Stacking Your Decks

The concept of the deck of cards has benefitted tabletop gaming since before the invention of the printing press. Every game that has a deck of cards employs it differently; sometimes it’s the whole game in a tiny package and sometimes it’s only a minor part of an enormous set of components. Usually, when people create a deck of cards, they only think about how it contributes to its goals; however, there’s also an aesthetic and emotional sense to each deck of cards, in particularly how the cards differ from each other and how they’re distributed within the deck. This article aims to codify some of the most common types of deck construction and find the best place to use them.

Uniform Deck

Description: A uniform deck is made up of cards that all behave the same way. They’ll be different values or suits, and the way they combine might be interesting or unique, but there isn’t any particular card that has special exceptions to how it works.

Examples: A standard pack of playing cards, minus the joker, is the quintessential uniform deck, and has been the center of hundreds of games ranging from contract bridge to 52-card pickup. Trivia and impress-the-judge party games generally have uniform decks too, since they don’t want people to have to learn new rules on the fly.

Character“Hobby” board games with a uniform deck usually hide the complexity of their rules in the rulebook instead of on the cards, and instead dedicate a lot of fancy art or graphic design to the empty space provided. They’re good for lighter games that don’t have that many rules to remember, and in particular genres like trick-taking that rely on the elegance of the components.

As part of a larger game, uniform decks are useful as random number generators that don’t feel as arbitrary as dice (even though they totally are). You can also mess with the distribution of high or low numbers in order to change the character and frequency of what appears, making them more useful for fine-tuning.

Uniform decks aren’t as useful in thematic/experiential games because they necessarily possess a level of abstraction, given how homogenous all of the effects are. It’s better for this kind of game to make a set of cards with as many exceptions and impactful moments as possible.

Uniform Deck With Exceptions

Description: This type of deck is similar to the uniform deck, except a few cards play by different rules. Sometimes these cards are “wild” and can take the place of any other card in the deck; sometimes they’re “whammies”  that make things harder for the person who draws them. Either way, these cards break up both the monotony of the other existing cards and the elegance of having everything work the same way with no exceptions. There can be one or two exceptions to a whole deck, or they can make up to 40 or 50% of a deck that’s otherwise uniform.

Examples: The joker in a pack of playing cards, though there aren’t a lot of modern games that really use it. Cosmic Encounter‘s Destiny deck, which chooses who you’re attacking on your turn, is mostly the other player colors, but there’s also a Wild and several cards that target players who are ahead. The bluffing game Spicy requires players to call out bluffs by either suit or number; hidden in the deck are a card that’s valid for all numbers but false for all suits, and another one that does the opposite. Condottiere is mostly soldier cards of varying numbers, but there’s also powerful cards like the Drummer, which doubles your soldiers’ value, and the Heroine, who’s incredibly strong and can’t be affected by other cards.

Character: Having exceptions in a uniform deck ruins the uniform’s deck sense of “fairness”, whether that fairness was true or not. As such, a uniform deck with exceptions is best used for a lighter game where fairness at all times is less important than making lasting memories of played, or for a game that plays so many hands that whether one is fair or not doesn’t matter that much.

The number of exceptions is also important. Having one or two cards out of a 50-card deck work differently will make them feel surprising and exceptional; having fifteen out of a 50-card deck work differently will make it likely that you’ll see them multiple times per round, so it’s better to not make them too powerful or game-warping.

Unique Cards With Duplicates

Description: In this variety of deck, each card has its own method of affecting the rules or benefitting the player in some way. However, these cards come in multiples, so there might be 3 copies of Card A, 4 of Card B, and 2 of Card C in the deck. There may also be a few “categories” of cards that work similarly to each other, but differently from

Examples: Drafting games like 7 Wonders and Elysium often use this composition so players aren’t as paralyzed by having a whole series of new options every round. Elysium, in particular, has sets of cards that work exactly the same for each of the “families” that get shuffled together into one deck – so one card might give you money for collecting Zeus cards, another for collecting Athena cards, and so on.

This sort of deck is also used when representing a “character” of sorts, where you want them to have a distinct feel from the other characters while still remaining consistent to play. Every deck in Sentinels of the Multiverse is “unique cards with duplicates” for this reason. Also, if you’re drawing rewards from a deck mid-game, it will often use this construction so you have some idea of what you’re going to receive, like in Catan.

