What is card game flavour text?

Whether it’s a futuristic space battle, the clash of fantasy armies or perhaps even superheroes soaring above the clouds; digital entertainment has now advanced to the point where any spectacle is possible. Physically speaking, board and card games haven’t changed all that much. Graphic design has grown more sophisticated perhaps and gamers’ tastes may have changed somewhat, but a card is still made of cardboard; the fundamental technology there hasn’t changed much. Judged on its own merits, a card is no more accomplished at delivering the concept of theme now than it has ever been; it’s just a card. This is where card game flavour text comes in!

An early example of card game flavour text can be seen in the character background sheets that sometimes came with Eighties' action figures.

An early example of card game flavour text can be seen in the character background sheets that sometimes came with Eighties’ action figures.

But unlike movies and games that use stunning 3D graphics and high quality audio to achieve their vision, the card uses the same tool it always has to draw you into its world and that’s flavour. In thematic games, where an underlying theme to what you’re doing is important to your enjoyment, flavour is added to everything from the game’s components to its mechanics and art design.

If an action in the game seems arbitrary or inappropriate in some way then it runs the risk of becoming unthematic and that’s not very helpful if you’re trying to get your player involved in a setting you’ve created.

Of course this only really applies to card or board games where theme is important to your enjoyment as it not always is. Nobody is going to criticize UNO for failing to present a “reason” for its player interaction; you play cards with numbers on them and that’s all the “explanation” that’s required- it’s just fun in a different way.

But in a thematic card game; a game where theme is important, the most direct use of flavour comes from something called flavour text and that aspect is what I’m mainly going to talk about in this article.


What does card game flavour text look like?

An example of effective card game flavour text – see how it compliments the artwork in giving the creature more personality?

Flavour text is often the final text featured on a card and is usually printed in italics so that it can be distinguished from any game-affecting text.

While flavour text is fitting to the game’s setting, it typically has no effect on the actual mechanics of play, but instead serves to add verisimilitude or characterization to the article in question, whether the card represents a character, location or another item found in the game’s universe.

Although earlier examples of flavour text exist, there can be no doubt that the leading innovator in its use was (and still is) the original collectible card game itself; Magic: The Gathering.

In my opinion, there is no other card or board game in history that does flavour text as well as Magic does. Since its release in 1993, the developers of Magic: The Gathering have created a vibrant fictional universe around an intensely cerebral card game of duelling wizards and fantastical creatures.

Every Magic card tends to have an ability or effect that makes sense and any flavour text used is well realized and highly evocative of the setting (as is the case with the example on the right).


How it works (sort of)

Good flavour can give cards another dimension of depth. If done in the right way, the flavour text acts as a trigger for your imagination and allows the players to become further invested in the game as a result.

Once again, Magic: The Gathering cards tend to do this particularly well but rather than simply state that same point over and over, let’s do a little comparison and you can see for yourself.

Below is a sample card or spell from Magic that represents the use of a magical charm.


Dromar’s Charm (Magic: The Gathering)

Just by looking at this card, there’s already a few things I can tell you. First off; this Dromar character seems like a tough customer.

Even if you’re like me and know nothing about who Dromar is, this quote still gives you the impression that he or she is not someone you’d want to mess with. If the claw holding the amulet in the picture happens to be an accurate representation then we can safely say that Dromar is an entity to be feared and the three unique mana colours that are needed to cast this difficult spell allude to the possibility that Dromar’s knowledge of the arcane far outstrips that of lesser beings.

Then you have the card effect itself. It seems that once infused with Dromar’s magic, even a simple charm is capable of amazing things, whether it be prolonging one’s life, controlling opposing forms of magic or even outright crippling someone.

Control what you can. Eliminate what you cannot.

Get it?

Onto the next example.

Thunderstone is a deckbuilding card game that has a lot in common with Magic and its also cited as a strong example of theming. This is true for the most part, but less so when it comes to the cards themselves, especially in the area of card game flavour text.

Below is another charm, this time from Thunderstone (Advanced Set).


Charm of Venery (Thunderstone)

This card grants points and other useful yields when playing with the caveat that you may not visit the village when it is used. The flavour text attempts to explain this restriction by simply stating “there’s no time for mucking about in the village”.

How this statement relates to the Charm of Venery is not made clear and as a result it feels unthematic. The card as a whole just doesn’t work theme-wise, in that I can see of no reason why an adventurer holding this charm would not be able to visit the village. What part of having this item stops you from visiting the village, aside from the arbitrary rules text? A trite statement about not wanting to waste time has no connection to this at all and it ends up making little sense.

I think if I was to rewrite the flavour text on this card it might go something like:

“The bright green light these charms emit bears a striking resemblance to that of the evil Venery wisps; an ill-omen that causes many towns to outlaw their presence.”

Maybe that’s better, maybe not, but I think it’s a better stab than the original flavour made.

This is not to say that Magic is the only purveyor of fine theme of course. Recently I’ve seen board game companies take flavour text to a whole new level. More specifically, Fantasy Flight Games, with their latest Lovecraftian themed board game Eldritch Horror.

Eldritch Horror is an example that uses flavour text to its fullest extent by including cards absolutely loaded with detailed text and micro stories whilst keeping the game mechanics relatively light in comparison. It’s an interesting approach although one quite heavily weighted towards a certain type of gamer. No doubt it’s one that will prove divisive with players but it’s interesting none-the-less to see this area developed in such heavy detail.

Eldritch Horror (Fantasy Flight Games)

Eldritch Horror (Fantasy Flight Games)

Why is it important?

Thematic card games have a lot of information to cram onto their cards. Values, symbols, keywords, you name it, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to the simple concern of how much physical design space there is to work with. This is probably one of the main reasons for why flavour text is often considered last or even omitted altogether.

Flavour text is important to consider though because it fills in the gaps that exist in every card game’s internal narrative.

James Pianka has written several excellent articles on this subject.

In one of them he says:

“The best game design—or at least the kind that really burns my witch—presents flavor and function on completely equal footing. Story should be a perfect repercussion of what’s happening mechanically; flavor’s explanation should jump right out of the function. At the same time, gameplay should manifest the narrative in the language of mechanics; function should execute what the flavor describes.

This is hard to do, and it often isn’t a priority—after all, we’re talking about games, not novels—but designers who pull it off accomplish storytelling and competitive structure with a single set of gestures. This interdependence sharpens our experience of play, collapsing different modes of thinking into one. Comprehension happens quickly because the game’s components inform each other. The game sticks in our memory for being so cohesive.”

Using Magic as an example, the flavour text supports the mechanics to the degree where it’s easier to retain information on how to play those cards. As Pianka describes “function should execute what the flavor describes”; if a card has an effect that deals a player X damage say, then you would expect the card to be showing fireballs or lightning bolts or something similar with flavour text that matches that action. It’s better for teaching you how the game actually plays to the point where it might be possible to guess what a card’s effects are by looking at the flavour and nothing else.

And from a purely aesthetic point of view, flavour text is important just in terms of detail alone. It’s amazing how much background, humour, history and fun can be packed into a single paragraph. When combined with a fantastic piece of artwork you have a winning combination for the purposes of player immersion.


What are the best examples?

Stick with me on this topic because to finish I’d like to highlight some of my favourite examples of flavour text found in Magic: The Gathering with thoughts on why I like each one.

This article will be continued in the follow up post here.

See you on the other side.