Blog . Designing Playing Cards
For my Introduction to Game Design class, my first assignment was to design a deck of playing cards. Making your own deck of playing cards sounds pretty simple, but there’s a lot that goes into designing a deck of cards.
It’s very important to try and have an order to what you do when building your own deck of cards. It’s easy to start working ahead, and then realize some things don’t fit or are off. Try and work on your cards in an order like this:
* = Really it’s not too vital that these are done in this specific order, but they most certainly should be the last things you do. Setting up your aesthetic is more important, and will assist with making these cards fit in with the rest of your deck.
It’s vitally important that you stay consistent with the size, resolution, and margins of the kind of card you want to make. The standard size of a poker card is a file with the dimensions of 2.74”x3.74” or 822x1122 pixels at 300 dpi.
Working in Photoshop or Illustrator is probably the best idea for making your cards. Illustrator is great because you need not worry about size issues too much, but Photoshop will work wonders as well. You choose.
First, we need to really understand what all goes into a deck of cards.
There are 54 cards in a traditional deck of cards. So, if you think about it, that’s 54 separate pieces of art!
Oh wait, but the back of the card is its own design too…
So technically, there are 55 pieces of art that go in to designing a deck. Crazy, huh?
One of the first and most important things to consider for your deck of cards are the suits.
There’s nothing wrong with your deck of cards containing Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, and Spades, but what if you wanted to change them to fit your theme?
Then do it!
Something to keep in mind while making your deck is this: Bend, don’t break.
Playing cards are basically ingrained in our culture now, and as such they need to stay familiar enough to be playable, but different enough to be interesting… just bend. Don’t break.
Do keep in mind, if you change the suits; really incorporate them into your theme. They should be recognizable and different, but mesh together and look like each belong to one another.
The suits on a regular deck of cards are red and black. Your deck of cards can be any color you want. Use your knowledge of color theory when deciding the colors of your suits. Don’t make one suit orange and the other one red (unless they’re different enough to notice the difference at a glance.) The colors associated with the specific suits are there to help the player recognize quickly what card has been played, or drawn, etc. It is important that your colors match your theme, are recognizable, and compliment each other.
“But what if I want all my suits to be a different color!?!?!”
That’s just fine, there are decks with four separate colors for the suits… but I won’t be going into detail on this. If you want to know more, go ahead and read up on it here.
Make sure to not rely on thin lines. This goes for your whole deck. Remember how small your cards are. 3.5”x2.5” inches is not huge. Thin lines won’t read well, and your aesthetic may get ruined. I don’t want that, you don’t want that, and whoever is playing with your cards will not want that. Thick lines, and recognizable shapes are always a plus. Don’t shy away from using thinner lines, or more complex shapes; just don’t make immensely high detail, complex, hard to read images and expect them to work on your cards.
The Number Cards
The number cards are all about the arrangement of the suits. Will you follow the traditional method of arranging them, or will you make your own unique way!? Remember, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way of doing things. Feel free to explore, but always check and see if things fit your aesthetic and compliment what you’re doing.
When you’re arranging your suits, take note of how some of the suits will be flipped and/or reflected in certain areas. Depending on the number of the card it’s important to have your suits do this so that your cards are readable, no matter how the player holds them.
Take, for example the Four of Hearts:
There are four hearts on it, to symbolize what number it represents, but the bottom two are reflected so that you can flip the card around and still read it. How will you handle your reflections?
The hardest thing about the number cards is making sure everything is lined up nice and neat. Figure out where you want your suits. Write down the measurements, copy and paste, do something to keep track of where they will go. If you export your cards as image files and flip through them they should not “animate.’ By animate I mean the images on the cards should not budge when you flip through them. Keep it clean.
The corner design is that little symbol on the top left and bottom right of your cards. This tells the player exactly what this card is. Notice how the letter/number is always on top, and the suit is always on the bottom. This makes us read it as “Ace of Spades” or “Seven of Diamonds.” Remember, bend don’t break. You could flip the suit and the letter/number. You could put them next to one another. You could have the letter/number be inside the suit. You could have roman numerals. It’s up to you.
The advantage of sticking to convention and having the letter/number hover over top of the suit is that it is arguably the easiest to read. It is also what people are used to. Remember that players will be holding multiple cards in their hands and more than likely in a kind of “fan-shaped” pattern. Because of this, having the thin corner design with one on top of the other helps the player know all the cards they are holding at a glance.
Don’t forget to reflect your corner design, and place it on the opposite corner of your cards! Also, make sure it is readable when you flip it around, backwards letters and numbers are no good!
Jacks, and Queens, and Kings, oh my!
