Wabi-Sabi in Card Game Design

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Cameron asked a good question here, and the answer led into a subject I wanted to talk about anyway. Let's call it "wabi-sabi for card game design." Wabi-sabi is the aesthetic ideal of natural imperfection and asymmetry. It stands in contrast to the perfect symmetry of industry or classic Western aesthetics. Here's where that's relevant in designing a deck of cards for the Belle of the Ball card game.

Now, my natural impulse is to make as perfect a distribution of all variables as possible. I want to create these obsessive mandalas across 96 data points. That's what you see above, but that's not going to be any fun to actually play. (This was one of the problems of the first iteration of Belle, actually.)

Say you wanted to make a deck of 96 cards with four levels of information, based on four independent variables. The first variable splits the deck in half (Male/Female). The second variable splits them it into thirds (Courage/Power/Wisdom). The third variable them into quarters (Fire/Water/Earth/Air). The fourth variable splits them into sixths (Dragon, Horse, Bear, Rat, Monkey, Eagle). Here's how you could get that symmetrical division with an organic distribution.

Grab a deck of 96 index cards.
Divide them in half.
Mark one half female.
Mark the other half male.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 32 cards, mark them as the Courage.
Draw another 32, mark them as Power.
Draw another 32, mark them as Wisdom.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 24, mark them as Fire.
Draw another 24, mark them as Water.
Draw another 24, mark them as Earth.
Draw another 24, mark them as Air.
Shuffle the cards again.
Draw 16, mark them as Dragon.
Draw another 16, mark them as Horse.
Draw another 16, mark them as Bear.
Draw another 16, mark them as Rat.
Draw another 16, mark them as Monkey.
Draw another 16, mark them as Eagle.

We'll stop there, but you can keep on going. Divide them into twelfths! Months of the year, maybe. Do you need some common/uncommon/rare/ultra-rare distinctions? Divide the deck into 1/12, 2/12, 3/12, 6/12.

In any case, you're going to get organic distributions. Does that mean one animal may have more courageous cards? If so, that's okay. Does that mean some some fire cards are rarely wise? That's okay, too. The division is perfect, the distribution is organic, by intent.

Oh! And because it's most economical to print card games in 108 card decks, you have 12 cards left over. How lucky! You have a variable that divides the deck into sixths. Thus, you can create a a sub-set of 12 special cards. If you did divide the deck into twelfths, perhaps these extra cards are a kind of Ace? ("Ace of January" sounds cool, actually.)

This is how I apply some degree of wabi-sabi to designing a card game. Divide up the deck in a balanced divisions, but distribute those differences organically.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.