Skip to Content

Personal Challenge: 18 cards only

34 replies [Last post]
Joined: 07/06/2013

I've entered a head-to-head design challenge with a friend of mine and fellow game designer. The rules: make a game that uses only 18 poker-sized cards. No pen and paper allowed, no other components allowed. Deadline is January 20th, 2019.

I’ll use this thread as a journal of sorts. Feel free to join in on the discussion!

The Jury

Names altered for privacy.

Alice: Alice is methodical, strategic and introverted. She prefers games where she can slowly build up to an unbeatable advantage over time. She also enjoys cooperative games and storytelling games, and she has a very high tolerance for complicated game mechanics.

Bob: Bob is a master strategist. He enjoys playing 4x computer games, and he usually emerges victorious in our regular Twilight Imperium sessions. Bob thrives when there are multiple avenues to victory and possibilities for long-term planning. If there are few, he makes his own fun by going for high-risk moves and creating chaos and destruction.

Catherine: Catherine is the most casual of our usual players. She prefers games with simple mechanics and social dynamics, such as bluffing games, party games and deduction games. Among her favorites are Coup, The Resistance and Love Letter.

Dave: Dave is very competitive and tactical. He likes games involving subterfuge, surprise attacks, diplomacy and risk management. He also likes two-player games more than probably anyone else in the group. Favorites include Illuminati and Shadowfist. Dave also designs games.

Ethan: Ethan isn't really a boardgamer at heart, so I've yet to suss out what type of games appeal to him the most. He plays Chess and Darts competitively, but not all that many other abstract strategy games or pub games. He's an avid reader though, with a great love for volume-spanning fantasy and science fiction epics.

Voting will be by simple majority and secret ballot.


We're allowed to playtest our games with anyone (including the jurors) as much as we like, as long as the other competitor is present. We're aiming for finished and tested games here, not unfinished drafts.

Admins: Feel free to move this thread if this isn't the right forum for this sort of thing.

let-off studios
let-off studios's picture
Joined: 02/07/2011
Here's To Success!

Wow, what a way to put together a design contest for yourself!

I'm looking forward to seeing your updates. So keep it up, and best of success on your finished project. :)

Joined: 07/06/2013
Some initial thoughts...The

Some initial thoughts...

The component restriction is of course a nightmare, which is sort of the point. More specifically, only one of the jurors actually prefers short, simple games. I perceive that a big part of the challenge will be to provide enough depth to entertain everyone.

Twitch mechanics: I think this is out immediately. While Ethan plays Darts, he also plays Chess, and I think he prefers the latter. Catherine enjoys shooting things in Halo, so she might be okay with some twitch mechanics in the context of a light-hearted party game. The other jurors positively despise twitch mechanics.

Randomness: Bob, Dave and to a lesser extent Catherine have preferences that lend themselves to rather large amounts of randomness. However, that’s completely antithetical to what I think will engage Alice and Ethan. So I guess I should seek to have a low to medium amount of randomness, if any at all. Also, with cards, the typical randomization technique is shuffling, which isn’t an inherently fun activity.

Theme: This is a conundrum. While the component restrictions lend themselves to a silly or family-friendly theme, the jurors are all nerdy adults. They would probably prefer a game about zombies and lasers over a game about cute creatures or architecture. Maybe some sort of historical theme could work? Or maybe a silly sci-fi or fantasy vibe? I’m not really sure. Gameplay comes first anyway.

Deduction mechanics: Some sort of bluffing, deduction or hidden information is probably a good mechanic to include. This can create all sorts of depth – which my design sorely needs – and it’s a type of mechanic that meshes well with pretty much everyone’s preferences.

Gotcha mechanics: I’m really on the fence about those. While Bob and Dave like them, I’m not entirely sure if they appeal too much to the other jurors. I’ll probably need at least some truly interactive mechanics, but not any really in-your-face gotchas.

Multiplayer: The game should probably be a multiplayer game, not a two-player game. Ideally, it should be playable with anywhere from 3 to 5 players, though that may be too difficult to do with the limited components. I think I’ll aim for a 4-player game, maybe with a 3-player variant. Of course, 18 isn’t divisible by 4, so if there is to be hands and dealing involved (most card games do), that’s something to keep in mind.

X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
An idea

4 players.
4 cards per player.

Can you do something with that?

For example. Get 4 colours of the same kind?
Yet you are forced to give away 3 cards every round.
1 to each player. Yet you receive one of that player.

With 18 cards. I can only think of 6 colours. With 2 different colours on each card or so. There are 15 different cards. The last 3 could be... 4 different colours per card? Or negatively. An empty card? 2 emptues and one rainbow card.???

Joined: 07/06/2013
X3M wrote:4 players. 4 cards

X3M wrote:
4 players.
4 cards per player.

Can you do something with that?

For example. Get 4 colours of the same kind?
Yet you are forced to give away 3 cards every round.
1 to each player. Yet you receive one of that player.

With 18 cards. I can only think of 6 colours. With 2 different colours on each card or so. There are 15 different cards. The last 3 could be... 4 different colours per card? Or negatively. An empty card? 2 emptues and one rainbow card.???

I’ve been thinking very much along the same lines!

Set collection or "matching" is a tried and true mechanic in card games, from Poker to Canasta. The beauty of it is typically that it can provide interesting decisions and multiple avenues to victory, such as whether you’re going for a straight or going for a flush. I’m pretty sure my design is going to involve some sort of set collection, like yours, since I can’t use any other component other than the cards to track progress.

Giving away cards to build sets is the basis of the card game Pig, which is somewhat similar to your idea. And while that’s a fun little bluffing game, it’s not very deep. The jury is mostly composed of strategy game enthusiasts, so I guess they would need some additional layers of depth if they’re going to find the game any fun.

Of course, a similar mechanic is also used in the opening phase of Hearts, which is a much deeper trick-taking game where you also sort of build sets (except you either want all the hearts or as few as possible). I’m pretty sure some version of this mechanic is going to make it into my design, seeing as I have so few cards in play. I can’t really have a draw pile and discard pile, and I do need to spread the cards around somehow.