The face cards! What everyone wants to jump right in and do first. We wait to do these for a reason, as I mentioned earlier. Set up your design aesthetic, and then go into detail.
According to your theme, these cards can really be anything. Your Jack, Queen, and King could be a Mouse, a Cat, and a Dog. They could be a Potato, a Clock, and a Rhino. You can leave them as a Jack, a Queen, and a King. Really, it all just goes back to bend don’t break. Does if fit your aesthetic? Does it make sense? Does it fit in?
Keeping your colors similar and consistent is important too. This also goes back to all your knowledge on color theory, and the like. Theme, aesthetic, you know.
Now, most playing cards have some kind of symmetry. Reflective, rotated, bilateral, whatever. It is not unforgivable to not have symmetry, but it definitely looks cool and is fun to play with.
You also may feel free to use the same Jack, Queen, and King for all of your face cards, if you’d like. I’m not telling you what to do; I’m just kind of guiding you along. You could just simply alter their colors, make small tweaks, change the direction of the face, etc. Making twelve separate face cards is totally cool, but sometimes keeping it simple can be awesome too.
A quick bit of advice. Let’s take my example from earlier, using a Mouse, a Cat, and a Dog as the face cards. That is all well and good, but you may want to change the J, Q, and K to an M, C, and D. No one can stop you from doing anything, but here’s where we start to break instead of bend. Playing cards have a hierarchy that we have associated with them for a long time, now. Playing cards generally do not come with a set of instructions, and if you take away the J, Q, and K, then players will be unable to distinguish which card is which. This ruins the effectiveness of your deck. This is just some food for thought.
Here is where you can have a lot of fun. The Jokers are the wild cards. They can totally be the icing on the cake. So let’s say you’ve got a deck themed around a Mouse, a Cat, and a Dog? Make the jokers the animals disguised as one another! Make them wearing circus clothing and on unicycles! What if they’re stacked on top of each other? Really get creative with these. There are two of them, so you can make two different ones, or do a palette swap. The choice is yours!!!
The Ace of Spades
The Ace of Spades. (I’m sorry, I could not resist) The Ace of Spades is the “artist’s signature” on his/her deck of cards. It is ornate and special, but it should fit into the context of the other cards.
If you chose to use your own themed suits, just pick the one you like best to be the Ace of Spades. It doesn’t really matter. You could even decide that you would like the Ace of Diamonds to be your “signature” instead. Remember, this is your deck of cards, and no one can tell you what you can or can’t do. Just make sure if you stray from convention, that you do so with style and skill.
Feel free to even leave a literal signature on you cards, be it your initials or actual signature. (Just don’t let it take away from your cards)
Another quick tip: A lot of people really like making the Ace of Spades a giant Spade that has a Heart, Diamond, and a Club incorporated in it. This is… all right, but if you are going to do it, it’s got to look really good, and definitely fit your theme. Players may be confused, since all four suits are present, and it may not be clear enough to tell what card it is. Just use caution.
Also: The whole “giant suit with the other suits inside” thing is done often with the Joker/ Face Cards too. Absolutely refrain from doing so. A giant suit immediately identifies as an Ace, and that is not what a Joker or Face Card is. To save yourself, and the players frustration and heartache, just don’t do this.
The back of your card is the most important piece of art for your whole deck. There are 54 cards in your deck, and all of them have a back. It will be seen all the time, and is representative for your cards.
As always, the design should have some sort of correlation between it and the deck as a whole. Remember that the cards will be held, shuffled, and strewn about. It’s normally best for the back to be a pattern or some kind of symmetrical image, so that way one cannot tell if a card is upside-down or not and all of the images blend together.
It is really funny how when a deck of cards has a non-symmetrical back and one is upside-down while the others are all correct, how much it freaks us out because it is out of order.
Make sure this doesn’t happen with your deck. Symmetry is a golden gift that will guide you to the path of glory when designing cards.
Printing Your Cards
I will not go into detail on this, as this should be simple enough to figure out on your own. This website has everything you will need when it comes to printing your cards. It will tell you how to upload your files, it will give options for your cards as to what material they will be printed on, and they even let you pick out a handy little case for them if you so desire.
It’s incredibly important that you were consistent with your size, resolution, and margins, or else printing your cards will go horribly wrong.
(Buying in bulk is always cheaper!)
That was a lot of information to throw at you, but that is pretty much everything when it comes to designing your own deck of playing cards. It’s mildly overwhelming at first, but if you don’t rush and try to follow the order listed above, everything should fall into place as you go. Be sure to sketch out your ideas in a sketchbook or on paper before moving to the computer. Sketch first, render second.
Now go out and make some cards!