Digital card games are a fun challenge to design because they give you a basic and familiar foundation (a deck of cards) that you can adapt to just about any genre, style of play, or conceptual theme. I based a lot of my prototypes, initially, on a single deck of 52 cards, but in the end, precious few of them wound up resembling anything close to a traditional solitaire card game.
Missile Cards may be my first commercially released card game, but I’ve created dozens of card game prototypes and am working on numerous card-based projects I plan to release in the future. From working on these projects, I’ve noted some common elements that tend to make or break a digital card game’s design.
Here’s a look at some of the core design considerations that you need to think about when making digital card games.
1. A strong theme is everything
A theme is usually the first place I start when I’m thinking about a new card game project, because it quickly helps me figure sort out a visual style for my game.
Having a striking visual style is important, but I also find that deciding on a theme helps me come up with interesting ideas for the gameplay itself. Whether you’re making a card game about dungeon crawling, fishing, city building, sci-fi combat, or even relationship building, each potential theme holds an exciting range of possibilities for visual style and unique card mechanics.
2. Figure out your visual layout early on
When designing card games, I often begin mocking up visual layouts very early-on in the process, before I even start coding up the game itself. This lets me adjust card size, play around with positioning, and make important decisions about how the game might play based on the limitations of resolution and screen space. I often find that doing this helps me identify potential design issues right away, saving me a lot of time and energy.
It’s also worth mentioning you shouldn’t finalize any of your artwork until you’ve got your core layout locked down, since making layout decisions can have a huge impact on your games visual direction
3. Balance accessibility, depth, and replay
Many mobile players prefer games they can enjoy in short bursts instead of marathon sessions. This is one of the reasons card games are so popular on mobile, because they often balance short, accessible gameplay loops with high replayability and long-term metagame progression.
When designing card games, it’s worth paying close attention to how long it takes to play through a game and tuning that to be a short, highly replayable experience. Making sessions fun and punchy is important, but also explore ways to layer on progression mechanics, unlockables, and other goals that give players a reason to keep coming back for more.
4. Make the most of the digital format
Physical card game design often tends to be centered around a limited set of simple rules and mechanics—things that can be easily digested without pushing players over the edge of information overload. With digital card games, however, you can get away with much more complexity because you can build it into the behind-the-scenes system that runs the gameplay.
From dice rolls and stat tracking to randomization and special events, a lot of the nitty-gritty can be handled by code, freeing up players to focus on whatever you present to them. This opens the door to weaving lots of unusual genres into card-based designs. Missile Cards, for example, just wouldn’t be possible as a simple card game without forcing players to keep track of an excessive amount of information. But the digital format let me design systems to automatically handle a lot of the complexity, allowing players to concentrate on the strategic defense gameplay and simply enjoy the experience.
Quick tips for digital card design
- Pick a strong, distinct theme
- Make your visual design pop
- Aim for short, highly replayable gameplay loops
- Take advantage of the digital format
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Nathan Meunier is an indie developer, freelance writer, author, and creator of Missile Cards. His work has appeared in more than 40 publications including Nintendo Power, PC Gamer, GameSpot, EGM, and many others. He is also the co-founder of indie studio Touchfight Games.