Features of Fully-Fledged card systems

In the previous post, I tried to categorize features that exist in many existing card game systems.  Some systems, however, are unique or complex enough to not be simply categorized as such.  In this post I try to dig deep into them and explore some of the subtle mathematics of each deck. (featured pic: Glyph)

Jump to links within page:

    1. Decktet
    2. Galloway
    3. Glyph
    4. Green Box of Games
    5. Holydeck
    6. Mesa Playing Cards
    7. Monster Deck 55
    8. Pentology
    9. Rainbow Deck
    10. The Roman Empire
    11. Scroker
    12. Sconudi
    13. Tack
    14. Zont



One of the most famous alternate card systems, the decktet has a large community following.  The deck is asymmetrical, both leading to interesting games while frustrating those who try to look for patterns within the deck.

45 cards, composed of:

  • ‘1’ (ace), ’10’ (crown) x 6 suits = 12 cards
  • [2..9] x 3 cards with two suits each, chosen from 6 suits = 24 cards.  The distributions are asymmetric; 3 combinations (e.g. moon-sun) appear three times; most combinations appear twice; 3 combinations appear once, and 3 combinations do not appear at all.
  • [‘pawn’] x 4 and [‘court’] x 4; each of these eight cards are triple-suited, again with arbitrary combinations = 8 cards
  • One unsuited card, [‘The Excuse’].

Other features:

  • Cards depict either a personality, place, or event ; arbitrary distribution. There is thematic connection between the suits of a card and what is depicted, though – for example, wyrm suit is usually for dangerous or negative scenarios; water suit is literal.  Water/wyrm is [‘The Cave’]. Leaf/Moon is [‘The Forest’].
  • Three cards depict both a place and an event.
  • Suits are always in a defined order; ‘moon’ always comes before ‘sun’.
  • Total sum of all number cards per suit is 44.


  • Two-suited decks are cool.  Can be improved by splitting them into a primary suit and secondary suit, instead of having the suits always in the same order (moon-sun and sun-moon are different cards)
  • Many people praised the asymmetry of the deck, but will try to see if deeper patterns can be put in.
  • Thematic relationship between character and the suits of the card, making a more coherent deck.


From the description: This is a card deck & game system with each card having a rank and three suits, but the suits are subsets of each other.

Features 54 cards:

  • Six suits: [1..9] in 6 suits (Generosity, Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Loyalty, and Magic); referred to as [A..F]
  • The six suits themselves are grouped in two different ways. [A..C] is classed under supersuit M, while [D..F] is under supersuit N.
  • Also, [A,B], [C,D], [E,F] are classed under three other supersuits X, Y, and Z.


  • One of the only custom decks that have a very clear way of grouping suits into bigger suits in more than one way.


Card game system specifically designed to be a portable way to emulate existing game systems. 98 cards. Good attention to visual design, and avoids the mishmash of visual elements which plague other attempts at multi-use cards.

From the description:

  • [0..14] x 6 suits (hearts, crosses, clovers, toadstools, diamonds, horns), paired into three color-suits (red, blue, green)
  • [Red, Green, Blue] color-suits are numbered 0-29.
  • A, J, Q, K are marked for use in a standard deck.
  • Two full sets of six suits (earth, fire, water, air, magic, alchemy). These suits come 1, 2, or 3 to a card. Unknown distribution.
  • Secondary suits are numbered 2-9 plus the additional classes ACE, APPRENTICE, MAGICIAN, and WIZARD (see the dots on top of 11 and 12 in the picture).
  • Five story suits (WILD, ITEM, EVENT, CHARACTER, and LOCATION). Each card in the deck has a different image that can be used in creative and storytelling games.  The story suit also serves as a “Small number” showing either [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] x #2 copies.  (See the triangles)
  • The deck also contains 8 wild cards that can be organized by color (making 4 groups of 2) or by layout (making 2 groups of 4).


  • Very good visual design.
    • Green stripe one the whole left side makes a very nice marker when the cards are fanned out or placed on top of one another like the picture.
    • Stripe on left ensures that it looks good when fanned out in hand.
    • Secondary suits are visible enough but blend in to the background more when they need to be ignored.
    • Good story suit design (small unobtrusive triangle)
  • 11-14 instead of JQKA.  Efficient, but may lose character.
  • Doesn’t the Ace/Apprentice/Magician/Wizard of the secondary suit overlap with J/Q/K?
  • Wondering how the secondary suit distribution matches with the Decktet.  What if we make the secondary suit use the same icons as the primary suit?