Alternatively, I could have the players trade cards freely. But that leads to the problem of "double coincidence of wants", unless I can somehow introduce a common currency (which I doubt I’ll have the necessary components to do). Also, such transactions are frequently zero-sum in nature, given the competitive nature of games, so it’s probably not a very good mechanic in this specific situation, seeing as there are so few components. Unless I go co-operative or player teams? That could maybe be a thing.

Thanks for your input!

Joined: 07/06/2013
Actually, I think I’m almost

Actually, I think I’m almost certainly including some form of set collection. I’m fortunate enough to know my target audience very well, so I can use their psychographic profiles to determine if a mechanic is going to appeal to them or not. As it turns out, set collection (in some shape or form) is likely going to be a winner!

Why? Well, two out of five jurors have preferences that sort of require a progression track. They need to see who’s leading and how well they’re doing, for various reasons. Alice needs to be able to build towards an advantage. Dave is competitive, so he needs to know who’s in the lead. And since I can’t really include points, victory tokens or any other components, set collection fits the bill.

For Bob, a suitably sophisticated method of set collection can potentially provide the long-term strategy and multiple paths to victory that he enjoys. Hopefully.

But there’s a caveat: if building towards sets is going to work for Dave, the information sort of needs to be public, or at least partially "knowable". A player with a competitive and social mindset needs some idea of who’s in the lead, so he knows who to rally others against, ally with or backstab. Players just winning out of the blue is somewhat inimical to that experience. Of course, if the game is largely non-interactive, this isn’t so much of an issue, but that’s not going to appeal to Dave anyway.

This also touches on a point I made previously. The jury mostly consists strategy game enthusiasts. This means that the game should ideally conform to certain expectations of playing time and complexity. A game that’s over in just a few minutes is likely going to be too short for them (unless it's eminently replayable).

I’m not sure how far I can really stretch the playing time with just 18 cards, but I think I should aim for the higher end. Of course, doing so runs the risk of the game becoming repetitive and boring, so it’s a balancing act.

What are some time-consuming, fun and non-repetitive activities that do not require interacting with many components? Debate? Guessing games? Secret alliances? Creative stuff, like poetry or storytelling? I’ve already ditched the notion of twitch and body mechanics, but those can technically get very elaborate and time-consuming (e.g. Twister).

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
How about "Street Crew"

Like in "Grease" with John Travolta... Basically you're a "street hood" and you battle different crews (teams/gangs). It's 18 cards, the player with the last remaining fighter is the victorious crew.

It gives the option of having like three (3) "street hoods" leaving you with fifteen (15) cards for all kinds of sets that can give you abilities and boost your stats.

About combat??? IDK. Haven't a clue. But just throwing out the idea that with fifteen (15) STAT or equipment cards... You still have a LOT of possibilities to design something cool.

If you have three (3) "street hoods", you basically get FIVE (5) cards per fighter. Which could be like "Mini/Ultra Lite" decks... The numbers seem to working in your favor (because sometimes it's hard to get them to be symmetrical)... But yeah... Something like this could be cool...

You said some judges like "Take-That". So you could incorporate that into the three (3) sets of "Mini" decks. It'll probably take LESS than 30 minutes to play (so the time should be just right). There is a Set Collection aspect with the "Mini" decks ... which leads to Deck Construction: pre-battle you can determine which cards you want to use for which fighter.

This kind of game has a LOT going for it... And it's not too complicated.

Just some of my own thoughts... based on what I have read from your OP.


questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Take a look at "Hero Realms"

Hero Realms does something real cool with their cards: multipurpose.

So you could use a "Shiv" as a Blade to give a "+2 Attack" Bonus and keep it part of your deck... OR you could do something like "Discard it" and "discard one card at random from your opponent's Deck"...

IDK ... You'd have to think about it. Five (5) cards per Fighter is not much. Losing a "Shiv" is an important decision... But randomly impacting your opponent's Micro deck might be even more "disastrous" and cause more mayhem.

I know it's tight on the design side. You need a lot of cool stuff and not too many cards to deal with. You'll also want some kind of ROUND mechanic. Battles should be in rounds.

Like I said, just "vague" ideas you can maybe work with and TRANSFORM into some real cool MINI Batte Game... I would try it!

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
BIG BONUS: multiplayer battles

If you can DESIGN the game to play from 2 to 5 people... That would be SWEET!

Normally you think of DUELS. But if you get 18 Booster and you can PLAY a game against four (4) other opponents... That would be EPIC!!!

Definitely something to think about. I know you were more "leaning" towards a Set Collection type of game... But I think if you design an AMAZING multiplayer Battle card game...

I'd be the first person to want to try it out!

Some ideas about HOW to DESIGN it:

+ Each card in each player's Micro deck has a Value from 1 to 5.

+ When you BUILD (construct) those decks, YOU MUST have values 1 to 5, one of each...

Now you need a cool COMBAT mechanic that allows you to ENGAGE more than ONE opponent in a BATTLE. Design that to be COOL... And you have something WINNER (IMHO).

Just helping you do some Brainstorming!

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Going back to the "Shiv"

Let's say the "Shiv" has a point value of "1", it's the weakest attack. BUT if you give it a SECONDARY ability that it beats ANY AND ALL "5" point value cards (that card gets EXILED)... Now you REALLY have an interesting card to play.

Again ... just sending some ideas around your way.

Good luck with this endeavor!

Note: The tricky part is the combat and how to use the FIVE (5) cards in your "Fighters" Mini deck. Since you don't want any other components ... As per the OP, I would suggest something like using your "Decks" as HEALTH, each "Fighter" has FIVE (5) Health. You lose a card when you drop by ONE (1) HP.

