Creating a Card Game: From Start to Finish
I’ve been pretty busy this month with two projects: Tragedia and Prehysteria. While you might recognize the name “Prehysteria” from an early blog post, this is an entirely new project that has nothing to do with that design document. This Prehysteria is a silly, dinosaur-themed competitive cooperative card game, and for today’s post, I’m going to take you through the process I’ve used, and am using, to create it.
Keep reading to learn more about creating card games!
Concepts and Research
Just like any good game design, card (and board) games usually start off as an initial concept or theme. I was previously working on a Wind Waker card game, but decided I wanted to make something original, something I could publish. I’ve been playing (read: researching) a lot of board and card games recently, so I started to pick and pull different aspects I liked from the games I had played. While I had a lot of great mechanics I could use, the game wouldn’t come together without a theme. In this case, I wanted to do something lighthearted, something I could have a lot of fun with. For those that know me, I’ve always been a big fan of dinosaurs, so it only made sense for me to make a comical game about dinosaurs. At this point, all I knew was that the game would have dinosaurs and would be silly, and a list of mechanics I liked from other games.
Of course, for you this process could be drastically different. Everyone comes up with ideas in different ways, and draw inspiration from different things. Research is crucial at this stage because it can provide inspiration for your own game’s theme and mechanics, as well as give you examples of your competition. Even if you don’t physically own any board or card games, and don’t know anyone nearby who does, you can check out sites like Board Game Geek, and even browse Youtube for let’s play and review videos. You basically want to start narrowing things down so the game is easier to work with, but keep in mind that anything could change later down the line.
Once you have a more focused concept and a few ideas for mechanics, it’s time to start working on documentation and really defining what you can and cannot do in your game. I usually like to start with the components, then work my way up to specific rules. For Prehysteria, I decided I wanted it to be a card game because it would be quick and easy to setup and I knew that I wanted some kind of player interaction using cards. From there, I started thinking about what I wanted the players to do, and this is where the theme really helps. Since this is a game about dinosaurs, and the players will be playing as dinosaurs, what should they do? The first thing that came to mind was extinction, which eventually culminated in the primary objective: for players to lead their herds of dinosaurs across perilous terrain to a “Green Paradise,” where everything is always green and there is always plenty to eat. Now I have a purpose for the players, a definition for what the players will be playing as (herds of dinosaurs versus just one), a few ideas for cards and obstacles, and a play style. Since these dinosaurs are going to a “Green Paradise,” they will all be herbivores, and since they’re herbivores, they’re probably going to get along pretty well, which leads to a cooperative play style. But if everyone is cooperating to make it to the end goal, then there is no real competition. I could have simply had the players play against the game itself, but I personally found that a bit boring alone. Instead, I decided on giving each player a secret objective, something that would motivate them to try and outlast their fellow players so they can fulfill their own objective. This means that players will need to work together in order to surpass the obstacles in the game, but will be trying to undermine each other at the same time. Now I’ve defined the specific types of components I will need: player cards, herd counters, objective cards, obstacle cards, and cards that players can use to help and/or undermine each other. Finally, I write up a rough draft for the rules and come up with some cards, all while still only having a broad idea of how I want the game to be played.
Do you see how things tend to build off of each other? When working on your own game, try to take a similar approach and utilize your theme to define mechanics and components. You always want to define an end goal and have a loose idea of what you want the players to do to accomplish it before ever starting prototyping. Just like how you would want to write up a game design document before jumping in and creating a game, you want to write up documentation for your game’s rules and ideas before trying them out. Nothing should ever be finalized here; you want to define as much as you can but remember that with playtesting and balancing, things will change.
Prototyping and Initial Playtests
With a better idea of what your game is, you can then start prototyping. As this is your first prototype of the game, it should not be anything fancy. I tend to use whatever I have lying around: blank index cards, basic land cards from Magic: the Gathering, sharpies, highlighters, scraps of cardstock, cardboard, etc. For the first couple of playtests, it’s only going to be you playing, which gives you a chance to really iron out the fundamentals of the game before anyone else can play it. After all, if you don’t know the fundamentals of your own game and how it works, how are you going to get other people to playtest it? For Prehysteria, I used MTG basic land cards and just wrote the name of the card and a brief description of what it did. I recommend leaving plenty of space on your prototype cards so that you can jot notes or changes directly on the card. Remember that you don’t need to spend time making this prototype look pretty, since it’s just a tool for you to test out the game and make sure it works.
