Cards: The Basic Mechanics

A few months ago, I talked about the game mechanic of dice and how games like to use dice for randomness and chance. This week examine one of the most familiar and oldest mechanics in tabletop gaming: cards.

To fully (or even partially) explain the history of playing cards would take its own blog post so let us focus on the why and how cards are used in modern games. The main benefits to cards is that a ton of information that simple tokens and dice would not be able to convey. The cards themselves also provide a way to efficiently change rules, build a board, or provide a more abstract representation of resources, or even a way to track abilities or other information.  For any of the modern or classic games that use cards as a mechanic (or for any designer) the only limit to the uses of a card are the size of font used and the amount of information that is put onto the card. At the most basic, a card is simply a piece of cardboard with a front and a back. The front of the card will display the relevant information for the game which can range from simply a value and a quality (such as a suit) to more complex information including spells, abilities, items, player information, turn order, etc. The back of the card could also contain some level of information (but then it could be argued it is another front) or simple be a single motif to provide a ‘hidden’ aspect to the face of the card. In either case this duality provides a range of options for mechanics, shuffled into a deck for randomness, placed down to keep track of score, or combined with other mechanics for interesting interactions. For today, lets focus on a few of the most basic mechanics of cards: as random chance in a deck, as hidden information, and as an alternative for other kinds of game pieces.

The first of the basic mechanics that uses cards is to shuffle them together in a deck. Like with dice, a deck of cards provides for some randomness in games. However, the randomness that a deck of cards provides is constantly changing since once a card is drawn from the deck it cannot be drawn again (unless you shuffle after every draw). This allows for players that can/want to try and predict what will be drawn by counting cards and/or considering the probabilities that could occur and plan for the randomness. Several games use a deck to great effect ranging from Magic the Gathering, to Monopoly, to deck building games like Ascension, and finally to classic Hoyle’s games including Rummy, Bridge, and Poker. This presents a potential ‘mastery’ that players like to feel in a game: they weren’t forced to fold in a game of poker, they instead chose to fold based on the odds of winning for instance.

The second basic mechanic of cards to provide hidden information. The dual front and back nature of most decks of cards lends itself to being able to conceal the relevant information (such as the suit and value) while presenting the back of the card so that (in theory) any card is possible. The design space that this leads to allows for a whole sort of games in which players have to adapt based on the revealed information. Bluffing games typically use this to great effect when concealing what value a player’s hand has forcing players to consider the possibility of what seems like a lie to be true. This idea of hidden information is continued in Who Wears the Crown? by having the backs of cards present part of the information (i.e. the potential point value) while concealing if the cars will actually be worth those points at the end of the game or not.

Finally, while not a mechanic in its own right, cards are sometimes used as a game pieces. To clarify, this means that the card could conceivably but replaced with tokens, wooden cubes, or boards. There are several games that use cards in this way including Catan, Rivals of Catan, Bang!, and more. For this use of cards, the card can represent resources or board pieces and are chosen for one of two reasons: cost for making the game, or that the properties of a card allow for the card to be more effective as a piece. In the case of Catan, there are several sites that make the resources of wood, ore, sheep, and grain as tokens but with the use of cards players can conceal what resources they currently have. In Rivals of Catan, the cards are used as a quick way to track the resources as well as limit the amount of each resource that can be acquired by one player. In Bang!, some of the cards track the players’ health while others are used as actions. Like in Catan, some of the cards in bang could be replaced with tokens, though in the case of Bang! the card used to track health has another purpose as a character card meaning that the number of components in the game are limited making the game as a whole more elegant.   

For each of the basic mechanics of cards relies on the dual front and back nature of the cards. This nature is clearly seen in the basic mechanics of randomness, hidden information, and complex game pieces. These basic mechanics can be used by designers to help provide the building blocks for other more intricate mechanics such as deckbuilding, drafting, different forms of card drawing, and more. So with all of this in mind, take some time to think about how cards are used in the games you play and design.