I'm tempted to say a "SIMPLE" mechanic like War/Hearts/Stratego could be used to drive the Battle aspect (Not sure... it's my thinking). Notice all those games use a SIMPLE point mechanic to drive play. Same goes with something like "Munchkin". So I'm sure there are simple ways to design a "nice" combat mechanic to drive the game. What it is... It's your game, so I'll let you figure that part out!

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
Just another quick thought

Maybe if each "Round" against your opponents follows something simple like this:

1. Each Player chooses "one" (1) Fighter from the THREE (3)

+ Each Card in the Mini decks has a Value 1 to 5.

+ The ONE (1) Card from each Mini deck "Trumps" a FIVE (5). But loses to all the other cards.

2. Then from that "Fighters"' deck choose a card SECRETLY.

3. Everyone Simultaneously Reveals their "Attack" cards.

4. The WEAKEST card is damaged ... And the weaker player loses their "Attack" card (Permanently exiled).

The game continues like-so and until one player is the Victor (Remaining "Fighter"(s) with HP still).

I haven't thought about what to do with TIES... Again just supply some ideas you can work on and go in your OWN direction. I'm not saying DESIGN-IT-LIKE-THIS... Just some ideas that may SPARK new ones for you...

In the meantime, I'll think about what to do with TIES!


Note #1: The STRATEGY is to figure out WHEN a player is trying to "muscle" his opponents by playing a FIVE (5) point card. And if you suspect that you play the "Shiv" (1) point card to beat it.

Note #2: I've just quickly prototyped this and it work pretty well. I think a game will last under 30 minutes with three (3) "Fighters". I've only tried it with ONE (1) Fighter each. And it's more or less about 10 minutes. So I figure for THREE (3) Fighters should be about 30 minutes...

Maybe a more serious filler too... Since there is so much immersion.

Note #3: The "Take-That" abilities are what's going to make this kind of game "SHINE". Like a "+2 Attack" would mean that instead of scoring only "2 Attack", it would be "4 Attack"... And another card could be like "Sacrifice this card when you are the losing player in a battle"... Which could mean that you can SAVE a "5 Attack" card.

IDK — things to think about!

Joined: 07/06/2013
Those are some sweet ideas,

Those are some sweet ideas, questccg! I know Dave would enjoy a game like that. He’s rather fond of Yomi, which does a lot of those things.

Cards from Yomi

Character-specific, multipurpose and combo-driven. They can be played in two orientations, and they even double as regular playing cards. Way too graphically cluttered in my opinion, though I concede that’s a matter of taste.

But I foresee a few problems with going for this type of design. First of all, it doesn’t really appeal to all the members of the jury. Fighting games are almost by necessity more tactical than strategic, so Alice could quickly lose interest from the lack of non-interactive progress. Bob might find it a little lacking in strategic options (though the carnage will certainly appeal to him), and it may well just be too aggressive for Catherine’s more casual preferences (although hidden information and guessing games are staple mechanics among her favorites, so I suppose it could be just the theme that could be off-putting).

Also, as you noted, there’s no real way of tracking rounds or HP without using the cards themselves. Removing cards seems suboptimal since there are so few of them, but I suppose it could work. You could also make a clever turn counter by rotating and flipping cards, but that just seems too cute.

My competitor may actually be doing something along these lines. At least he mentioned working on some sort of back and forth hostage-taking mechanic, which could lend itself well to a fighting-style game.

To your design ideas in particular, I think the core mechanics as written suffer somewhat from a runaway leader problem. You noted that that the special effects from attacks are what would make the game truly shine, and I agree. But I think they will also need to have some serious catch-up potential for a player who’s currently losing!

To break ties, why not go for some rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock type of comparison instead of linear with an otherwise weak trump? Not entirely sure how that would work in multiplayer, but there could always be a two-step comparison process that resolves to a head-to-head confrontation.

Furthermore, wouldn’t it be more replayable if players made their own faction/moveset from the whole cardset, such as by drafting? I suppose the thematic immersion factor will get somewhat diluted by going that route, but I think it would make for a more replayable game than having each player only ever really using a set portion of the cards in a given game.

Joined: 07/06/2013
Going with the idea of

Going with the idea of debate, negotiations and hidden information to hopefully prolong playing time somewhat, here’s a rough draft for an idea I’ve been working on. At it’s core, it’s a set collecting game that involves some subterfuge, some politics, some luck and some strategy.

I have no idea if this will be any fun at all. But if it crashes and burns completely, I just may try my hand at a more direct confrontation game instead, seeing as I got some great ideas off questccg!

The theme is sort of SimCity meets Junta. That isn’t ideal, but at least it’s silly and inoffensive. With some more work on the individual cards, I think this might be ready for a playtest.

What do you guys think? Anything that’s obviously going to be a problem? The rules writing is a bit rough, but I'll be happy to answer any qustions!


A Card Game for 3-4 Players

In Urban Development, the players takes the role of corrupt city councilors and their contractor cronies. The goal is to get the best development deals – in the right neighborhoods.


18 cards, each depicting a specific type of building project.

A card belongs to one or more of the following zoning categories:

  • Residential
  • Commercial
  • Industrial
  • Civic

Some cards have a Productivity rating and/or a Desirability rating. The latter can be negative. Also, some cards have special, conditional scoring rules. For example, the Suburban Villas are worth +1 point if you also have the Shopping Mall.

(I’ll post a tentative list of cards in a later post.)


Shuffle and deal the cards. In a four-player game, remove two cards and set them aside face up. Randomly determine which player will be the Chairman.


The game is divided into rounds. Each round is divided into three phases:

  • I. Planning Phase
  • II. Voting Phase
  • III. Building Phase

I. Planning Phase

In the planning phase, the Chairman chooses either right or left. Starting with the Chairman and going in turn, each player passes a card face-down to the next player in the chosen direction. You may look at your new card before passing on a card, and you may even pass on the card that you just received.

Random Bureaucracy: At this point, the Chairman may take a card at random from any player’s hand. That player then takes a card at random from the Chairman’s hand.