Character: This is the type of deck I see go wrong most often, because it can promise a sense of discovery and excitement and then betray it. If you’re only seeing part of this type of deck at a time, you might expect that many more different cards exist within the deck, not realizing that the handful of cards visible to you are a fair portion of what you’ll end up seeing for the whole game.

The trick here is to recognize when the balance between uniqueness and consistency is precarious enough to justify this type of deck, and go with one of the other types of decks depending on your needs except in this more narrow circumstance.

All Unique Cards

Description: As it sounds – all of the cards in the deck are unique, with their own effects and abilities.

Examples: Games with all unique cards are often very proud of them, and the entire game revolves around finding the best way to use one of the wacky cards you were just dealt. Glory to Rome and related games like Innovation and Import/Export are perhaps the purest examples, with each card being able to break the game in its own way. For a higher-profile example, Terraforming Mars and Wingspan both have decks of totally unique cards, though Wingspan has more cards with similar effects.

Character: A deck of all unique cards has a few caveats: They’re much harder to balance and design than decks where you can use multiples, and high-level strategy may end up being reliant on players knowing which cards are good and trying to fish for them. That said, depending on the game a set of all unique cards has the potential to be much more emotionally impactful than the alternatives, and is especially useful for “thematic” games where you want something different to happen not just every game, but every round or turn.

Conclusion: The World Beyond

These broad categories merely scratch the surface of how you can use deck distribution as a form of expression. It doesn’t cover games where the players develop the deck, nor the more esoteric uses of a stack of cards.

What is interesting is that these distributions of cards often have their own character that is different from the context of the game that appears around it. I’ve certainly played games that use one style of deck that perhaps should have been another – deciding what sort of deck best fits the needs of your game could be a large, and surprisingly easy, step towards greatness.

Incentives!!! On Ice

Richard Garfield wrote an article in The Kobold Guide to Game Design advising game designers to play as many different games as they can – not even board games, but video games, traditional games like tag, and even sports, as well as watching things like game shows and analyzing them as well. I’ve always found this advice to be spot-on, and try to branch out my game investigations where I can day to day. Because of this habit, I discovered a very interesting lesson about incentives and design intent from an unlikely source: Figure skating.

Super Spin Fighter 4

Figure skating is both a sport and performance art, combining athleticism that earns it several Olympic events with the aesthetic senses of dance media like ballet. This earns it a dedicated crowd of people who may bounce off other sports or arts, but also makes it impossible to come up with a system of judging that everyone can agree on. It essentially boils down to a debate within the skating community – should skating be judged as a sport, or as an art?

Earlier figure skating judging tried to combine the two, with judges giving a score between 0 and 6 for each category of presentation and technical skill. However, a corruption scandal at the 2002 Winter Olympics led to the adoption of the current standard used in skating competitions around the world, the ISU judging system. The ISU is a more objective scale that assigns a set value to each element (jumps, spins, etc.), then adjusts those points based on the element’s execution. There’s still points awarded for aesthetics, but it’s much more of a subordinate to execution.

The ISU scoring system was almost certainly a net positive when it comes to maintaining a competitive skating environment free of judging bias. However, this created an unintended side effect that affected how competitive people approached figure skating as a whole. Now that the majority of points were earned by execution of difficult elements, skating routines moved from a cohesive whole to more of a vehicle designed to cram in as many difficult elements as possible.

The flagship for this change is the “quad”, or a jump that requires that the skater rotate four times in midair before touching back to the rink. Suddenly, whether your routine did well or not depended in great part on whether you could hit the maximum number of quads in your routine, and less on whether those quads made aesthetic sense. As such, figure skating post-ISU scoring is now a race to the most difficult and elaborate moves, including more and more quads of various kinds. (And thus, figure skating is now a 4x game.)

Was the “quad revolution” worth the greater measure of objectivity earned by ISU? Was it also due in part to a gradually increasing athleticism on the part of people as a whole as coaching and training methods became more refined? These are questions better answered people who are more familiar with skating. What interests me is how the quad revolution was a perfect example of the core of all game design, tabletop and otherwise – incentives.

Quadruple Lutzing Through Hoops

Playing a game is the same as giving the designer permission to determine your behavior. What we do, think, and feel while playing a game are drawn from this social contract made with the game. However, designers have to use certain techniques to draw out these behaviors in the ways they want, and the best way to do that is to use incentives – a series of carrots and sticks that force players to make interesting, exciting, and challenging decisions.

