I’ve been thinking about the many genres of games I feel I should like but don’t, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. With card games in particular, I enjoyed collecting them when I was younger, studying each card intently to make decks. Though after a while, playing the actual game was thoroughly boring. There is a lot of math and chance usually, matches ultimately coming down to gaming the quantitative system the game had in place. In hindsight, my fleeting enjoyment in these games tended to be in the style and flourish aspects. Making my deck unique, preparing dramatic moves built more on novelty than anything else. However, this soon becomes unenjoyable because of how much these games are based on a quantitative measure of winning; if your decisions don’t ultimately serve this purpose, they will be marginal experiences if they are even allowed to happen in the first place.
Looking at games as a whole, but especially card games, I can’t help but notice how much conventions of gambling are at the base of typical game design. Gambling and gaming used to mean pretty much the same thing, and really, it seems like gambling now just means sometimes illegal or heavily controlled gaming. There are people in the world that won’t play games involving any amount of chance or paraphernalia of western gambling, such as cards and dice, because it’s against their culture. Think of the kinds of stuff you find in a casino, and then try to think of games that don’t have any manifestation of those things. You’ll find most games, knowingly or not, borrow from the tradition of gaming that isn’t different from gambling; the ones that don’t tend to be more expressive games.
When it comes to card games, the design decision that few challenge and annoys me so much is the deck of shuffled cards. I know, something really weird to get hung up on, but it really narrows the kind of experiences you can have with games from the outset. A shuffled deck is there to have randomness to create a sense of fairness in a game of quantitative tools and as well to create stakes to deal with. It creates a rhythm of playing with what you got while holding out for something useful to come along. Many card games suggest understanding probabilities and card counting because ultimately that is what these are about. Understanding the chances you have for getting what you want while dealing with what’s in front of you. Of course, there can be more to a game than that, it’s just how strongly shuffling the deck controls the experiences of these games.
This then took me on a mental journey of the evolution of card games. The 52-card deck (with variable additions of Jokers) that dominates the imagination of at least English-speaking countries when it comes of card games derives from tarot cards, which is used almost mostly for divination and self-improvement in said cultures, not games. Tarot cards were originally used for games much like the ones our playing cards are concerned with and still are in some countries, but for whatever reason, play didn’t come alongside its now occult use. I’m starting to think that my unrest with card games might find something in the interpretative use of tarot cards instead of the quantitative.
I didn’t realize it until recently, but I was pretty much a teen witch when I was younger, and studying the tarot came near the end of my journey with the occult. There is a range of ways to read the tarot decks (there are many different kinds): the author’s description, the interpreter using free association with the subject based off the images, the meanings from the original deck style from which it is referencing, the combination of all prior readings ever done, and on. There is also the added element of the spread, making where and how the cards are placed down have its own meaning. Whether one believes in the supernatural or not, you are ultimately reading the narrative structure of the cards in front of you and weaving a story. This process is the qualitative side of the coin opposite to the one card games typically take. Instead of rules, there’s ritual; instead of winning, there is play. While we colloquially conflate gaming and playing, there is a strong emphasis on their nuances when we take on this frame. Games often promote doing, while play, existing. Telling how we hear prominent voices dismissing, lovingly or not, play as a frivolous while gaming is some higher state of being.
My experience with the tarot was recently triggered when I started playing the living (see: collectible) card game Netrunner. Particularly, the placement of the cards. Netrunner is a two-player asymmetrical game, and depending on which side you play (Corporation or Runner), you place your cards down differently. Seeing this reminded me of tarot spreads, as the positions of the cards innately meant something and created visual relationships between all the cards. The similarities to tarot cards probably stops there, as it is reminiscent of other battling card games, being reliant on probabilities, chance, and card knowledge. The cards do have lore behind them, and there is some resonance between the actions of the players and the fictive act of hacking, however you don’t really derive much else. The narrative of the game is firmly in its quantitative systems, which often leaves me cold. This got me thinking though; what would a more playful Netrunner look like, or, how can we use the rules of the game for storytelling purposes?
Besides the arrangement of cards, my next clue came in seeing some puzzles of games in the middle of play. In general, these are still very quantitative, and the goal is to figure out how to win the game from the position the puzzle puts you in. I still found this incredibly compelling though, because these tasked players to understand the relationship of all the cards and their possible interactions. Because they are quantitative in nature, compelling puzzles are hard to consistently generate, so what if instead we generated a game without the intention of winning? Time to experiment!
First, I created decks based on narrative themes rather than outright function. I decided to take qualities from my favorite identity cards and use them to choose my cards. One deck was titled “Red Queen,” so I put in cards that had prominent use of red and images of royalty, and the other “Perfectionism,” where I found cards with nice symmetry or order, or the function of switching things around (1). I imagine people who are more into the lore of Netrunner will find extra meaning and themes deeper than these, much like how different levels of study with tarot cards reveal more details. Then I generated card placements to make it look like the middle of a game (2).