II. Voting Phase

In the voting phase, the council decides which building project to go forward with. This is done by absolute majority vote. Abstaining is permitted. In a four-player game, the Chairman has a tie-breaking vote only.

Each player places one card from his or her hand face-down. Shuffle them and turn them face-up. These cards are the proposed building projects for this session.

Only one proposal can be selected, but the proposals can be freely debated until a motion to vote is made and seconded by anyone, including the Chairman. The Chairman decides how the debate is otherwise conducted, as well as the order and method of voting.

Players may negotiate to heart’s content, but no promises made are binding.

Failed Vote

If no proposal gets the required majority, shuffle the proposed cards back together and deal them out randomly. Then go back to the planning phase.

Successful Vote

The selected proposal becomes a contract.

The player whose proposal was selected picks up the discarded proposals, secretly takes one for him or herself, shuffles the rest and deals them out to other players face-down. The Chairman does not get a card.

If it was the Chairman’s proposal that got selected, that player shuffles and deals the discarded proposals to the other players. These cards go to your hand.

III. Building Phase

In the building phase, it’s time to see who gets the contract card and in which neighborhood the building gets built. Buildings in your neighborhood are placed face-up in front you.

Beginning with the Chairman and going clockwise, each player takes the contract card and reveals three cards from his or her hand and/or neighborhood to create a portfolio of four cards.

The player with the strongest portfolio gets the contract and builds the building in his or her neighborhood. That player then becomes the new Chairman.

Comparing Portfolios

Each card in the portfolio is worth one point. In addition, the player or players who fulfill or tie for the following criteria get bonus points:

  • Most residential, commercial, industrial or civic buildings in portfolio: +2 points for each category.
  • Most desirable portfolio: +3 points.
  • Most productive portfolio: +3 points.
  • Diverse portfolio with all four building types: +1 point.

Furthermore, some cards give additional points under certain circumstances.


The game is over when any player is out of cards in hand at the end of a round.

Compare the cards in each player’s neighborhood in the same way as portfolios are compared. The best neighborhood wins!

EDIT: Math. Clarity.
EDIT 2: Wording, typos.

Joined: 07/06/2013
I just realized that there is

I just realized that there is a way to track progressive game states that does not involve using up my preciously few cards! Seating order, like in The Great Dalmuti, President and Daifugo. That could potentially open up some very interesting design space...

Are there any other games that use changing seating order in clever ways?

Joined: 07/06/2013
Yesterday, I met my

Yesterday, I met my competitor for beers and design talk. This is a very friendly competition, as you can imagine. I invited him over to these forums, so maybe he’ll join this thread at some point (if an admin approves his account!).

Anyway, the conversation was rather illuminating. I confided that I had some difficulty in identifying Ethan’s personal game preferences. But together, we eventually came to a few insights.

Obviously, Ethan enjoys skill-intensive games. Secondly – and this maybe isn’t so obvious – he prefers games that have a great deal of clarity. Ethan is totally fine with losing, but he needs to know why he lost or won, so that he can learn and improve.

The topic then drifted towards game design in general, and an important philosophical difference quickly emerged. My competitor sees game design largely as a mechanical exercise, sort of like engineering. A game either fails or succeeds, largely on its own merits. Player preferences and psychology are extrinsic and external constraints: build something great, and the right people will enjoy it.

I see things differently. In my opinion, player preferences and target audience are probably the most defining features of a game. Ice hockey, Snooker, Chess and Mafia are all great game designs. They all work. What really separates them isn’t how they’re internally constructed (in fact, they share a lot of high-level design patterns, such as having rules). Rather, it’s what kind of player they appeal to.

I’ll make another post later that further elaborates on some of my personal game design philosophy, more specifically about tabletop games. Also, I’ll post the tentative card list for Urban Development sometime later today.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to share more ideas and thoughts about the challenge! I would love to see how other game designers would approach something like this, even if it’s just an initial idea or a rough draft.

Joined: 07/06/2013
I'm sorry about the delay,

I'm sorry about the delay, but I got sidetracked trying to perfect how to present the cards in table format. In the end, I gave up. Here's what I'm thinking so far:

Shopping Mall
Desirability: -1
Productivity: +2

Office Building
+1 if you have the Hotel
Desirability: -1
Productivity: +2

Tenement Block
Desirability -1

Apartment Highrise
Desirability +1

Power Plant
Desirability: -1
Productivity: +1

Desirability +1

Suburban Villas
+1 if you have the Shopping Mall
Desirability +3

Desirability -1
Productivity +2

Desirability -3
Productivity +5

residential, commercial
Productivity +1

+1 if you have the Rowhouses, Suburban Villas or Tenement Block.
Productivity +1

Desirability +5

civic, commercial
Desirability +2
Productivity +1

civic, commercial, industrial
-1 if you have any residential buildings.
Desirability -5
Productivity +2

Police Station
+1 if you have a commercial or residential building.

civic, commercial
Desirability +2
Productivity +1

industrial, commercial
+1 if you also have the Dockyard or Factory
Desirability -1
Productivity +2

civic, commercial
Desirability -1

I'd love to put some more special effects on the cards, but that's probably not too big of a concern for the initial playtest. Numbers will of course need to be tweaked as well.

Also, I'd like to get demolition projects in there somewhere. Maybe I can have two of them and somehow use them to mechanically solve the unfortunate artifact of having to remove two cards for the 4-player game.

Joined: 07/06/2013
We had our first initial

We had our first initial playtest yesterday, with Dave and Alice present from the jury. We were five people in total, so I thought what the heck, let’s see if the game works with five people as well. Turns out it does, mutatis mutandis.

Overall, people had fun, but we played only one game. We decided we would not try again until certain sorely needed quality of life changes were made.

Here are my notes.

