Collected CCG Design Research

As I mentioned last week, A La Kart has at its core the DNA of a CCG. There are focused constructed decks tailored to unique play styles, customization options for advanced players, and expanding options released over time. The whole shebang. This is a new territory for me, as I tend to design more standalone, (hopefully) elegant, single-deck games.

So, I got to work researching. I played Magic back in the day and a bit of Netrunner earlier this year.  I downloaded and played Hearthstone, SolForge, and Adventure Time: Card Wars. Explored the deckbuilding side of things with Dominion, Ascension, Quarriors, Valley of the Kings, Master Merchant, and Star Realms. My wife and I have really got into Kaijudo, and we're disappointed that the CCG business model requires such a huge critical mass that the game is no longer supported despite some avid fans. That's another story, though.

But throughout all this, I've found some really smart people talking about CCGs as a design genre.

If you have some good lectures or interviews to share, I'm eager to see them!

Breakdown of POD Pricing

The first full year of Smart Play Games is coming to a close soon and I've collected many many capital-O opinions about the viability of the POD business model for indie card game designers. Overall, I'm favorable and very pleased with my results from 2014, but the economics of the system shouldn't be taken lightly. Today, I wanted to talk about pricing in the POD market. If you were curious about what goes into the pricing of POD products, the general idea is...

High Margins, Low Prices

My earliest releases were fairly large decks of cards around 90 cards. The economics of print-on-demand releases dictate a fixed price per card as a minimum cost for production. Because DriveThruCards doesn't do rulebooks, I have to print rules on cards themselves. That means higher minimum cost for production.

My own earnings come from the margins I choose for each sale of a product, which DriveThruCards allows me to set at my discretion. I quickly found that a 90-card deck would need a commensurate higher price, but then I started hitting a ceiling. $14.99 games just weren't selling well. Instead, I found that $9.99 is the sweet spot for POD pricing. It's low enough to be an impulse buy, but high enough that I can still afford to do the occasional promotional discount. Anything higher than that gets a measurably lower sales.

Therefore, each card I add to a deck cuts into my overall earnings. For example, a card game like Light Rail has 10 cards per player, for up to four players, plus 8 bonus cards. That puts me up to 48 cards for the game alone. Now I add one card to act as the "cover" of the product. Then I add 6 cards for the rules. That puts me at 54-cards, which turns out to be just right to have a set a livable margin of profit for my work. See the pie chart above for how it breaks down.

Minor League System for Board Games

Of course, a more pessimistic way to put this would be high costs, low sales. Mainly because the price per unit would be far lower if I released these games in a traditional model of Crowdfunding > 5000+ print run > Shipping > Warehousing > Fulfillment. The price per unit would be pennies, but doesn't necessarily mean higher earnings when I tally the costs of all the other services involved in that model. And it would be way more stressful. And it would be way slower release schedule.

But even that presumes there is an us/them between POD and traditional releases. I've always held to the belief that POD is a complement to traditional publishing. It gives smaller card games a chance to perform on the marketplace with minimal risk, like minor league farm teams for the majors. When card games start going out of print in traditional retail networks, they can live on in POD for more long-tail sales, still earning revenue for the IP owner long beyond its retail life cycle.

I'm pleased to have seen Koi Pond get licensed by Joy Pie in China. Just a few weeks ago, Suspense and Light Rail were picked up by Funbox Jogos in Brazil. The "POD model" isn't an island. It exists in symbiosis with traditional publishing.

I hope other designers will soon experiment with this model, especially on DriveThruCards, who have been so extremely helpful and supportive from the start.

Update: Feedback from Other POD Publishers

After this originally posted, I got some very generous feedback from Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions) and Steve Segedy (Bully Pulpit) regarding their own sales numbers.

A La Kart - Concept Art

I'm really pleased to share the first look at the branding and concept art for A La Kart, the racing card game currently in development. The game is designed to be accessible, affordable, but with the customization options of a light CCG. It will be released as a series of 2-player duel decks starting with Sugar vs. Spice at Sundae Speedway.

Check out the concept art of the first two racers from Kaitlynn Peavler and Kristina Stipetic

The Sugar deck is for the defensive player. She's sweet on the surface but always just a few steps behind the leader of the pack, ready for an opportunity to take the finish line at the last second. She's got great recovery, but a low maximum speed.

The Spice deck is for the speedster player. She's optimized for high-speed straightaways and reckless daredevil maneuvering. She's vulnerable to hazards, but her accelerates fast once she's recovered.

Princess Bride: As You Wish NOW ON KICKSTARTER!

If you missed it this weekend, a trio of Princess Bride card games just went live on Kickstarter. As You Wish is a funky set-collection drafting game by me. Battle of Wits is a raucous party game for up to ten players by Matthew O'Malley. Miracle Pill is a strategic game about reviving the Man in Black by Philip DuBarry. This set of games is definitely for fans of casual games with real sense of design to support the fun. Only a few days left to back the project!

