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LESSON #38:
PROTOTYPING CARD GAMES

v1.0 April, 2004 - revised January, 2012

NOTE: these lessons are primarily aimed at aspiring game designers, but many of the concepts described herein also apply to those who aspire to other types of jobs in the game industry. This lesson is subject to changes and improvements; reader comments are welcome. Some paid links which used to be in this article have been removed.


This website is not devoted solely to the design of electronic games. In article #20, I discussed the design of table games (board games, card games, dice games, etc.). In that article, I only wrote a little about the prototyping process, and this article is an attempt to start rectifying that oversight.

Many, if not most, board games include cards. And games utilizing nothing but cards can be a heck of a lot of fun to design and to play. On the old game design and playing-card newsgroups (newsgroups are a now-outmoded and spam-overrun part of the web), one of the most frequently asked questions I saw was "how do I prototype game cards."

There are three main methods, all involving the use of a computer printer. The method you choose may depend on the needs of your particular project. In brief, the three methods are outlined here. You can click the line to jump to the corresponding part of this article (or you can just scroll down - it's all here, and it's not that godawful lengthy).



Business Card Stock
If your game can use small cards, like the "Chance" and "Community Chest" cards in Monopoly, you can print your cards on business card stock. Business cards are smaller than regular playing cards or CCGs (Collectible Card Games, like Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, or Pokemon cards). But if you just need small cards for a board game, business cards should be fine.

Avery (http://www.avery.com) makes several kinds of printer-capable business card stock. Check at an office supply store like Office Depot or Staples and then scratch your head as you try to decide if you want to print "to the edge" or not, glossy photo stock, or thicker matte stock. My business card uses a line that goes all the way off the edge of the card, so I had to use "print to the edge" when I was printing my own business cards. For game cards, you would probably want the cheaper option, more cards to the sheet, without having to print all the way to the edge.

If you are concerned about fingerprints or corner damage from shuffling, you can slip the cards into CCG card sleeves/protectors. Or Avery also makes laminated cards. Perforated cards and laminator all in one. Simply print using your laser or ink jet printer, punch out card, and fold over lamination. 2" x 3-1/4", Uncoated, 3 Cards per Sheet. Part #05361.


Label Stock
Another technique is to print your card designs on label stock. Then you can buy some cheap playing cards and put the labels on them. You'd probably want to put the resulting stickered cards into CCG card protectors to protect the label edges when shuffling.

You can either print your card designs on full-sheet label stock (such as Avery 5265) or you can get labels that are pre-cut to a specific size. The typical playing card is 2-1/2" x 3-1/2". If you want to beat your head against a wall looking for pre-cut labels that are just the ideal size for this use, knock yourself out! But I think it's better to just use full-sheet stock, and cut to fit using a steel-edged ruler and a craft knife (like an X-Acto). Oh, and a plastic cutting board (available at art/craft supply stores - look in the yellow pages).


Heavy Card Stock
I usually lay out my cards with a graphics program like Microsoft Paint or Corel's PaintShop Pro. Print multiple cards on a sheet of cover stock or card stock (available at any office supply store). Set up your image file to have nine cards on a sheet - three lines of three cards, as below.

Print to fill the page. After printing, cut the cards apart. I use a steel-edged ruler and an X-Acto knife, on a self-healing plastic cutting board (all available at art/craft supply stores - look in the yellow pages). Once cut apart, slip the cards into CCG card protectors. Because you are using card protectors, you don't have to be nitpickingly precise with your cutting. And you don't need to make round corners.

Because even heavy card stock (which can only be as heavy as your printer can handle) isn't really all that stiff, some card game designers like to put regular playing cards into the sleeve with the home-made card - giving the cards a satisfying thickness and backside art as well.

I tried printing on both sides, and discovered that if the back art is too dark, it'll show through on the front. And then you have to worry about having all the backs coming out the same when the cards are cut apart. So it might be best to print the backs on separate sheets (if not using regular cards).


Printing Tips
There are two aspects to successful card printing: (1) the graphics program you use to lay out your cards on the computer, and (2) setting up your printer for the best result.

