As a graphic designer I have learned the value of good design layout. Oftentimes we are expected to fit a lot of content into a small area and make it all work. While this is a lot easier with larger working space (full-size ads), it becomes even more important when designing elements that have to fit and work well on poker sized cards.
When it comes to card games, I break things down into two main categories: mechanics and design. If either of these suck, the entire game risks total failure. Like it or not, many players will only consider picking up a new game if the art is awesome. This is one of the challenges to the indie game designer that might have limited resources, so it’s even more important to get it right.
Assuming you have the mechanics part figured out, the next step is to design the layout of the card. There are a number of things to consider, most importantly that the card looks great, and that everything is legible at its printed size. This is sometimes easily overlooked since we often design things at much larger resolution, so make extra certain everything is easily distinguishable at actual size.
When designing a card, we have a limited sized area to work with. With this in mind, the ideal is to maximize the work area so that every element not only pops, but stands out and can be easily read. Most cards can be broken up into several main elements:
- Card art
- Card name
- Resource cost
- Card type
- Special instruction text
- Flavor text
- Stats (power, defense, etc.)
- Copyright and art credits
Arguably, the most important element is the card art. Wherever possible you should make this as large as you can while leaving room for the other elements. The two biggest sections are going to be the art and the text area. Everything else can be positioned around these two elements.
Lets look at each element in turn and talk about some considerations.
Make it as large as you can get away with. If you can, spring for a good artist. Look for artists on DeviantArt, I’ve been able to commission them sometimes for not much money at all (it can get expensive if you have lots of cards to design). Another trick I like to use is to ask an artist for permission to use a piece they’ve already done. They’re more likely to let you do this for free or for a small amount, since they won’t need to spend any time on something new (their time is valuable).
Use a font that’s easily readable. Don’t try to get fancy. Make your main text sections stand out with bolder typeface and larger font.
Icons need to be distinguishable at smaller sizes. Make them as crisp as possible. Use higher resolution so you don’t lose quality when you shrink them down to size. Use unique shapes and colors to make them stand out from the others and the background. Also, the key to icon design is making the icon self-explanatory. The best icons indicate exactly what they represent. A sword, for example, is obviously an attack icon, while a shield is obviously a defense icon.
It is better to design a game with simple mechanics and add to the mechanics with special abilities than it is to try to design a bunch of complex mechanics into the core game rules. Players want to jump right into the game as soon as possible, so complex mechanics make that process take longer. That’s one of the reasons people love card games, because there is limited setup time and the faster you can explain the rules and how to play, the better.
Be concise with instruction text. Try not to have a whole novel on your cards. Remember that the card needs to be readable at normal size, so the more text you have, the smaller your font is going to need to be. My rule of thumb is to never change font size for this text, so if I have a card that’s looking like it will have lots of text, I try to simplify the wording to make it work so I don’t need smaller font size.
This is another reason I like to sacrifice text area for card art wherever possible. It prevents me from being tempted to add too much text.
A quick note on card stats. Try to limit the number of stats required for your game to work. Magic has two simple stats: attack and defend. Everything else is just added flavor. Admittedly, I break my own rule here with Everwind. I designed the game to work with the lore of the stories, so each character has 5 stats called Influence. That’s about as complex as I’d want to make it, and I get around the complicated nature by having a character only using any one stat at a time to “influence” other players’ cards.
Lets look at some examples of different card layouts to get a feel for the things I just talked about.
Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast)
Arguably, Magic: the Gathering is the most recognizable card of all of them. The cards have a notorious design, with each element separated into a specific area on the card. I would argue that most other card games based their designs from this quintessential layout.
I would argue that the art should be bigger, but most card games seem to utilize this particular art-to-text-area ratio. Notice how the fonts are easily legible and not too small. The other thing I like is that the resource icons are easy to see. They used shapes and colors to great effect. I also like that they add the name of the artist on the bottom. Also notice that they didn’t need any icons for their stats, just two simple numbers.