Arf! Rulebook Preview

Heyo! The rulebook for Arf! is available for your review here! I'd love it if you could spot any ambiguities or grammar issues. There is a surprising amount of information to pack into this light auction game, so it was a challenge to fit it within such a small amount of space. It's surprising how much text you have to use in a rulebook when the components are language-neutral! I hope it all makes sense.

Game Theory at Museum of Life and Sciences!

Tonight in Durham, NC at the Museum of Life and Sciences from 6-9pm, I'll be running a Belle of the Ball and Smart Play Games demo table at their Game Theory event! It's ages 21 and up with plenty of fun games of all kinds, including tabletop games, video games, tournaments, and more. There will be super smart peeps from  UNC and Duke will be there to talk about the nitty-gritty of game theory, with plenty of interactive examples.

Details and ticket information here! Hope to see you there!

Princess Bride: As You Wish

Good news! The card game I pitched to a couple years ago is almost ready for kickstarter! Game Salute is releasing a set of three individual Princess Bride themed card games by Phillip DuBarry, Matthew O' Malley and yours truly!

Back it on Kickstarter!

My entry is called Princess Bride: As You Wish, it's inspired by the really neat drafting mechanisms in the 2-player variant of Antoine Bauza's Little Prince game. As You Wish expands on those ideas to up to 6 players, mixing in more interactive set collection, and making turn order based on the prior round's draft. All the while, you're remixing the key scenes and characters of Princess Bride into your own personal love story.

I'd love it if you could look over the rulebook and offer any feedback for making the rules clearer. I think GS did a really good job so far, but more eyes always helps! Thanks!

1 Weird Trick for Organizing Your Rules!

Today's #BoardGameHour discussion about rules covered quite a bit of territory, but perhaps lost in the shuffle were some really nice examples of rules done right. One of those was Jaipur, whose rulebook has one simple trick that I try to use whenever possible.

Above you can see that the two basic actions in the game are color-coded, almost like buttons you can press. Either A or B.

When you turn the page, the next page spread is also color-coded, with option A on the left and option B on the right. It's so clear and obvious, I just love it.

Designing Cards for Left-Handed or Right-Handed Players

I seem to have stepped into a hornet's nest recently while designing the cards for Arf!

In most of my simpler games, I try to include ranks and suits on two corners of the card, so you can fan the cards in either direction. I asked people on Twitter and BoardGameGeek about whether it's worth the clutter in order to accommodate both hands and... wow, the responses can be rather passionate.

On one side, we have southpaws who often have to contort their wrists in order to see the pertinent information on their cards. Holding cards as feels natural ends up obscuring the game data.

On the other side, we have a few right-handed players who seem really, really opposed to making any visual compromises for 15% of the general population. (I couldn't find firm numbers about how many players are left-handed, but I suspect if color-blindness is any indication, it's more than 15%.)

There is a third path, since I'm producing these with print-on-demand services. I can release a right-handed and left-handed deck as separate products! However, that doubles the work of book-keeping. Also I plan to pitch this game to international traditional publishers, who will be dismayed at the idea of printing two decks.

Me, I just want to make the dang game. I'll double up the icons, and just make it work visually without cluttering things up too much. Better to serve functionality and earn new players rather than stand on this tiny hill and demand everyone conform.

How to Insert Icons in CCG Card Text with InDesign GREP [Tutorial]

One of the trickiest aspects of doing production design in tabletop games is figuring out how to automate tons of variable text across a set of cards or tiles. (Good thing I have a handy video tutorial course on just that subject.) But the really advanced next step of that process is figuring out how to insert icons at any point in a body of text without relying on linked image files. This is a challenge most commonly seen in CCGs but quite present in any number of other games, too.

I asked my tweeps for some advice on how to do this with InDesign GREP without having to learn any fancy coding. I've always been of the curmudgeonly opinion that there ought to be an option for graphic designer that doesn't require them to be a programmer, too. Perhaps I'm a Luddite in that respect, but fortunately I'm not alone in that sentiment. Andy Lenox sent me this list of GREP tricks, the last two of which were the real key I was looking for.

Now this might be a very roundabout way to do things, but it's working very well for me so I'm sticking with it for now. If you have a faster way to do this, feel free to share in the comments.


Your plain text is going to be peppered with shortcut letter and number combinations that represent specific icons you want to insert in their place. Those icons are actually characters from a separate font that you have either purchased or made yourself.

For example, this card...

will end up with text like this...

Basically, you're going to make character styles for each of your icons and another character style that makes the number "disappear." Here's how...

Choose your Shortcut System

To keep all your icon codes straight, it can be handy to make a list that you use as a reference sheet. This is especially necessary if your working on a team. In my case, my font is Webdings and the "icons" I'm using are the characters N d i q e. When you use a custom font, you can control which characters are mapped to which icon, to make this part much easier.

