Stacking the deck
Using cards to add structured randomness to events
This week we are looking at using a card draw deck to schedule random events! We’ll look at four examples from four board games, but this method would work just as well with any deck of cards. It could easily be used in a TTRPG using a standard poker deck.
Here they are!
I’m sure it’s not the first to use this mechanism, but Pandemic (Leacock, 2008) is the first game where I encountered it.
Pandemic is a co-op game where you work as a team to fight and eradicate diseases that are spreading across the globe. New infections are always bad, but epidemics in Pandemic are even worse. They increase the infection rate, infect a new city (possibly triggering an outbreak), and reshuffle the discard pile.
When setting up the game you decide how many Epidemic cards you will used based on difficulty, ranging from 4 - 6 total. After that you add them into separate decks:
Divide the remaining player cards into face down piles, as equal in size as you can, so that the number of piles matches the number of Epidemic cards you are using. Shuffle 1 Epidemic card into each pile, face down. Stack these piles to form the Player Deck, placing smaller piles on the bottom.
This creates a single deck of cards including City cards, Epidemic cards, and Event cards. The Epidemic cards are roughly evenly distributed throughout the deck. This ensures you won’t pull them all in a row, but also that you never know when one might show up.
It also adds some suspense, because if you’ve gone a while without pulling an Epidemic… you know one is just around the corner!
2. Pax Renaissance: 2nd Edition
This game involves playing as medieval bankers exerting influence over the region, starting wars, and installing rulers. There are four available victory conditions, but it’s not known which will be the active one until near the end of the game when four Comet cards appear. Players who purchase one of the comets can choose which victory condition(s) becomes active.
The Comets are shuffled into the bottom of the two (East and West) draw decks for the market:
Separate the tableau cards into two piles, one East and the other West.
(A) East Draw Deck. Take 12 random facedown East cards and shuffle the two East Comet cards into them. To the top of this 14-card deck add 4 additional random East cards for each player in the game (e.g. for a three-player game add 12 cards, so 26 in total).
(B) West Draw Deck. Do the same for a draw deck containing the West cards plus the two West Comet cards, placed just above the East draw deck.
Where Pandemic had multiple Epidemic cards spread throughout a single deck, Pax Renaissance maintains two decks with the critical cards hidden at the bottom of each. Players know that the comets won’t show up in the first cards drawn, and that they will appear in the last twelve cards of each deck. This allows everyone to plan for the end game, and yet not know exactly when it will show up.
Pandemic uses the deck to trigger events, and Pax Renaissance uses it to trigger the end game. Eschaton does a bit of both.
In Eschaton (Watts, et al., 2016) the world is crumbling and the Dark One is about to bring about Armageddon. Players attempt to lead their cult to gather the most favor in their final days, hoping to earn their place after the cataclysm.
The main event deck is made of Event cards, Omen cards (which award points), and the single Armageddon card that immediately ends the game:
To prepare the Event Deck for play, collect the Event and Omen cards and shuffle them as two separate piles. Create four piles of two Event cards without revealing any cards in the process. Atop each of the first three of these piles add one Omen card. Add the Armageddon card to the fourth pile. Shuffle each of the four piles separately. Place the four piles in a stack with the pile containing the Armageddon card at the bottom of the stack. The Event Deck is now ready for play.
This deck construction method creates an interesting tempo for the game.
When an Omen appears it will have an objective to complete for victory points, but it is only claimed when the next Omen appears. With only a few cards in the deck, you can reasonably guess when the next Omen might appear. Just like the previous examples, however, you never know for certain.
Similarly, when the Armageddon card is drawn the final Omen is resolved and the game ends immediately. There is no “each other player takes an additional turn” and there are no more rounds. It’s an abrupt and unpredictable end, but one you know is coming.
4. Cthulhu: Death May Die
The final example is Cthulhu: Death May Die (Daviau & Lang, 2019), where the deck doesn’t directly trigger the end game, but instead sets the tempo.
Rather than trying to stop the summoning of the Elder Gods like most Lovecraftian horror, you want to summon them to our world. Why? So you can, as the game description says, “shoot Cthulhu in the face.” It’s a campy game full of the usual tropes and some cooperative gaming fun.
The game uses a deck of sixteen Mythos card to trigger events and progress the game toward the end. Half of the deck comes from the specific Episode box you are playing, and the other half comes from the Elder One box you chose. Every card does bad stuff. As the rulebook says of the Mythos cards: “You will grow to hate them.”
Many of the Mythos cards have an Elder One summoning symbol on them. After the third summoning symbol is drawn, the Elder One advances along a track. The discard pile is shuffled back into the deck, and the process starts again.
While the deck isn’t constructed ahead of time as in the other examples, it does use the summoning symbols to set the pace of the game. Similarly, while the deck doesn’t directly trigger the end game, it controls the progression track that does ultimately trigger the end game.
Some things to think about:
Constructing the deck during setup can give many interesting options. It’s not too hard to have your players shuffle the deck in a specific way, or add cards to the top or bottom of the deck. Doing so opens up quite a few new mechanisms.
Custom deck setup isn’t just for triggering the end game. I hope the examples above show that the deck can be used to trigger the end game, activate victory conditions, set the tempo of the game, and countless other options.
You don’t need custom cards to do this. This would work just as well with a standard poker deck. For example, you could split the deck into four, place a Queen on top of each deck, and shuffle/stack into a single deck. This would yield something very similar to the Pandemic example above.
Again, while the examples above are from board games, I think this is an excellent mechanism to use in TTRPGs as well. I think it could be particularly suited for use in solo roleplaying and journaling games.
Where have you seen similar pre-game deck construction? What are you favorite examples from board games or TTRPGs? What do you think of the added complexity required to do this?
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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