In Episode 27 of the Nerdlab podcast, I talk about different battlefield options to represent a tactical battle in a tabletop game by using cards. I discussed the differences between miniatures and cards and took a deeper look at some games of the genre to analyze the battlefield options that have been used in other games.

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Music by Mathew Pablo

Games analyzed:
– Summoner Wars
– Mage Wars
– Keyforge
– Pixel Wars
– Artifact
– Gwent

Full Transcript

Hello fellow adventurers and welcome to the Nerdlab – Where we transform our gaming passion into incredible game designs and learn how to nerd like a boss. 

My name is Marvin and I am an ambitious game designer on my quest to develop a co-operative fantasy card game.

For this podcast, my vision is to take you with me on this exciting journey. Together we will explore the secrets of different game mechanics and reach the next level as a game designer.

This week I’ve been working on the basic idea of how to use cards to represent units on a battleground for a tactical battle. 

The cards should represent the position of a unit and should be able to be moved across the battlefield during the battle. In general, I like tactical turn-based games where you have to position units and then influence the outcome of a battle by choosing actions.

Classics like Chess or Stratego come to mind as well as computer games like XCOM or Banner Saga. But none of these games use cards to simulate a battle on a battlefield. Most of the time they use meeples or 3d-models. But as you know, I love the feel of cards. Nothing is better than smashing a game-winning card from your hand to the table and watch your opponents face while he recognizes what the card does and mean to the game state. That’s why in this episode I’ll take a closer look at how cards can be used to represent a tactical battle. The question I asked myself is whether you can do that with cards as good as with meeples, or maybe even better. We’ll take a look at some examples and collect a few pros and cons today.

The second question I asked myself was what the battlefield should look like in order to have a simple yet tactical fight. Most games use a predefined battleground. Often Grid-based cardboard, hexagons, tiles or some other form of predefined fields. Some games like Warhammer, however, completely work without predefined fields. They use the entire table and you have to measure distances with a meter. That’s why I’m also going to look at the different forms of battlefields in the analysis today.

But before we go any deeper I would like to make a few announcements today. 

My Consistency:
First of all, I want to give you a short update on my consistency. Last week, I talked about losing my consistency and habits, so both the podcast and my game design activities suffered. Since last week I have changed some things to regain my old consistency. I’ve been getting up at 5am every day since then, doing my morning routine and depending on how long the kids slept, spent between one and two hours working on the things that were most important to me. Even after we played Mage Wars on our game night until 1:00 a.m. including some beers and whisky, I was able to fight my way out of bed. But why am I telling you this at all? First of all it’s also important to celebrate your small victories. But more importantly  because the change that I feel within a week is already remarkable. I’ve pushed forward many of the topics that are important to me and have always done so before the day started for everyone else. This satisfaction then continues throughout the entire day and spreads to many other areas of my life. So I again want to highly recommend you to try to change your daily rhythm as well. The results of getting up at 5 am and following a nice morning routine amazes me time and time again. 

Podcast Transcripts: 
Many listeners have asked me for transcripts of the podcast episodes. I have transcripts for all of the shows (except the interviews), but some of them are not as well formatted as other. That’s why I haven’t uploaded all of them to the website yet. The other reason is that I want to publish them on the website in a more structured way. More like a knowledge base to which you and I could go back to every time we design a new game. And not like a chronological order as they are currently posted for the podcast. But since this knowledge base is not online yet I am willing to send the shownotes of previous shows to you via mail. It will be not formatted perfectly and it will contain a whole bunch of typos and grammer mistakes. But if you think they would still be helpful for you just send me an E-Mail with episode number and I will mail it to you. 

Last week in the podcast I already reported that the Nerdlab community has a new home. We have a discord channel where we share design problems and help each other. Some listeners have already joined the server and we have arranged the first Mastermind Session for October 9th on Sunday at 9 pm MEST. If you have never been part of a Mastermind Group you probably don’t know what exactly is meant by the term Mastermind Group. Let me give you some more Infos. 

A Mastermind group offers a combination of brainstorming, education, peer accountability. In a group of 3 to 6 people the goal is to sharpen your designer skills and support each other to make progress with your game designs and achieve your goals. In general, it is supposed to help you and your mastermind group members to achieve success. It is the task of each member to challenge the others to set strong goals, and more importantly, to accomplish them.

From time to time you could dive deep into discussions and work with the members on a specific design problem. But most of the time it is about setting goals for the next period, report your process and what holds you back to push through obstacles. 

In order to achieve this, we need people who are willing to commit to their path as a game designer. People who are confident of themselves and willing to both give and receive advice.
If this appeals to you come over and join us on our path of achieving our goals. The link for the discord server can be found in the show notes.

