So each player starts with a 3 x 3 grid of cards…

Listening to a recent podcast, I heard that a certain game design contest had received quite a few entries for which “a 3 x 3 grid of cards” was a main feature. Those discussing this event sounded derisive to those designers who presented these designs. Now, maybe that was just my impression, but that impression was the seed for this blog post. So let’s take a look at “a 3 x 3 grid of cards” as a game feature. Note: I was not one of those designers entering the contest, so this is not a case of sour grapes; just an observation.

Although I have actively played cards all my life (which is a long time), I did not know the game “Nines” until about 3 years ago. I played it several times and showed it to others who liked basic card games. Everyone that I have showed it to has asked me to write down the rules (or did themselves) and have picked up playing the game. Nines is a simple, luck-laden game that otherwise does not deserve much attention, but apparently, there is a spatial attraction (pun intended) to a 3 x 3 grid of cards. Much like stacking cards in sequence on top of each other (e.g., The Game) or filling in a grid of numbers (e.g, Sudoku), the layout presents a mental puzzle that occupies and captures the mind.

When I set out several months ago to do a game makeover for discussion on this site, I chose Nines, so I am obviously biased toward believing there is value in the tableau format. Other than Nines, I could not find a game on BGG that had the same format. The designers entering the contest were probably not copying each other, nor piggy-backing on a recent popular game (at least, that I can think of). So, is the design one to be discounted as “samey” or novice or whatever you might say with disdain or is it possible that there is something worth exploring?

As is often the case in game design and creative design in general, it is often the constraint that drives creativity. Not that I am comparing games to art (that can be a discussion for another day), but visit an art museum and view the works with the question in mind, “What constraints did the artist have to work within or imposed upon herself/himself?” Then look for what is special about the piece. You will likely end up at the same point. A 3 x 3 grid provides a very visible constraint. Maybe it is too obvious to be creative or maybe a creative approach to the format will result in something of beauty; something elegant.

Now, if you have looked around my site at all, you know that Picky Packrats is the current ultimate result of my makeover of Nines and the best I have to offer to date within the 3 x 3 grid of cards constraint. As much as I like these words of “beauty” and “elegance,” I am in no way suggesting that Picky Packrats is this creation I reference. It is likely beyond my ability to create such a game design, but it is just as likely to be within the ability of someone.

Finally, I realize that a 3 x 3 grid of cards is not as original and gamerly as rolling 5 or more dice (make those custom dice) in 1 or more throws to form rummy style sets and runs, but apparently the tableau format has captured the imagination of more than a few gamers. Just maybe, there is a game that deserves this captivating tableau.

Is there a game you play that uses a 3 x 3 grid of cards? Is it enjoyable? What does a layout constraint like a grid provide you as a designer?