Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pros and cons of standardizing in board games (II) - Cards

We were talking last week about standardizing components in board games, covering the box, the rules and the game board. There's yet another type of components which come in various sizes, thicknesses and sometimes even shapes and while we all think we know all about them, they still hold many secrets.

I am talking about playing cards, of course.

Image source: ebay.com


At one point in our lives we've all touched or, at least, seen playing cards. We're mostly used to the standard poker size or bridge size cards, but we are aware that there are more common types of sizes out there. Us gamers would probably have no problem with any size of cards if we didn't care so much about our game pieces that we want to sleeve them.

The most common types of cards used to be:
- standard poker size: 3,5 x 2.5 in / 88 x 63 mm
- standard bridge size: 3.5 x 2.25 in / 88 x 57 mm
- tarot size: 4.75 x 2.75 in / 120 x 70 mm

But with the rise of the board gaming phenomenon, we are now accustomed to:
- "7 Wonders" cards  - roughly 100 x 65 mm
- "Corey" cards - roughly 62 x 41 mm 
- square cards - 70 x 70 mm
and many more.

Luckily, sleeve manufacturers have upped their game and they're now offering a lot more sizes. To have an idea what are your options, have a look here. But having access to all these sleeves should grant game designers and publishers infinite freedom to make their own special cards?

We have discovered that any non-standard (bridge / poker size) cards come with an extra cost, other that the material. This cost covers custom die-cuts and it can be as high as a few thousand dollars. Overall, 5 decks of cards in a game printed in 5000 copies will cost roughly 50% more if they are a non-standard size compared to when they are a standard size.

I prefer standard poker size cards, they're easy to sleeve without passing by a hobby store with old sleeves from Magic: The Gathering, they usually come with better quality material than "special" cards and... I got used to them.

What are your preferred sizes of cards? Does this aspect of a game make a difference when you decide to buy a board game?


This is when things get really technical, at least when you talk to a manufacturer ready to impress. Do you know the difference between Blue Core, Grey Core, Chinese Ivory Core, French Ivory Core, Casino Black Core, French Black Core and so on? I don't and I've been dealing with these terms for the past 5 years. I have a booklet somewhere where I wrote down all the specs for each of them and when I have to make an informed decision I check it out.

But I was intrigued by the price difference and the multitude of options, so I asked for samples and compared them from a gamer's perspective: I bent them, look "through" them using powerful light sources, shuffled them about 250 times to check wear and tear and I am probably missing some other tests. The truth is that I am still not able to distinguish between Blue and Ivory Core if the weight of is the same. In my opinion, putting casino quality core (light doesn't pass through, therefore it is impossible to cheat by seeing through the cards) into board game cards is a waste of money which is supported in the end by gamers - the final customers.

The industry standard for producing cards is a 290 gsm (grams per square meter) Grey Core. I have noticed that upgrading the cards to 320 gsm requires an increase in price of 30%, which of course, reflects in the MSRP. Upgrading to a 345 gsm cardboard is even up to 60% more expensive!

I was temped to think that thicker cards would deal a lot better with wear and tear and their life span would be a few years longer (without sleeves). I was wrong. The biggest difference is the finishing and the core only affects marginally the durability of the cards.

Did you notice differences in core quality of the cards between various games? Do you have and tips?

The part which does make a difference, both visually and when we look at the resistance of the cards in time is made by the finishing. I personally love the FFG linen finish, it gives a great feeling but I like even more the matte varnish on borderless cards.

I must admit that I am no expert when it comes to the type of finishing and I don't even have a strong preference between matte and linen paper. Most manufacturers I've talking to have failed to explain to me what is the advantage of a certain type of finishing. For example, we asked what is the best type of finishing for cards which require shuffling all the time - this has happened with Mistfall (our next release). The answers were:
- linen finishing (3 out of 9)
- matte AQ varnish (3)
- upgrading from Blue core to Casino Ivory core (1)
- upgrading from 295 gms to 320 gms (1)
- our quality is the best (seriously!) (1)

So, it looks like there is no consensus among the manufacturers on the best possible way to make more durable cards for an acceptable price.

What was your experience? Do you have a favorite finishing type? Or perhaps a publisher whose quality you admire?

