Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

On Card Games and War

Von Clausewitz is one of the most read theoreticians on the nature of war. His book “On War” is probably only beaten out by Sun Tzu’s as the most widely read books on strategy and tactics. One of the more interesting quotes from the book is:

“…in the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.” (Carl Von Clausewitz “On War” 1832)

This has inspired wargame designers like Philip Sabin to create a card game based around the style of war during Clausewitz’s lifetime (Simulating War 2012). As appealing as the quote is however, to a student of game design, it raises some important questions. Given that there are as many different card games out there as stars in the night sky, what type of card games did he mean? This blog post is going to look at of three of the types of card games out there and what sort of war game problems they can be used to represent.

Traditional games and the introduction of complexity

Poker, 21 and even solitaire all have one thing in common, they create an opaque game space. In contrast to chess or even complex miniature wargames, where the knowledge of the game state is full, card games require a player to attempt to hold onto a mental image of the game state in their mind. Did the player smile or fidget when he was dealt his last card in Texas Hold ‘Em and if so what does this mean about my chances of victory, This adds a layer of complexity and inherent uncertainty to the game. This need to make educated guesses about the nature of the game space is probably what von Clausewitz was referring to (also given that the other two card game types were created after his lifetime). Bluffing and gambling card games all are based on their having to be an opaque or semi opaque game space. The military and tactical analogy for this would be the fog of war, full knowledge is not available to the commanders in the theater so they must use the information they do have to infer the positioning and disposition of the enemy, all while the enemy is attempting to do the same.

Collectible card games and the economics of war

Magic the Gathering created by Richard Garfield is the most successful collectible card game of all time (possibly aided by it being the first on the market). In the game players buy and construct decks of cards then take them into competition with an opponent. In play it behaves in a very similar manner to traditional games in the opaque nature of the game state but ramps up the computational difficulty as each player is playing with a different deck with unique cards through it. Designing a competitive deck is a laborious task as each of the card types has it’s particular strengths and weaknesses. A series of rock, paper scissors loops has been encoded into the very nature of the game. So what elements and how they are likely to interact with themselves and with the opponent, when they are brought to the table becomes the main decision.

The analogue in tactical or military could be seen as the selection of the correct forces for the operation. The collectible card game (CCG) player must decide if they are going to bring a specialized or a general deck to the table. Given that the meta game of all CCG’s involves the spending of real world money this mirrors the strategic decisions that military command has to make on specialist troops vs generalist. A study of how the meta (the understanding of what will work in the game) has shifted with the introduction of new card types could also provide a window into the effects of disruptive technologies into military tactical and strategic decision making.

Engine building card games: Guns and Butter

Where engine building or drafting card games differ from CCG’s is that the players draw from a common pool of cards to create the deck that they will use to play. In the game Dominion for example the players start with the exact same cards and then must select which ones they will add to their deck from a pool that each player can see and select from in turn. The object of these games is to construct a deck that will balance the needs to disrupt the opponents plans while developing the economic power needed to complete their own objectives. The balancing required within a game of Dominion shifts as the game moves forward and based on how the opponent plays. mistakes made early in the process can have snowballing effects, for example moving to quickly into grabbing victory points can end up choking the deck limiting the moves during the early phases of the game. But conversely failing to see when the game has shifted to the acquisition of victory points can lead to being shut out from their purchase.

Engine Building games are focused on the balancing between several competing routes to potential victory. In terms of military strategy this is an analogue for the guns vs butter problem. In a total war scenario how many resources (primarily in terms of manpower) do you devote to the production of war materials (the butter), given that those are resources that must be diverted from front line activities (the guns)? These games can be used to explore the dynamics of these situations and give a more heuristic understanding of the problem underpinning them.


Games have been used to study and train for war for so long that metaphors like von Clausewitz’s have become common. They should not be accepted at face value however especially by those engaging in the fields of Serious Game, Learning Game or Wargame design. This post has shown how three different types of card games can be used to examine three different problem spaces in tactical and strategic planning. Selecting or designing the correct game to look at the actual problem is the first and most difficult task of the game designer. Using the wrong game runs the risk of reinforcing the wrong lessons or being a poor representation of the reality that the player will experience in the field. While the post has examined three types of card games and their applications there are many more out there. It may be interesting to look at what cooperative card games (like Hanabi) can teach about communication between allies. Another potential discussion would explore traitor mechanics and information security within games like the Resistance.

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