Game Design

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.