Hotfix for initial chairman: This was my bad. The first chairman is down a card in hand by the beginning of round two, without necessarily getting a building in his or her neighborhood. That’s a major problem. We hotfixed this mid-game so that the chairman starts off with +1 card in hand, which worked rather well. But doing this from the get-go hypothetically leads to a potentially significant first-player advantage, so I’m not sure if this should be the permanent fix. Maybe the chairman can get one card from the ‘burn’ if and only if he or she does not get a building in the first round? That’s how our hotfix sort of worked in practice.

Length: The length is definitely there. Our playthrough took north of an hour. However, a lot of that time was spent trying to figure out some of the more fiddly bits, such as the convoluted scoring system.

Depth and strategy: I think this is there as well. Overall, interesting decisions were being made and interesting stuff did happen. Dave understandably bemoaned the lack of open information and having to keep track of complicated card movements to see who’s doing well. Alice, as expected, disliked the fact that strategic advantages were a bit hard to achieve and maintain over time. I do have ideas on how to address those concerns, but at some point, catering to everyone’s respective preferences becomes a mutually exclusive thing.

Graphics: We just quickly scribbled down the card entries on scrap paper and added them to sleeved cards. Bad idea. This game really needs some graphic design, even at the prototype level.

Skill factor: I won the game rather handily, so I suppose there is a skill component involved, seeing as I was the one who knew the most about what the design was trying to award in terms of strategy. It’s definitely a very opaque process though, and the rules took a while to ‘click’ for everyone. Repeat playtesting is needed to be sure.

Communication and negotiation: By design, there’s not so much of this going on. However, many players thought that there would (or even should) be more of this, based on the theme and how the rules work. There are some expectation management issues at work here. Also, I speculate that repeat playing might lead to more of this, as players learn what information and favors can and should be traded (sadly, there are no other resources to trade, due to component restrictions).

Scoring is a mess: This turned out to be way too complicated and time-consuming. A total overhaul is needed, and I did get some good feedback on ways to do this. The mechanics achieved their design goals admirably, but probably not in the best way possible. Major usability problems here, and this deserves its own post. I’m very glad I didn’t spring this on Catherine as it is right now, as she would have hated it for being positively Byzantine!

Synergies were a hit: The +1 synergy bonuses were much liked. However, as one player pointed out, they can be hard to spot from across the table (as opposed to colors or icons), so this may not be something I should go overboard with when I’m simplifying the scoring mechanics. Also, I suppose their relative scarcity is also a part of what makes them fun, but there could probably be a few more of these around.

Politics vs economy: The dual nature of the game, with its political and economical dimension, turned out to work really well, much better than I had feared. However, the economical part is of course a lot more important than the political. This is a bit counter-intuitive, since you interact with the political component first. Once again, there’s an expectation management issue here. Maybe I can just flip the phase order? That doesn’t really make sense though...

Parliamentary procedure: I kept the rules for this very open, fluid and in the hands of the Chairman. That was by design. Mostly, none of this procedural stuff really mattered, but not for lack of players trying. Alice did make a decision once about the order of voting which resulted in a surprise proposal getting approved! The players came up with different approaches to how they would chair the meetings, which was cool. Fun stuff all around, but very messy. We never had a voting phase in which no proposal went through, which actually surprised me somewhat. I do want to streamline and formalize the procedural debating rules at some point, but I’d like to see what typical patterns and strategies emerge first.

More obvious set collection: I’m toying with the idea of changing the portfolio scoring system to better reward being relevant to the actual contract at hand. Turns out set collecting is intrinsically fun, so people want to be properly rewarded for doing it. Some players felt that they were cheated out of contracts that they intuitively thought that they had the best portfolio for, since the system somewhat detrimentally rewards generically "good" portfolios over those that have specific relevance to the project at hand.

Risk management: There was even more of this going on than I initially had anticipated. In hindsight, I’m not so surprised though. The core gameplay is in many ways similar to a hand-management version of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker tacked onto a silly debate about the flop. I should have seen this coming.

Card balance: Major issues here, as expected. But somewhat to my surprise, this was even more of a problem than I had thought. A social process like voting typically serves to mitigate the effect of card power inbalances. But as it turns out, the mechanic from Pig and X3M’s idea of passing off cards to other players really does work better with a tightly balanced card set (i.e. few obvious discrepancies in unconditional power levels).

Theme, humor and satire: This worked out surprisingly well. Lots of jabs about silly bureaucracy, local political incompetence and public sector work culture. Someone suggested I should send out packs of instant coffee and really dry pastries as hypothetical Kickstarter rewards, since these are true staples from Norwegian public sector meetings (we're Norwegian). Everyone really felt the pain of jumping through all the hoops required to get political and bureaucratic approval for a development project, which was fun in a weird kind of way, like a dark comedy.

Swingy starting hands: One player had a rather bad opening hand, and this was an issue that had ramifications throughout the entire game. I had thought about actually drafting up the starting hands instead of randomly dealing them out, but I decided against doing that for the first playtest. I’m also not too fond of the idea, as it adds set-up complexity to an already complicated game. Better card balance will likely serve to mitigate the opening hand problem somwhat, but more testing is needed.

Joined: 07/06/2013
Oh yeah! We totally forgot

Oh yeah! We totally forgot about the Random Bureaucracy rule. That explains a lot of things. That rule was added as an afterthought, but it would have served to address some of the specific problems we experienced, such as bad opening hands. That's why I wrote it.

EDIT: Thinking about it, it was probably for the best. The rule probably isn't the best way to deal with some of those issues anyway. Alice would have hated it for wrecking her carefully wrought plans, and I don't actually think anyone would really enjoy this sort of gotcha-mechanic, even if it's both random and optional. It certainly would have been very swingy in a 5-player game, with hand sizes limited to a maximum of 3 cards.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
A few interesting games that

A few interesting games that has few cards:

Social games: Coup, Werewolf, Love Letter, Resistance, etc.

Strategy Games: Eminent Domain Microcosm

Microcosm has 3-4 usage per card. Pretty intense.

I also had some interest lately in low card count games. Cheaper to produce, takes less space and it is more elegant.