Green Box of Games

A system designed to create new games or proxy existing ones. Has several components such as chips and tiles in addition to the 54-card deck.  Many mathematical properties, though the game system itself looks bland and abstract.


  • 9 ranks: [1 x #3, 2 x #2, and 3, 4, 5, 6 x #1].
  • Six symbols (suits), repeated 9 times each.  (top to bottom).  No two symbols appear on the same rank.
  • The suits order themselves based on how they look – ONE drop; TWO hammers; THREE circles; FOUR stacked, the circle(?), and SIX feathers in the arrow.
  • The suit-rank combination is written on each corner of the card.
  • Three background colors (blue, red, and yellow).  Blue has [1, 1, 2]; Red has [1, 2, 3]; and yellow has [4, 5, 6].
  • 6 border colors
  • The back of the card is asymmetrical, and can be tiled together to form game boards.


  • Using the image of the suit icon to rank the suits is cool.  Can this be done with regular suits? See Pentology.
  • Nice usage of back side of the card.  See what patterns can be drawn into it as well.
  • Non symmetrical expected value of card when grouped by color.  I wonder if we can overlap this, like color1 = [1..5], color 2 = [2..6], color 3 = [3…7], color 4 = [4…8] for combat mechanics or something, so that better colors have a higher, but not 100%, chance to beat lower colors.
  • Use of border color


One example design of the ‘mash-up’ card deck, wherein different elements are just put together, splitting the card into smaller usable portions.  Here, each card shows a playing card, letter, die result, and a number.

Generally I do not like this design, but put here for completeness.  Other examples of these are products like Lecardo, and in-development efforts such as the Swiss army deck and minimal.


  • Example of design not to emulate.

Mesa Playing Cards

Strange and unique set of playing cards. The artwork is a combination of surreal and caricature, and I don’t really get what it’s aiming for especially compared to the rather geometric layout of values.  This symbols are a little hard to understand, but has incredible information density.


  • Rank from 2-7
  • “Power”, which shows shaded regions in a 3×3 square.  The number of shaded regions is equal to the rank.  each row and column of the 3×3 square represents a specific attribute, such as ‘mind’ or ‘air’.  This shows the strengths and/or weaknesses of a card and can presumably be used by lower-ranking cards to overpower higher-ranking ones.


  • Six ‘Clans’, or suits. A bit weird-looking, but each symbol represents a certain number of cells shaded in a 3×3 grid.  Total number of shaded areas also range from 2-7, similar to the rank.  Suits can also be paired up, shown by having the same color; total ‘suit rank’ is also equal to 9 for each of the three supersuits.



  • Actually everything about this deck is cool. The design would have been more interesting to apply to a science / alien-y themed deck, especially when looking at the clan markings.
  • The 3×3 matrix is a promising ranking/combat system (left/right/center?), but the lack of labeling makes it hard to grok.  Can we use this as some kind of design in the border, for battle/lane defense type games?


Monster Deck 55

Kickstarter project.


  • 18 ranks [1..18] x 3 suits = 54 cards + 1 joker = 55 cards.  Each of the 18 ranks has a unique color [C1… C18].
  • Colors can also be paired as light and dark versions, e.g. light yellow and dark yellow.  [C1/C2, C3/C4, … C17/C18]
  • Suits are directional; they point in a direction (not sure about the distribution). See picture above; suits are arrows, triangles, and planes.
  • 55 unique monster cards with quirky drawings.
  • 54 monsters are named after food items (e.g. ‘bacon’, ‘green tea’, ‘bean sprout’) in 9 food groups (e.g. ‘American’, ‘Dessert’).  Not sure about distribution of 9 food groups in 3 suits.


  • Directional suits are interesting.
  • Pairing of light and dark versions of a color to make bigger suits is nice, although tis is also done by the Rainbow Deck.
  • Full color bleed looks kinda nice


There’s not a lot of information about this deck, as their website is down. Using wayback machines and a few surviving youtube links, I’ve dug up the basic themes of the deck.

The core of the deck is the concept of “progressive position”, or that each of the five (penta, of course) suits is strong against two and weak against two, like a convoluted rock paper scissors mechanism.  To aid in the mnemonic, ranking information is encoded in the suits themselves:

The suits are circle, cross, triangle, square, and star, and its ranking is determine by how many strokes it takes to draw: ONE for circle, TWO for an “x”, THREE for a triangle, FOUR for a square, and FIVE for a star (draw it with five lines, not just the outline).

Rainbow Deck

A crowd-designed system to emulate multiple existing systems, similar to Glyph but a much earlier effort. The cards are terribly uninspired and utilitarian, but the mathematics crammed into it is impressive. There is also a ‘deluxe’ version, that includes colored dice and chips to emulate more games.

