Crystal Mandalas in Card Game Design


After describing the organic "wabi-sabi" style of card game design I used in Belle of the Ball, I got some comments on boardgamegeek expressing a preference for more symmetrical deck design.

Mark McEvoy : "I'm of the camp that prefers the symmetrical systematic approach because then you can be certain that specific combinations exist / are unique / are not disproportionately plentiful in your deck."

David Boeren : "If there is ever a time where the different elements interact with each other then I do not want them randomly assigned. That makes it harder to balance and it makes it hard on the players who now have to remember a lot more about the deck to avoid bad play decisions."

Sure, I see the appeal. But speaking as a designer, it's way too easy to get sucked into a death-spiral of perfectly symmetrical mandalas. These precious crystal structures are such fastidious distractions for OCD perfectionists like me.

The example above is one way to divide up a 180-card deck. There are two halves (36 cards each; day, night), six elements (28 cards each; fire, electricity, plant, water, air, earth), and twelve individual groups (9 cards each; Group 1 – Group 12). Sixty cards have a combination of one half, one group and one element. Sixty cards have a combination of one half, one group and one element. Thirty-six cards have a combination of one half, one group and two elements. Twelve cards have a combination of one half, one group and three elements.

Oh, but wait! What about cards with four elements? Five elements? Could some cards straddle two or more groups? Is there a ranking system for the single-element cards? But crap, that would make more than 108 cards. Whatever shall we do? omg!

Yeah... See what I mean? This kind of meticulous deck composition is waaay too fussy. More time is spent organizing these compositions than actually designing a game. Sure is pretty to look at, though.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.