For one of my game in design, there is 2 generaly path you can choose:

Card cycling: the cards moves around a lot, but little cards will have to remain on the table if you want players to have enough cards in their hands. So there are few permenents in those games.

No card cycling: New cards enter the game slowly, like in microcosm, it can actually act as a clock. They are more likely to remain in play as permanent effects.

Unless you are making a social game, with that few cards, you should aim for a 2 player game.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
By the way, the greatest

By the way, the greatest challenge with few components is the short possibility space. This can impact the design if you want to have special abilities. It might be harder to do so since there is little things that can be affected by a special ability.

A suggestion is to have card positionning, as zones or rows, allowing to have special effect that target certain zones. It should widen the possibility space of special abilities.

Joined: 07/06/2013
Thanks for dropping by,

Thanks for dropping by, larienna!

I’m definitely going for a social game. It’s one of the few game styles that meshes well with the entirety of the jury’s specific preferences and the component restrictions. And it’s definitely going to be multiplayer. However, I don’t want to make a full-on party game, so there needs to be just enough strategic depth to it. I realize that this is very difficult to achieve.

Of the games you mentioned, the only one I’m not familiar with is Microcosm. I’ll definitely check that one out!

There are also quite a few twitch-based games that use very few components, though they’re typically not cards. I’ve decided against going that route however, since many people see games like that more as toys than games proper, even if they have win conditions and strategy.

Regarding deepening the possible configuration space, I did think very hard about ways to include some spatial positioning factors into Urban Development, possibly in how neighborhoods are built (or even in how portfolios are constructed). However, it’s my experience that these sorts of spatial minigames quickly degenerate into rather trivial optimization exercises if they are not tightly integrated into the core gameplay.

In the computer gaming world, there are a lot of games that successfully use zonal systems where adjacent objects affect each other in interesting ways. Are there any small-box card games that do this? Might be worth looking into. At the moment though, my current design has way too few permanent cards in play for this to really work, but I could maybe see an opportunity here for making the portfolio construction part of the game into an interesting spatial exercise.

In addition to positioning, there’s also orientation and flipping. Using special card backs of course precludes any shuffling mechanics, and it would make hidden information stuff much harder to achieve (social games thrive on hidden information). There are probably some clever solutions here, but I’m not sure if I want to pursue them, since rapid prototyping becomes much more difficult when special card backs are involved.

One thing that I’ve tentatively decided against is overloading the cards with too much information. That sort of puts a stop to having modal multipurpose cards if the information content isn’t very carefully managed, which also makes card rotation a difficult mechanic to employ. There are some personal aesthetic reasons for this decision, but I also think that a majority of the jury would prefer not to be overloaded with visual and textual information.

Joined: 09/20/2018
Competition here

Hi, I'm Aspirinsmurfs fabled competition in this contest.

To be clear, I'm working under the same rules as Smurf, 18 cards, no other components, and so forth.

I'm working on a game where players take the role of nations in a state of cold(ish) war, trying to develop the arms and technology to get an advantage over each other. The winner is the player who builds an arsenal powerful enough to establish themselves as the dominant superpower.

I'll post some thoughts on my design goals and philosophy when I have time. I'll also post a complete draft of the rules and cards when they're test ready, but for now heres the basic idea:

Each player recieves two cards representing weapons technologies under development.

Cards have an active effect (often involving other players discarding), resolving when the card is used on an opponent, and a passive effect (typically countering another card) activated by revealing the card.

Cards can be used for their active effect, then either returned to the players hand or replaced with a new one.

Alternatively a player can announce a card, revealing it and placing it before them. A revealed card is called an asset. The card can still be used for its passive effect, but the active effect becomes unavailable.

If a player dislikes their current hand they can simply discard a card and draw a new one.

When out of cards a player can no longer take actions (they may still use the passive abilities of assets). When only one player have cards left in their hand they must take one action, then the round is over (this would be a good time to announce an asset). The players keep their assets, all other cards are shuffled and everyone recieves two new cards.

As the game progresses more and more cards will end up among players assets, increasing their capabilities and reducing the number of cards available. The winner is whoever ends a round with three assets.

Finally, I'm playing with the idea of having discarded cards become available to the other players. Normally a discarded card ends up on the bottom of the draw pile, but when a player discards willingly it ends up face up in the Black Market area. Instead of drawing a card players can choose to pick from the ones in the black market.

Joined: 09/20/2018
Thoughts, ideas, design goals

The games length should be around 30-60 minutes. While it may start out chaotic, it should overall be a tactical exercise and not one of randomness and gotcha mechanics. Players should never be completely out of the game but always have a realistic avenue to victory. Finally, while I don't want the game to be centred around social mechanics it should be highly interactive.

Card combinations
I'm aiming for a game that can stay fun and varied throughout several rounds, which I belive plays along with using the cards as a scoring mechanism without removing them from play. The obvious problem here is that players doing well will end up with more cards than their opponents, and while that is by design I'm concerned that certain constellations of cards can be too hard to overcome.

All cards will have to be useful on their own while not creating unbeatable combinations when three or four of them are combined. Balanced correctly I think this could be a fun and challenging exercise, but if done wrong it could lead to the game being "solved" in certain situations, or even worse could lead to unbreakable stalemates.

Social dynamics
The game has an obvious interactive element, but I want it to entail more than ganging up on whoever is in the lead. I'm anxious to see if the Black Market mechanic leads to interesting interractions. Further I plan to include a few cards that allow players to trade cards directly or use cards on behalf of one another, which will hopefully lead to a fair amount of negotiation. Its possible, however, that this should be a general mechanic and not the effects of specific cards.

Game progression
The idea is for players to gradually gain more power through establishing assets, leading to a situation where everyone can counter many forms of attacks and opponents will have to be lucky or creative to affect them. Assets should not be unassailable, but allowing their removal could make the game drag on, possibly indefinately. It could also lead to almost automatic setbacks for players in a good position. This would have to be balanced carefully.