Decks that the RD can be mapped into, based on description:

  • [0..9, J, Q, K] x 12 colorsuits
  • Colorsuits can be paired up into icon-suits, with light and dark colors of the same hue pairing up (e.g. red+pink hearts; orange+yellow stars; green+lime clubs; etc)  This allows decks to be 26 ranks x 6 suits.
  • Each colorsuit is numbered from 0-12, to allow them to be ranked
  • Reading the colorsuit number and the rank as a single number allows a sequence of [0..119] to be built
  • The deck can be reduced to a double-nine domino set or a pyramidal 12.  (See previous post on details)

In addition, the deck has other elements from mashed-up genres like dice and word games. The assignments of these elements seem to be arbitrary, not related to the card’s suit/rank value.

  • 12 suits (colour/number) x 2 copies of 1-6 dice values
  • 6 suits (icon) x 4 copies of 1-6 dice values
  • Letters with values similar to Letter Head
  • 6 suits (icon) x 26 letter cards
  • n * 26 letter cards + rare letter cards

The Roman Empire

A Roman-themed deck of cards with standard ranks and suits, but with many other different elements that are in the images, leading to a cramped look.


Structure: 49 ‘regular’ cards (pictured above) + 5 unique special cards (‘Rex’, ‘Dictator’, ‘Consul’, ‘Tribunus Plebis’, ‘Proconsul’).  Regular cards can be grouped into a 7×7 grid, showing 7 classes (‘Emperor’, … ‘Slave’; see above) x 7 background colors (three of which are picture above)



  1. Character, name and symbol (“class”)
  2. Each regular card has a number from -24 to +24.  No identified patterns in sums; this could have easily been arranged as a magic square. See image below.
  3. Background color (beige, red, blue, yellow, green, white, black).  Special cards are striped.
  4. Roman numeral from 1-7.  Shifted around so that for regular cards, each color and each class has I – VII exactly once.
  5. “Cosmos Mark”:  Shifted around so that for regular cards, color and each class has exactly one ‘Sun’, and one ‘Moon’.  All special cards have a unique celestial body as well.
  6. Score value: Each regular card contains a gold, silver or bronze medal. Red and White colors have all silver, while all other rows have 6 bronze and 1 gold. All columns have 4 bronze, 2 silver, 1 gold.  No idea why pattern is this way.  Instead of medals, all five special cards have drawings of diamonds (1-5).
  7. Payment value: Regular cards [‘Emperor’… ‘Slave’] have payment values 7, 3, 4, 5, 2, 1, 1 respectively.  Arbitrary.
  8.  Dice pips.  All cards have white dice, showing [1..6] in 9 copies each = 54 cards.  Only 36 out of the 54 cards have black dice, showing a 2D6 roll.  The remainder has one keyword shown in the picture below.
  9. Suit and number, for regular card games.

Medal color and  +- Value for all 49 regular cards


Keywords in place of black dice



54-card deck with 4 suits, but with ranks replaced by letters.  Leverages the fact that a suit has 13 ranks, while our alphabet has 13 x 2 = 26 letters.  I think the distributions can still be changed, but this deck has some interesting concepts.



  • Four suits: Lemons, limes, chilis, animals, in that ranking order.
  • Lemons rank 1-13 use [A…M]
  • Limes rank 1-13 use [N…Z]
  • Chilis use vowels in relative language usage distribution. [‘A’ x 3, ‘E’ x 5, ‘I’, ‘O’ x 2, ‘U’ x 1]. The number of pips on the upper left denote rankings between duplicate cards.
  • Animals are all face cards, each with different pip icons.  Letters are the most common letters of the english alphabet.


The 13-rank vs 26-letter coincidence is interesting enough that I want to explore this Connection.  If I’d put my own distribution though I’d probably change it up a little. Using the Scrabble tile distribution, getting the equivalent distributions to a 52 card deck, and trying to match the distribution.  Changes from the Scroker deck are:

  • -1 ‘E’, +1 ‘I’ in the vowel suit (though I’ve always felt there were too many I’s in Scrabble, so this may not necessarily be a good choice)
  • +1 ‘C’, ‘H’, and -1 ‘M’, ‘P’.  The twelve most common letters are ETOAIN SHRDLU, and C is the next most populous letter as opposed to M and P.



Card deck that has four dimensions: Rank, Shape, color, and direction (direction arrow).  It’s not very obvious from the picture, but the direction arrow also appears in the small suit indicator on the upper-left side.

