How To Design Card Games For Workshops

Using the Artefact Cards during workshops and brainstorms has always been great, but lately I've been trying to push the boundaries a little more on just how playful that can become. 

Specifically, I've been designing activities based on established card games, so that people don't just generate lots of ideas on cards, but continually play with them in new orders and combinations to explore possibilities. 

This helps make the most of all of the ideas generated in a workshop, a lot of which can end up languishing on unloved sticky notes on a wall, or scrawled on a flipchart page.  Rather than trying to make sense of these ideas after the workshop has ended, this approach helps make the most of every asset whilst you're all in the room together.

Here are some principles which have proved helpful in running sessions in this way - hopefully you'll find them useful, and if there are any more you've used or occur to you now, then please do add them in the comments below.


The Importance of Tables

The most obvious place to start is thinking about where you're doing the workshop, what the room is like, who's coming and so on. 

As opposed to standard workshops, in order for the card games you invent to work, you'll need to break people into groups of 4-6, and get them sitting around a table together when it's time to play.

The table becomes really important for groups as a communal space - once ideas are in the middle of tables, just like in card games they become open for anyone to play with, they're less about being the sole property of one person. 

It leads to a more collaborative, fast moving combination of ideas and elements.

It's also worth thinking about keeping those teams together for the duration, rather than mixing and matching.  Together, they'll build up knowledge of what each of the cards means, and any added associations the group develops for the deck they're playing with.  First thing they've got to do is make the deck they'll play with...


Generate, Then Play

Unlike sitting down with a pack of cards and playing a game, there is no pack yet, it has to be created.

Now, this can be done using any idea generation techniques that you're comfortable and familiar with that asks people to write ideas down on small piece of card or paper.  The aim is that in the middle of each table you'll have a stack of ideas that operates as the game deck for each group.

This is not to say that groups can't add to the deck as the session evolves - people can form new ideas that become interesting additions as they play between rounds, and that helps the variation in ideas too.  But as a first step, you'll want a table of four people to be sitting with a pack of 52 cards before playing.

It's also worth making sure you have enough variation with the deck of different sorts of things, and this is where it's handy to think of different ideas and elements as 'suits'...


Making Suits

The combination of different sorts of things will give groups much more chance of finding something interesting from the seemingly unconnected.  You don't have to be hard and fast about having exactly the same number of cards for each of the suits you make, but through the generation stage, you should be thinking about how to ask the groups to come up with different ideas across categories. 

Here are four example ones: Assets, Ideas, Customers & Heroes

- Assets is about the business itself - ask people to pick the three most interesting things they know about that organisation, or the three things that would surprise people the most, or the three stories that are least seldom told.

- Ideas could be the best work that's previously been done, the most compelling things that are on the table now, or the long term dreams that people have always wanted to make happen but haven't as yet.

- Customers is about the people who buy the product or services the company supplies, or even the people who don't yet.  It could be user stories, pen portraits, popular misconceptions held by people, or whatever other people believe the stereotypical user to be like.

- Heroes are the other businesses and brands that the company should learn from, and a specific angle from each - how they run their business, they things they do for customers, they way they create their products, the attitude they convey in communications etc.


These are just examples of course, but they give you an idea of the variety that you'd try to have in one deck. 

In order to generate these suits, take people through one exercise at a time, and once they've created their cards for each suit, ask them to quickly show and tell everyone else around the table their cards.

It doesn't matter if there are overlaps, of course - things that pop up more often could well be more important, so by having more of them in the deck, they get a chance to think about these areas more.

If you do want to find the extreme edges of each 'suit', there is a minigame you can play.  Ask people to make three cards for an area.  Then ask them to lay them down, one at a time. 

They're only allowed to play if the idea they're putting down hasn't been played by someone else.  Then the first person to play all three cards is the winner.  In the past, running through this game twice means you can quickly develop a really broad, nuanced map of a territory.

Once each group has a whole deck in the middle of the table, it's time to play...


Making Games

The games that you're going to make up as part of the workshop aren't going to be exactly like standard card games, of course. 

The cards and suits the teams have created don't have commonly fixed values, for instance. 

But instead, your aim in designing the exercises is to find ways in which people can take and combine different elements that they've generated before, and use them together to form new ideas. 

The way that these ideas are judged against each other can be very subjective, of course - think about the way the winners are picked in Cards Against Humanity for instance, or other similar games where the win condition is quite oblique (I'd like to include a quick thanks to James Wallis here, who first tipped me off to this concept on a sekret projekt we did together).

It's also worth thinking about what 'winning' actually means in your workshop...

Winning in these situations is about discovering previously unexplored ideas and connections as a group.  It's not really about who ends up with the most winning hands at the end of a game, but the ideas you discover together as you play the game.  Though that said, it's amazing to watch the natural, subtle competitiveness of people at play as people push each other into more and more wild ideas...

So, how do you go about designing a game for a workshop like this? 

Here are five useful principles to get you started...


i) Everyone is dealt a hand of ideas

You'll want each person to start with a randomised hand of cards, not just their own ones.  About 6 cards per hand works well.

Because the group have explained what the cards are as they go, there should be knowledge of what they all mean.  What works really nicely is that people are playing with each others' ideas.  Not only are you asked to look at someone else's ideas and build upon them, but by putting your ideas and observations in someone else's hands, it means that when you hear them played back to you in new forms which helps you think afresh.


ii) Design for combinations

What you want to do is create situations where people are asked to take a card from their hand, and combine it with either other cards in their hand, or other cards they can see on the table.  By asking people to make connection between things, they're more likely to come up with interesting new things.

For instance, you can ask people to combine three cards in their hand to describe a new idea for a business, or you could ask them to find the idea in their hand that best fits what has been played by a previous player.

A version that's worked well of this in the past is a turn based game - ask one person to play the 'client', and use three of their cards to define a problem their business has.  Then, ask the other players to solve this buinsees problem by using three of their cards to tell the story of how they'd approach it.  The 'client' then picks the best solution for their problem (and, of course, any useful real world ideas can be noted down, or even turned into additional cards to feed into the deck)


iii) The element of surprise

There are both simple and complex variants you can design around this principle.  At the more engineered end, using the 'hide and reveal' technique from games like Texas Hold 'Em means that players have to think quickly and carefully about the value of the cards that they hold in their hand, reacting to the communal cards on the table as they are revealed.  Think about how you can use cards that have already been created to let people play with the cards in their hands and react to circumstances.

Alternatively, a simple idea is to play 'pairs' (this can be done as groups, or on your own too) - turn all the cards upside down, then turn over two at a time.  Ask each player to come up with an idea based on those two cards.  The player who comes up with the best idea (according to the group) gets to win those cards.


iv) Taking Tricks

Tricks in card games are when a round is played, and somebody picks up those cards as marker for a 'point' won.  In this scenario, think about whather you want these cards to be removed from the game at this stage - if there is a winning idea each round, do you want to preserve it to refer back to later?

Alternatively, you can design games where people win the cards played on the table, and so have a greater hand from which to draw ideas in subsequent rounds.  This may not be as beneficial as it first seems, as once a player gets too many cards, they start to be swamped with possibilities, and can be tempted to stick to the same seemingly powerful cards which soon seem tired as ideas to other players who're judging.



v) Fishing for Ideas

You may well have played games like Go Fish or Happy Families before, where the aim is to ask question of the other players in order to get cards from their hand, in order to complete a set that you have.

With a deck cards such as these though, a straight copy of these games would be difficult, but the principle of asking something of another player, and recieving a card in return is interesting to play with.

Towards the end of the workshop session, get players to each put together a six card set that to them would represent the strongest idea the group has come up with.  Now let people choose one card from each other's hand blind, and go round the table once so that everyone has a slightly tweaked idea they have to present back to the group.

What will be interesting here is not just if the alien card improves the idea as set out (it may well not), but which component cards of the idea are strongest - through discussion, the group will discover which cards are the aces in the pack.



Hopefully this gives you some helpful ways to start thinking about using simple card game principles in workshops to play with ideas.  As I said before, would love to hear of any other builds and ideas, whether you've used Artefact Cards before or not - just drop them in to the comments section below.

Happy playing... and good luck.




If you want a good place to go for inspiration on card game rules, why not try here at Pagat.



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