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The power of card-driven games 3 - Portability, rules self-containment, randomization, narrative, customization

Javier Martin
United Kingdom
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Alright, let's wrap this up! Today I would like to present another 4 different aspects of card-driven games that are interesting from a design point of view.


This is the first thing that drew me into card games. You're not simply carrying around a card deck. No, what you have in your pocket is a fantasy army. Or a host of madness-inducing creatures. Or perhaps a dungeon filled with perils, or a city filled with intrigue. Or heck, a few civilizations that progress throughout several ages.

One of the things I like best about this feature is that you can have rich experiences without carrying around a board and other relatively big pieces. In fairness, though, many card games use tokens, but the additional space needed for storage and transportation is negligible.

Rules self-containment

Two interesting things about cards: they're flat and have a very generous surface, which is generally used for illustrations and text. How exactly is this important? Illustrations provide flavor. They're two-dimensional and are thus not limited by the shape of the object. A miniature can only represent one thing (well, to be fair, a definite set of things, for an antropomorphic miniature could represent a thief as well as a wizard). Cards lose aesthetic value and, arguably, immersion, but they can represent anything at all: locations, characters, items, spells, events, conditions... Come to think of it, there are not many mediums that can represent abstract concepts inside a game.

This is greatly supported by the second feature I wanted to talk about in this point: Cards can have text. Therefore, they allow for a smoother learning curve. Many card games are actually quite simple to play – the complexity comes in the cards themselves and is added throughout the game. To all effects, cards are modular pieces that can contain snippets of rules that build upon (or, in some cases, change or contradict) the basic rules of the game. Not only that, but they can also act as reminders of those rules if need be.

Additionally, in the case of expandable games, new sets commonly introduce unique mechanics that keep everything fresh.


I don't want to go too deep into number crunching (mainly because it's really not my field blush), but I feel cards can be very useful to create (and control) randomization. Games like Pandemic are a good example of this. Do you want to make the game harder? Add more Epidemic cards! Easier? Play with only a few! And no matter what, the tension will always be there, albeit to a bigger or lesser degree. To all intents and effects, the deck is an adjustable machine against which you can measure your skill. It's no wonder that many games that have a solo option use cards in some way.


Given the size and general shape of cards, they're perfect for narrative-heavy games. The text can, of course, tell a story, but it's also interesting that it's possible to form a timeline of sorts either by arranging them sequentially (Chrononauts) or by stacking them (Mythos). Let's talk about two such games with stackable timelines: The Lord of the Rings LCG and Mythos.

In the case of LoTR, players must go through different phases of a quest that usually change the general gameplay conditions. During one of thsoe phases, they may not be able to call allies for backup, or perhaps they're supposed to seize magic items or keep a neutral character alive. In all cases, the details make perfect sense thematically and highly improve the game experience.

Mythos is truly a different kind of monster. It feels more like a narrative exercise that just happens to play like a game. Quite literally, players must visit locations, retrieve items, summon monsters and meet allies in order to fulfill the conditions that appear in the lengthy text of story cards, which is the main way to victory. All these cards have also gameplay effects, and can either help your goal or hinder your opponent (who loses the game if his sanity is reduced to 0). It's simple, fun and immersive, and it's a pity that games like this are not more popular.


This is a big point for me. It's rare to find games that allow you to take away the components you don't like and add new ones to fit your playstyle and taste. This has a downside, of course: you will always be buying more of the game, which can become a money sink. Many games in the DBG genre are meant to combat this, but I still think that expandable games are a boon because they make the experience substantially more unique. Indeed, many fans of CCGs spend more time building and fine-tuning decks than actually playing them.

Well, that's the end of it. I hope you enjoyed the series -- I know I've learned a lot thanks to your feedback and the whole thing has certainly helped me put my thoughts in order. See you around and game on!
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