Since there are only 50 cards, it won’t be comprehensively exhaustive with its combinations; looking at the picture below, again there doesn’t seem to be any holistic pattern to the arrangement.


  • 12 cards of each color, plus two black “wild” cards in the star suit (with directional arrows pointing to all four directions)
  • Ranks [1..5] x #2 copies each
  • Increasing order is red-blue-yellow and repeat, and the arrows move in a clockwise direction.


A very strange card deck.  The website is hard to understand, full of his own made-up terms.  It looks like it was written by either a genius, an alien, or someone having a stroke. (See this conversation between a user and the author).  Distributions are based on two gaussian bell curves (with a mean of 6, so we can’t even use it to simulate 2D6, which have a mean of 7).  There’s probably some nice math hidden underneath there, but if your card logic is obtuse, there’s no point.



  • 60 cards: 54 “basic deck faces” and 6 “top card faces”

Top Card Faces:

  • one rank “zero”, four rank ‘1’s, and one ‘2’ = 6 cards.  Is this supposed to be a mini bell curve?
  • Zero is colored black in all four quadrants.  Two colored white in all four quadrants.  Ones have three quadrants colored black, and one quadrant colored white.  Why? I have no idea.

Basic Deck:

  • Basic deck “denominations” (ranks) from [3..9].  Again, gaussian distribution: [3 x #2, 4 x #6, 5 x #12, 6 x #14, 7 * #12, 8 * #6, 9 * #2] = 56 cards
  • The rank is colored either white or black.
  • Basic deck center ring “The lens” in three colors: red, green and blue.  Red = 1 point, green = 2 points; blue = 3 points. Adding the score of the colors makes it equal to the rank. (1 + 2 + 3 = 6). Not sure what determines which colors go in which part of the circle.
  • Center ring colors is mirrored in the three dots on the upper left side.
  • The “Scope” (upper left triangle) is in three possible colors, showing its deviation from the mean.  White is +-0; Purple is +-1; Orange is +-2; Blue or Red is +-3.
  • Some cards have ‘Archaic Icons”, as shown on the upper right side.

Here’s the dumb distribution.


Kickstarter project.  Suit choices are made in an attempt to ascribe meaning or mechanical relevance to the image.



  • 5 suits (infinity, dot, plus, minus, 4dots), with each rank having [1..3] x 3 copies, and one [0] and [4] = 11 ranks x 5 suits = 55 cards.
  • Each set of [1..3] is split into three different colors, [yellow, blue and red].  [0] and [4] are all colors.
  • Each suit was chosen to represent a certain mechanical action. As per the description:
    • Art (+) = Card Gain (draw cards, play more cards, etc)
    • Change (-) = Card Loss (destroy card, force discard, etc)
    • Favors (4 dots) = Play State Change (global effect that affects everyone, such as change of scoring or hand modifications)
    • Great Zont (1 dot) = Immunity to power (ignoring effects of other cards when played)
    • Giglets (infinity) = Wild power (copies the ability of cards under or beside it)

Existing Alternate Card Game Systems

Featured image: Red7

Research for the Ultimate Deck of cards.  What other existing card systems are there, and what interesting features do they have?  We can go to the “game system” page of boardgamegeek, and filter by card game.

There are many recurring themes that can be found, and I’ve attempted to categorize them below.  However, there are also many fully-fledged card game systems that have enough unique features components that they deserve their own individual analyses. I’ll detail them in a future blog post:

  1. Decktet
  2. Galloway
  3. Glyph: Multi-use card system, similar to Rainbow.  See link for breakdown.
  4. Green Box of Games
  5. Holydeck: Mash-up. Each card shows a playing card, letter, die result, and a number.
  6. Mesa Playing Cards
  7. Monster Deck 55
  8. Pentology
  9. Rainbow Deck
  10. The Roman Empire
  11. Scroker
  12. Sconudi
  13. Tack
  14. Zont

The other kinds of card systems are grouped below.

Extended ranks and/or suits

The simplest kind of custom deck, still contains the basic structure of [a..b] ranks x S suits, varying the numbers. Some decks have unranked cards outside the hierarchy, such as Jokers or the major arcana of the Tarot.


An interesting subset are decks with 1 suit; that is, [a…b] x 1 suit, or just a sequential set of numbers.  (Pictured: Badger Rainbow)

Unequal size suits

The most common form is the ‘pyramidal’ deck, where there is one [1], two [2]’s, and so on, until you have X copies of rank [X]. These are usually unsuited, but some variations have suited cards.

