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Updated: May 17, 2021

Link to game page here.

TYRANTS is a 2 player competitive card game I created in 2021 that is played with an ordinary set of playing cards.

It is a game of running totals. Each player gets half of the deck, split between red and black suits, and then take turns playing cards in the four center piles to create totals that eliminate their opponents royal cards.

The player that eliminates all of their opponent's royals or forces their opponent to draw the last card in their deck wins.

This card game went through multiple iterations over the course of its development. The game started under the central design focus on designing a strategic 1-on-1 card game using only a regular playing card deck. This led to some natural developments.

  • First, that the players split the deck between each other according to suit color, with one player having Spades and Clubs and the other having Hearts and Diamonds. This allows for card parity between players and clear visibility on the playing field of which player did what. Furthermore, it allows for speedy and consistent setup with any deck on hand, not needing to refer to any specific rules to split the cards and allow each player to setup their side.

  • Second, that Royals should be the key focus of play. As visually distinct cards amongst the majority of numbered playing cards as well as their already understood high value in nearly all card games, royals should take a priority position in the game. This could make them many things, from hero units to enemies. I considered the options and decided on them representing Health/Victory Conditions. Their value makes them something to target as well as protect, and feel appropriate to stand separate from the rest of the deck.

  • Third, that numbers will provide the entirety of depth of play. While many card games that use a standard playing card deck will come up with special rules for certain numbers, this requires players to learn and remember this power-to-number association and can often lead to a difficult first few games or even a cheat sheet to keep track of these custom rules. Instead, I found it more valuable to make the numbers valuable in play in and of themselves, and more powerful cards arising as a result of that. As numbers are the entirety of cards players will play to the table, this leads to the determination of what they do. Due to the splitting of the deck giving each player only 2 suits to work with, standard playing card mechanics of pairs/matching numbers and straights/matching suits didn't seem to provide enough inherent interesting decisions, depth, or complexity to be of use. This lead to the decision of summing the numbers together to be the key play mechanic, as it led to the numbers interacting with each other in interesting ways and making each cards purpose and value incredibly easy to understand.

These 3 conceits allowed for the rest of the game to form around them. The numbers would be summed, but to what? Well, if the royals are the targets, their value should be the target value. Adding to a number ending in 1, 2, or 3 attacks the Jack, Queen, or King respectively. Which royal would be targeted? Since each player has 2 suits with 3 royals each, the Aces could be used as the base of sum piles, targeting the royals of that suit. Furthermore, the Aces could have their value represented in the piles as well, starting each pile at 1 instead of 0 and offsetting the number sums just slightly enough to make the summing options of each number more interesting. How many cards can a player play? Since the game is about adding sums, players should be able to add to any valid sum they can make out of the cards in their hand. In doing so, the central design of the game was established.

This left playtesting and iteration to determine the key remaining questions: How many cards can a player have in their hand? How many do they start with? How many do they draw? Additional questions were added as testing began, such as: What happens when a player's draw deck runs out? Is there anything else a player can do with their cards?

The initial rules had players start with 3 cards and draw 1 at the end of their turn when they pass to their opponent, only able to hold 5 in their hand at maximum, and only able to play cards on their opponent's piles. When confronted with running out of cards, the initial rule was to clear all cards on the piles, return them to their respective players, shuffle them, and place them back as the drawing decks.

However, these rules proved to come up short in test play, and changes started to take place.

Only dealing with the opponent's piles in the playing field severely limits the amount of interesting plays available to the player, so one of the quickest additions was expanding play options. Now players could add to the sums on their own suits piles to bring back a royal that was already eliminated by adding to its value. This added an extra layer of defensive strategy, as well as opening up play options available to each player significantly.

The decision to handle deck shuffling was evidently unsound, as after any playing field clear and reshuffling, a player would often win within two turns after, the full field clear allowing too much direct access to royals after play already eliminating many. It was clear that a different method of card recycling was needed. After some brainstorming, the method determined was utilizing a different sum. I then implemented the rule that summing a pile to 0 clears that pile, returning all of the cards in it to their respective players, shuffling their decks, and allowing the player that cleared to draw one card and continue their turn. This solved multiple problems at once. It fixed the deck draw and shuffle problem while also adding to the complexity of options offered to the player in multiple ways: It offered another available sum to reach that could be done on any pile, it added a mid turn draw that allows players to open up new possibilities of play for them as they are playing, and it can be replicated as many times as a player could do it in a turn that could lead to dynamic chaining of player actions.

The player hands felt too finnicky being able to go up to five cards, offering far too much play power at a full hand size. As such the hand size was limited to 3 cards. Lastly, card draw being limited to 1 was severely slowing the ability of players to set up interesting plays. This was also paired with the problem of royals not affecting anything in the game outside of victory conditions. This problem was a softer problem, as it didn't directly present a disruption of play, but it was clear that there was no incentive to keep royals active in both of a player's suits, as as long as they had one it was all that mattered. These problems were solved in a single rule change by pairing a player's end of turn draw with active royals in each suit. If at least one royal is alive in each, a player draws 2 cards at the end of each turn, but if a suit has been cleared of royals, they will be limited to 1 draw. In doing this, there is now a significant speed up in card cycling and also leads to new strategic opportunities for players to attack their opponents in different ways.

Coming out of playtesting, the rules crystallized into a refined set of simple but complex guidelines for play, and the game moved on to prep for distribution. I took the rules as established and laid out a clear styled rules sheet in Adobe InDesign, added graphical flourishes in Illustrator, and then added stylized paper effects and roughening in Photoshop. I additionally made a mobile friendly rules sheet. In making these documents, I felt I could do more to give wider access to the game.

During playtesting, I made a simple session in Tabletop Simulator to allow for remote play with my friends, and I decided to build that out into a full module that could go up on Steam Workshop. While working on it, I also made a stylized playing card deck that had a card with a QR code to the mobile rules that I imported into Tabletop Simulator.

Since I made them already, I also found a website that acts as a storefront for custom playing card decks and put my game up for sale there in a variety of box styles.

If you would like to see the full game page for TYRANTS, the link to the game page is here.


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