Sunday 30 September 2012

Making Cards for Games


As my faithful readers will know, I've made my own cards to help with various games.  I have decks for Doctor Who Miniatures Game (DWMG), The Rules With No Name (TRWNN) and All Things Zombie (ATZ) [earlier articles on the subject: ATZ Event Cards, ATZ Event Cards - Updated Style, ATZ Event Cards, Part 3, ATZ Event Cards: Finally, Various Game Cards].  For some time now I've been promising to write an article on how I make such cards, so here it is.

Below, I intend to describe how I should have created my ATZ random event deck.  I'll call this the "Prepare-Create-Publish" process.   Note that the steps listed below are the ideal sequence; they're not in the same order that I actually did them.  In reality, I had to do quite a lot of backtracking and revision, mainly because I didn't know what I'm telling you now!

For the record, the DWMG cards are home-printed straight from the game (i.e. I didn't design them myself) and are therefore not very interesting for this discussion.  However, the TRWNN deck was an early experiment that ended up following much the same process as my ATZ event deck.  See - it's taken me 2 goes and I still haven't got the process completely right!

A. Prepare

  1. Choose the publisher

    It may seem counter-intuitive to make this the first step, but it's important to know up front how you intend to print your cards.  This decision may impact the number of cards you can have in a deck and the aspect ratio, colour depth and printable material.
    For example, if using a commercial service such as then a standard deck will be 54 cards (52 playing cards plus 2 jokers) printed on 280gsm paper, requiring a resolution/aspect ration of 750x1050 or higher.
    On the other hand, if you use a home printer then the deck can consist of any number of cards, any aspect ration and any resolution - but the material on which you print may be limited in thickness.   Also, you'll need to cut out and trim the cards yourself - this isn't as easy as you might think, especially trying to get the card backs to line up correctly with the fronts!

  2. Gather data

    Once you know what limits there may be, decide how many cards you will create and what information needs to go on them.  This is probably best done as a paper list as you'll revise it a lot when developing your ideas!
    In my TRWNN deck, it became obvious early on that there were 2 distinct categories of cards: "character cards" give the character's name, photo, class and faction, while "action cards" have the action name and a textual description of the action.  These use quite separate designs.

  3. Decide on the Design

    Original/first design
    For each category of card that has been identified in the previous step, decide on the layout.  It is possible to simply write plain text and add images, but this will give a very uninspiring appearance.  Instead, consider whether you should include borders, backgrounds and/or "fluff" design elements.

    Final "MtG" design
    You might find it useful (I did!) to look at other cards and take inspiration from them.  For example, the designers of Magic the Gathering, Pokemon and ATZ's Risks and Rewards deck have all been through this process already.  Examine what they did and copy the elements that work for you.
    For the TRWNN cards, I added a scrollwork pattern near the bottom of each card.  This serves no game purpose, but helps to fill space and to identify the different categories as belonging to the same deck.
    Also note that in my ATZ event deck, each card was given a quote or caption.  Again, this doesn't make any difference to the rules and isn't strictly necessary, but it helps to set the atmosphere.

B. Create

  1. Make a Template

    Since you're going to be producing a large number of similar cards, it's really worth taking the time to create a decent template (if your design has more than one category of card then you will need a separate template for each category).  Add the elements which are common to all cards, such as the background and any borders, to the template.  Then all you have to do to add a new card is to copy the template and fill in the bits that are specific to that card.  Easy!
    I used Powerpoint to create the ATZ Event Deck.  Firstly, I set the page size to that required for Artscow (i.e. 750x1050).  Then I created a single master slide (i.e. template) with all the borders and backgrounds I wanted.  The master slide has 4 "click here" placeholders on it, so that whenever I create a new slide I just have to fill in those 4 items.

  2. Create the cards!

    Now you are ready to make all the cards you want.  Take the template created above and copy it as many times as needed.  Then go through the paper list of cards that you gathered and fill in each template with the data for a separate card.  If you need to add photographs then these will have to be collected; I find that this is actually much more time-consuming than the rest of the process.
    Don't forget to produce a card back as well!
    Tip: it's probably a good idea to use an image editor to resize any photos so they have the same aspect ratio as the placeholder on the template.  That way you won't get any unexpected clipping or stretching effects on the card!

C. Publish

  1. Export your designs

    If you are using a commercial printer then you'll need to save your cards in a format that the printing company can accept.  This is probably going to be .png or a similar bitmap format, with each card saved as a separate file. 
    Tip: In Powerpoint, you can use the "save as" option and choose to export the entire presentation as .png .  If you then select "export all slides", it will write each slide out as a separate image file, which is just what you want!
    If you are printing the cards yourself then this step is probably not necessary.  Just print the cards on your home printer.

  2. Print the deck!

    Upload the exported image files to your chosen commercial printing company ( has a "batch upload" which makes this very easy).  Use these images to create a custom deck of playing cards, then order it, sit back and wait for the postman!
    Tip: if you're using artscow then remember to switch off the "poker text" on each card.  Otherwise your cards will automatically have regular playing card symbols as well as your chosen design, such as 2 of hearts.  I speak from experience with one of my early attempts :- ( .  I've no knowledge of other commercial printers.


That's how I did it.  I'm sure there are plenty of other ways to design and print cards; I'd be delighted to hear from anyone who wishes to discuss this topic further.


  1. Good tips and a well thought out process. I too usually learn the optimal work flow by doing it all wrong the first few times. My Age of Blood fate cards were made using GIMP for the Card background image and then Open Office Writer to type the text of the cards into a table that was the card itself. Since the cards were rather verbose there weren't any graphics. I might try the OO version of Powerpoint (Impress I believe) for another go round. I just printed mine at home. The backs didn't match up perfectly, but were good enough.

    1. Yes, there's no "correct" way to do this. My home printer is hopeless at registration and so trying to line up the card backs satisfactorily is all but impossible. Sounds like yours is better.

  2. Thanks for the "insider" view of making a deck, I can see mee refering again to this.

    1. Well, I'm no expert - just someone who has done it a few times with varying degrees of success!

  3. nice tutorial It is a cool idea to get your own cards printed. consider this bookmarked for future use.

    1. Ah, but I keep thinking: I must have forgotten something critical. It all sounds too straightforward when written out like that :-) ...

  4. This is a nicely produced tutorial. Don't be too hard on yourself. We all make mistakes. The important bit is to learn from them.

    1. Thanks, Bryan. Yeah - I know I can be a bit self-critical at times :-) .

  5. What source did you use for the images?
    Cards look great, thanks.

    1. I trawled the internet for free pictures. This took a lot of time and much experimentation with different combinations of search terms. Some events were a lot harder than others; I seem to remember that "Foresight!" was an especially difficult card for which to find a suitable image!

  6. The other option to professional printing, or trying to align front-back on a home printer, is print front/back separately and put them in clear card protectors. I did this while prototyping some cards, and liked it so well I went with that for the final cards for a convention game. These have the added flexibility that changing a card required printing a new one, and not a whole deck.

  7. That's a good idea - I hadn't thought of using card protectors. I imagine that shuffling the deck might be slightly more tricky that way?