In fact, Puzzling Pixel Games requests that before designers submit a game the game “must be playtested so much that you now hate the game (well, maybe not hate…).”

Playtest, playtest, playtest. Then use what you’ve learnt to make the game better.

5 – Apply Feedback

Sometimes you can make changes to a game during the game itself or between games. But other times you identify problems with the game without easy or obvious solutions. In those cases, you will need to think about the solutions to the problems you identified.

Ask playtesters what they liked about the game and what they didn’t like about the game. My favorite question (suggested by another designer) is, “What one thing would you change about the game to make it more enjoyable?”

Sometimes playtesters have good ideas. Sometimes, though, people leap to conclusions about a game based on a few plays. I’ve heard people say a game that was professionally published was “broken” after playing it once, when maybe they just misunderstood a rule or got a rare permutation of cards or events.

In science we would want lots of feedback to see if it was consistent over time. People, however, are used to jumping to conclusions and overgeneralizing. As you grow in experience you will start to develop a feel for the feedback that you should act upon versus the feedback that may not be as applicable as the players think.

Sometimes the feedback just won’t be relevant. If you have a vision or goal for the game, and some of the suggestions would have you abandon that goal, that’s feedback you should ignore. One playtester complained one of my games was “too mean” but the game was designed from the start as a “take that” type of game. Changing that would alter the fundamental design philosophy of that particular game.

If, after reviewing the feedback, you have changes you want to make, then go back to step 2 – document your game idea – and follow the steps from there. Acting on and applying feedback is the principal driver of agile game development.

If you think the game is as good as you can make it, you are ready to start developing the game!

6 – Develop and Polish

As you work on your game design, you will naturally refine it. You will come up with better ideas for card actions, better names for cards, and better ways of graphically representing some of the properties of the cards.

Once you have playtested the game and know that it works well, that is the time to write detailed rules and produce good-looking cards using graphic-design software.

You will still want to playtest the final text of your cards, and the rules, to make sure that they are clear to players and to eliminate any points of confusion.

Developing is often a time to take away complexity. You might realize that a common function is documented or performed slightly differently in two places. In such a case you should select the method that works best and make everything consistent. If you make major changes, then go back to step 2.

Finally, you have the game as good as you can make it, as attractive as you can make it, and as fun as you can make it. It’s time to share the game or even publish it!

7 – Publish or Share

Now you can share the game with friends and the wider world. You can share the game with people by uploading the files to sharing services like Google Drive or DropBox. You might want to publish it for free for people to download from popular websites like BoardGameGeek and Good Little Games. Or, if it is really good, you might want to publish it for sale from on-demand printing sites like DriveThruCards and The Game Crafter. Or maybe you think your game deserves professional printing, in which case you can run a Kickstarter to raise the money to publish the game.

And, of course, you can submit the game to game publishers to see if they are interested in publishing the game for sale.

All of this might sound like a lot of work but you will discover that it is a lot of fun with lots of room for creativity. Happy designing!