Many board game publishers make a tidy profit on upgraded components — things like metal coins and card sleeves that make their products more appealing at the table. But some companies are building entire games around these kinds of bits. Just look at the poker-style chips and custom dice that Chip Theory Games uses, or the neoprene game board at the center of Leder Games’ Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. This year, yet another rare and expensive component has had its breakout moment: clear plastic playing cards.
These unusual transparent sheets feel just like regular playing cards. You can shuffle them and you can sleeve them, so they seamlessly integrate into decks with traditional cards. But they can also be printed on, allowing designers to layer art or to conceal certain game elements from view. Used in clever ways, clear cards offer players new mechanics and features that simply weren’t available in board games before. Two of the year’s best games — John D. Clair’s Dead Reckoning and Corey Konieczka’s 3,000 Scoundrels — put them to use in their own creative ways.
Dead Reckoning is a sandbox-style game of exploration and conflict on the high seas. Each player at the table has a crew of sailors to man their ship. That crew can be upgraded over time, giving players a stronger sense of ownership. Clair uses one clear plastic card for each of these crew members — for the bosun, the first mate, the deck hand, and so on.
The art on these transparent cards only takes up the top half of one side. Each is then paired with an identically sized traditional card and a matching card sleeve. As players upgrade their crew, they simply remove the traditional playing card from the sleeve and either rotate it or flip it around, revealing new stats that show through the transparent card on top. It’s a clever system both in how it uses novel materials, and also in how it reinforces the sense of investment players have in their crew.
In 3,000 Scoundrels, designer Konieczka has created an elaborate bidding game in which players draft other characters to work alongside them in order to accumulate the most treasure. Konieczka uses a lot more of these transparent cards in his design — 60, versus Dead Reckoning’s 8. These 60 unique cards combine with 50 traditional cards to create thousands of potential characters, a rogues’ gallery that similarly supports the game’s promise of variety implicit in the title.
The implementation of clear cards in 3,000 Scoundrels is particularly ingenious. While the game’s traditional cards have art for NPC faces, clear job cards overlay clothes and other props on top — sort of like a paper doll. The traditional and the clear cards also interact by creating new combinations of stats, perks, and costs depending on how they’re paired. It makes setting up for each new game an act of discovery — further reinforcing the game’s futuristic time-traveling storyline.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that clear cards have been used in tabletop games. One of my personal favorites, Gloom, has been around since 2005. In fact, Dead Reckoning is just the latest in a long line of similar games from AEG, titles like Mystic Vale and Custom Heroes. The company has even copyrighted a name for its particular solution: They call it the Card Crafting System.
But why have two different companies brought such high-profile games to market with such similar bits? Well, that’s one of the joys of tabletop gaming. While names, locations, and certain mechanics can be legally protected, barring other companies from using them in their own games, more common items like dice can’t be. The idea of using cards to play games is as old as gaming itself, which leads to these kinds of co-evolutionary designs.
Even more interesting, while both games use clear cards in similar ways to accomplish different things, the games also occupy very different places in the commercial landscape. 3,000 Scoundrels is priced at a very affordable, big-box-friendly $49.95. Dead Reckoning, on the other hand, has incredibly high-cost components, such as plastic miniatures, sturdy tuck boxes, and 3D resin tokens. It also carries a premium price of $79.95, which you can expect will go up once it makes its way to retail.
You can find Dead Reckoning on Backerkit, where a second printing is currently up for pre-order. 3,000 Scoundrels goes up for pre-order at the Asmodee website and at friendly local game stores on Sept. 23, with a worldwide retail release on Oct. 7.
Dead Reckoning and 3,000 Scoundrels were previewed with a final retail version provided by AEG and Asmodee, respectively. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.