I should point out that the game is intended for 3-4 players. Unless I've miscounted the draw pile/black market should never run our of cards. Even in a four player game, if every player has two cards in their hand and two assets, there will be two unclaimed cards left on the table.

Joined: 07/06/2013
So he arrives in the

So he arrives in the (virtual) flesh!

Will you have a card list ready for next for weekend’s likely playtest?

To your design goals, I don’t think the Black Market mechanic will work as a truly social mechanic. There’s just too much at stakes to throw away an action, another player’s action and a third action just to potentially make a trade – a trade that pretty much anyone can interrupt. Discarding and drawing is an action, right? This seems much more like a strategic than diplomatic option to me.

One way to maybe make it more social would be to let blown up assets go the Black Market too. That way, I can use my action to both blow up some of the stuff owned by whoever is winning and potentially make a trade with another player. But even so, we’re set back a net of two actions once the exchange is complete, and our plans can still get interrupted.

There’s also the issue of double coincidence of want. This is a free-for-all, so if one player wants to get rid of something, it’s likely to pretty useless for everyone else as we well, since everyone is basically in the same situation. Unless there are combos or synergies, of course.

Joined: 09/20/2018
Several mechanics allow the

Several mechanics allow the player to discard cards willingly, thus sending them to the black market, but the other player would still have to waste an action to take the card. Might not amount to much social dynamics, but as stated the main goal is for the game to be highly interractive. Lets see if that works.

The card list is ready, all that remains is staring at it for several hours before accepting it won't become any better without testing.

Well have to see about the attractiveness of specific cards, but I dont think any one of them will end up being completely useless in any siituation. I think its more likely that one player would sit on a card to not make it available to others. As with all things, testing is required.

Joined: 07/06/2013
I have no doubt that you've

I have no doubt that you've taken greater care in balancing the cards than I did! Does your game have a working title yet? I'll try to rework the scoring rules for Urban Development and create a better prototype myself by Friday, in case we can find the time to get both playtests in.

To the topic of costs and benefits of various forms of interactivity: Would it even be possible to make an honest-to-god trading game for 3-5 players using only 18 cards? Seems like a stretch. I've been looking really hard for truly interactive mechanics that are non-antagonistic (i.e. positive non-zero sum), and resource trade would fit the bill. It just seems very difficult to get any sort of economy going when scarcity rules supreme. Anyone have any thoughts on that?

Joined: 09/20/2018
Tentative card list

For now, 2 of each of 9 cards. Ill try to expand to 18 once I know more about the emergent dynamics. For example, the number of cards that reduce the opponents hand size or destroy assets versus the number of cards that counters others will probably need to be adjusted. And yes yes some should be rewritten for clarity. And probably brevity.

Spying Satellites
Active (surveillance probe): Look at another players hand.
Passive (data collection): Whenever another player draws a card from the draw pile, you may look at that card.

Laser Defense Grid
Active (realigned priorities): Return one asset you control to your hand. You may then use its active ability.
Passive (fortified airspace): Counters Hacking Drones, Long Range Missile or Stealth Bombers targeting you.

Stealth Bombers
Active (sabotage runs): Choose one opponent. They must discard one card from their hand, if able.
Passive (bombardment): Counters Super Soldiers targeting you, or Quantom Communicators targeting anyone.

Quantom Communicator
Active (trade relations): Choose one opponent. You may exchange one card with that player. If the other player refuses to trade you may instead place this card in the black market and draw a new one.
Passive (diplomatic channels): When you are targeted by a card you may reveal Quantom Communicators and ask other players for help. Any player can reveal a card or point to an asset. You may use that card as if it was in your hand. If no player offers help you may instead place this card in the black market and draw a new one. You may then use the new cards passive ability if applicable.

Super Soldiers
Active (ground assault): Choose a player. That player must discard a card or an asset of their choice.
Passive (defensive peremiter): Counters Super Soldiers targeting you.

Mind Control Drugs
Active (indoctrination): Choose one card in the black market or an asset in play. Immediately use its active effect as if the card was in your hand.
Passive (sleeper agent): Whenever you are targeted by the active effect of the Super Soldiers, Stealth Bombers or Hacking Drones cards, you may use this card to change that target to another player. You may not choose the active player. All other choices (such as which of the targets assets to affect) is made by the active player. The target can instead choose to discard the card.

Long Range Missile
Active (precision strike): Destroy one asset in play.
Passive (targeting parameters): Whenever another player is targeted by a card, you may discard a card and draw another.

Hacking Drones
Active (scrambling virus): One opponent must return an asset of your choice to their hand, if able. Then, they must discard a card and draw a new one.
Passive (defensive malware): Counters any card other than Doomsday Device when targeting you. The active player may then use another card on you, if able. You cannot use this effect more than once in a turn.

Doomsday Device
Active (first strike): Choose an opposing player. The player must either discard a card from their hand or discard an asset of your choice. You must then discard a card or an asset.
Passive (MAD): When targeted with a card, after that card is resolved, you may have the active player discard a card. Then, unless the active card was Long Range Missile, Super Soldiers or Stealth Bombers, discard a card or an asset of your choice.

Joined: 07/06/2013
New and hopefully improved

New and hopefully improved portfolio scoring system!

Design goals were to:

  • Reward specialization: The old system often gave contracts away to generically good portfolios over specialized and relevant portfolios. That felt bad.
  • Ease comparison: Ideally, everyone should be able just to count up and announce their scores. Such a system might just be too simplistic though.
  • Encourage shifting strategies: A big part of the game is trying to predict political and economical shifts and change gears to adapt to changing circumstances. The old system did this very well; I’m not so sure about the new one.
  • Reward bluffing: Bluffing is fun and requires skill, so players expect to be rewarded for doing it successfully.

I’ve scrapped the Desirability and Productivity ratings. People don’t like doing math, and people really hate having to do subtraction mid-game. Instead, each building has a generic cost from 1 to 4.

