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Really Small Games (Card Version)

I attended a meeting of a NC game designers’ guild for the first time last week. The organizer, Matt Wolfe, asked about my design Sea Kings, which is currently on Kickstarter run by Worthington Publications ( ). At some point I said it was, at about 45 minutes, inevitably a filler game; and he responded, that’s not a filler game any more, fillers are 20 minutes!

While it’s true that 45 minutes is sometimes more a serial filler (played several times consecutively), it’s surely not a destination game (you go to a regular game meeting with the intention of playing this particular game). (See for my definitions.) So as the meeting went on I got educated about a segment of gaming I wasn’t familiar with, mostly and often entirely abstract card games that sell for $10-$20 and take 10-30 minutes to play. (Abstract in design and play, but with a manufactured story tacked on after design. Abstract games without a story are hard to sell. Look at a game box sometime, you’ll find a lot more about the story, usually, than about how the game actually works.)

This put me in mind of a game designers’ weekend I attended in Charlottesville, VA about 10 years ago, hosted by Stephen Glenn. At one point one designer said, “I want to play games all day, but none longer than an hour.” I thought (and still think) that was an odd point of view; if you’re willing to play all day, why not allow longer games? Today I suspect the sentiment would be “I want to play games all evening, but none longer than 30 minutes” (which might be a commentary on shortening attention spans and a need for instant gratification).

Why would people limit how long a particular game is going to take, when they’re intent on playing all day, or all evening? I’m guessing, because it’s not the way I (or my generation, really) do things. First, you get the ultimate feedback quickly, whether you’ve won or lost. Second, you can switch from one game to another quickly, and play several different games. This is more important in modern short-attention-span times, and also fits with the change from gameplay depth to variety as a goal of a good game. The “Cult of the New” is in ascendance. Third, it also lets you play games with more people in one game meeting, if there are enough people to play several games at once. As you change games, you change the composition of your group. Fourth, you’re not putting your ego on the line when you play so many short games. If you play a three hour game and don’t do well, the psychological effect is much stronger than if it’s a 30 minute game. (And you’re not likely to lose six 30 minute games in a row.)

The ideal, to me, is a game flexible enough that it can be played in 10 or 20 minutes, even if the most satisfying version (to me, anyway) is 30 minutes up to an hour. I have designed several card games exactly like this (point games, not surprisingly), but they all use 110 cards, and 110 is too many for a $10 game, even for a $15 game unless you have a big print run. The inexpensive games I was shown mostly contained 55 cards or 16 cards (versions of Love Letter), not 110. (In case anyone reading isn’t aware of it, the most common card printers do 55 cards per sheet, which may be gradually changing to 54.) AEG has quite a few of these games, which Matt thought were printed in runs of 5,000.

Walking around a recent game club meeting at NC State, with 66 people in attendance, I discovered that the only boardgame being played was one that my group was playtesting (albeit a three and a four player game at the same time). Two people were playing Carcassonne, one group of five or six was playing an RPG, the rest were playing Magic and several other card games. (And that’s without anyone playing Cards Against Humanity, a popular pastime at the club.)

Why card games? A major difference between what card games and board games naturally do is access to information. Card games naturally hide information, where board games naturally reveal information. If there's little hidden information, people try to figure out an optimal move, resulting sometimes in analysis paralysis (why chess clocks exist, to cut off the AP). People can often successfully play card games intuitively, which is much less "work" than playing logically, as well as quicker. So card games can be played more quickly. (I discussed the natural characteristics of board and card games at )

In boardgames a player usually has several pieces to worry about, complicating decisions, not a problem in card games. Moreover, boards were invented to display maneuver and geospatial relationships. Games with those features may be inherently longer than abstract games without those characteristics (and the latter includes most card games, traditional and commercial). You CAN use cards to make a kind of board (I have three games that do this), but it's more the fact that maneuver and geospatial relationships are important that lengthens the game, not how the board is depicted. (By the way, two of those three are deliberate card-game versions of boardgames.)

Board games with one piece per player, avatars, can have a quick setup (Sea Kings among them). I discuss the trend of using avatars in tabletop games in my video on my YouTube “Game Design” channel, video at, channel at )

Card games are usually easier to carry, often easier to set up, and easier to put away than boardgames.

Card games are probably less complex than boardgames in general. This is helped by putting rules on the cards, so there are fewer rules to learn before the game starts.

As game manufacturers try to reach broader markets to make up for shortfalls in sales of individual games (because there are SO MANY games published now), a trend back toward traditional card game methods, such as trick-taking and set collection, also makes sense.

It's very hard to make a board game very short, especially non-abstracts and games for more than two players. Yeah, Tic-tac-toe is short, but it's solved, always a draw in perfect play. I discussed short board games (though only two player) in "Really Small Games" (


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blog | by Dr. Radut