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.


  1. It occurs to me that what you have been looking to achieve here is essentially the same process used to produce enterprise dashboards for reporting of business metrics. You might find is an interesting and useful starting point in providing examples of how people have turned spreadsheet numbers into visually attractive and useful information.

  2. This post is excellent!

    Also, some Magic fans have done a really amazing job reverse engineering Photoshop layouts for their custom card designs. Links to the templates are here:

    Even if your game doesn't look anything like that, for lay designers like me, having the file to manipulate is amazingly helpful.

    Would you mind posting some of your blank Indesign templates? That's a program I'm not as familiar with and having a file to play around with would be really helpful.

  3. I will do so soon!

  4. I did something like this for some trade show graphics last year. It is so awesome and saves SO much time.
    I wish I had this when I was laying out the Highlander card game or L5R. I bet we would have not made some of the mistakes that happened. :]

  5. The thing that I'm still learning is how to be really firmly married to a template. I'm used to fiddling until the last minute, but I gotta commit once I hit DataMerge.

  6. This is actually the basis for how we create product catalogs that erin into hundreds or a thousand plus pages. I stated using it for card design. Now if only I can convince Benny how much time this could save...

  7. Um, why? As long as the spreadsheet is the canonical source of your data, just tweak the template and re-merge. You ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY have to get out of the habit of tweaking your data inside the ID document, though.

  8. "Two, you can create a special font for ALL your game icons." This is limited by the fact that a font can only be in one colour. It won't work if you use multi-coloured symbols or even just different colours for different symbols.

    For designing card games, I've started using LaTeX to merge PDF elements and formatted text. It's a similar trick to the datamerge approach.

  9. Oh man. LaTeX is the point where typography becomes too much like programming for me. DataMerge is going to be my upper-limit of automation for the time being. :)

  10. Those looking for something a little less expensive -- and a lot easier -- than InDesign will probably be delighted by nanDeck (, which is free, and handles data merging from csv files very well.

    I use it to get my games ready for play testing.

  11. You can achieve some of the same effects with GREP styles in InDesign, tho. Like, when you know you're using a "heart" glyph in a certain paragraph style, you could have a GREP style that says, okay, make that red.

  12. Finally got to use this. Thanks, Daniel.
    For those about to try this, the useful nugget that's not easy to find is—The name of the columns representing images or files that will be loaded have to start with the '@' symbol.

  13. Yes! Very important thing to point out. That's how you can do variable art and iconography, too.


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