Now, I shuffle up a tarot deck and start placing them on top of cards in play. What I have basically done is make a spread based on the placement of the cards of Netrunner (3). We can then think of all these aspects mediated by each other to create meaning, the rule-based reasoning of Netrunner for placement, the Netrunner card, and the tarot card. The tarot cards will have relationships set up for them by how all the Netrunner cards relate. There are multiple ways to move forward, such as imbuing each position with keywords based off the Netrunner cards, then removing them and proceeding with a tarot reading. Or we can use the tarot cards as prompts to give the Netrunner cards narrative meaning beyond just mechanistic use.
We’re not going to stop here though! The best part of this set up is that we can still play by Netrunner’s rules for a round or so, though our aims might be different than just winning, or winning effectively. We can play through some turns and track the changes of the play area, see which cards interact with what, and always see the Netrunner cards associated with the tarot cards they’ve been dealt (4). Now there is symbolic meaning past quantitative winning to the actions in the game. It’s kind of like those art pieces that attach a pen to the mouse of a computer and there’s an imprint of how it was used that day; you can get a feeling about the motions of the game by giving it a method of expression. In a way, this is a mod to Netrunner. Another mod that makes narrative a stronger focus is Naomi Clark’s in-progress reskinning project Lacerunner, which changes the imagery and language to make it feel more like a Jane Austen game. The rules of Netrunner are still there, meaning there is something about how imagery is utilized to encourage storytelling. I feel like the tarot addition will go very well with Lacerunner once it’s completed. It shows how subject matter and genre conventions imply what you should be doing in play; a game that is about infiltrating a ball through social skills encourages role-play and storytelling. With the added layer of the tarot, this edges closer to a social simulation game.
So let’s run through a sample action using the Shadowscapes tarot deck and see what we come up with, adding in some fictive embellishment to help those unfamiliar with Netrunner:
Reina Roja (Nine of Wands), a cyborg activist, is hacking into the Research & Development server (Page of Wands) of the cloning megacorption Jinteki (King of Cups). On her way, she encounters the first part of this server’s security system, an already active Hunter (Ten of Wands). She passes through under its gaze without trying to disarm it, and it places a net tag on her that allows Jinteki to track her easier. Coming up, she sees the bright light of her Bishop (Ace of Pentacles) program that she hosted on the next security system ahead of time. This one was currently inactive, and if it was to awaken, Bishop would weaken its strength. To be on the safe side, Reina uses a Cortez Chip (Ace of Wands) which forces the corporation to spend more money to activate this next piece of security on top of her personal hacks. As it turns out, Jinteki doesn’t currently have an available amount of funds to send out its Uroboros (The Devil) because of this, and Reina passes it by without ever knowing what she evaded. Finally, she gets to R&D’s server and accesses Jinteki’s latest plans. It turns out to be a Fetal AI (Eight of Cups), a bittersweet find as it is good intel but sends shocks at her and requires her to wire some funds for the power to actually download it safely. She jacks out of the net to see one of her other Cortez Chips (Three of Cups) and extra hacking Deep Red console (The Star) fried from the shock. She is closer to her goal, but still has a lot more to go.
As you can see, there is some storytelling you can do with Netrunner, but it’s mostly just an action report. Because we have these cards associated with the tarot, relationships between more abstract qualities are created to either use inside or outside the game. With the caveat that there’s many different ways to read tarot cards, here’s a quick rundown using the artist’s descriptions:
The main tension in this spread is between one party waiting, vigilant, on edge, and another that is more patient, wise, and calm. The former is looking for something the latter has, possibly a hidden message or creative lesson. In order to reach this knowledge, she first withstands the pressure and responsibility of supporting a community of people, which only makes her a target in his eyes. He comes to see how she’s worked up her courage and focuses on her sense of self to outclass any temptation he could distract her with. But he doesn’t let any trial go through unearned, seeing that although she gained deep insight to herself, she is plunged deep into exhaustion. When she takes count of what’s she’s lost to achieve this understanding, she finds herself distant from others who make her feel supported and disillusioned with the ideals she started out so strongly with. Worse yet, the struggle isn’t over, and he seems to be unaffected, waiting prepared for her next move.
We can use this interpretation to read the emotional journey of Reina as we play through the game, giving a meaning to what she’s doing. Her motivations become clearer and provides context for action. If the game was to be further modded to reflect upon all these interactions every turn or action, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine this affecting player behavior and goals. Technically, tarot cards can shadow a normal game and act as a log for interpretation and storytelling afterwards, like the trails of a myth we don’t know the complete truth of. Or we can easily detach this from Netrunner and use this for the players. The dynamic nature of play further invites those involved to create from the narrative clues of the cards involved and for it to resonate with them.