I'm going to pair each of those special characters with the numeral "1" since it won't occur naturally at any other point in my game. So for example N1 will stand in for the "eye" icon.

Create your Character Styles

First, make a new character style called Disappear. This style will have the smallest horizontal scaling and point size possible, and have its color set to none. Visually, any text with this style will shrink to effective non-existence, though it will still be there if you do any manual selection of the text.

Then set up a character style for each of your icons. I actually like to create one "parent" style for my icons first, then make "child" styles based on that style. In this way, I can just edit the "parent" style if I want to make global changes to all the icons as a whole. In any case, you'll end up with a character style like this, with your chosen font and your chosen color.

Create your GREP Paragraph Style

Now you can set up your paragraph style for your CCG body text. I prefer to make this body text its own paragraph style so my edits here don't affect card titles, stats, or any other text on the card. Feel free to set up the text's attributes however you wish, with whatever font, leading, color, etc you prefer. The bit we're concerned about right now is under GREP Styles.

For each icon, make a new GREP style as shown below. For example


tells InDesign to look for the character N, but only if it is followed by the number 1. Any other instances of N are ignored. To that character, I apply the Character Style Icons - Eye. You can call your styles whatever you want, but I like to be as literal as possible. In this case, the character N in Webdings looks like an eye, so it made sense to label it as such.

As you make each GREP style, if you have "preview" checked, you'll see your work in progress! Like magic, those characters will be replaced with colorful icons.

But wait, now you have all these random 1s floating around the text. How to get rid of them? With your Disappear character style! Because this style will be applied to each indiscriminately, I can use the following string in this grep style:


This tells InDesign to look for any instances of 1, but only if preceded by the characters N d i q e, then apply the Disappear style to each. When you're done, it should look like this.*

There! Now you have handy icons sprinkled into your regular text without having to manually insert any external image files. Don't forget to check out my Card Design for Tabletop Games video course that teaches you how to make a whole deck of cards and tiles in a snap!

*Update: 11/7/2014: Check Mark Sherry's comments below for a shorter version of this expression that can also work. (?<=(N|d|i|e|q))1

October 2014 Sales Report

We're approaching the end of my year-long challenge to polish and release a new game each month via DriveThruCards. As a part of that process, I'm releasing sales reports for each month so you have some perspective on your own POD sales performance. First up, here are some charts!
And here are the numbers!

0x Bird Bucks +0
5x Kigi new!
22x Koi Pond: A Coy Card Game +4
8x Koi Pond: Four Walls (Promo Card 2) +3
8x Koi Pond: Four Winds (Promo Card 1) +4
8x Koi Pond: Moon Temple +0
16x Light Rail -10
12x Monsoon Market -1
1x Nine Lives Card Game -4
3x Penny Farthing Catapult +1
0x Regime -2
8x Solar Senate -10
15x Suspense: the Card Game +11
1x Ten Pen -1

107 Total Sold
$829.11 Gross Sales
$229.75 Earnings

Grand Totals for 2014 (to date)
1564 Products Sold
$8,809.34 Gross Sales
$2,583.43 Earnings


Clearly August and September were the huge spikes in sales, converging around Gen Con sales. Since then, we've settled into a plateau of around 100 products sold each month for the past two months. I'm pleased that despite lower sales this month than last, the earnings have been roughly equal. This is likely because my lower-margin items dropped in sales, but were compensated by some higher-margin products like Koi Pond and Monsoon Market.

A Dubious Milestone

This month also marks the first unfortunate milestone of any business. This month is the first in which an existing product sold 0 units.

The novelty value of Bird Bucks kept it aloft for a long time, but that wasn't going to last without further support on my part. Sadly that's hard to come by with my current freelance schedule and ongoing development cycle.

Regime has the largest card deck of any of my games, but has relatively light gameplay. The high card count means that it's priced more like my heavier games, despite being roughly equal to Penny Farthing Catapult in terms of depth. That likely reduced sales.

In both cases, I don't have a video tutorial explaining how they work, so that would need to come first before I decide to remove either from the catalog. Besides, the beauty of POD is that there is no cost to warehouse inventory. I can keep these products up indefinitely for whoever stumbles across them months from now. There's no such thing as out-of-print!

A Hopeful Future

The past two months have shown me that if I'm going to have a clear freelance docket next year, I may have to end my 2014 project a month early with Arf!, the puppy adoption game. I think that will sell very well for the holidays, given the cute puppy art and light gameplay suitable for the whole family.

This month sees the release of Kigi, the game of pretty trees and tricky choices. I hope the lovely art in that game, plus a low price point, plus being playable with up to 5 will make this a long-term stalwart product with appeal for international licensors.

I was really hoping to reach the finish line, but I gotta keep things in perspective. Next year is its own huge project, releasing my own micro expandable game line via POD with crowdfunding support. 11 new products in 2014, plus four products from 2013 is nothing to sneeze at. The remainder of the year looks quite bright. :)
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.