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Game elements used to distribute resources, often with different characteristics, without necessarily revealing the distribution.

Cards are common game elements in traditional games, most often rectangular with information only on one side and thin enough to easily stack and shuffle. They provide an easy way to randomize distribution and keep that distribution secret from players. The information can either be secret to all players, as for example when the game uses a stack from which cards are drawn, or known only to one player, as is the case in card games where each player has a card hand. The use of Cards also allow game designers to choose the exact distribution, not only guaranteeing the overall chance for a value specified by a card to be drawn but also guaranteeing that certain values will appear during gameplay. Cards do not need to be physical game elements; they can also be simulated in computer games.

While some purchased games come with all Cards in a game design, others require players to combine their Cards to be able and play. Other games expand the gameplay by adding expansions with Cards.

Note: this pattern shared the same definition as Tiles since the difference primarily concern material and ergonomics.

Note: this pattern currents includes the pattern Chips.


The common deck of Cards, used for example in Contract Bridge, Poker, Stress, and Whist, consists of 52 cards split between four suits of 13 cards each, where the 13 cards are numbered from 2 to 10 and include a knight, queen, king and ace. Examples of games that use specialized decks include Bang!, Dominion, Fluxx, Frank's Zoo, Munchkin, No Thanks!, Race for the Galaxy, The Great Dalmuti, Thunderstone, and Uno.

Alternative card designs include the "card sets" of Collectible Card Games such as Magic: The Gathering or Illuminati: New World Order. In both of these several different categories of cards are mixed and are required to be used in order to win, some enabling actions, some acting as resources generators. Illuminati: New World Order also uses spatial relationships of the Cards as a meaningful element of the gameplay.

Cards are not only used in Card Games but also in Board Games and sometimes in Tabletop Roleplaying Games. For example, the board game Talisman uses Cards to randomize the contents of areas on the game board - and the card hands players possess are public inventories of items found - while in Memoir '44, Space Alert, and RoboRally they represent possible actions for players. The latest edition of the roleplaying game Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay uses Cards to depict the skills, talents, and reputations of players' characters. San Juan shows how a Board Game (Puerto Rico) can be converting into a Card Game.

See The Penguin Encyclopedia of Card Games[1] for numerous examples of other Card Games.

Using the pattern

Cards can either function as support to a game or be the main game element. Regardless of which use is chosen, designing Cards consist of selecting what information should be on the Cards, what different types of Cards should exist, and how many of each type should exist. They are very often used to create Decks. Many well-known card games, e.g. Contract Bridge, Hearts, and Texas Hold'em, use the common card pack with 52 cards in four suits. Others, e.g. Blackjack, use several decks to increase the unpredictability of the gameplay. Some games, e.g. Magic: The Gathering, Illuminati: New World Order, and Pandemic, have cards with specific rules on them; this lets Cards provide local-available actions, and Combos between Cards quite often emerge in such games. A major design decision regarding the use of Cards in games is whether they should make use of Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership, the use of this makes card-based games into Collectible Card Games and is often combined with the pattern of Evolving Rule Sets through Expansions with new Cards.

The difference between Cards and Tiles is rather small; Cards are easier to shuffle, typically contain more information while Tiles make sturdier Game Worlds, can have more different forms including being much smaller, and can be fixed in place in relation to other Tiles. For this reason, game designers considering using Cards can also consider using Tiles.

Decks of Cards are commonly used as Drawing Stacks, potentially also with Stack Seeding to guarantee certain distributions of Cards, but even more commonly with Hands. Cards can be used to make actions possible directly or through Action Programming, represent Resources or parts of Sets. A type of action only found in Card Games is Trick Taking. Although not are common as for Tiles, Cards can be combined with Construction to create "Tile-Laying". As Bookkeeping Tokens, Cards can represent New Abilities, Budgeted Action Points, or Extra Chances. Turn Taking is often but not always used for regulating how Cards are drawn or played; Nertz, Speed, and Stress are examples of Card Games without Turn Taking.

Cards can either be taken out of play after being used, making them Non-Renewable Resources and Focus Loci for the actions they represent, or be re-used through the use of Discard Piles. Another option is that Cards are played to be put into play but activating them is limited through Cooldown periods (typically by turning used cards sidewise, tapping them). Even games that do not re-use Cards often use Discard Piles to separate the cards that have been used from others, except for card games which use Trick Taking. When Cards are physical game elements, they make feasible candidates for support Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership in a game.

Interface Aspects

Cards is an Interface Pattern.


Sets of Cards allow game designers to determine exactly the distribution between different Resources, events, or outcomes in a game while still providing Randomness; the Randomness is very often achieved through making Drawing Stacks of the Cards. Games with Cards can quite easily be given Expansions through simply providing new Cards; this is a way to provide Evolving Rule Sets, and examples of games that have done this include Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon Trading Card Game, Race for the Galaxy, and Thunderstone.

Since cards are two-sided, the information contained on the card can be distributed in various ways between the two-sides: having no information on one side (except that it is a card in the set) as is the case for traditional cards; marking functionally different cards on both sides but not the specific characteristics or placing one of several categories of information on both sides. This allows fine-tuning of the use of Imperfect Information in the game design, including using them as pure Bookkeeping Tokens (Cards cannot in themselves instantiate Imperfect Information in games unless the types of Cards and distributions are unknown to players). The Imperfect Information possible by Cards allows Collaborative Actions using them to be Anonymous Actions - Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game uses this to let traitors sabotage challenges with some risk of not being detected. Whenever players can keep count of which Cards can remain to be played, this makes Memorizing played Cards advantageous.

When Cards provide New Abilities to players, they are a form of Focus Loci and can represent Abstract Player Constructs. This quite naturally opens up for Abstract Player Construct Development through acquiring new Cards. The presence of Cards in any type of game opens up the possibility of Drafting as a way to distribute Cards to players. In games with Deck Building and Drawing Stacks, Cards can be used to create Cycle Deck Engines.


Can Instantiate

Abstract Player Constructs, Action Programming, Bookkeeping Tokens, Budgeted Action Points, Combos, Decks, Drafting, Drawing Stacks, Extra Chances, Focus Loci, Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership, Memorizing, New Abilities, Randomness, Resources, Sets

with Abstract Player Constructs

Abstract Player Construct Development

with Deck Building and Drawing Stacks

Cycle Deck Engines

with Collaborative Actions

Anonymous Actions

with Construction


with Expansions

Evolving Rule Sets

with Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership

Collectible Card Games

Can Modulate

Imperfect Information

Can Be Instantiated By


Can Be Modulated By

Cooldown, Discard Piles, Hands, Non-Renewable Resources, Stack Seeding, Trick Taking, Turn Taking

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



An updated version of the pattern Cards that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Parlett, D. (2000). The Penguin Encyclopedia of Card Games. Penguin Books Ltd; 2nd Revised edition edition.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.


Daniel Bernhoff, Annika Waern, Karl-Petter Åkesson