(1) Making cards is so much easier using computers than the techniques available without them! I've tried silkscreening, I've tried those rub-on letters, and Whoo! are computers better or what!! You can scan public domain images, cut and paste, resize, bucket-fill, add text, and all sorts of fun stuff. I like to use Microsoft Paint (the graphics utility that comes free with Windows) for many of my computer graphics needs. It's fine for all cut-and-paste operations, and it can do foreign-text inputting better than most other graphics programs (which usually expect you to just use the language the program was designed for). But it doesn't have good palette options or resize/resample functionality. I also like Paint Shop Pro (http://www.jasc.com/), and of course lots of folks swear by Adobe Photoshop (which I think is kinda expensive myself).

[Edit, May 9, 2006] In 2006 I had a query on the bulletin board from a lady who wanted to make text cards and lay them out in Word - I told her she'd have to experiment to figure out where to put her tabs and margins. Or - you can try the simple Windows program for creating and printing decks of cards at http://www.nand.it/nandeck. It works using a scripting language, and there are examples on the site. Haven't tried it myself.

[Edit, May 21, 2007.] Check out PlainCards.com, and their software QuickCards. Not a lot of features, but I hear it's easy to use. http://www.plaincards.com/QCProgram.html. And check out nanDECK too: http://www.nand.it/nandeck/. I hear it has more capability but is harder to use. And a third option I heard about today is Scribus: http://www.scribus.net/. Also, at Sourceforge.net there is a freeware program called Magic Set Editor. People primarily use this to create cards for Magic The Gathering, but its use needn't be limited to that.

[Edit, September 2008:] Also there's a web-based card generator at  http://bighugelabs. com/flickr/ deck.php# -- and a Mac card program at  http://projects. gandreas. com/cardographer /index.html. Go check'em all out, see if one of those suits your needs and your abilities. [End edits.]

You should just try using some of these methods and programs. Download demos, fiddle with them. Lay out cards and see if you like the features. I find that I use Microsoft Paint for some tasks, Paint Shop Pro for some tasks, and iPhoto Plus from Ulead Systems for other tasks. For printing, I might use any of them. The key for printing is the "Page Setup" feature.

(2) Look under the File menu of your graphics program. In the Print section, there is almost always an option called "Page Setup." This lets you tell the printer to print your document on one page, or to print it centered, or to set the margins, or to print the document "Portrait" or "Landscape." Try fiddling with these settings, and see what happens. Do that with a black-and-white test picture (one with a LOT of white in it), to save on colored ink.

I learned that you have to make sure you always use the same program for printing, otherwise the cards won't come out sized identically. I tried some tests, and I found that if I made a Microsoft Paint file of 666x909 pixels exactly, it would perfectly fill one sheet on my printer without any resizing necessary. But that might vary depending on the printer, and how close to the edge of a sheet your printer can print.

After you've told Page Setup how to treat your file, save your file. And be aware that the next time you open the file with the same program, Page Setup might not remember your previous settings. I find that Microsoft Paint remembers file-specific settings, and Paint Shop Pro remains set up the same as the way I last set it (regardless of the file).

My favorite technique for printing cards is #3 above (you remember... "Print on heavy stock, then cut"). So you want to make your cards come out a uniform size. The best way to do that is to try your different graphics programs until you figure out which one is friendliest and most reliable. Then always use that program to do your printing. I often put a note into the graphic itself (in a part of the image that will be cut away after printing).

If you are printing pre-cut labels (technique #2 above), Avery always includes printing instructions in the label stock package (assuming you are printing text or are printing your labels using Word, or WordPerfect, or Lotus). Avery also provides a great downloadable utility called AveryWiz. Just go to http://www.avery.com. But if you are mainly printing graphics, rather than text, I still recommend full-sheet label stock. No matter which technique you settle on, you should expect to have to start with some experimenting. Best to do most of your early experimentations on cheap regular paper, then go to the label stock after you've worked out most of the kinks.