The new portfolio comparison system uses three steps:

  1. The player with the most matching building types to the contract and total synergy bonuses gets the contract.
  2. If tied, the player with the least expensive portfolio gets the contract.
  3. If still tied, the chairman decides.

I’m not sure if the first step should include synergy bonuses or not. Any thoughts on that? I think I’ll need to do some solo testing to figure out how likely ties are.

I now need to figure out how to score the final neighborhoods, which likely needs to be a very different process.

I’ve also made major changes to the cards, this time actually doing some math to at least make an effort towards balance. And I’ve removed the Stadium and added Demolition as an industrial project, but it doesn’t have rules yet. That made it an even 6 cards in every type, even if the distribution is very haphazard.

Joined: 07/06/2013
As I’ve briefly mentioned

As I’ve briefly mentioned before, Urban Development is something of a social variant of community card poker, with a theme and special cards. Now, I’m not much of a poker player, and neither are the jurors. Still, I thought I should look into what makes poker-type games fun, to see if I could gleam some insight into what I can do to improve the game.

Very central to the strategy in poker is the idea of “outs”, what sorts of flops/draws will make your hand into a likely winner. This is basically how hands are valued. Hands with few outs shouldn’t really be played at all – you don’t want to pay to see the flop just to lose anyway. This is central to poker strategy. Good players show great restraint in what hands they to play. Pure bluffs are rare creatures.

And there’s the rub: your outs in Urban Development are largely transparent, even more so than in poker. However, it’s not really possible to fold. So what do you do if you have a bad hand?

Sabotage the politics

Ideally, you want to tank all the proposals in the voting phase. This gives you the greatest chance of making your hand better for the next round, without anyone else gaining anything in the meantime. However, it turns out that this is a very difficult thing to do, requiring great political skill. And the payoff can be mediocre.

Get your own proposal passed

This may seem like the go-to play, but I don’t think it’s usually all that advisable. Outside of the early game, the small bonus of getting to secretly pick one card for your hand isn’t worth the likely political and economical consequences. At least, you need to consider these consequences thoroughly. This is a much more viable strategy if you’re already in a strong position, allowing you to more easily shift into a different strategy or seal the deal on a risky proposal.

Improve your odds

Sometimes, you can get a majority to agree with a proposal that you’re more likely to win – playing to your outs. The problem here is that you still have a bad hand, so someone else is likely favored to win the contract anyway. And if that person already has a lead on the board, you’re pretty much screwed. This is what I think poker players call “the limp”, paying too much to attempt to improve a bad hand instead of folding early.

In general, I don’t think you should politically ally with a player that is favored on-board. But if you can make a favorable deal with someone else who’s also having a hard time, that’s usually in your interest. The contracts in this game aren’t entirely fungible (like money), so there can be non-zero-sum interactions in the short term. On the flipside, a winning player can and should accept greater risks in order to lure other players into political deals. So there’s a fair bit of skill to this.

Sabotage the winner’s neighborhood

So you know you’re losing, and you know who’s likely to win. One strategy may then be to give the winning player the worst possible incremental gain. For this to work, it’s very important that there are combos and “nonbos” in the final neighborhood scoring system, which I’ve yet to remake.

Make allies

You could try selling your vote for favors. However, there’s no guarantee that this will ever pay off. And the only way to punish a recalcitrant political ally is to systematically work against them later. This will likely entail sabotaging your own efforts as well, so it’s not a good position to be in. It’s easy enough for a cabal of players to stonewall a single player, but it’s very hard to make concrete deals with individual players.


Playing a bad hand correctly is much harder than in poker. In poker, you just fold. In Urban Development, the closest equivalent to folding requires an absolute majority, which is very difficult to achieve. This may be a design problem. Pure bluffs are also impossible, since the other players can’t fold either. Of course, there are plenty of disadvantages to having too strong a position, so it might just balance out in the end.

However, I think I should introduce at least some more randomness, as this will favor the underdog. I could, for example, deal out new hands every round. But I really, really don’t want to undercut the strategic elements from the planning phase.

Currently, I’m toying with the following idea: the card that the Chairman first passes in the planning phase is chosen at random. This injects more randomness into the system, and it further penalizes a winning player, leveling the playing field somewhat. Of course, such a mechanic does introduce additional seating order issues. But from my research, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a poker-like game (though this is usually about the betting rounds, which are not a factor in UD).

Oh, and this mechanic will replace the Random Bureaucracy rule. What do you guys think?

Joined: 07/06/2013
Thinking more about the

Thinking more about the problem of playing a bad hand correctly, I started considering the concept of “mucking” a hand in poker. In those games, its a strategy used to withhold information. But what if I could take a similar idea and make it into a useful catch-up mechanic?

Suppose a player doesn’t have to compete for a given contract. Maybe he or she can then get to withhold information and get to do some hand management too? Dave suggested that I could use the burn pile for this purpose. (The burn is now a required part of the game no matter how many players there are, due to the problem of the first chairman potentially losing card advantage for no gain.) That solves an additional problem as well: making the burn a more relevant part of the game.

What I don’t like about this idea is that it introduces turn order effects into the showdown. That could slow the game down. But hey, it works pretty well in poker, so I guess I should try it out. And it introduces another interesting decision point, potentially upping the skill factor.

In other news, we playtested Weresquid’s entry yesterday, with three of the jurors present. I’ll leave it to him to post a report if he wants to, but I was very relieved to see that his design had some issues as well. Overall, the game worked rather well though, so I’m sure he’ll be able to iron out the kinks well in time for the deadline.

Oh, and I’m also working on a prettier prototype for Urban Development. I hope to be finished with that sometime later this week.

Joined: 07/06/2013
The deadline was postponed to

The deadline was postponed to sometime in August 2019 for personal reasons. But this is happening, it would appear! Neither I nor Weresquid have looked at our designs for a while now, so this is exciting.

Syndicate content

forum | by Dr. Radut