[Design] Why cards appeal to me as a creator

I’ve seen the old discussion flare up recently regarding the use of card-based mechanics in tabletop games. While there are gamers who unabashedly love using cards, and others who take the moderate approach that context and theme matter, some gamers are vehemently opposed to their use at all, seeing them as clutter at best, and if the cards in question are proprietary to the game, an extra expenditure that pads the creator’s wallet. This is not the place to rehash that discussion: I own as many dice as the next gamer, and some of my designs, like the freely-available Diceconomy variants, rely on them quite heavily.

As such, these gamers might not be willing to give a chance to a game like House of Cards, which implements cards for an array of mechanical tasks from character creation all the way to the advanced optional magic resolution rules. The next big project in the works likewise uses cards as a flexible engine for creating narrative details and several different forms of task resolution. The natural question, then, is why I use cards for game mechanics so often. For me there are two good reasons.

The first is probability control: not only is the probability of a given draw or range of draws as easily calculable as that of a given die roll, I can also manipulate whether given results are repeatable or not – when a die is rolled, you can’t “discard” that number from the die’s face and reroll without the chance of hitting it again. By contrast, I can design rules systems that work both on the attrition of results from the probability scale and their renewal, by carefully managing which situations result in the deck being shuffled and returned to its initial state or not.

The second reason is what I call information density: there’s a lot more you can get from one pull of a card than from one toss of a knucklebone. Each card in the standard playing deck gives you up to four pieces of information: you can map a significance to the numerical value, the suit, the color, and whether or not it is a face card. To give a practical example from the work in progress, characters can have a loyalty trait represented by a hidden card. Red is loyal, black is disloyal, but the suit also suggests what type of allegiance they have: do they consider themselves loyal but secretly undermine their leader because they think they know better? Are they a spy for another group? Are they allied to the personage of their ruler, or to the idea of the state independent of who’s in charge? Dice require more rolling as well as the establishment of a formula of rolling in a particular context (ORE, I’m looking at you), and hence more effort and time, to generate the quantity of data that a single card pull can provide.