Anatomy of a Card
Graphic design is a vastly overlooked but critical part of tabletop game design. It gives your game both a professional look and helps players understand the game. Poor graphic design can make even the best games a frustrating mess, but great graphic design can make learning a complex game a breeze.
So what exactly is graphic design? It can be many things, but I’ll be talking about it in the context of a card game. It’s the layout and positioning of all the elements within the card. It’s iconography. It’s the font choice. It’s the color choice. It’s the visual consistency and usability of the card.
Later, I’ll discuss the topic of iconography, but in this post, I’ll cover what I like to call the anatomy of a card. Many complex card games have elements that are common across other games. This actually works in our advantage because there’s already an established expectation of where things belong. But what are these elements and where do they go? I’ll talk about what these elements are first and then dive into some examples from popular games and also my own game, Fantastic Factories.
Name is an element that is present in almost any card. Interestingly enough, it offers almost no purpose mechanically, but can be used to identify and refer to the card as well as add flavor. Because it’s used to refer to the card, the name is often featured prominently with the largest text and typically at the top of the card.
Even more so than the name, the art usually serves no purpose at all other than eye candy. However, it’s also the element that benefits the most by being front and center and as large as possible. Typically the art is positioned in the middle of the card with other visual elements placed above, below, and sometimes on the sides. This also creates a framing effect that draws the eye into the center of the card. There’s often a struggle between featuring the art as prominently as possible and giving the other elements on the card enough space.
Cost to Play/Buy/Build
The cost to play, buy, or build a card isn’t present in all card games but is often found in any medium or heavy weight game that incorporates resource management. The position of the card cost depends on where the card is found before paying the cost.
In a game where the card lives in your hand before being played, you’ll often find the card cost along the top left corner of the card. That’s because when cards are fanned out in your hand, the top left corner is the most visible. Players often know what resources are available to them and being able filter their hand what is playable based on cost is important.
When cards are fanned out in your hand, the top left corner is the most visible.
In a different situation, if the card is displayed on the table and later placed in your hand, the cost is typically found along the bottom edge of the card. That’s because the cost becomes irrelevant once it’s in your hand, and the bottom edge of the card is the least visible when in your hand — your thumbs are often covering up the bottom.
What the card does
This is arguably the most important element of the card, but also one that can take up a significant amount of space, depending on how complex the cards are. As a result, the card instructions can sometimes take up as much space as the art. Aesthetics and usability can often be in direct conflict with each other as you try to balance the size of the art versus the amount of space given to the card instructions. This is particularly important in games where other players are expected to see the card you played and even more important in games where the cards persist on the table like they do in a tableau building game.
When players are expected to be able to read and understand a card from across the table, it’s absolutely critical that the card details are large, clear, and have as little text as possible.
Games often categorize their cards. It’s a way to quickly determine the general characteristics of a card and its relevance in various situations. Indicating the card type can be as subtle as a small icon or could be the entire coloring of the card. Often times it’s a good idea to use both. Color is a strong and obvious way to denote categorization but a visual icon or label can be useful to players who are color blind.
Let’s dive into some specific examples and see how other games have chosen to arrange all these card elements.
Dominion is THE original deck building game. The original game is composed purely of cards, so the design of the card is very important. As expected, the name is the largest textual element on the card, and it’s displayed at the top. The card instructions take up the bottom half of the card so the art only covers the top half. The card cost is on the bottom left, which is just fine because the cards for purchase are laid out on the table. Once the card is in your hand, the cost no longer matters. The card type is along the bottom next to the cost, which lets you evaluate both elements at the same time easily.
Magic: The Gathering
Magic is one of the oldest card games. The template has had many visual updates, but the general arrangement of all the elements have remained the same. The art is a big appeal to many people, so it’s given ample amount of space. The card type is displayed just below the art, which gives the art a great frame. There are also some subtle hints with the card frame color that indicate the card is a hybrid white/black card.
The intriguing departure from the norm is the card cost. Rather than being positioned along the top left of the card, the cost is displayed on the top right corner where it can be more difficult to see when held in your hand. It’s not clear to me why it’s positioned in such a way. It’s possible that it’s simply for aesthetics, and they’ve stuck with it ever since the beginning. It’s worth noting that in MTG’s Future Sight set, the theme was exploring the possible future of MTG, and one of the things they did was experiment with the card frame. As you can see below, they repositioned the card cost along the left edge of the card.
Race for the Galaxy
With Race for the Galaxy, we are getting into some more atypical card designs. The cost of the card is on the top left (in the circle), but it’s also accompanied by the victory point value (in the hexagon). The art fills the entire rest of the card, leaving only space for the name. Each turn is split into 5 phases and the graphic designers have chosen to leave a space for every phase regardless of whether the card affects that phase or not. This lets you quickly scan the card to see what phase it affects. Race for the Galaxy makes extensive use of iconography, which allows it to convey most card details very succinctly. Without this highly developed iconography, it wouldn’t be possible to leave space for every phase and showcase the art so prominently. Iconography is a huge topic of its own, which I’ll also cover in a future post.
7 Wonders also features an unusual card design. Rather than being placed at the top of the card, the name is tucked away in the bottom left. Instead, the card effect is positioned at the top. 7 Wonders also uses an extensive amount of iconography, which allows the art to dominate the majority of the card. This large iconography combined with the top level positioning is ideal for a tableau building game. As players are laying out their cards, it becomes very easy for other players to quickly scan a tableau and identify each card’s effect. In 7 Wonders, the card type is indicated by the colored backdrop of each card. The cards are also expected to be stacked in a cascading fashion and that often means only the very top of the cards can be seen.
Interestingly, the bottom right is used to indicate what subsequent card can be built for free. For instance, if already have Baths, you can build Aqueduct for free. However, because the cards are usually stacked, this feature of the card gets hidden. (Thanks to Shannon Kelly for pointing this out!) Later, in 7 Wonders Duel, they correct this issue by placing this bonus on the top right of the card.
Finally, we have Fantastic Factories. The placement of elements are fairly standard. The build cost is shown along the top left edge. The card name is displayed in large font at the top. The card type is indicated both by color (brown) and using a descriptive text label (Utility). This lets me use the color as the primary way to categorize cards but also attaches a label that players can use to refer to each category and also helps players with color blindness. The card instructions is situated only on the bottom third of the card because I wanted the art to be bright, bold, and as big as possible. Keeping the card instruction area small is also a way of keeping the game’s complexity in check. If the instructions can’t fit within that small space, then it’s likely the card is too complex. That’s something to keep in mind — the more complex your card is, the more of the art and aesthetics you may need to sacrifice.
The more complex your card is, the more of the art and aesthetics you may need to sacrifice.
The layout of a card is extremely important for the usability and ease of playing a game. Luckily, there are many well established guidelines. These guidelines not only make sense from a visual perspective, but as players become familiar with card games, they begin to expect to see certain visual elements like the cost in the same position. However, there are always exceptions to the rule, especially if the game is unique. Just remember when you design your cards that you consider the context in which they will be used. The design for a card that spends most of its time on the table versus the design for a card that stays in your hand can be very different.
What are some games that have unusual and unique card layouts? Let me know in the comments.