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On The Cards

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Designer Diary

'On the Cards' is a game which gives a window into the possibilities offered by the humble deck of cards. It consists of a standard deck and rules cards which can be combined to give tens of thousands of different games. Simply putting some rules together gives a game - however we've found play is most interesting when, after each round of play, the winner takes one of the rules cards and changes the game for the next round, the player with most rules winning.

Given this description, you might be forgiven for thinking "A cute idea, combining rules like this, but some rules combinations won't work or the games will end up too similar". When I started to design the game, I'd have agreed. Even now, playing the final prototype, part of me marvels at the variety and solidity of the games that 'On the Cards' puts together. And then marvels more that I managed to pull it all together. Here is the story of how it happened.

It all began in a friend's kitchen at a games weekend. While my heart lies in the board games side of the hobby, I enjoy learning new things and was being taught a traditional card game. While learning the rules, two things struck me. The first was the near infinite variety of games which card decks enabled, the second was how many similarities even considerably different games had. When I asked whether the person explaining the rules just had a random collection of sub-rules which he shuffled together, I meant it as a joke. However, I remember thinking "That's a really interesting idea. I wonder whether it's possible?"

Several years before, travelling home on the tube, I had asked myself: "Why isn't there a good game where you build an Underground system?" Unable to shake the question from my subconscious, the next year saw me design 'On The Underground', less because I thought the game would work, than because I thought it would be interesting to find out why not. That became my first published game. A similar thing happened with 'On The Cards'. I put the idea to one side, reasoning that if it worked, someone would already have done it. Nonetheless, my mind kept drifting back, wondering how the idea could be made reality.

Eventually, in September 2008, I had had enough of pondering and put my ideas to the test. I worked out the general phases and split out the rules for various games onto file cards. For example, Whist became "Use a standard deck of cards", "Deal the whole deck", "Play a single card", "Match the suit of the first card played", "When everyone has played, the best cards win the trick", "When all players are out of cards the game ends", "Gain One point per trick", "Most points wins". The completed prototype mixed rules from Whist, Poker, Uno, Rummy, Bridge and President.

I then gathered friends and tried to play it, with limited success. Many cards made no sense - without bidding, getting points according to your bid is meaningless. Many rules combinations didn't work - when playing a poker hand, how could you follow suit? Many games plain failed - if you played one card per turn, and the aim was to play all your cards, the start player would always win. However, amongst the failures, a couple of games gave something glorious. For example, applying Bridge scoring to Rummy worked so well I was surprised I had not previously come across it. My friends dismissed these as flukes, and said I should give up the idea. Instead, I went back to the drawing board.

My vision was that the problems could be overcome through better structure. Rules which needed other rules to function could be combined on one card, ensuring they would always be together, and conflicting rules could be separated so they never applied simultaneously. With the naive optimism of someone who doesn't realise just what he's getting into, I started work.

It was a winding process, full of diversions and dead ends. Rules for bidding bounced between bidding cards and score cards, before ending up in a newly created 'optional twists' category shared with other rules which were non-essential but fun. Rules to determine what cards you could play, and how you could play them clashed and merged. Rules for passing dallied with every type of rules card, ultimately getting split between three of them, each dealing with different aspects of passing.

Whilst the changes resulted in considerable improvement, they were not without casualties. The biggest was Rummy. In the many Rummy variants, your hand size will generally be constant or increasing, except occasionally when melding cards. In contrast, most games that my rules cards produced required players' hand sizes to drop to ensure games would end. Trying to fit Rummy into this environment failed. I'd have had to have rules which not only to explained the concept of melds and which were valid, but also adjusted the entire play environment so that hand sizes increased in the absence of melding. This proved a step too far, and Rummy was dropped.

(That said, Rummy has not been forgotten. Because, if you think about it, the description "a card game in which you can meld cards to get rid of them" can describe an awful lot a games - Rummy, Patience, Quartet and Black Peter to name a few. And my mind keeps drifting back to the idea that one could mix the rules for these games too. 'On the Cards' may yet spawn a sequel.)

Development continued, rules being tuned in my free moments and tested during visits to friends. I am highly thankful to the many people who played the various versions, of whom I would like to single out Matthew Woodcraft, Matthew Reid, David Brain and Colin Towers in particular for their invaluable support. The game developed from an unworkable idea, to a proof of concept which I likened to a chess-playing dog - it's not how well it plays, but that it can play at all. From there it developed into a game that just about worked, and on into one that worked well. The metagame evolved, based on countless testing sessions and what was most fun, and the game bloomed.

I was probably one of the last people to realise the game was becoming good. When developing games, I tend to be my own best critic, and the endless permutations of possible rules cards meant that there was always something to be unsatisfied about. There were always rules combinations which failed, and as soon as everything did work, I'd find something to redesign, either to weed out overly similar rules cards, decrease the amount of text people had to read, or introduce more interesting games concepts gathered from other games or my imagination. My playtests involved attempts to tune the worst rules combinations I could find.

As a result, the offer to publish the game came as a bit of a surprise. After a playtest in mid 2010, trying to work out a solution for a particularly irritating rules clash, Alan and Charlie Paull asked to borrow a copy of the game - something which I was happy to allow as more players meant more problems spotted. The next time I saw them, they asked whether I would be interested in 'On the Cards' being published by Surprised Stare (a small games company which they and Tony Boydell had set up to publish their designs). Mine was the first game from an outsider to be considered for publication. I felt it would do well with them, and so accepted.

Matters since then have been running smoothly. I've ironed out the remaining issues I had with the rules cards (although I'm convinced another will jump out at the last possible moment) and have chosen the best rules to include in the limited number of slots available. I have been advising on the graphics (which look awesome) and observing the production planning. And, most of all, been looking forward to October 2011 when, if all goes well, the completed game will be unleashed onto the world.

Sebastian Bleasdale

Bloody Legacy / Confucius / Coppertwaddle / Fzzzt! / Guilds of London / Ivor The Engine / On The Cards / Paperclip Railways / Scandaroon / Tara, Seat of Kings / Totemo

Surprised Stare Games Ltd.Carrier Strike / Mission Command / The Cousins' War

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