When it comes to the first few playtests, you’re going to want to have either a notepad or your laptop nearby so you can take notes as you’re playing. I tried a number of different board setups for Prehysteria, and for each one, I took notes on what worked and what didn’t work about it, until I was able to narrow it down to the best setup. I also discovered that I needed additional cards and game pieces. At first, I only had players drawing obstacle cards every turn, but this didn’t lend well to the cooperative play style. Instead, I decided to introduce land cards, which would be laid out face-down in a grid, with one end having the starting land, and the other having the final “Green Paradise.” Players would be able to choose which paths they took, and each land card had a number of obstacle cards that the group of players on that path would draw. With cards acting as a physical playing field, I needed dinosaur tokens for the players to place on whichever path they were choosing. All of this was added to the game because of initial playtesting, while other things were changed or removed.
As this game is still a work in progress, this is as far as I’ve made it through this process, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what to do next. I am currently working on a slightly nicer looking prototype for the game and plan on conducting several group playtests with friends. Since none of these friends are game designers, they might be confused with my makeshift prototype, which is why I am making a nicer, more concise one. Still, this doesn’t have to be anything fancy; the game is far from complete. I’m using some MTG sleeves with the original prototype cards in them, but adding a piece of cardstock over top of the prototype cards with everything that will be on the final card, except for the art. This way, they can look at the card and understand exactly what it will do, without having to decipher my shorthand! Once again, note-taking is crucial when conducting playtests, so be sure to let your players know that you might be stopping them from time to time to ask them questions. It might even be a good idea for you to not participate in the actual playtest, so you can walk around and get a good idea of what everyone’s cards are and what they’re doing. At the end of the playtest, you’ll want to ask a few questions to get a better idea of what everyone thought of the game. Below are a few examples, but it’s a good idea to come up with more and tailor them to your game:
- Did you enjoy the game, or did you find it boring or too confusing?
- How easy was it to pick up?
- Is there anything that you would like to see changed, removed, or added?
- Did you like X mechanic?
- How did you feel about the number of cards? (too few, too many?)
Creating the Physical Game
After each playtest, you should review your notes and tweak the game accordingly. It’s going to take more than one or two group playtests to properly balance the game, so let your friends know they’re going to be playing your game a lot! Remember to always keep your documentation up to date whenever you make any changes. I use Google Docs, which is great since it allows you to check your revision history (in case you want to revert to an older build). After you’re confident that your game is ready for the real world, it’s time to start designing your cards and other pieces. This is where branding comes into play. Your game is not just cards, it’s not just pawns, or dice, or whatever; it’s a collective package of all those things, along with a rule book and a nice box to store everything in. Even if you make the most amazing looking cards, it’s going to look weird if your box looks nothing like them. You want to decide on an overall image for your game that will stretch across everything. This includes fonts, color schemes, art style, icons, logos, etc. For Prehysteria, I knew that I wanted to have the card design similar to other cards, like Magic: the Gathering, Pokemon TCG, Ascension, etc., with the card name and an icon (for the type of card) at the top, art in the middle, and the card’s description at the bottom. This is universal across all cards in the game, except for the land cards, which have everything except for the bottom text box. By having the cards uniform, it helps to make the game more cohesive, not to mention the fact that you can pull aspects from your card design and use it elsewhere. For example, the header where the card name appears is a dinosaur tail; I took that same idea and applied it to the box art, so that the name of the game is also overlayed on a dinosaur tail and uses the same font. The same colors and fonts are used throughout the game’s components, which helps to bring everything together. You are looking to create a full package of a game, so do your best to make everything fit together. Whether you’re doing the art and graphic design yourself, or if you’re having someone else do it, make sure you define your game’s brand so that the final product will look polished and professional.
There are a couple of options when it comes to publishing your game. You could just make everything yourself, but that takes a lot of time and money and means you’re probably only going to be making one copy of the game. There are also traditional publishers, but it can be difficult to get them interested in your game enough to want to take it on. If you are interested in traditional publishing, you will want to put together a very nice prototype and a pitch, then try visiting board game conventions and talk to publishers. For a list of board game conventions, check out this comprehensive list from Board Game Geek. To be honest, I don’t know much about the traditional publishing option, but there is another option that seems to be the best for independent game designers: the Game Crafter, a print-on-demand publisher. You simply download their templates, create your cards and other components, and upload them to the site. From there, you can order additional pieces, like dice or pawns, order your final product, and even sell your game on their site (profits are split 70% [you] – 30% [TGC]). The Game Crafter looks to be a great option, and the best part is that you retain all rights to your game. So if you find a publisher later on, you can simply remove your game from their marketplace and take it to the publisher without any issues from the Game Crafter. This is the option that I’m going for, so expect a review about their services and how the final game turned out when that time comes!
Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for future posts about the published game and tips and tricks for designing card art! As always, if you have any questions, comments, or critiques, don’t hesitate to post.