  • Pairs: Pyramid 10 (55 cards). The total number of cards for a pyramid deck of N ranks is N(N+1)/2.
  • The Great Dalmuti: Pyramid 12.
  • Detestable Deck: Pyramid deck 7, + [‘sword’] x 7 suits + [‘gate’] = 28 + 7 + 1 = 36 cards.

Duplicate cards

In a standard deck of cards, each card is unique. Some decks have duplicate cards, either because of multiple copies of certain ranks, or because their cards are unranked. (pictured: Coloretto)

  • Coloretto: 8 unranked x 7 suits + special cards
  • Dice Deck: 21 cards x 3 suits, but ranks of cards come in a bell distribution to mirror dice [2, 3, 11, 12] x 1 + [4, 5, 9, 10] x 2 + [6, 7, 8] x 3
  • Finger Bomb: [0] x 5 suits + [1..5] x 2 copies x 5 suits = 55. For kids.  This can be used to play Hanabi.
  • Hanafuda: 4 unranked cards x 12 suits = 48 cards.  Pictorial; cards may or may not have ribbons on them.  There is an entire class of Asian games using these ‘flower cards’.
  • Jackpot Slots: Unranked cards, different distributions per suit.
  • Tamps: [5 suits] x [5 colors]

Higher Dimensionality

Standard cards are ‘two-dimensional’, defined by a <suit, rank> coordinate pair. Some card decks extend these to 3 or even 4 dimensions; these dimensions must be mutually independent from each other.  (pictured: Set)

  • Beadecked: 5 shapes x 4 colors x 3 patterns = 60 cards
  • Mystique Deck: [1..5] x 3 colors x 4 suits = 60 cards
  • Colourcards, Kaleidocards: 5 text choices (‘black’, ‘red’, ‘white’, ‘blue’, ‘green’) x 5 background colors x 4 text colors (cannot be the same as background color) = 100 cards
  • Quarq: [1..5] x 4 colors x 3 shapes + 12 cards each depicting one specific attribute (i.e., shape only, or color only) = 60 + 12 = 72 cards.
  • Set: 3 counts of objects ([1..3]) x 3 colors x 3 shapes x 3 shading types = 81 cards.  4 Dimensions of cards.
  • Triple Topper: [1..5] x 5 suits x 5 colors = 125 cards

Dimensions as ordered tuples

In some card systems, each card can have more than one rank or suit.  There are many ways this can be done, and some are highlighted below.

  • Deck of Dice: 36 cards.  Each card has no suit and two values from [1..6], exhaustively representing all the possible outcomes of a 2D6 roll. Note that a <3, 4> and a <4, 3> both appear, even though these are identical cards.
  • Decktet: Interesting enough to have its own analysis.
  • Double Nine Dominoes: Each card has two values from 0-9, but there are no duplicate permutations of cards (i.e., a <2, 3> and a <3, 2> are the same and only appear once).  The distribution is pyramidal 10.

  • DecaDeck: 45 cards, 10 total suits,  two suits per card (10C2 = 45).  The two suits of cards cannot be the same  (<A, B> and <B, A> exist, but not <A, A>).  Like a double-nine domino set, but without doubles.  The cards are also ranked [1..9] x 5 copies each, but I’m not aware of the logic of the mapping of the ranks to the suits.
  • Dual Deck, Dual Value Playing Cards:  Normal playing cards, but two suits/ranks on the card. On the upper left side of the card, there is another suit/rank underneath the usual one.  Unknown how the ranks are distributed, though it would be nice to have a mathematical basis to do so.
  • Split Deck Playing Cards: card is literally split on the diagonal, one with a white background and another with a yellow background.  Organizing the cards this way means that the suits are meant to be used one-or-the-other, not in tandem.

  • Split Suit Playing Cards: Normal deck of cards, but adds four entirely new suits as a ‘sub-suit’ underneath the main suit. Very.. interesting? Visual design, with overlapping suits that look like street art spray paint, though I question the utility.


Genre Mashup Cards

Cards are not limited to numeric values; uses words, pictures, etc for other game systems. Pictured: Double Play

  1. Alpha Playing Cards: Letters on cards, but the ‘vowel’ cards have two options (e.g. “A” and “E” while consonant cards have just one option
  2. Damage Deck [2..10, A] x 4 + [‘head’, ‘torso’, ‘groin’, ‘left arm’, ‘right arm’, ‘left leg’, ‘right leg’] x 2. Probably used for fighting games and such.
  3. Double Play, Versatiletters: Letters on cards, but each letter is an ambigram to a different letter (e.g. ‘a’ and ‘e’), to various degrees of understandability.
  4. King’s caste: Extended deck of cards with chess ranks.  16 ranks x 4 suits  = [1..8] (pawns), [9..10] (bishops), [‘rook’] x 2, [‘knight’] x 2, Q, K] x 4 suits.  See also Royal Chess for cards without the rank.
  5. Letter Head, Lexicon: Cards with letters and point values, similar to Scrabble tiles. in Wibbell, Each card has two letters on it.
  6. Sigma: 15 types of cards, showing a 3,2 square tile which is either colored black or white.  Used for area control games or Go-type games.

