I really like card-based tabletop games, both as a gamer and as a creator/designer. Whether its a classic game like poker or a deck-building game like Ascension or a party game like Cards Against Humanity, I like them all. And of course, if you’re anything like me, you’re always brainstorming your own card games. If you keep at it, you’ll eventually have a ruleset of some kind and the need to test those rules in an actual game.
In other words, it’s time for that fun, rewarding, frustrating and incredibly terrifying step called play testing.
No matter what your ruleset is, you’re going to have to build a deck of cards to deal out and play with. For folks new to cards games, this can be difficult step, simply because they don’t know how to put a play testing deck together. I’ve had to do this for many different games—some that were published and many that weren’t—and I’m here to share a few tips. These options vary in terms of price and quality, but at least one of them should work for you.
Pros: Super cheap
Cons: Weird size, don’t shuffle well, easily damaged with light use
A regular old index card is the cheapest and probably most-convenient way to get your ideas onto a card. Nearly every grocery store or office supply store has index cards and they come in a variety of sizes. While most are lined, some come with square grids or are totally blank. If you just need to get some super-basic rules onto cards and deal them out, it’s hard to go wrong with index cards
BUY BLANK PRE-MADE DECKS
Pros: Can be cheap, depending
Cons: Waiting for shipping, quality can vary, no control over card counts
Just head over to Amazon and search for “blank playing cards” and you’ll get quite a few returns. Many different companies sell blank playing cards, from traditional companies like Bicycle to companies you’ve never heard of. These can work great for play testing, as many cards are of the exact same quality as store-bought poker cards. Just grab a marker and you’re ready to go.
The downside is the need to wait for the order to ship. Blank cards are very niche products, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll find a box of them in your town, which relegates them to online-only products for most stores or distributors. This may not be an issue for you, but I generally work in fits and bursts: if I’m ready to play test, I want to play test NOW and can’t wait for the mailman to get here. To fill that need, I generally use…
AVERY LABELS + PLAYING CARDS
Pros: Totally customizable, can be reused, use whatever cards you have stacked in drawers/closets, no waiting (just run down to local Staples)
Cons: Depending on the Avery label pack you buy, could be a moderate cost
This is my favorite way of building play test cards. Using Avery peel and stick labels, plus whatever playing cards you have laying around, you can build a big pile of cards for use in whatever game you’re developing. Another big plus is the immediacy of it. I can run down to my local Staples and buy whatever Avery pack I need, grab some playing cards and get going. And since I tend to dev on a manic basis (if I have the idea, I want to test it NOW), this works for me.
Avery has a few different packs I like to go with. If you have the play test cards on your computer, you can buy printable labels. Or, if you’re like me and just hand write the stats, you can just peel, stick and play.
CARD SLEEVES + CARDS
Pros: cheap, may be reusable
Cons: need sleeves than are easy to write on, sleeves can be hard to find if you don’t have a local store/source, stuck with hand-written cards
Another great option for simple gameplay mechanic testing is plastic card sleeves put around any cards you happen to have laying around. If you can get a set of white sleeves and a Sharpie, you can get testing immediately.
There are only two slight downsides: unlike Avery labels, you can’t print to sleeves and (depending on where you live, etc) finding usable sleeves might be difficult, so you’re stuck ordering off the internet.
I personally haven’t used this method, but it’s possible that using sleeves would allow for dry-erase marker use as well, making the sleeves reusable and/or easily edited. That assumes you don’t need a ton of stats on the card.
Pros: Near production quality, can generally customize card count, easily test graphic designs
Cons: Can be expensive, need to know graphic design and production basics
Over the last few years, print on demand technologies have made great leaps. While it’s not yet reached the quality you’ll get in an actual production run, POD is wonderful for testing and for short-run printing.
If you’re happy with the mechanics of your game and just need to test out some card designs, POD is the way to go. DriveThruCards is a reliable source for POD cards (both for prototypes and for sales). Another good option is Superior POD.
Both services have their own set-up processes, and you’ll have to have a general understanding of production and layout to get your cards from design to print. Both have tutorials on how to do that, but it can be confusing for people new to POD.
Well, that’s a quick look at different ways of play testing your next great game! There are more ways out there, so don’t consider this comprehensive.
Until next time -Matt