Noun Project icons

Guide to Prototyping Card Games

The secret of prototyping is to do the least amount of work you can to test the next iteration of your card game. If it’s for the first play, simply write on a collection of index cards. Just worry about the broad strokes of the game play, not all the little details. Don’t worry about naming specific cards or accurately simulating the theme. Or getting all the cards you plan to have. Just get a game that is fun to play.

Write with a pencil, not a pen. Your game should feel impermanent and easy to change. Because you are going to have to make changes—and you will want to make changes. Plan to erase and rewrite.

In fact, for your first play, don’t even think of it as a prototype. Think of it as a proto-prototype. The roughest, fastest thing you can use to quickly test the core idea of your game. Bonus points if you can use decks of cards and game pieces cannibalized from other games.

If the prototype is for a subsequent play, feel free to write over the original cards. Mark them up. Keep it rough and ready, to reflect the fact that major parts may need changed.

In that same spirit, don’t worry about what the name of the game will be. You’re a long way from that. Just give it an arbitrary code name; it doesn’t even have to refer to theme or mechanics. In fact, it is probably better if it doesn’t.

  • For instance, my game of world war, inspired by Risk, ended up being a game of alien invasion instead.
  • And my game about the age of European exploration ended up being about the Intercolonial Wars instead.
  • It is not unusual for a game to evolve changing either theme or mechanics, or occasionally both. My sports game was originally about sports superstitions before Jeff Voigt simplified it to focus primarily on the basics of football.

So a code name that refers to theme can end up not fitting. And a code name about mechanics can be wrong as well: a game I originally called “Nine” was supposed to be just a nine-card game but ended up as a board game with more cards.

If you need a bunch of names of cards, you can use the Greek alphabet, or numbers. “Spell #1”, “Weapon #9”, “Monster #3 – Goblin?” are all fine at this stage. The parameters of the cards are more important than the name: the card’s properties and capabilities. For instance, in my game Wizard’s Tower I originally had “Healing Potion – prevent warrior from dying”, “Potion #2 – strike dragon”, “Potion #3 – peek at top Monster card then return to its draw pile” and one of my favorites of all time “Potion #4 – improvise its ability!” I couldn’t figure out what it should do and decided we’d make it up on the fly and see what happened! (See challenge #14 below for more on what these became.)

Use plain language about the action the respondent is to take. You can add titles and flavor later – for instance, “Offense must discard hand” is fine for the first version of a card in a football game. By the time the game is ready to be produced, the card might be titled “Headset Troubles.”

It’s a natural tendency to overproduce prototypes. You know what real card games look like, and you want yours to look like that. Avoiding overproduced prototypes is a lesson that I learnt the hard way. For my early games, I would try to design the entire game upfront, getting all the details right, finding clip art that I could use, making a beautiful prototype, naming every card, making sure its capabilities were evocative of the theme. Only to find out that the ideas I had for how the game would work were wrong.

And then I was overwhelmed about the idea of changing everything. Because it was all so overproduced.

So dive in and commit to iteration.

Goal Prototyping Phase Materials
Prove the kernel of your idea will make an enjoyable game. Sketch Writing in pencil on index cards or even slips of paper.
Refine the architecture of your game, the properties and ability of cards. Framework Think about the parameters and attributes of the cards, and create a working subset of the eventual game that demonstrates key properties.
Refine the inventory of cards Periodic Table Type up the cards in a spreadsheet, size the spreadsheet cells large, and print and cut.
Think about a layout that will make the game easy to learn. Wireframes Type up the cards in a presentation or graphics program or a dedicated system like Concept Studio, Paperize, or nanDeck. Use words or common symbols and emoticons.
Refine the graphic design. Mockups Find icons from The Noun Project, Game-Icons.net, and elsewhere. Use clip art to express theme.
Determine what confuses and frustrates players. Blind Playtesting Conduct usability testing of the rules and the cards. Rinse and repeat until the game is ready for publication.
Polish the graphic design. Production Ready Iterate until the game can be published as a free PDF that can easily be learned by players on their own.

Useful Materials

The most important asset to a game designer is a notepad. Think of it as a designer diary, recording your thoughts and inspirations. Log plays and track problems with your games, as well as your ideas for solutions to the problems you observe.

Pencil and paper work fine, or you can use an app on your smartphone. Many of the games in this book were designed in Google Docs and Google Sheets.

For playtesting ideas with standard decks, consider carrying around a miniature deck of cards. Similar in size to a larger pack of gum, you can easily carry it in your pocket or pocketbook.

For dedicated-deck card games, consider buying index cards – standard size or miniature. You can use miniature if your cards don’t have a lot of properties or a lot of information on them. Alternatively, you can quickly prototype dedicated deck card games that use unusual combinations of ranks and suits by combining different decks. Buy a bunch of cheap decks with the same back so that you can create custom combos of card frequency – for instance, 3 decks will get you 12 cards of each rank.

If you like to sleeve your card games, sleeve a bunch of Magic commons (the most common cards from Magic: The Gathering booster packs) and sketch the cards for your prototype on paper and sleeve them.

I have some bead organizers from Michaels craft store that I use to store accessories. This originally started as me keeping useful pieces from games that were broken, damaged, or missing components. Then I started buying used games specifically to cannibalize, from garage sales and yard sales and thrift stores and dollar stores. Dice, bingo markers, tiddledy winks, wooden cubes, meeples, and play money are all useful prototyping components. Then I began buying pieces from parts stores such as Rolco Games, Koplow Games, and The Game Crafter.

Things to buy if you find you are serious about game design: a printer or all-in-one device (a printer with a scanner and fax), cardstock (make sure it is not too thick for your printer), a paper cutter, and blank playing cards.

Online Resources

Most game publishers put copies of the rules of games on their sites for free. So you can read the rules for far more games than you can afford to buy. If you’re interested in designing a game with a particular theme, you can use BoardGameGeek to find the highest rated games with that theme, then go to the publishers’ websites and download the rules to read. Want to design a game about wizards? Lots of games out there can give you ideas for systems of magic and for spells. Can’t afford a really expensive game? Download the rules from the game publisher’s website to learn more about it.

For imagery, Game-icons.net has over 3,200 icons that you can use in your card games in exchange for providing credit to the illustrators.

icons from Game-icons.net

The Noun Project has over a million icons; unlike the pictures on Game-icons.net, which are designed to work together in a similar visual style, the Noun Project’s icons embody a wide variety of styles, meaning two icons don’t always work well together.

There is free software that is useful, including Google Docs for writing notes and rules and Google Sheets for creating cards.

Some software is specifically for creating games:

  • NanDECK is a powerful if esoteric scripting language for creating paper card games (requires Windows).
  • Paperize.io is great for rapidly prototyping card games, though not as powerful for producing finished cards.
  • Component Studio, subscription required, is the easiest way to prepare games for printing or selling through The Game Crafter. It can also be used to generate print-and-play PDFs.

Nor should we overlook the discussion groups of game designers, who will point you to even more online resources.

  • BGDF – The Board Game Designers Forum hosts a collection of discussion groups, blogs, and contests.
  • BoardGameGeek – The Board Game Design forums on BGG range from design discussions to graphic design to discussion of works in progress, playtest requests, and contests.
  • Card & Board Game Designs Guild – A Facebook group run by James Mathe of Minion Games.