Other Interesting Mechanics (pictured: Four operations deck)

  1. 1000 Blank White Cards, Blank: “legacy” decks, i.e., changing the content of the cards permanently
  2. Binary Playing cards, Zbyte:  Normal card deck, but pips have been changed to logical operators (and, or, not) to give additional meaning for custom game.
  3. Chards: Patterned after chess pieces.  Cards have facing and movement at their sides or diagonals.
  4. Duelo Primigenio,: Scan: The back side of the cards shows the suit of the card, but not the rank.  See Nertz for a deck superset.
  5. Four Operations Math Deck: [1..9] x 6 suits (suits paired into 3 colors). Borders have math operations on them (e.g. 5 has ‘+5’, ‘-5’, ‘x5’, ‘/5’ on the borders. Cards can be overlapped to make equations for games.
  6. Ganjifa: Circular cards.
  7. Perfect Pyramid: Suits look like the bricks of a pyramid and are stacked, meaning some suits cannot be played without the ‘foundation’ of others.


Non-card decks

  1. Deck of Dice: [1..6] x 6 suits, on d6 faces.
  2. Tiledeck: Square tiles. [1..15] x 4 suits. Tiles have “gates” on any or all of its four sides, allowing tiles to be tessellated together.
  3. Twist Hold Em Poker Cube – 3×3 ‘Rubiks’ style cube, with card faces.  6 x 9 = 54 standard playing card faces and jokers.


The Ultimate Deck of Cards

I want to make a single card game system than can play anything.

I’ve always had a strange fascination with card game systems. As Shut Up and sit Down says, “In terms of price, tactile joy, depth, presentation and flexibility, the 54 card deck is the greatest board gaming product ever made.”  They’re ubiquitous and interesting, rich with mathematics and symbolism.  Sites like pagat.com have pages and pages of amazing games invented for the humble 54-card deck.

But I want more.

There’s a list on BoardGameGeek that lists the basic deck structure (number of suits, ranks, special cards needed) for many amazing, modern games.  Now the fantasy is this – can I have one single deck that can play all of those games?

Existing Efforts

I was not surprised that there have been extensive efforts to do something like this, either as a design exercise or to try to build a portable “game travel kit” of sorts.  Of these efforts, the Rainbow Deck is probably the most popular.  In general though, I’ve found alternative card systems to come in three different types:

  1. Decks of existing games. A lot of these decks just have extra ranks and suits, and can play basic games which require [S] suits x [R] ranks.  Search in BGG and you’ll find several geeklists that begin “Games you can play with a/an ____ Deck”.
  2. Designed Game Systems: Designed from the start with this specific purpose; i.e., to prototype or play a whole bunch of other games.
  3. Unique Gaming Systems, with their own mathematics.  These decks are designed in reverse. That is, they’re game systems first, and then invite you to create or prototype games with them.  I think these systems are small enough that I won’t put them in my deck, with the exception of the Decktet.

Despite all the existing efforts, I haven’t really found one that I’m fully satisfied with. I’ve found that they fall into one of three traps:

  • Tries to cram too much unrelated stuff. I don’t agree with maximizing the card’s real estate by putting random letters or pictures in it, unless it contributes to a coherent design. (pictured: Emergency Games Kit)ultimatedeck_kevan
  • The deck loses character: Cards have a long history of symbolism, and it’s a disservice to remove it. Stripped of character, decks like Rage and Sticheln are reduced to [M x N] arrays. Even the Rainbow deck is mathematically beautiful, but bland and soulless; it’s utilitarian but no one will ever enjoy playing with it.  Compare this to the Glyph system, which was designed with beauty in mind.
  • Information density is too low. I own the Badger Deck (featured header image), and it’s incredibly beautiful.  There’s nothing in it though that separates it from a simple extended-deck suit.

The deck I want to build balances the three of these concerns into one single package.  I’ve developed a draft and will be posting about it in future posts.


