Variable Data in Card Game Design




I've certainly had an educational weekend. Right now I'm laying out three card games: Zeppelin Armada, Velociraptor! Cannibalism!, and Belle of the Ball. I'm kind of using Belle as a training ground to become a more efficient card game layout-er, 'cause damn that's actually a really a fun job.

What wasn't so fun was manually inserting every digit and icon directly into the layout. It was prone to typos, misalignments and subtle printing inconsistencies. I knew the big guys at WotC couldn't be setting up their Magic cards this way. Perhaps there's a way to automate this process?

I have some experience working with print houses who do what they call "variable data." It goes by several names, kind of like the Devil. Indeed, the central feature of variable data turns out to be spreadsheets. Not quite Lucifer, but close.

I followed Adobe's datamerge tutorial. I managed to figure it out thanks to several video tutorials that you can see at the top of this post. Each tutorial lacks in some areas, but others compensate. When you've watched them all, you get a real sense of how this can be used in card games.

For an example, check out this spreadsheet for Belle of the Ball. Some of the columns list plain text, others list .eps images that I call where necessary. These images are card icons generally, though the "PORTRAIT" column is where I'll call the portrait art. Now, I can set up one card template and be sure that all the icons, text, and art are in exactly the same positions.

Very powerful kung fu here, folks. Imagine you're making a card game like Magic: The Gathering. Your suits will have different backgrounds, each card has unique art, several cards have recurring icons in different amounts, and all have varying blocks of text. Using layers in InDesign, you can set aside spaces for all these elements without fear of them overlapping each other in unpredictable ways.

Set your background image block in a BACKGROUND layer in InDesign. Do the same for ART, ICONS, and TEXT in ascending order. Then you lay out your image and text frames as per the tutorials above. There you go, no fuss card game layout.

P.S. If you are making a game like Magic, and you'd rather show quantities as a row of individual icons instead of a single digit (like mana cost), there are two things you might do:

One, you can set aside several columns representing each potential space for mana cost icon. Then, insert the appropriate .eps as necessary. This may be tedious, but it's relatively straightforward.

Two, you can create a special font for ALL your game icons. Then, you don't have to call any special .eps files at all. You can just insert normal text into your spreadsheet, set the InDesign text styles to your special font, then voila! You have yourself a card game.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.