CCG Sleeves or Protectors
Card sleeves (sometimes I call them "card protectors," but I had a persnickety perfectionist kinda guy email me once, telling me that my use of the term "card protectors" in Article 20 was just downright incorrect and misleading) are good for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they protect your home-made cards from fingerprints and smudges. And they also make all your cards exactly the same size (even if you didn't cut them out perfectly). AND they protect the corners from getting all wrinkly from rough shuffling.

They make cheap sleeves to protect collectible card games (CCGs like Magic The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh) and they make thicker, more expensive protectors to protect highly valuable cards (like a rare Honus Wagner or Babe Ruth baseball card). Of course (if you are persnickety like that other guy) I'm talking about the cheap sleeves, whichever term I use ("sleeve" or "protector"). The cheapest kind of card sleeves/protectors usually come 100 to a pack for $1, in other words one cent each. I've heard that there are slightly fancier ones too, including some with black backs. Check with your local comics/cards shop (look in the yellow pages).


Blank Cards
Sometimes I hear from perfectionists who can't be satisfied with business card-sized cards, or stickered cards, or with the imperfections inherent in self-cut cards (especially the rounded corners), and who can't abide the use of card sleeves. These perfectionists insist that the only solution for them is real playing-card stock, precut, printable on a computer printer. Well, in 2004, I finally found one at www.protoparts.bgdf.com - but that link no longer works! They have (had?) blank cards, blank dice, and blank boards. If you find a current website for them, or if you find another U.S. supplier of standard-sized playing-card printer stock, please post info on the rec.games.design newsgroup or here on my bulletin board so all the other game designers can share the bounty of your discovery.

Here's another way, if you are not only a perfectionist but also artistically inclined enough to want to paint or draw directly on blank cards. I've heard that you can buy blank cards at teaching supplies stores. You could look in the yellow pages under "educational materials" or "teaching supplies." But these supplies are probably more easily found on the internet, like at http://www.theteachersguide.com/Teachingsupplies.html (lots of teaching supplies sites listed there). But I don't know if they have those blank cards, or if those cards would have to be written on by hand, or if they're plastic coated, or anything.


Boxes
If you want, you can even print boxes to contain the cards you've made. There are probably a couple of different approaches you can take. The one I took was to dismantle and unfold a playing card package - which I used as a model to create my own.

I made the front and back of the box a little larger than a CCG card sleeve, and I had to experiment a little to make the thickness right for a deck of cards in sleeves. I made the file exactly 666x909 pixels so it would fill a sheet exactly (and I even put a line at the edge of the image in case the printer thought it could be smart and ignore white space). In this example, I used blue lines wherever I had to cut, and gray lines wherever I had to fold. I used double-stick tape to put it together. If you're a creative game-designer-type person, you'll figure it out. And you'll probably even find a better way than I did!


These techniques are useful for making small quantities of cards, for prototyping purposes. It's fun to make a few decks this way, but it can get tedious if you need hundreds of decks to sell or give away as samples. If you want to make large quantities of cards, then you should refer to the resource links at the bottom of Article #20.

On March 29, 2004, I learned of the website of TM Playing Cards, at http://www.tmcards.com/playingcards_basic.php. Their website says: "'Custom Playing Cards' can be made for individuals, small and large organizations alike. The level of customizaton is almost unlimited -- we are the ONLY manufacturer capable of making custom faces and backs of the cards. Furthermore, we have flexible options for size, quantity, and packaging." TM Playing Cards has offices in Sacramento, CA (USA) and Mumbai (India). By presenting this information, I'm not endorsing the company - just saying this is another way to go, depending on your requirements.

And here's another company that makes cards - www.eastcards.com. Again, I'm not endorsing. Just saying...

Ane another one: Dah Chung Playing Card Company, Ltd. Tel: (852) 2565 1483 - Fax: (852) 2565 9920 - Email: sales@dcpc.com.hk - URL: www.dcpc.com.hk - Add.: 4/F, Flat A, Wah Ha Factory Bldg, 8 Shipyard Lane, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong. (Added May 23, 2006)


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