Differences between Cards and Miniatures/Meeples/3D-Models

Miniatures have the advantage that they can be distinguished easily. In the age of 3D-Printing, they can represent everything and their look and feel is very very nice. But the biggest advantage, in my opinion, is that as a player you can pick them up and move them around on the board so easily. It is maybe even easier to create some kind of emotional band to the miniature. In addition to that, they do not need a whole lot of space. The result is that the battlefield does not need to be that big as well in order to get a big enough combat area.

On the other side cards have some advantages as well. A lot of important information can be printed on cards. This may reduce the need for additional components to track effects and values. And that means the information is always available directly on the battlefield and it is not necessary to look it up on separate boards, cards or rulebooks. 

Cards can also be much better combined with other aspects of the game. They can be held in hand or in a deck that could represent anything else. They can be rotated on the battlefield to display status effects or turned around to represent secret information only available to one player.

It is also easier to place any tokens on cards. Or you can put other cards on top or bottom of them to represent items, enchantments or negative effects such as curses. Again, these are aspects making it possible to display more information directly on the battlefield. For example, you could track life or damage points with the help of tokens directly on a card on the battlefield instead of needing an extra character sheet or board. I know there are also ways of representing values on the base of a miniature but still, it is way easier to put different tokens on a card.

For me, this sounds like cards are a very good choice to represent units on a battlefield. However, I am biased and one should not ignore the fact that humans are very visual. Having a nice looking 3D-Miniature on the table is worth a lot. A good artwork on a card can also be nice but I guess most people would prefer a nice miniature if we only take the visual aspect into account. I don’t think there is a clear winner here between cards and miniatures but I still think it is a bit odd that there are so many miniature games coming out in the recent years and not so many card games. At least in the area of tactical combat games on boards. 

Let’s take a look at some examples of how cards could be used to represent tactical combat on a battlefield. I will only look at games that contain a real battlefield or in which at least the positioning of the cards plays a role. Magic the Gathering, for example, has something like a battlefield but how you position your cards typically has no effect at all (except your opponent plays a chaos orb in which case the positioning of the cards is the only thing that matters. But that’s an insider you probably only understand if you played magic for a very long time).

Battlefield Options for using Cards as Units:

  • A pre-defined battlefield on which one unit occupies a specific slot on the board at a time. The fields on the battlefield typically are shaped in the form of the cards. The battlefield could either be cardboard, tiles that have to be combined in a specific order or what I’ve seen before be printed on a playmat. The best example I have is summoner wars.
  • The next option is a battlefield that is divided in the middle. One side per player and that middle line cannot be crossed by the other player. Gwent is a good example of that implementation.
  • A similar variation is an arrangement in lanes, where predefined lanes compete against each other and you have to choose which lane to place your units on. Artifact is the example I looked at here. 
  • And then there is the variant where each player has his own more or less independent battlefield. This is the way it is in Magic and it is the way it is in Keyforge. In Keyforge, however, the position of the units plays a bigger role, so we’ll look at that as an example. Basically, however, there are no units that face each other in any way directly on a pre-defined grid. Targeting is typically less of a topic in these implementations.
  • The last example is a battlefield with predefined slots. For example a division into different rows for Melee and Ranged units like Gwent, but additionally specific slots for units like Tanks, Supporter, Damage Dealer or even traps and curses. Pixel Tactics is an example that fits into this category.

Game Examples:

Summoner Wars

Let’s look at some examples. We start with summoner Wars as an example for the first option of using a predefined grid-based system.

  • In “Summoner Wars” players face off against one another by choosing one faction represented by a deck of cards. 
  • You start with some units already on the battlefield (one of it is your summoner).
  • Once a summoner dies the game ends
  • The battlefield is divided into two parts which are put together. Each side has a 4×6 grid area. If you put both pieces together this forms a huge 8×6 grid board. An interesting aspect is that the spaces have the size of a horizontal card. That means there is only space for one card on each field. And that card cannot be tapped or rotated to indicate that it is already used or stunned.  
  • Cards can represent different things in summoner wars. 
    • Wall cards → Can block enemy movement. Enemies need to take extra movement steps to walk around the wall. Walls only have life points and can be destroyed. The other important aspect of walls is that you need them as a kind of spawn area. If you summon a unit it needs to be adjacent to a wall.
    • Event Cards → Effect that takes place once they are played
    • Unit Cards → These cards form your army and are used to move around the board and fight your opponent.  
  • Phases
    • Draw phase (draw until 5 cards in hand)
    • Summon Phase (summon units)
    • Play event cards (summon walls and play event cards)
    • Movement Phase
      • Up to 3 units move up to 2 spaces each (no diagonal movement allowed)
    • Attack phase
      • Attack with up to 3 units 
        • You need to be in range
        • Range (attack a unit within 3 spaces in a straight line.)
        • The attack value of a unit determines how many dice to use to determine if it deals damage. A standard d6 is used and everything over 2 is a hit.
    • Build Magic phase
      • You discard cards from your hand into your magic pile. 
      • If creatures die they also go into your magic pile. 
      • You can then discard the cards from your magic pile to summon new units and play event cards in the next round. 
  • Units that you control always phase you and units that your opponents control always face them. This is important because it shows who controls the unit. It could happen that you get the control of one of your opponent’s units. In that case, you would simply turn it around. 
  • Berserk [The Cataclysm]
  • Mage Wars