There are many ways to incentivize player behavior. If a player wants to “win” a game, then any action that draws them closer to a win state than their opponents is incentivized, whether that’s lying in Werewolf, having kids in Agricola, or picking a funny card in Apples to Apples. Incentives are almost universal, even the unwritten ones – pretty much everyone who’s played a game of Codenames has given mocking suggestions to the opposing team when they’re in the weeds, because they’re incentivized to do so by the downtime and high tension on the other side.

 What’s always interested me is that, barring extreme acts of willpower from jokers who do things like build the longest road in Catan and no towns or cities, players will chase an incentive to win subconsciously, no matter how boring or miserable it is to do so. Thus, our responsibility as designers is to make sure that we’re incentivizing the things that let the players have the most fun.

The reason games go through so much playtesting is that incentivizing the right decisions for our games is nuanced and complicated. I played a Bang!-style hidden role game at a playtesting night a few years ago that was mostly performed in dead silence as we tried to figure out which roles the other players were. The designer, clearly a bit distressed, informed us that we should be talking in order to deceive the other players or suss out who was an opponent. The problem was that, based on the current rules of the game, the best thing for us to do to win the game was to quietly work towards our win conditions and not give away any information at all – if we were supposed to talk and argue, there should have been a good reason to. It wasn’t something that could have been found out by creating the rough draft and thinking about it, as human behavior in these scenarios is consistent but unpredictable.

Figure skating judging, both before and after, are examples of contests with flawed win incentives. The old 6.0 system incentivized judges to give higher scores to their home country and lower scores to opponents, as they had the freedom to do so within the rules and doing so was the best way for their country to win. (The only reason this didn’t turn into a leveling war and a race to nul points for every country was because there was a subjective limit to how much of this the audience, IOC, etc. would accept.) Under the ISU system, judges no longer had much room to do this, but skaters now had a clear incentive to adhere to an objective set of rules and maximize points as much as possible. 

Planning Your Program

At this point, we’ve broadly covered the why and how of incentives, though of course there’s so many fine details that you could fill multiple books with them. What we haven’t yet covered is the what – what do you actually want your game to incentivize? In here, too, figure skating proves deeply illuminating.

As I mentioned previously, figure skating straddles the fence between “art” and “sport”. When coming up with a system of judging, or in other words the incentives you give to skaters and coaches, how do you want to treat the practice of skating? Because skating is in the Olympics and many of the other major competitions follow in its footsteps, the broader organizers of the skating world firmly pointed the needle towards “sport”. However, while that may have been the best decision for their circumstances, it had its consequences and was not perhaps the ideal choice for skating enthusiasts or the medium as a whole.

When creating a game, you want to think about what actions, reactions, and emotions you want the game to generate and then build a system of incentives and punishments that push players towards those goals. Sometimes it’s very easy and almost subconscious to choose your design intent, particularly when working in an established media – the intellectual coziness of trick-taking games, the adrenaline rush of social deduction games, and the joy and despair of co-op games. Other times, you’re trying to mirror the emotional experiences of an external source, whether that’s the harrowing nature of the Underground Railroad or a schlocky B-horror film.

Sometimes your game, like skating, will have multiple emotional reactions it’s trying to draw from players and you need to design incentives that strike a balance. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft are essentially two things at once – a video game designed to challenge players and encourage them to continue playing in order to maintain their position on the “content treadmill”, and a virtual community that offers numerous opportunities for socialization and customization. For games like this, what looks like contradictory incentives – extremely high-end raids that require countless hours to succeed at alongside “minigames” like gardening and fishing – are trying to accomplish both goals at the same time.

When iterating your game, whether it’s broad mechanical changes or tweaking numbers, first ask yourself, “Why did I design this game? What did I want players to get out of it?” Then iterate your game so that it grows closer to that intent and not something else. It’s easy to be led astray by preëxisting games or criticism of games that aren’t like yours and to do things like make a game with wacky asymmetrical factions homogenous and boring in the name of “greater balance”, or make a party game too complex in an attempt to stand out from genre competitors; having a conscious sense of what you want your game to be, and what it could be but you don’t want it to, will keep your design journey more focused.

Kiss and Cry

Many people design games at the brain-stem level without really thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. God knows I do. However, tabletop game design is a profession that forever rewards you for doing the hard work of overthinking every tiny detail, and no detail is more consequential to forget than “Why was I making this in the first place?”

These questions are so obvious that they are often easy to forget. I’m grateful that the quad revolution, and skating and general, helped me wake up and consciously think about it.