What can card-based mechanics do that dice-based mechanics can't?


Independent Procrastinor
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While dice-based games outnumber card-based games by a substantial margin, do you think there are things cards can do that dice can't? If so, what might those things be? Examples appreciated.

EDIT: are there games where each player has their own 52-card deck?
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Registered User
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I know in some board games, some players prefer a "deck of dice", which is to say a deck of 36 cards, which reflect the 36 options for 2d6 for games like Settlers of Catan. In such a situation you're guaranteed of getting all the outcomes of 2d6 before reshuffling and starting again. Such a method offers a straight distribution of results, rather than relying on probability that dice give you (aka you *WILL* get an "11" twice before the reshuffle).
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A dapper chap without a doubt
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A regular playing card has more than just a numerical value - at least color, suit, and face or not (there may be more, depending on the deck; e.g. some decks are not symmetrical so you also get facing, like used in many Tarot spreads).

Drawing cards from a deck without shuffling the previous ones back in changes the statistics of successive draws and provides a measure of insight about them, which can be used to build dramatic tension (akin to what happens in most card games).

Cards can be more predictable and provide more control over the results, depending on how you use them.

Cards can be drawn and kept secret without undue ease of cheating. A drawn card can also be kept on display (face up or down) as a solid and reliable reminder of itself, whereas dice are prone to being jostled and losing the result unless you write it down.

And so on. There are lots of things you can do with cards that you can't with dice, at least not as easily. Dice are often handier and simpler, though.


Skål Kosmonauter
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My favorite card based game, Saga, managed to give players narrative control, a subtle death spiral and benefits of experience just by adjusting the size of your hand. You would often know if an action would succeed or fail based on the composition of your hand. You could choose to play dragon/doom cards, but you knew there would be consequences. Hitpoints came out of your hand, giving you less cards to play with for actions. And so on.


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One of the interesting differences between card and dice-based resolution systems is the way that each draw reveals more information about the remaining probabilities. If I roll a 20 on 1d20, your chance of rolling a 20 remains the same. If I draw an ace from a standard 52 card deck, your chance of drawing one drops from 7.7% to 5.8% and every subsequent draw changes those odds unpredictably.


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Using playing cards:

  • Make the game easier for new players to pick up than any dice structure other than d6s. I'd be astonished to run into a group of five people, none of whom had a deck of normal playing cards.
  • Render the gambler's fallacy not a fallacy. You can't "roll the ones" out of a dice, but you can draw the ones out of a deck.
  • Allow players to have a hand of cards to use for resolution, which creates interesting decisions, rather than relying on each die roll independently. You can "bank" a 10 by taking a failure on your next check, or spend it now knowing your hand has only 1s and 2s left...
  • Open up design space for character abilities that work by drawing or discarding cards from the hand, or manipulating the deck. Especially appropriate for characters who have some kind of precognition.
  • Allow mechanics to trigger off suit as well as number. The 8 of clubs can correspond to the 8 of hearts, but it doesn't have to. For example, you might check the number to see if you succeed, but criticals are determined by matching suit to skill - say, clubs to attacks, spades to exploration, hearts to diplomacy and diamonds to crafting.

Using custom cards:

  • Allow a result to add additional mechanics without resorting to a lookup table or rules call. For example, "critical success" can just be rider text on a card, and doesn't even have to be the highest card.
  • Allow multiple riders on the same numerical result. Your deck might have two "5" cards, one of which is "5 - Critical Hit: If you hit, deal double damage." and one of which is "5 - Fumble: If you miss, discard a card." In a dice system these would have to be tied to either specific numbers or to a matrix of results.
  • Present evocative art to go with each action.
  • Depending on if other aspects of your system are card-based (character powers or equipment, for example), create interesting decisions about whether to keep a hand of powers or of resolution cards.


Registered User
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The main difference is that a deck of cards has memory (unless you use blind draws for rolls and reshuffle every time which sounds like a huge PITA) and dice do not include previous results and it's difficult to give them that property.

I mean, you can use "hand" of die rolls, use custom dice for extra effects or comparison and so forth to provide many of the same effects that cards can have if you design for it. But there's a lot of extra work in making cards "forget" or having dice about past outcomes.


Tab Creations
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I've written two card-based games: Against the Dark Yogi and Shadows Over Sol. Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of the different things cards can do that are more difficult with dice.

(By the way, these are also both games where the players have their own deck of 52 cards.)

Here are some cool mechanics you can do with cards:
  • Obviously, using cards allows players to each have a hand of cards. These cards can be discarded to trigger a mechanic much like the "spend a fate/luck/karma point" mechanics in many games. Alternatively, the value or suit of the card discarded in this way may have a mechanical effect. This is cool because you can have effects that are sometimes available and sometimes not. This can be used to model less reliable abilities. Both Dark Yogi and SOS have this.
  • Each card is basically a randomizer on axes: value and suit. This means you have double the resolution space of a typical die roll. In Shadows Over Sol, for instance, when making an attack, the card's value is used in the action resolution, and the card's suit is used to determine damage.
  • Your hand could also be used as a measure of hit points. For example, when you take damage you might have to discard that many points from the value of your cards. Neither of my games do this, but the Dragonlance Fifth Age SAGA and Marvel SAGA games did this.
  • Cards can also be placed face down in front of you as a token to represent something, especially to represent an unknown value. Against the Dark Yogi does this for bad karma.
  • In a single deck of cards every card is unique. This means if you deal from the same deck, you will never have a tie. This is a particularly useful trait when determining initiative. Savage Worlds does this.
  • Jokers are more rare than any other value/suit and can be used to trigger special effects when they come out. Both Dark Yogi and SOS make use of this mechanic. Savage Worlds does this as well with its initiative.
  • Special abilities could trigger based on the suit of the card you play. I'm working on a new game that does exactly this with its combat maneuvers.
  • Special effect durations can also be set to end when a certain card comes out. Marvel SAGA does this with its custom "card auras." Savage Worlds occasionally does this with jokers.
  • Cards have less outliers when it comes to long runs of repeated results. Umm... That's a bit obtuse. Here's what I mean: Imagine rolling a d10. I can roll a 1 and fumble. I can do that twice in a row. It's improbable, but I could even do that 10 times in a row. For every roll the chance of rolling a 1 is always 10%. But cards (assuming you're not shuffling after every flip) don't work that way. Once I flip a card and get an ace (let's assume aces are low), I have now removed that ace from the draw pile. And the next time I flip a card, there will be fewer aces left in the deck. I might, theoretically, get four aces in a row, but I will never get 10 aces in a row.
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