The rules of Netrunner then become a ritual, motions filled with symbolism that we act out in order to reflect on ourselves or our social condition. In a sense, I feel like it completes the game by moving it away from it’s quantitative-heavy processes and gives players a reason to play slowly, to savor the hidden and the revelations. The chance to self-reflect, not just do mental math. This isn’t to pick on Netrunner solely, rather, I think it gets the closest out of the many popular card games I’ve come along. I will be discussing ritualizing play more in the future, but for now, I hope this inspires some creative mods to games to add on more interpretative layers to interact with.
(1) These notes are for Netrunner players and the extra curious. Here are the decks I’m referring to: Red Queen / Perfectionism. You will notice that they aren’t really viable for regular play, but are still within the deck building rules.
(2) Here is how I generated the game: Both decks start with their identities face down and directly across from each other. The Corporation shuffles the deck and draws out a number of cards ⅓ of their minimum deck requirement, which is most often 45 and therefore totals out to 15. Round up to the nearest whole number if needed. The Corp then proceeds to place cards as if they are installing in the middle of a turn, following usual rules and notating install costs. The Corp can auto-score agendas as long as they also give the runner the same amount of agenda cards, and the final point total isn’t 7 or higher or would end a traditional game in some manner. Servers can have a maximum of 3 ICE, and you don’t have to install every card. Count the amount of rezzable cards played and rez half of them, except for agendas (they still contribute to the count though; round down). Notate all the rez costs of the cards you flipped up. Operations must stay in the hand or go to archives, face down; the corp can’t have more cards than max hand size. If you don’t have an archives, leave space for it. If you’ve scored agendas, place them to the right of the archives as if they were their own server.
The Runner then does the same, drawing ⅓ of their minimum deck out, which also typically results in 15 cards. They can then place cards in their rig without exceeding their memory costs and only having 3 pieces of hardware and 3 resources out maximum. Notate the install costs. The rest of the cards go into the grip or heap without exceeding maximum hand size. The Runner should be placing their cards like it shows in the official rules, with separate rows in their rig. If the Corp gave you agendas, place it to the right of the heap, even if there are no cards in the heap.
After the Runner is finished, both players reveal their identities. Then it’s time to resolve all the cards as if they were just played or gained, including the identities. There might be some weird things here as I haven’t troubleshooted, but here’s the main rundown: cards that get counters when installed/rezzed/scored get those; cards that take effect at the beginning of turns do not manifest; anything that gains or discards cards, credits, or counters happens now, including damage. If identity cards have effect on cards in play (like Reina or J:PE), consider all cards installed, rezzed, and scored before their identity ability takes place. After everything is resolved, each player totals up their installation, rez, and other costs and gains half of that (round up) in credits, plus whatever gains they might have gotten in the previous step. Whew!
(3) From the Corp’s perspective, imagine the play area as a grid; you might need to space out the cards evenly with each other between both sides to do this. Place one tarot card on top of each card starting from the top-leftmost card and going down each column. If there are multiple cards in one spot, like for upgrades or hosted cards, the bottommost one gets the card first. Every card in the grip/HQ gets it’s own card; these are considered above/below the identity cards, and the leftmost card gets drawn for first, from the Corp’s perspective. Credit pools also get cards, and they are considered above/below the grip/HQ. The stack/R&D and heap/archives get one card each to represent them, and can be placed beneath the pile. Each card in the heap and archives gets its own card, and so do individual scored agendas and identities. Record the placement of all cards; I draw out the current play area by creating ‘slots’ for each placement and numbering them in the order I dealt out the tarot cards. If cards are lying on top of each other, I consider them both in one slot.
(4) Play by typical Netrunner rules without prior restrictions. Once assigned, the tarot card stays with the Netrunner card if was placed with. Whenever a card is interacted with from R&D or the stack, such as being accessed, revealed, discarded, or drawn, it is given a card from the top of the tarot deck, even if it is placed back in the pile. The tarot cards are only removed from R&D/the stack if they need to be shuffled, in which the tarot cards are shuffled back into their deck. To track changes, I mostly go by marking when a set of cards leaves or enters a number slot, and I make sure to draw out and number new slots that are created because of a new server or piece in the rig. I also made a note of which cards directly interacted with each other during play, particularly Runner ID/icebreakers with ICE. If playing with two people, make sure to have separate notes so you don’t reveal to each other the cards you have hidden from them. I typically only play one round, but you could feasibly go on until 7 agenda points, the grip or R&D is depleted, or you run out of tarot cards.
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