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  1. It's interesting to me that you cite FFG for card quality. We found with FFG's Citadels that because the seven role cards are shuffled every round, they showed wear on the edges after just a few games. This effect became problematic when we introduced the expansion roles, which showed no wear at all and therefore were immediately distinguishable from the base game roles. It was necessary to use sleeves with opaque sleeve backs to keep the role cards secret.

    I'm not sure what the solution is; if there is a frequently-shuffled card game that doesn't have this problem, it would be good to know what the key manufacturing process is that makes that possible.

    1. I own many FFG games and most of them have good to very good card quality. There is better though. Pretty much any deck of cards which is shuffled repeatedly will suffer wear and tear no matter how good is the quality. Even casinos replace their decks of cards after several plays (I have never been inside one, this is s.h. info from friends).

      The difference between FFG quality and the average market quality (and I will not point fingers now) it the longer life span of the cards - up to 50%. There are better cards (again without naming anyone) on the market, some which have shown no signs of damage even after more than 200 plays.

      The only solution for a very long life span for cards is sleeving.

  2. I'm no expert but I would guess that heavier card are thicker in some way and thicker means more contact surface on the edge of the card. That would translate in more chance to knock cards together when shuffling which will cause damage. And heavier means that it will hit harder when shuffling. But heavier will have a more sturdy/quality feeling in the hand, I see that as a marketing plus.

    The finish on the other hand should be there to protect the image on the card, if there is discoloration or scratch the finish is not good. Matte finish affect light reflection and prevents glare which is a good thing, to achieve that the surface is not flat you can feel it is a little bit like sand paper, you feel irregularities in the texture. That irregular texture should also make the cards easier to shuffle because, in theory, it creates air pockets when 2 cards rubbing against one another thus allowing then to glide in some way. On the other end very slick cards tends to stick to one another.

    Linen seems like a special case because it might add to the thickness of the card thus increasing the damage during shuffling. It does have some reflective capabilities like Matte due to the irregular texture. But the most important caracteristic of linen finish is the weaving, it should make it harder to tear apart and take back its form when bent. But just like a linen cloth it never ends in a perfect line, the sides are always tiny point instead of a flat line. hard to describe in words but just look at it. :) So it does not protect the sides of the cards when they hit each other.

    I think its also very important to look at what you do with cards besides shuffling. In poker you shuffle and you trow the cards, the weight there is important so that it won't catch in the wind as easily and flip. But for a deckbuilder you shuffle a lot but you carry the cards to their destination.

    So with all that I would guess that very thin core cards with a matte finish would be the best cards for shuffling in a deckbuilding game. Linen should be used with for quality feel, combined with heavy cards in a non shuffling game it makes for a very nice product.

    Again I'm only a gamer and looked at this from a logical perspective, I'm probably wrong about a lot of things but I'm confident that I'm not far from the truth.

    I really appreciated that series of article, makes me see my games in a very different way thank you. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are actually making a lot of sense and you're not wrong at all. Each type of card has its advantages and drawbacks and it's heard to say "this is by far the better option" - thus as many publishers, as many preferences.

      I would add just one more thing, the weight change from 280 gsm to 320 gsm adds some microns to the card thickness and I am not sure it changes the wear due to shuffling. I will try to check that myself as soon as I get some samples.

  3. Casinos actually use 100% plastic cards which are extremely durable, washable, ridiculously easy to shuffle, and virtually indestructible - wont bend, warp, scratch, etc... (Look up KEM plastic playing cards www.kemplasticcards.com.) I don't know if any game designers have looked into using plastic cards, but I suppose production price is the limiting factor with these. I just wish designers would quit designing cards with black borders. While they look cool, nothing shows wear faster than a dark border. Uggh.

    1. Very interesting approach. I must admit that we have never looked into plastic cards, at least not yet. What I can assume is that plastic cards are more expensive than "normal" cards - just based on a first glance at the site you wrote about.

      You have a very good point about black borders, something I have not thought of and neither did so many other publishers who use cards in their games. From a quick check in the game I have about 75% have black borders, but since most of them are sleeved I cannot assess the damage. But this is definitely something we will take in to account in the future.