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Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

Not long ago I wrote some ruminations about magical numbers and boardgames, ( and Steven Davis suggested I should talk about this in relation to card games, such as card hand size.

I’m not a person who plays standard card games, though I have played Old Maid, Canasta, Euchre, and even Poker in the distant past, and still may play Oh Hell once a year. But I’ve never played Uno, let alone Hearts or Spades or Gin Rummy. But lately I find myself designing games that use cards, though not the standard deck.

One of the benefits of cards is that there is a natural limit to play that does not exist in boardgames, that is, the exhaustion of the draw deck. And card games naturally fall into relatively short sessions (one hand), though most traditional card games are played through several hands.

Hand size varies a lot in card games using the standard deck of cards. One of the smallest hands is an Texas Hold ‘em (two cards) though more typical in poker is five cards. Magic: the Gathering starts with seven. I have made a brief list of hand size in some card games, and I’d judge that a hand size of five to seven cards is most common. (I’m not counting games like Bridge and Old Maid where all the cards are dealt out.)

I like to design screwage games, which are pretty popular at the university game club I attend, and there I’ll start with somewhere between five and seven cards. If I don’t have a strong feeling about where to start I’ll pick a larger number because that gives players more choices within the context of the usual card game limitation that there are typically fewer choices than in a boardgame.

When I design a boardgame that uses event cards I typically start players with five and see how it works out. In one case, for a space wargame with three to five players, I reduced the number to four, three when there are five or more players, because the event cards had too strong an influence over the game. Event cards are there for variety and uncertainty, not to dominate the game. (I will write a separate piece about uses of event cards.)

The number of starting cards also depends on how many cards are available in the deck and on how many people typically play. It doesn’t take much time to work out approximately how many rounds a game will take if players are drawing one card at a time and there are a given number of cards. Multiply the hand size times the number of players, subtract that from the number of cards available, divide the result by the number of players to get the number of rounds.

Obviously, the more cards players start with, the more options they have. The question may be at what point are there too many options for your target audience. One way to broaden the appeal of a game is to reduce the number of decisions players have to make. (Another way is to reduce the number of exceptions to the rules that people must keep in mind.) So a hand of seven cards gives more options and decisions than a hand of five cards, but the question is, is it the right number of options and decisions for your game?

As a practical aspect as well, as the hand gets bigger people have more trouble coping with handling it, with keeping track of everything, even with being able to hold it in their hand so they can see all the cards.

In many games I don’t have a set hand size, or even a size limit. A few players like to collect lots of cards to get a big hand; but they rarely win when they do this, because they’re expending actions to draw while other players are doing something potentially more productive.

I find that people so often forget to draw cards, especially in games where you occasionally use a free-to-play card that you don’t replace, that in some games I have a simple rule that if you find yourself with fewer than five cards at any time you draw back up to five immediately.

What about deck size? I tend to stick to the old standard governed by printing capabilities of 55 cards per deck (or 110, or 165 . . .). A standard deck is 52, plus two jokers, plus a logo card. (I understand there is more variation now in printing machinery.) 55 is a lot of cards for many purposes, such as Event Cards. But a game that is purely cards often demands 110 cards or more, to provide sufficient variety and versatility.

I may as well make this observation about the card game process as well. The paradigm for standard card games is that a players plays a card, and draws a card, each turn. But which comes first? If the player draws the card afterward then he has time to think about how to use it and what to do next before his next turn. If the player draws to start the turn then everyone waits while the player thinks about what to do with this new card. On the other hand, if the player feels he has a poor set of cards then he’ll be happy to draw before he plays in hopes that he’ll draw something more satisfying. Also it may be easier for players to remember to draw before playing than to remember to draw after playing, especially if playing one card can result in some additional actions. But it’s so important for games to be shorter nowadays that I usually choose draw-after because that speeds up the game.

Of course, you can have games that use cards yet don’t follow the standard pattern of play one and draw one. For example as I recall, in Fluxx the number you draw varies according to cards that people have played during the game. In other games, drawing a card is one action among many possible actions, with a player taking two or three actions per turn, so he or she may draw two or three cards, or even none.


good questions

I have found that my recent design ideas are leaning heavily towards card manipulation/hand management with a minimal board. Thus, I have come across your observations and pondered them myself. What I came up with is pretty well along the lines you have already laid out. One of the first things to do is deciding on your majority target audience. Meaning, are they introductory, casual, or hardcore gamers?
With the introductory gamer obviously the lower the hand size, the better. Plus limiting hand replenishment to the beginning of turns takes out some potential confusion. This may increase each player's turn time, but we are also assuming that the game isnt too complex since it is targeted at introductory gamers to being with.
Casual gamers is the largest category since introductory gamers can easily graduate into this level of game and a lot of hardcore gamers like to "slum" it with a more easy going game once and a while. I think this category relies the most on designer preference. I personally would go with 4-6 card hand limit with players replenishing their hands at the end of their turn. This allows for a ramp up in game strategy and, if your game supports it, allows more options for free-to-play cards for use on other players' turns.
Hardcore gamers is where theme comes in the most, IMO. You really have to find what works best with the theme. As you said, the more cards availble on turns and when to draw vastly affects game difficulty. Again, IMO, allowing players to draw up to hand limit at the end of their turns is the best route to go with hardcore gamers. I find that a lot of the more difficult card based games or games relying heavily on card based affects are sit-and-wait-for-your-turn with minimal strategizing between turns. I try to keep non-turn players as involved as possible, which means, end-of-turn hand replenishment, instant effect cards, and consequences either way for playing on other's turns or not.
Another thought I just had is that the more your cards interact with other cards in the deck (Ex: spell and counter spell) the more cards you are going to want to put in player's hands. At least that seems to me the natural progression...
Having played Fluxx only a few times, the changing of hand limit is extremely chaotic and should be used sparingly. It works for a game as unstructured as Fluxx (hence the name, too) but for a game that takes more than 30 minutes, it should be extremely limited.
Thanks for posting your thoughts on this subject. It helps to bounce these conundrums off of other designers.

The way I use numbers in my

The way I use numbers in my game is first with number sequence like Exponential (2,4,8, 16, 32), fibonacci (2,3,5,8,13) or triangular(1,3,6,10,15). These can be used for victory points increment, resource cost, power level of units, etc.

The second way I use numbers is whith what I call structural numbers. Each game should have a number between 2 and 12 that will be present in many mechanics of the game. Normally numbers from 3 to 6 are used. In my game Fallen Kingdoms, number 3 is redundant helped with the number 6. So many elements can be divided by 3 or are made of groups of 3.

Those are my 2 primary use of numbers.

Lately, I had to define a nb of card in a deck to handle multiple divider. I ended up with 48 because it could be divided by many numbers including (2,3,4,6,8,12,16). So that could be another application of how to use numbers.

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