My Game Design Duct Tape: Multi-Use Cards

Examples of multi-use cardsWhile I try to do something different in each game I design, and I try to let the theme of the game drive what mechanisms are used, I do have some common tendencies … and most obvious of them is my love of multi-use cards.

As a player, I love to have options, flexibility, room for creativity to use whatever my current resources are. The ability to combine things or otherwise have a choice in what a specific card is used for gives the strategy-crunching part of my brain a lot of enjoyment.

As a designer, I love the way multi-use cards can expand a design without much, if any, increase in number of components. There’s usually a bit more math and/or spreadsheet work that’s needed to make everything come together right … but that’s a trade-off I’ll take most times.

Jump Gate NavComp card exampleTWO VALUES ON ONE CARD: One of the easiest ways to do this is to provide two or three different suits/values on a card that can be used for different purposes or at different times in a game. In my game Jump Gate, I did this with the NavComp cards that are used by players to take actions. The three primary actions — Jump, Scan, and Land — require the place to match a code number based on the planet they are at. Each NavComp card will have a Jump code and a Scan code, a Jump code and a Land code, or a Scan code and a Land code. Each time those code numbers are the same, a third “wildcard” code for that missing action is also placed on the card. The card shown to the right, as an example, has a Jump-1 code paired with a Land-1 card, with a “scan wildcard” symbol in the middle. This reduces the chances a card in your hand will be completely useless.

Days of Discovery card exampleUSE FOR CURRENCY INSTEAD: While I personally first noticed the “use this card for what is on its face, or as currency to pay for something else” approach when playing San Juan, and again a little later in the way Farmageddon, I’ve really come to like it. In fact, it’s one of the main mechanisms at play in my up-coming game Days of Discovery, in which each card provides an Influence value and also costs in the other two Influence types. I’ve also gone an extra step by making each of these characters on the cards provide a different type of help depending on what part of the game (which act of the story) you are currently in. In the example to the left, our friendly Minstrel will provide 1 Status Influence when trying to gain another character’s help … and will cost you 2 Wealth or 3 Blessing to gain his help. Once he’s on-board to help you, he can provide Evidence during Act 1 and Supplies during Act 2 and 3. (The stuff along the right edge is sort of a randomized game engine of what happens to you during the 3rd Act.)

Santa's Little Helpers map card placement examplePROVIDE PHYSICAL PLACEMENT OPTIONS: In my latest game, Santa’s Little Helpers and the Ice Cube Jam (announcement post coming next week), I am making use of the domino cards at, which are cards that are twice as long as they are wide. This allows for the map pattern to be “squares” and for 2 squares to be on each card. Since the placement rules only require a player to match the squares on the new card to the orientation of the existing squares, the will be able to overlap squares across the existing cards (as pictured to the right), place them in-line, etc. It plays out to giving quite a few options to consider when adding a card to the map.

Magistrate card example (early 2015)SOMETIMES I GET A LITTLE CARRIED AWAY: As with everything good in life, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. And, I have been guilty of that on more than one occasion when it comes to multi-use cards. To the left were my previous incarnation of the multi-use cards in my taking-me-forever-to-get-it-right design called Magistrate. Needless to say, even I figured out I had too much going on here and will be cutting the information and usage of the cards back a notch on my next turn.

It’s really my natural go-to place when trying to pick a way to add a lot of options in as small a number of components as possible … adding depth without having to sacrifice underlying cost. Sometimes it works … a lot of times I need to keep working on it! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *