7 Wonders: Duel's cards represent wonders from antiquity that players are racing to build. The symbol showing two arrows encircling each other indicates that a player triggers a “golden age” and gets an immediate extra turn.
I’m sure sometimes it’s only when you look back on something that you realize it was a “golden age,” but for games, that time is clearly right now. Every format: card games, board games, collectibles, miniatures, social games, games on PC, consoles, phone apps, etc. are all now impressively diverse and growing. And what makes it all so exciting is that they are cross-pollinating and hybridizing in ways that are creating novel designs that are popular successes as well.
Let’s check out some examples:
Pandemic Legacy: Season 1. The idea that you could rip up cards, get new cards, add stickers to cards… It’s still too much for some people. The original Pandemic is a co-op strategy game that is certainly quite solid, yet, when combined with an RPG narrative campaign in the form of a “legacy” version, suddenly it becomes everyone’s favorite board game ever, until the next game came out anyway.
Gloomhaven. It’s a big hybrid of so many things it’s hard to track. It’s got cards, miniatures, co-op, RPG, tactical battles, exploration, deck-building… all within a branching campaign that has you unlocking more and more stuff the whole time. Every game design element it uses has existed previously, just not in these ways, and not incorporated into such a grand scope.
7 Wonders Duel. At its core it’s a card game for two players, yet it’s inspiration is the PC series Sid Meier’s Civilization, so it’s very broad in its purview. Even though it mostly takes place on simple little cards, playing it feels more like a strategy board game or pc game, and it takes a lot of its design elements from those realms. It’s a ton of game in a small box. Easily one of my favorites.
Slay the Spire. This is a PC game that uses deck-building with cards as it’s main feature. It’s essentially just a card game on a digital platform, yet it cleverly pushes past the practical limits of a physical deck-building game, which makes it an exciting and dynamic evolution of the genre. Ironically, Slay the Spire now getting a physical implementation, which is about to be Kickstarted… So it’ll be a card game, based on a PC game, based on a card game mechanic.
Twilight Struggle. This is a wargame, but it’s mostly about politics, and unlike other wargames, there are no units per se, just indications of current influence, which is fitting, as the conflict it embodies is the Cold War. What makes it even more unique is how it uses cards as its primary game element, and it uses them to accomplish a myriad of effects, including story-telling, history lessons, aggression, defense, special abilities, plots, events, and even the space race.
Duelist. This was a PC game. It only lasted a few years, but it was glorious. It was a 2 player collectible card game (kinda like Magic) combined with a tight tactical battle on a grid with units (sort of like chess, but on a smaller board, and with hundreds of unit types.) It was so much fun, and all the elements worked together beautifully. The problem was that it just wasn’t economically viable for the developer to sustain. It would be amazing if it could return in another form.
Dune: Imperium. A hybrid worker-placement/wargame based on cards and deck-building, that also includes racing elements. There is a ton going on in this game, yet it’s not complicated to learn and play. It’s highly thematic and Dune lovers will relish the details, but it still totally works for players who have no experience with the Dune universe at all. The dynamics created between the card-play and board-play in this game are fantastic. It’s another one of my absolute favorites.
Looking back through this list of games, I’m noticing a thread tying them all together is the novel use of cards, whether in the physical or digital realm. Perhaps that is in large part what is driving this golden age of gaming? Creative incorporations of the simple playing card into all variety of designs, genres, and platforms? It’s certainly a prominent feature, at the very least.
I think much of the power of cards, compared to other game components, comes from the instructions being printed on them. This allow players to learn a game in small bites, one card at a time, and also in context, i.e. during actual game play. As a user interface, cards facilitate onboarding really nicely.
On one level, cards are like little memories that you can hold in your hand, rather than in your head, which frees up your head to think about possibilities within the game, while still being able to glance back down at your hand of cards to remember numbers or specific interactions.
Cards also function at the level of any basic token and can be used as a resource, counter, or playing piece, yet because anything can be printed on them (front and back), they become nearly limitless in their descriptive power.
And then there’s the randomness potential of cards! This is a feature that can be used in so many fun and novel ways, as evidenced by all the variations of poker. A notable recent example in boardgames is Gloomhaven’s use of little decks of cards to determine the outcome of combat instead of dice. The game then allows the players to modify their decks over time, by adding or removing cards, which adds a tremendous amount of intuitive customization to explore.
It’s fascinating to me that playing cards have been in common use since at least the 1500s, yet game designers are still finding more and more ways to utilize them.