Thinking Out Loud about Game Design

A blog where I just vent my thoughts about certain game design challenges and talk about unfinished game design ideas
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The Major Arcana Is a Pain in the Ass

Niko Lepka
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Board Game Designer
SirenRPG Designer
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A few months ago, I kickstarted a deck of "Standard Tarot Playing Cards".
The idea was to have a deck of tarot cards, major arcana and all, stylised like a deck of regular playing cards.
While the deck is absolutely gorgeous, I've struggled finding any good games to play with it.

My girlfriend and I have so far attempted at creating two different games for it:
Seesaw Rummy
Tarot Bloody Rummy

We're both big fans of rummy-style games. The collecting, discarding, and melding aspect is appealing and easy to understand, but it just doesn't work with tarot cards; and it always comes down to one thing in particular: the major arcana.

For those who don't know the anatomy of a tarot deck: it is a deck of 78 cards made up of a
- Minor Arcana, 56 cards consisting of 14 ranks across 4 suits
- Major Arcana, 22 suitless cards ranked from 0 to 21

The major arcana essentially acts as a fifth extra large suit that only contains number cards (no kings, queens, or jacks).

The most obvious type of game to play with a tarot deck, is a simple trick taking game: the major arcana acts as the one (and only) trump suit, and the game then plays like a regular trick taking game a-la Bridge, Skat, Oh Hell!, or even The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine; and that does indeed make for a playable game, I don't find it interesting.

Something I'd really like to avoid in making use of the major arcana is assigning special abilities to the cards, because that would mean having players remember 22 different card effects, which while ok for some, is far too much of a mental burden for others. For this to work, the effects would have to be written on the cards themselves.

Additionally, getting rid of the major arcana altogether is also out of the question, because doing so would just reduce the deck to a standard 52 card deck that has a rank between the Jack and the Queen.

Now, could I just go ahead and play some of the existing games for tarot cards out there? Yes. In fact, I just learned that BGG has a list of games, that I'm gonna check out! Prior to learning this however, I tried googling for tarot card games and always came short, which is why I decided to make my own.

I mentioned two games I attempted to design around the deck, which I'd like to throw into the ring for others to give feedback on:

Seesaw Rummy
Game for two players.
Start by placing X Wheel of Fortune and XI Justice on the table somewhere between the two players to form the seesaw.
Then shuffle and deal the remaining cards and deal seven to each player.
At the beginning of the game, each player can only draw one card from the draw pile and discard pile.

The more cards that are then added to the seesaw the more it tips in the direction of one player or another.

The more cards a player has on their side, the more they can draw from the draw pile, but also the more the opponent can draw from the discard pile.

The way this was calculated was |SideA - SideB| + 1. So if Player A had 3 cards and Player B had 4, then that would be 2 cards drawn from the discard for Player A, and 2 cards drawn by player B from the draw pile.

The way you'd then tip the scales, would be to add the cards incrementally in order. The player with X would have to play from 10 down to 0 (The Fool), and the player with XI would have to play from 11 up to 21 (The World).
As an extra twist, a player would also be able to play to their opponent's side of the seesaw in order to level the playing field.

The extra layer of strategy here would be to hold on to and deny your opponent the cards they needed to increase their card draw, while also not giving them too many cards from the discard.

The game has potential, but is a bit of a slog.
The seesaw mechanic is unfortunately a bit hard to explain.
Maybe the game could start with no cards in the seesaw?
The +1 part of the equation is necessary because players must always be able to draw at least one card.

Tarot Bloody Rummy (pdf available, just ask)
This was an attempt at doing Sichuan Bloody Mahjong but with tarot cards.

The game differed in the following ways:
- Only 3 sets and a pair instead of 4 sets and a pair, due to smaller card pool.
- The Major Arcana acted as a "chow only" suit, similar to how winds and dragons were "pung only" suits in Mahjong
- It is possible to chow from all sides, not just the left
- Due to there only being one copy of each suit, pungs had to be made across suits, rather than within a single suit.
- New special melds taking the major arcana into account
- 13 orphans is just 11 orphans

The game quickly ran into problems when we tried to playtest it, as the major arcana kept clogging up the players' hands and offered little or no reward. This grinded the game down to a relative standstill and was not very fun to play with more than two players.

Mahjong terminology for those unfamiliar:
- Chow (or Chii), a run of 3 cards in the same suits
- Pung (or Pon), a set of three cards in the same suit and rank
- Winds, a suit of cards consisting of 4 copies of each of the four cardinal directions
- Dragons, a suit consisting of 4 copies of red, green, and white dragons.
- 13 orphans, a special combination of cards consisting of a 1 and a 9 in each of the three suits, one of each dragon, and one of each wind.

Designing games definitely isn't easy; and this one deck of cards in my collection has been taunting me since the very beginning...
I just wanted to get my thought on paper and get some of my half-finished ideas out there. Maybe it can be expanded upon or improved in some way, maybe not. I'd love to hear from the community at the very least
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