Software for Laying Out CCGs


Doing Layout on the Cheap

Storing Cards in a Database

OK, if you are going to do just a few cards, you can do them by hand in whatever graphics program you have. But if you are doing a lot of cards, you will eventually wna them in a database. The top choice for a decent database on the Mac is probably Filemaker Pro. On Windows, the best desktop solution, in my opinion, is Microsoft Access. Use what works for you.


Using Relational Database Techniques to Create Card Multiples

OK, if you know little about databases, you are going to be tempted to use methods that waste a lot of paper to print out multiples of a given card, or you are going to try silly things like storing the the card 10 times in your database to make 10 copies of the card. Both of these are bad solutions if you have access to a so-called "relational database". I'll let you Google that term if you are unfamiliar with it.

Now, even relational database programmers may not immediately know how to do multiples of cards, so I'll share the secret to that.

If your database is relational, have on table in your database for your card data. Let's call that table "Cards". Include in "Cards" a field with each card data entry called "Multiple". Next, create a table called "Multiples" that has only one field in it called "Multiple". For the data in that table type the following:


and so on. One copy of the number times the number itself, so for 25, you type in 25 lines with "25" in it.

Now when you hook up the "Multiple" field in the "Multiples" table with the "Multiple" field in your "Cards" table. When you run a query your cards will appear in the query the appropriate number of times. The good part is, that if you need to tweak the card, you can now tweak the one card record in the "Cards" table instead of having to tweak 8 or so copies of card data to change all the multiples of one card.

This is great for playtesting, particularly when you do not need to custom tweak the cards, because you can say, "Bill just requested 6 more copies of X and two more copies of Y", and you can trivially print them out.

Layout Software

OK, if you have a really simple layout you can just design a form or report in your database software to display your cards. That'll work, just fine, if you don't mind a format that is kinda etched in stone. Sure, if you are a high level programmer, you can do all sorts of conditional formatting in Microsoft Access or something, but it's a lot more work than it's worth, and it doesn't have the formatting options that you can get in Desktop Publishing (DTP) software.

So, sooner or later, particularly if you are going to release the cards and sell them you'll want to handle cards in some layout software. People who are used to working with image editing software will tell you that you can layout cards in Adobe Photoshop or something. Well, you can. But if you are laying out a lot of cards the memory requirements will cripple anything but a really high end machine. Why? Well consider a card background. Let's say you have only 4 types of card borders/backgrounds in your game. In a good piece of DTP software, you have just one copy of each image in memory and the computer just multiplies it as needed, because it links in 10 copies of the image by just summoning up a temporary copy of the single image you stored on disk. A lot of image editing software, however, really likes keeping every pixel in memory, separately. So, if you have nine cards on a page, it stores all nine in memory and then saves all 9 to disk when the files saves. Memory requirements are bulky. If you want to change a background, in a paint program you have to go change every instance of that card background for every card on your screen, but in DTP software you can change one copy of the background (the original) and all the copies in the DTP layout change automatically.

So while you will need Adobe Photoshop or, my favorite, the much cheaper Paint Shop Pro, to develop your card images and backgrounds, you should do your layout in DTP software.

In my opinion, there are two real choices for this: Adobe InDesign and Serif Page Plus 11 (12 has bugs and I have not tried newer versions). If you are in a Windows environment, the latter is much cheaper, and is generally better suited for CCG layout. Both allow you to import database data. InDesign requires you to export the data as XML and then import it. Page Plus allows you to import directly from the database file. Page Plus' only downside is that it chops off fields after 255 characters, lopping off long-winded cards.

Now, Page Plus, which I'm going to focus on, is like a mail merge with photos. It lets you import images and text and generates a separate little individual layout for every card the merge generates, so that you can custom tweak the layout on card #2 without changing the layout for card #15.

PagePlus has a lot of fontagraphic effects too, so that you can make a really sophisticated looking layout. You can link the graphics too, to keep the layout itself small when you save it.


Dynamic Conditional Layout

OK, so for some silly reason, if you can only stack one copy of a card in your deck you want to display the card name in red instead of black? Can you do that in DTP software?

Yes, and no. Most DTP software doesn't have a scripting language, nor would you want to do a lot of custom programming when laying out hundreds of cards. So here's the trick for doing database-driven layout. In your database back end, create a query with two fields, "Black Name" and "Red Name". If a card is supposed to have a black name, put the card's name in the "Black Name" field, leaving "Red Name" blank. If you want a red name, do the reverse of that.

In your DTP layout for Page Plus (and you should be able to do this trick in InDesign too), create two perfectly overlapping text merge fields, one in red, and one in black. When you import the data, the card will have its name in the appropriate color text.

In Page Plus, if you want a given card to have an icon, just make sure that there's a place in the layout to import a path to an image on your hard drive, and let the database set the path information up based on selections you make. For example, let's say there's a damage type symbol on most cards. Phaser Damage is a triangle, while a Space Torpedo has a square icon. You create a single field in your layout in Page Plus, but then in the database, when you select "Phaser Damage" in your database, you set up the query so that the "Damage Icon" field has the path to the image of the triangle. If you select "Torpedo Damage", the query is set to feed the DTP software the path to the image of the square.

You can use similar tricks to switch in different card borders by card type.

Page Plus has a wide range of fontographic effects, like drop shadows, etc. Just apply them to the receiving field on your layout, and when the text is merged it will be formatted appropriately.


Using a Dingbat Font

A dingbat font is a life saver when laying out your cards. Images have a default resolution, a maximum number of pixels of data. If you use a scaleable font, however, then it'll print out at the resolution of your printer; the better the press, the better the resolution.

This is, again, another space saving technique, and allows you to re-use images many times by loading the font in once. The downside of font images instead of actual graphics is that a dingbat font can be any color, but the whole image will be the same color (or a gradient if your DTP software allows for a gradient between two colors). You might be able to put a different colored border, shadow, or glow around the dingbat in your DTP software. A true graphic can be millions of colors in any way you want to lay them out.

David Nalle at Fontcraft.Com can build you a dingbat font if you want, and if you have just a few dingbats he can put your dominant text font in the same file, making it really easy to do layout.


Changing Cards

OK, there is one downside to laying out cards this way. If you make your changes (and during playtest you will have changes), the layout in Page Plus is not linked to the database. If you change the card in the DTP software the database doesn't change. InDesign is a bit better in this respect. But given that Page Plus is so much easier to use and so much better in general for laying out CCG cards quickly and SOOOOO much less expensive than InDesign, I would stick with Page Plus.