Category Archives: Card Games

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

Rules

Premise

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

Setup

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.

Play

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, BoardGameGeek.com 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.

Playtesting

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.

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 Yucata.de 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!

Civscape Now Available from The Game Crafter

My card game, Civscape, is now available from The Game Crafter!

At this point, I’ve played the game over 250 times (3 times today!) and still look forward to the next match. My friends were hoping that I would run a Kickstarter for the game to get the game more widely known but I decided the on-demand capabilities of The Game Crafter were a better fit. Here’s why I didn’t do a Kickstarter:

  • If I were lucky, I’d sell about 400 copies at a $2 profit ($800). After investing maybe a hundred hours in managing a Kickstarter.
  • I don’t have a following in the game design space that I can leverage for Kickstarter. Crowdfunding is a great way to monetize a following – but it can be a hard way to build a following.
  • The game is an oxymoron. By design. I love the civilization theme and was eager for a take-that game with a strong narrative, such as the shifting fortunes of a Mediterranean city state.  But all the reviewers I sent review copies to were taken aback: with the civilization theme, they expected something strategic.

I heard the latter point from many people, but George Jaros put it best:

As a civilization-building game, though, I felt like Civscape really missed the mark. There is too much take-that to really feel like you are ever building anything. I think the game would work much better as an abstracted take-that card game, maybe with a silly theme. It’d need the card text to be much simpler though. To keep the civilization theme (which I love, just not with these mechanics), the game will need to tone down the amount of card cycling that goes on. Player interaction would still be great, just not in such a hostile way. Civilization building should be about planning, technological synergy, outpowering your opponents, and interactions through trade and combat. Instead, Civscape is all about getting lucky with cards that screw your neighbor while you hope to be the first to draw a winning combination.

Independent card games are a niche market, and the reviewers taught me that Civscape was an even narrow niche.

I play the gamut of games, from tactical to strategic, from 5-minute games to 5-hour games. The inspiration for Civscape came February 23, 2012, when one of my best friends and I played cards with three teenagers. It was the first time we played Star Fluxx, and we ended up playing it seven times that night. In a classic moment, which game reviewers would hate, we dealt my son (who had arrived late) into the middle of a game, and he won on his first turn!

As enjoyable as the evening was, with our filler game never giving way to the real game of the night, my frustrations with Fluxx inspired Civscape:

  • I’d rather have players draw cards at the end of their turn than the beginning, to give them time to read them and plan for their next turn.
  • I wanted a sense of progression. In Civscape, the more cards in front of you, the more you can play and the more you can draw. Instead of rule cards like Draw 5 and Play 2, these powers scale with your city-state. Fluxx Rule cards just fluctuate randomly, and some just make the game drag on (Keeper limits and Hand limits, which end up hurting even the current player once their turn ends).
  • The Goal cards (how you win in Fluxx) are useless in and of themselves and most don’t apply to your current situation. In Civscape, you can always discard a Statue, Wonder, or second-generation Technology (play one and meet its criteria to win) to draw 2 new cards instead. And while the Wonders and Techs are like Fluxx’s Goals, typically requiring a pair of cards to win (Keepers in Fluxx, Buildings or Technologies in Civscape), Civscape has Statues, which let you get 4 of a type of card or other kinds of sets to win (e.g., Hannibal wins with 4 Trade cards, Pericles needs one of each type).
  • I didn’t want the game to outstay its welcome: I recall games of Pirate Fluxx and Oz Fluxx that took so long that people helped others to win, just to end it. Typically multiple people will be able to win in rapid progression, thanks to the Statues.
  • Some of the really negative take-that cards (Burn the Library, Sack the City) get memorialized in your city’s Timeline, part of its history (while increasing the number of Buildings you can maintain by one).

To be clear, I love Star Fluxx, and have now played it nearly 50 times. It’s probably my favorite version of Fluxx. Even its shortcomings were inspirational.

Some testimonials for Civscape:

  • “I personally like the fact there are many victory conditions and paths to follow, much like real civilizations. The fact this is done in a card game that can be played quickly is amazing. An added benefit for me is the historical accuracy of the scenarios and cards—which put you in the time period. Even though the game is quick it had deep enough variations and options for multiple replay options.” – Dave Lyons, playtester
  • “I really like the ebb and flow of my civilization. It grows as I expand, then contracts as I deal with calamities, military setbacks, and coups. Yet even my now suddenly smaller civilization can win, if I play my cards right. Diogenes, FTW!” – Jeff Mine, playtester
  • “So many games are won by narrow victories! It’s pretty common for the next player to show how they could have won on their next turn. Which means you want to play again!” – Brad Patton, playtester

If a take-that civilization game resonates with you, the print-and-play version is still free. Or buy the new Game Crafter edition!

Duel of the Prestidigitators

For the 2018 Global Game Jam, I designed a print-and-play 27-card microgame:

You are dueling prestidigitators, juggling magical orbs to attack one another. The first to destroy their opponent’s Phylactery wins.

You can download the PDF here. I welcome your feedback and questions.

Our brainstorming group somehow took the theme of “transmission” and went from sonar (shown in the theme video) to the Battle of the Atlantic (U-boat warfare) to Napoleonic warfare to millipedes with combat boots to juggling wizards. (The theme tie-in involves the transmission of energy from orbs to one another for attacks.)

Thanks to everyone from the Sarasota Game Developers group who volunteered for the game jam!