Making a Card Game Prototype

Recently I wanted to try quickly prototyping a few card game ideas, but I couldn’t find much information on how to actually do it. After a few iterations I figured I’d jot down what I ended up doing.

My first attempt was pretty laborious. The process went something like this:

  • Create a sheet of card frames in PaintBrush.
  • Paste in clipart and text.
  • Print about 5-10 copies of the sheet.
  • Cut along the outer borders.
  • Shove the paper into card sleeves.
  • Throw Magic: the Gathering cards in the sleeves for support.
Iteration 1, Card Sheet
Iteration 1, Card Samples

Well, this worked, but it had a lot of problems. Any change in the card frame meant redoing all the cards. The text was really hard to align. I used actual scissors instead of a cutting board, so the edges were sloppy and my hands got super tired. Sleeving everything took forever.

But! After years and years of drafting Magic: the Gathering, I’ve got boxes and boxes of cards sitting in the closet. The vast majority are either jank (too weak to use even in casual decks), or duplicates of very common cards. I’d feel bad throwing them out, but all they do is take up space.

Enter Avery Adhesive Name Badges. It turns out these are 2.33×3.38in – Magic cards are 2.5×3.43in. These stickers fit cleanly within the black border of modern Magic cards! Now it’s just a matter of killing two birds with one stone: printing the prototype cards and using up worthless Magic cards in the process.

The first thing I did was ditch PaintBrush for Adobe InDesign. I don’t know much about graphic design, but it’s not too hard to use. I made a simple card frame template for each card type (sample below). This one has five blank areas: Title in the upper-left, Cost in the upper-right, Image at the top, Rules Text at the bottom, and Points at the bottom-left.
Iteration 2, Card Layout

The next step is generating a CSV file with the card designs on them. InDesign will use this file to generate a finished card for each row. For example:

Title,Cost,Points,@Image,Text
"Hamburger",5,+3,"C:\cards\hamburger.png","Hamburger is delicious."
"Yams",3,+2,"C:\cards\yams.jpg","If you currently smell yams, you get an extra 2 points."

Next, InDesign’s “Data Merge” tool comes in. This lets you associate each CSV column with a container in the document. After doing that, and clicking the Merge icon, we get finished cards:

Iteration 2, Merging Cards
Iteration 2, Merged Cards

Now that we’ve got cards, the next step is actually getting them to the printer. So far I’ve toyed with a few ways of doing this, but the fastest approach I’ve got is to use InDesign’s Data Merge feature again. Avery doesn’t provide an InDesign template for their sticker sheets, so I got out a ruler and measured out my own. It’s not perfect but it’s accurate enough for prototyping. I then export the card images, and make a new CSV file. This time each column represents a slot on the sticker sheet. Since I’ve only got two cards, the sheet will have duplicates:

@Slot1,@Slot2,@Slot3,@Slot4,@Slot5,@Slot6,@Slot7,@Slot8
"C:\cards\card-1.png","C:\cards\card-1.png","C:\cards\card-1.png","C:\cards\card-1.png","C:\cards\card-2.png","C:\cards\card-2.png","C:\cards\card-2.png","C:\cards\card-2.png"

Before the data merge, and after:

Iteration 2, Merging Card Sheet
Iteration 2, Merging Card Sheet

Now the document can be directly printed onto the sticker sheet. Since the sheets aren’t very cheap, I do a sample run first and make sure they line up. If it looks good… print and apply! Magic jank card pictured below, and the final product. The cards are only slightly thicker than Magic cards. The stickers withstand shuffling, though they have more friction than the Magic card surfaces.

Stickering cards up.
Final product.

This process works very well for proxying actual Magic cards too, or making your own Magic cards. I’m reluctant to show actual images of this – despite it being obviously not a counterfeiting attempt (you can tell there’s a huge sticker applied), I don’t want Wizards of the Coast suing me. But with some coding, my friend and I were able to build a draft set for Limited Edition Beta. Two sheets gets you 16 cards, so we stuck 1 rare, 3 uncommons, and 9 uncommons, randomly chosen, onto two sheets at a time. Apply the stickers onto other Magic cards, and you’ve got a booster pack of proxies for drafting cards that for all intents and purposes are unobtainable. We haven’t done the actual draft yet – but I’m guessing it’ll be pretty rough compared to modern sets.

How did the actual prototyped game turn out? Tragically, it didn’t involve hamburgers or yams. More importantly, I forgot to include a win condition. Eventually we realized there was no way to end the game so we stopped playing. But hey, that’s what playtesting is for.

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