L5R cards are similarly laid out to Magic. I like how their art extends almost to the edge (there is no border, giving more space for art). Their icons are clearly distinguishable because of shape and color. The text is legible. One thing to note: there are a lot of keywords on the card itself. Too many keywords make it more difficult for new players to get into the game; they have to constantly look up keywords to find their meaning. Wherever possible spell out the meaning on the card itself.
Lord of the Rings (Decipher)
What I love about this card most is the icons on the bottom left. They are large and cool-looking. I would argue that the card art could be extended to take up more space on the sides. All the text is legible and explains the card’s abilities well. The only drawback I can see here is that the copyright info at the bottom is really small, though because they are using film stills, there is no need for artist attribution. Also, it should be noted that there are a few Lord of the Rings card games, the one shown by Decipher, with another being from Fantasy Flight, and yet another by Cryptozoic (technically The Hobbit).
Star Wars (Fantasy Flight)
I love the design of these cards. The art extends to the edges, as does the text area. The icons are crisp and they add a little extra flair to the design of the card. One thing I would note is that Fantasy Flight games are typically more complex in nature, so they require more elements on their cards, which can be a drawback to timid new players.
Pokemon (Pokemon Company International)
Pokemon cards are usually very colorful and flashy. This is one of the more conservative designs I’ve seen, but I wanted to pick one with plenty of elements to use as an example. I like how some of their card art goes beyond the borders of the space there, but that’s not the case here. A couple critiques, though: some cards have way too much text. The icons are clear, but sometimes there is so much going on the cards starts to become confusing. The flashy design can get in the way at times as well.
Gwent (Witcher games)
These cards are by far my favorite of all games because the art is so huge. I also like the ribbon, which I assume is that character’s faction identifier (I have never played the Witcher games). The icons are huge as well, which works because they utilize the space so well. Notice also that there is limited text. I could actually see more text, but regardless, these cards just POP.
Yugioh (Upper Deck)
These cards have a similar look to magic for me. I would like to see the art extended and much less text. Another criticism of Yugioh is the stat numbers (this is mechanics and not design, but still). Instead of having 1200 and 1800 stats, I’ve seen people complain that they could just use 12 and 18 to make things less cumbersome. That’s all mechanical stuff, though, not really related to design. Of all the card games I’ve seen, I like the design of these cards the least.
World of Warcraft (discontinued)
Another great card design here. Plenty of art and the icons are beautiful. The text is large and everything just works well together. The worst thing about World of Warcraft is that it is no longer in production, though the cards can still be obtained for those who want to play it.
Netrunner (Fantasy Flight)
Netrunner is another great game by Fantasy Flight. This one was actually designed by Richard Garfield (the creator of Magic), and is hailed by many I’ve seen as being one of the best card games out there. The design is very cool and noticeably unique to this particular game, but it also carries that hacker flavor that is the theme of the game. Everything is clean and simple. FF does a great job with their art and design.
This is one of the cards from the Everwind game I had to put on hold. I wanted to make the stat text pop on this one by adding a small drop shadow. I wanted all the text to be clear and legible as well, so I made the title fonts bolder. I also wanted cool, colorful icons. I also had 5 stats originally, but I simplified the mechanics so they could be pared down to just two. The other cool mechanic I implemented with these cards was the reversible stats, so players could choose which one they wanted for attack and defense.
Zombie Apocalypse Game (not actual title)
This is a card from a game being designed by a friend of mine, who is a seasoned graphical designer. I love the use of color and simple icons. All the art is going to be photographed, so he is also making props. The card design is elegant, has a grunge look to encapsulate the apocalyptic theme, which I also love. I have never seen any other cards like this one, so I look forward to seeing this game as it progresses.
So that about wraps it up. Experiment with different layouts, icons, text, etc. to get the optimal effect and make the best use of the space on the card. Have you designed any cards? Post a pic in the comments!