Methods of creating cards for board games

Ways to make cards for your board game

Dave Berlin Prototyping 2 Comments

I’ve started working on what for lack of a better term I’m calling Prism version 6. I haven’t been very rigorous about versioning, and that’s a whole other blog post, but for today I want to talk about making cards. There are somewhere around 120 cards in Prism, and I’d like to make a bunch of changes to them for the next version. Initially there were very few cards, and so I made them by hand in Word. Then I added a few more, and then a few more, until I got to where I am now: needing to redo them for the next version and no patience to spend the next four days in Word.

I only need to change some of them, but I don’t want to go through and check each and every one and make sure that was or wasn’t one I was supposed to update. In short, it’s time for a new approach.

I started looking at various ways that I could create cards, and I found a bunch of suggestions on this thread and also just from hearing about some of these options over the past couple of years. I spent about a day or so playing with these various technologies, trying to figure out what’s right for Prism. I also thought it would be helpful to try to plot these on a graph so I could see where the different technologies stand and make the right decision.

Methods of creating cards for board games

Some of this probably needs explaining, so let me do that a bit. First, the graph shows an increasing learning curve as you move to the right (that is, harder to use) vs. capabilities on the y-axis (higher up means it can do more). Here’s a bit about each circle and my reasoning for putting them where I did:

  • Pen and paper: definitely the quickest and easiest way to get started, but seriously lacking in features. You can’t do bulk updates, or make copies easily, or do statistical calculations on numbers. Unless you write on real, glossy cards they’re also hard to shuffle.
  • Hand edit: what do I mean by this? I mean opening up some program and just editing directly in that program, without externalizing your data. It could be Word (like I originally did for Prism), Photoshop, InDesign, or any other program where you lay out each card individually. It’s easy, but like pen and paper it just doesn’t scale.
  • Paperize: essentially data merge made simple, Paperize looks like it has fewer capabilities than traditional data merge–for example placing elements anywhere on the card–but the upside is it looks super easy to use. I imagine the templates they provide will cover most games you’d want to make, but it’s possible you will feel limited by where you can place things or how many elements you can have on a card. And of course all of this is based on the preview video because at the time of writing this software has not been released.
  • CardMaker: I was actually really impressed with this software. I had to go through the tutorial but after that I was able to make a deck of cards in less than an hour, including creating some images that were originally three or four PNGs in my Word document and needed to be combined into one image. It’s got a great graphical interface so you get feedback as you make changes, and you don’t need any programming skills to use this. If you are a programmer, than you’ll appreciate that it’s open source. It wasn’t totally clear to me how to make different sized cards, but I guess you were supposed to calculate how many pixels your preferred card size would be. Overall not a bad choice for making cards.
  • Data merge: this could be in Word or InDesign or any other program with this kind of feature but wasn’t explicitly designed for making games (CardMaker does data merging but it’s clearly for making cards). I don’t know why I find this to be so difficult. Maybe it’s because Word has like 12 gajillion menus and commands. And the results are always ugly. It’s hard to get it to just “do the right thing” and you have to manually go through and tweak all your cards to make sure they don’t look hideous or have text cut off. I just hate data merging.
  • Strange Eons 3: I get the impression that this software is very powerful but I just don’t get it. I was also just looking to make cards and I think it can make a lot more than that. But everything seemed to be in terms of pages rather than cards, and I couldn’t find a great tutorial, and I was confused by some of the terminology like decks being a “subtask” of cards. Like I said, I think it’s probably very powerful. You can download plug-ins for a bunch of existing games so that you can add content to them. And that’s pretty cool, but I couldn’t figure out how to make a deck of cards for my game.
  • nanDECK: I have to admit that I was so put off by nanDECK’s web site, straight out of the mid-90s, that I have dismissed this software every time I’ve heard about it. And once you download it you will be overwhelmed by the number of buttons on the screen. But here’s the thing: once you get over that, it’s actually really, really powerful. And the user manual is just a delight: it starts off with an example, orients you to all the buttons, and then goes straight into a more advanced example with images and data merging. The reference section is helpful, the examples are all really nice, and since it’s programming it’s extremely powerful. But it’s not hardcore programming. It uses a simple scripting language that’s very easy to pick up. Here’s the kicker–are you ready for this–there’s a button labeled “The Game Crafter” that let’s you connect to your Game Crafter account, upload your cards, and print them. Wow!!
  • Squib: full disclosure: I didn’t try Squib. I can only assume it’s about as powerful as nanDECK because I think you have the full Ruby programming language at your disposal. On the website it says: “Think of it like nanDECK done ‘the Ruby way’.” That’s all fine and good, but I’m not a Ruby programmer. You have to install Ruby, learn enough Ruby to use this, learn all their domain-specific commands, and then start making your cards. The docs are online and searchable, and that’s awesome, but I’m not a Ruby programmer and I don’t have time to become one just to make some cards. If you are, I’d say this is probably a no-brainer.

Whatever method you decide to use for making cards, I’d highly recommend organizing your decks as CSV files. Many of these programs will connect to and read CSV files, and it’s a common denominator unlike xls or xlsx. It’s also nice to have an electronic copy of your cards in case anything happens to your physical cards or you decide to get fancy later on and go from manually creating cards in Word to some kind of programming or data merging environment.

Also, if you are put off by the lack of formatting features in CSV, you can of course still use something like xlsx and then save as a CSV when you’re ready to data merge. You may have to do some cleanup in a text editor, though, so be prepared for that.

For Prism 6 I’m going to try to use nanDECK. I like that it’s programming but I don’t have to download and install a new language or spend a ton of time learning “the Ruby way” of doing things. I love the idea of setting up a workflow where I can send these straight to Game Crafter and print them. I’m really looking forward to getting all my cards digitized and making all the actual changes to the game that I want to make, and then seeing those reflected in the cards immediately. It’s going to be a lot more efficient than the hand-editing I’ve done up until this point.

What do you think of my list? Did I miss any great ways to make cards? Or did I totally blow it on one of my evaluations? Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Comments 2

  1. I’ve only tried out CardMaker before, and it didn’t really fit my needs at the time. I ended up just using Word (and Paint I think) and uploaded to The Game Crafter. Definitely not recommended, but it worked for me. Beyond that I haven’t tried any of these other options, but I’ve heard of Strange Eons and Paperize. Both intrigue me, but I’m too much of a dinosaur to try them out.

    However, I would love to hear how nanDeck works out for you. Being able to upload directly to The Game Crafter has peaked my interest. Maybe even enough for me to venture out and try to learn how to use that program.

  2. For years — and I suspect that it’s still the case — R&D at Wizards of the Coast employs Filemaker Pro for card prototyping. FMP is fundamentally a database system, and so if you want to see averages over many rows, or sort by type, or compare frequencies of game mechanics, or any other computation, keeping your card data in a data table is useful. What makes FMP uniquely helpful is being able to see your data through custom layouts. One layout might resemble your card frame. You can make a single change to a card and have all layouts featuring that card — or even part of a card — reflected in your prototype frame. Great for quick iterations.

    FMP is expensive-ish. (Couple hundred bucks.)

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