Counter Culture: Cards Up My Sleeves

Maps? Under plexiglass. Counters? Punched, neatly clipped, and sorted. Rules? Appended with the latest errata from online. Cards? Er, cards?

Cards in wargames are nothing new, of course. As far back as 1974, Avalon Hill released a pair of games, 1776 and Kingmaker, that used cards to control battle tactics or introduce variability and randomness. Our friends in Baltimore also brought us the first of the “card-driven” games, 1994’s We the People. The “card-driven” mechanic, whereby players select cards from a hand to enable actions or trigger events, has spawned hundreds of imitators and innovators. Still other wargames are more than just card-driven—they’re functionally card games, like Avalon Hill’s Up Front (1983) and Attack Sub (1991).

So what’s a gamer to do with all these cards? Why, sleeve them in plastic, of course.

All Sleeved Up

But why does one sleeve cards?

Put simply, placing cards in plastic sleeves extends their lives and, perhaps more importantly, protects the cards from scuffing on their backs, so that you can’t tell which card in your opponent’s hand is a powerful event that will ruin your day and which is a junk card he’ll need to discard.

Cards don’t get used in a vacuum, either. While one is always well advised to keep liquid and food at a fair distance from any game in progress, beers do get spilled, and, alas, a hand slicked with chip grease can mark a card for life as readily as a child wielding a permanent marker. Sleeves provide that extra bit of insurance against acquaintances who might not share your concern for your games’ well-being.

Casinos can afford to throw away a deck of cards after a run or two through the shuffler, but one can’t run down to the local five and dime and pick up a set of Twilight Struggle Early War cards if they get worn down. With game company margins so thin, it’s difficult to call and buy a new deck as well—they don’t tend to keep a lot of spare parts around, and you’d likely have to buy a whole new game to replace worn cards.

Even if you can get a fresh set of cards readily, or cheaply, putting sleeves on cards is, much like counter clipping or scanning countersheets, a means of playing with one’s games. As you sleeve a set of cards, you read them and learn them. Sleeving cards is a form of interacting with games without actually playing them. While the hobby as a whole is, one hopes, aimed at actually playing these things against other people (or against a system, in the case of solo games), getting to spend time with your games is never a bad thing.

So you sleeve your cards, and if you’re lucky, you can get away with cheap “penny sleeves,” so named because, well, they cost about a penny each. Most American wargames with cards tend to fit nicely into common penny sleeves. They’re flimsy and won’t provide any protection against folding, spindling, or mutilating, but they do the trick.

Not all games use standard sized cards, however, and for those, you need to acquire specialized sleeves. Most European games tend to have card sizes considered “odd” in America, and one of the larger American game publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, produces many games with non-standard card sizes, including the very small cards one can find in Battlestar Galactica and Arkham Horror. (And, as an aside: Yes, I know these aren’t wargames, but rather boardgames, but I’m not terribly fussed about the semantic differences between the two. A game by any other name plays as sweet and all that.)

Mayday Games was one of the earlier companies to provide specialized sleeves for “Euro” sizes; in the picture above, the Le Havre and Battlestar Galactica sleeves at top are Mayday sleeves, while the 1960, Twilight Struggle, and Race for the Galaxy cards below them are in penny sleeves. The Mayday sleeves are a bit thicker than the penny sleeves, but not so thick that they don’t stack or deal well.

Fantasy Flight has gotten into the act as well, putting out a line of card sleeves custom fit to their products and several other sizes as well. I haven’t tested those out yet, but apparently they’re a little thicker than the standard Mayday sleeves.

So there’s no excuse for not sleeving your cards at this point, since there’s a sleeve for just about every size now. Except those stupid square Power Grid cards. Grumble…

2 thoughts on “Counter Culture: Cards Up My Sleeves”

  1. Glad you’re liking the series, Luke, and thanks for the compliment.

    I like what you’re doing over on your blog as well with the ASL scenario reports. ASL is a rich source for game-generated narratives. Movement Point friend Matt Kirschenbaum has a wonderful article in the recently published Third Person on wargames as “vast” narratives.

    As to your question about shuffling sleeved cards . . . yeah, that gets a bit difficult, because the cards tend to fly everywhere if you do a standard riffle shuffle. I just interleave the cards and do a lot of cutting. Takes a bit longer to get a good random shuffle.

  2. Great post. I love this “counter culture” series. I have a question, though, about the use of card sleeves: how much do they affect shuffling? It seems to me that it would be a hassle to shuffle them, but I don’t have any experience…


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