Gwent is a tactical card game played on a field of 4 lanes. 

  • Game Board
    • In Gwent the game board is split into two sides. One is yours and the other is your opponent’s. These sides are further split into 2 rows. A melee row and a ranged row. In former times there was also a siege row but this is no longer available. Each card has an icon that specifies in which row it can be played. Typically you only play cards in your rows but there are also spy cards that can be played in the opposing rows.
  • Best of three rounds (you must win 2)
  • To win a round you must have more strength on the board than your opponent when the round ends. 
  • How the round plays out
    • Each player draws 10 cards (redraw 3 cards → mulligan)
    • PLayers chose and play one card per turn. No resource system. 
    • Players can also pass and do not play a card this round. The other player than can play more cards until he or she decides to pass as well.  
    • Then the winner is determined and the next round begins. 
    • In the new round, each player draws two cards
  • Weather is a unique effect that impacts an entire row or in some cases the entire side of the board.
  • The value of each card is written on the card. Some cards boost some of your other cards or can damage your opponent’s cards.
  • Some cards add statuses to friendly or enemy units. Some examples include position, bleeding, and shield. While statuses don’t always directly affect value, they can alter or enhance your gameplan.
  • Leader: each player has a leader that is unique to its faction and deck.


In Keyforge using a concept called battleline. The battleline is the ordered line of creatures a player controls in play. 

Creatures enter play exhausted and are placed in the front row of the active player’s play area. This row is referred to as the battleline. Creatures remain in play from turn to turn, and they each have power and armor values that they use to resolve fights, which are described later.

There are a few rules with regard to the battleline:

Each time a creature enters play, it must be placed on a flank—at the far left or the far right of its controller’s battleline. Each time a creature leaves play, shift the battleline inward to close the gap.

The creatures on the far right and far left of a player’s battleline are on the flanks of the line. A creature in this position is referred to as a flank creature. Any time a creature enters play or changes control, the active player chooses which flank of its controller’s battleline it is placed on. Flanks are important because some card effects can only target creatures on flanks.

  • Taunt: 
    • If a creature has the taunt keyword, any of its neighbors that do not have the taunt keyword cannot be attacked by an enemy creature that is being used to fight. In the battleline, taunt creatures are slid slightly forward to indicate their presence to the opponent.

Some examples of how the flank concept is used:

  • Staunch Knight gets +2 power while he is on a flank
  • Harland Mindlock can get control of a creature. But only a creature that is on the flank
  • Tremor: Stun each creature and all of its neighbors 
  • Sanctum Guardian Has the ability to swap positions with another unit.
  • Bulwark: Gives all neighbors +2 armor which is a lot. If you position your units accordingly this can be a nice way to protect your squishy Mages.
  • Shadow Self: Another way to protect units in your battleline is a card called shadow self: All the damage taken to neighbors is dealt to the Shadow Self instead.

Pixel Tactics

  • Multipurpose Cards  
    • Leader  
    • Hero 
    • Vanguard hero, Flank Hero or Back hero 
    • Order (Single Effect) 
    • Operation 
    • Trap

Melee Attacks 
All Heroes can perform a Melee Attack, but both the Attacker and the target must be “in Melee” to do so. Only the foremost Hero or Leader in each column is considered “in Melee”. The red borders in the diagram to the right show who is considered “in Melee” in this example.

Ranged Attacks
Only Heroes who have the Ranged Attack ability may perform Ranged Attacks. A Ranged Attack can come from any Hero or Leader and can target any Hero or Leader.

A few Heroes have the ability Intercept, which means that Rival’s Ranged Attacks cannot pass over them. This makes them especially useful for protecting your Rear and Flank Heroes, as well as your Leader. An Intercepting Hero defends the one or two Heroes behind it in the same column, taking the Attack for them instead. A Hero with Intercept can still be targeted by Ranged and Melee Attacks as normal.