The Emperor’s Heart: Cards

May 31, 2009

As I’m grinding through the major rewrite and talking to friends I know, I’m realizing how much I had to sort through the playtest feedback I got from before – how much was about the actual procedures in play vs. what people want my game to do (whether it matches my vision or not) vs. game geek design wankery questions.

Since the last bit is actually the least useful towards game play, though clearly a hangup for folks, and since explaining it all ended up in my head whether I wanted to or not, I figured I’d better spill some of it out here on my blog and point to it when the next round of playtesting starts and I get those same questions. I’m going to try not to do this too often, since I don’t want to end up spending more time writing about the game than writing the game itself.

Why Cards?

The practical function of cards is this: they sit on the table in front of everyone, so everyone can look around the table and remember what’s going on- who’s character has what happening, what the situation is, etc. It’s designed for group reference.

It makes it easy to tie your characters’ Drama with other characters’ Drama (“Hey, you’ve got a Romantic Triangle, how about I take Unrequited Love?”). (And, I wanted a GM-less game, so it became crucial for everyone to be able to see this info. I’m probably switching over to a GM based scene framing, since I haven’t found a workable solution thus far).

Second, it changes character creation from “look in the book, write something down” to something where players pass along the Hero cards and the Drama cards and it gets people talking. “Maybe I’ll play the Cynical Maverick… Oh! What’s that? Assassin? Let me see!”

Even though most games now advise players to share character ideas as they’re building them, it’s still a 50/50 case from what I’ve seen- better to just set up your game so players interact from get go and start the conversation that way.

The final thing behind cards is that it makes things really easy to add or remove elements. I still need to find some way to train gamers to GIVE NAMES to their characters, but overall I’m happy with the cards as a design element.


  1. When my group play-tested Emperor’s Heart a few years ago, the cards were the thing that I think really drew them in. I had each type copied on different color paper, so it was easy to look and see which was a character card, drama, villain, etc.

    re: names. I printed out a list of common Chinese names and had it handy when we played. Everyone had their own note card where they recorded their name, description, and also it was a place for them to take notes.

    It’s funny, just about a month ago, some of the folks I played-tested this with were asking about it. The game really made an impression on them. Is there a new version? Are you still looking for more testing Chris?

    • I working out a new version right now. It’s slow going between full time work and school on top of that.

      The core experience is going to be much the same, but I’m cutting some stuff and tightening up some other stuff. I’m adding more setting/flavor stuff in general, and will be giving the cards a reworking. Also- being a lot more clear on what the rules do and don’t do- so there’s less confusion & complaints that there isn’t 108 kung fu styles, etc. and people can focus on what it’s supposed to do.

      The different colored paper is pretty much how I have my cards set up, though I want to spend some time and give other visual markers, so that, even if you print only on white paper, you have some cues to make them easily identified.

  2. It’s a while since I looked at the card design, but space allowing you could take a leaf from the CCG and maybe put a name/quote inspiration combo on each card? Again adds to the right there-ness and those lacking a name can just pull a card before play.

    • I’ve always had the plan to add some flavor text to some of the cards, though I’m still going to leave the character stuff w/o names, if only because at that point, I might as well just hand out full pregen characters. I figure the name issue is better solved as a procedure during set up.

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