Three Principles of Card Design: Visibility, Hierarchy, Brevity

This is an excerpt from the rough draft of my book Graphic Design for Board Games. If you want early sneak peeks at the rest of the draft, including editorial comments and discussion, head over to my patreon

Three Principles of Card Design

I spend most of this chapter getting in the weeds of print production and manufacturing. That’s just where I spent most of my time in my career, so that’s where I have the most information to share. However, if you’re just getting started designing cards, you don’t have to worry about all that just yet. There are three main principles of card design to remember as you design your card. These are not “rules” per se, just useful concepts to keep in mind. 

Figure 4.0a Visibility of cards from Ettin (2020).

Visibility: Make the most important information easily visible. If your cards are held in hand, stacked, splayed, or tucked, consider the areas that are going to be most visible at that moment. Check corners and edges in particular, since those will most likely be hidden by a thumb or other components. You can use this to your advantage by hiding information that may only be relevant in special circumstances or edge cases.

Figure 4.0b Hierarchy of cards from Ettin (2020).

Hierarchy: Arrange information from the most important to least important. List all of the elements on a card and make a decision about which is most important. (Don't be precious and say everything is important.) For example a card title comes up a lot, so you probably want that closer to the top and a visible corner. A card cost may be relevant as well, that is conditional to your specific game. If you have to pay for a card each time you play it, then it's very important. If you only pay for the card once, then you can afford to tuck it away in a more hidden area.

Figure 4.0c Brevity of cards from Ettin (2020).

Brevity: Abbreviate common phrases with key words or icons. When your game has many cards, you have to be efficient with how much text you fit onto each card. More content means that the font has to be smaller and/or more compressed, making it harder to read. Looking for other solutions helps keep the card approachable and fun to play. Discuss with your game developers whether lengthy and recurring game terms can be condensed into shorter key words or even use icons. For example, "Rotate this card 90º" can be condensed to the key word "tap" or "exhaust." This is such a common action in card games, most just replace the entire clause with one simple icon that takes a fraction of the space.

You might be able to cite a few long-standing successful card games that violate one or more of these principles. Some may place critical information at inconvenient spots, or arrange information in an unintuitive order, or squeeze in paragraphs of information into tiny fine print.

Bear in mind that many of those venerable titles were first published before best practices had been established, so they’re doing their best to retain their identity while still serving a more sophisticated audience. Established games also have the luxury of a built-in player base that can tolerate the quirks of their favorite hobby. (In fact, some very belligerent veterans may protest any attempt to streamline or improve their game’s visuals.)

Your new game doesn’t have such a luxury. Instead, it has the advantage of learning from the mistakes of all those prior games. You can risk breaking any of these principles at your discretion, but it’s worthwhile to know the nature of that risk so you can make an informed decision. Make it clear to any player that you willfully chose to break these “rules” of design.


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