Here are some other interesting references I’ve found:


Analyzing game design weaknesses in Card Crawl by Tinytouchtales

Card Crawl by Tinytouchtales is a great concept, combining solitaire, roguelikes, and excellent art into an elegant package. It was casual enough to appeal to a large audience, and the sales figures reflected that.  (IOS link here)

However, I didn’t enjoy playing it.

I tried, I really did. However, it was nowhere as elegant as Donsol or as addictive as Dream Quest. I tried looking at its game elements to understand my reaction, and I found several design choices which combine in unfortunate ways.


1. The near-equivalence of all cards.
Despite having a variety of cards, they are more or less all the same. Monsters reduce your HP. Swords, Shields and Potions give you positive HP (i.e., reduce negative HP).  Everything can be sold for coins in a 1:1 ratio.  Once you figure this out, winning becomes trivial – it’s just a game of positive and negative numbers. Here’s the “health impact” of each card in the deck:

Health Chart

Without special cards and without selling anything, you will always win with 2HP. If you do a single reshuffle (costs 5HP), you die. If you sell a Shield(3), you die.

2. The learning curve is not a curve, it’s a plateau.

That’s pretty much the only key insight you need to understand the game.  From my friends, if they don’t realize this insight, their win percentage can be anywhere from 10-50%; everyone who realizes this has a win rate of 90% or more.

3. The only cards relevant to your score are special cards

Since the basic cards are deterministic, they’re useless when it comes to improving your score.  With only 5 special cards in your deck, much of the game is spent juggling and positioning the other cards to make use of the specials.  Which wouldn’t be so bad except…

4. Some special cards are obviously much better than others

… The special cards are also wildly varying in power! Compare these two cards, which are both used in the same way (when you are at low health)

  1. Sacrifice (deal damage to a monster equal to your missing health) – 1 to 12 points
  2. Blood Pact (pictured) – Gives you 0 to 18 points (if you swap at 1 health with a 10 health monster)


Some cards, like Sap (push back a card into the deck) and Vanish (redraw all cards) actually give you a zero point swing.   This means there are only a few cards that you would ever think of using to get a high score in constructed, and…

5. The game is solvable, but getting the highest score becomes a question of luck instead of skill.

…To get a high score in Constructed mode,  I’ll get the highest potential gain cards (e.g. Morph, Midas, Swap, Betrayal, Lash or some other powerful ones) and just start praying to RNGesus.  No skill involved, just hoping that the cards are dealt in the correct order.

6. Counterintuitive unlock scheme to get high scores in Normal mode.

Furthermore, to get a high score in Normal mode, where special cards are randomly chosen, you have to NEVER UNLOCK any of the weaker cards (so they do not get added to your random pool.).  Just grind to get enough money using the basic cards, and only unlock the specials with a high potential life swing.

7. The value of cards are pretty much fixed.

When the game can be easily  broken down into a question of plusses and minuses, and when the “net gain” of each special card can be estimated, then the game design is exposed to be rather shallow.

Compare that to a game like Donsol, where the “life swing” of a basic shield card even varies depending on how many monsters you use it to kill, or Dream Quest, where a card’s value can fluctuate wildly depending on which monster I’m fighting.

6. Difference between an “ok” score and a “high score” isn’t all that large.

But is it worth it?  The difference between the theoretical highest score (something like 150) and my normal score (120)  isn’t, you know, all that much.


I hope I wasn’t too harsh on the game.  It is actually quite good as a diversion for the first couple of hours; art style is excellent, and the quests are much, much more interesting than the basic game.  But when your core loop can so easily be dissected and broken down this easily, it had nowhere near the staying power I expected.  I can’t help thinking that maybe there should be a little more to crawl into.

So what now? Similar to Cellsweeper being a response to weaknesses in Mamomo Sweeper, I’m currently prototyping a game inspired by Card Crawl.  Here’s a preview:

Jack of Swords

Cellsweeper.xlsm: Dungeon Crawler RPG based on Minesweeper


New game is Cellsweeper.xlsm, a dungeon crawling RPG. The link below contains two files – the Excel itself and the “Cellsweeper” font. You could play the game without it, but it would depend on your tolerance for fighting alphanumeric characters instead of monsters. 🙂

Here’s a link to the game – Cellsweeper 1.1 (last updated 9/2/2015)

v1.1 Changes:

  • Fixed the assassin bug that hurts you for every cell opened if you mis-backstab on a wide open space
  • Emphasized that backstab only works on monsters of the *exact* same level

Design Notes:

The game is inspired by Mamono Sweeper, and attempts to improve some design elements in Mamono I didn’t like:

  1. The game is a bit too abstract.  
    • I felt that the game didn’t fully embrace the “RPG” aspect, and could easily be an abstract minesweeper version with multiple mine levels.
  2. The difficulty curve is reversed.
    • Since there are many more low level monsters than high level ones, it starts off hard and becomes easier at the end, not the other way around.
  3. There’s no point to the level 1 monsters.
    • It’s obvious that the player can immediately click on any cell adjacent to a “1”, and it just costs the player additional clicks.
  4. The game becomes rote at player level 5 (and to an extent, 4).  
    • At high levels, it becomes clear which cells are clickable, giving the last part of the game less tension. The game ends on a low note by having to click all remaining cells.
  5. The “Second click” problem
    • The first cell is always free, but the player can frequently get a huge damage hit on the second click.
    • Also, players usually play by jumping around for the first few clicks to try to open a large space.
  6. A cell with a monster also has a helper number “underneath” that monster.
    • It’s frustrating to keep switching between the “number view” and the “monster view”, since the cell can’t represent both at the same time.
  7. The player has to keep referring to the legend to remember the monster levels.
  8. There’s little replayability once you’ve figured out the optimal strategy.


For Cellsweeper, I tried to tie my solutions to a strong “dungeon crawling” theme.  I find the result much more fun to play (hopefully you do too!):

  1. Difficulty curve:
    • When the hero levels up, there’s a 50% chance for weaker hidden monsters to level up as well.  The difficulty curve is now balanced – the player first explores an “easy” area, with the areas becoming more difficult as he becomes stronger.
  2. Little point to level 1 and level 5 monsters
    • Introduced a win condition: The player wins by defeating the necromancer, not by clearing out the board.
    • Fighting an enemy of the same level also damages the hero.  This means that bats (LV1) pose a threat at the start, and wraiths (LV5) are still a threat at max level.
    • The hero gains XP from exploring the dungeon.
  3. “Second click” problem:
    • The player can only explore cells adjacent to open ones, like a hero navigating an actual dungeon.  This also prevents information overload, as the player only concentrates on small parts of the map at a time.
    • The first cell is automatically selected for the hero and is always a “1”.  This prevents him from cavorting off and getting killed immediately.
    • Changed borders to look like the player is “carving out” the dungeon.
  4. Helper number underneath the monster
    • Removed this feature.
  5. Need to keep referring to the legend
    • Monsters are color coded with increasing color warmth; the legend is still needed, but it’s a bit more intuitive.
    • Originally, I thought of adding a subscript to the monster showing its level, but was worried that players might confuse this for a helper number.
  6. Replayability
    • Added high scores.
    • Added multiple character classes with different abilities – three basic characters (fighter wizard rogue), and three “advanced” classes (barbarian monk assassin).
    • Significantly tweaked the difficulty of the classes – now people of different skill levels can play.

Buzzword.xlsm: A word game where your greed is your own worst enemy


Today’s game is Buzzword.  The premise is simiple – you have a limited number of letters, which appear one at a time.  Use the letters to form words – the longer and more complex the word, the higher the score.

The problem is that you have limited space for the letters that arrive.  Should you go for the smaller, safer words? Should you wait for more letters but at the risk of overflowing your rack?  Should you risk words you’re not sure exist? Do you want to use low scoring words to get rid of the harder letters? Why is your rack full of J’s, V’s and U’s??

Also for this version please don’t play with sound.  It’s annoying.

Buzzword.xlsm v1.0 – Link here, two files for both 32-and 64-bit versions of Excel.

Battle Snake.xlsm: A 1-3 player snake game on a single keyboard

Hello, Please feel free to play my first game, Battle Snake!  If you’re looking for games that start out fun end up destroying friendships by the end, look no further.  It’s like a Mario Party you can play on your work PC.

Get the file here. (Version 1.1 – Updated 150806).  There are two files there; if the 32-bit version doesn’t work try the other one.


  1. Same-keyboard co-op! Up to three people can play at once, squeezing together uncomfortably in the chair.
  2. Customizable features, such as snake speed and initial snake length.  Keyboard mapping isn’t allowed, though. 😦

Some additional hints:

  1. Doesn’t work in Open Office, needs Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). VBA code is currently unlocked, so you can see there’s nothing malicious in it.
  2. When you press “start”, the snake doesn’t actually start moving until you press an initial arrow key.
  3. Once a snake crashes, that player is out of the game – but he isn’t necessarily the loser! For example, in a two player game, if the If he’s in the lead, the game will continue until either the other player has overtaken him or they’ve crashed with less points.  Of course, now that one player is out of the picture, his opponent can take their sweet time.

Please feel free to leave comments or email feedback to wilhelm.su@gmail.com. Thanks!