Yep, that’s right. PowerPoint. Here’s how I use it to make cards quickly.
It does a lot more than slides and boring presentations, that much is sure — and since there’s a good chance you have it on your computer, there’s nothing new to download. Like a lot of other things we game designers do, we use tools and things in ways they weren’t designed — this is just one of those ways.
A quick disclaimer: I am definitely not a professional graphic designer, and this isn’t meant to be the end-all, be-all of using PowerPoint. This is just the way I’ve used PowerPoint to create prototypes for a lot of games.
The Pros and Cons of using PowerPoint
- You probably already have PowerPoint on your computer.
- You probably already have some experience with it.
- It’s more intuitive and easier to use than you think.
- No easy way to mail merge from an Excel / Google Sheets file (but keep reading for a possible third-party tool)
- It’s not exactly professional design software — if you’re looking to make final, publishable files, this isn’t for you.
Step 1: create a new file and change the slide size.
By default, PowerPoint assumes you’re creating for a screen, since after all it is presentation-creation software. Change the slide size to a paper size by clicking Design > Slide Size > Custom Slide Size:
Change the ‘Slides sized for:’ drop-down to A4 or Letter, depending on what paper you’re printing on. You’ll probably want to change the Orientation for Slides to Portrait, unless you’re creating landscape-oriented cards.
Step 2: insert the shapes for cards, tiles, etc.
This one will greatly depend on what components you need in your game, of course. A standard A4/Letter page can fit 9 standard poker-size cards per page and about 12-20 tiles depending on their size.
Insert > Shapes > the Rounded Rectangle (the second from the left in the row of rectangles), then click and drag the approximate size of a card. (If you’d rather square off your corners, go with the first one.) Poker cards are 2.5″ by 3.5″ in size, or 63.5mm x 89mm. Click the rectangle, then go Drawing Tools > Format and changes to change the Shape Fill (the background of the shape), the Shape Outline (the border of the shape), and Shape Effects (your chance to add some shadow, glow, and so on).
One thing to note: as you increase the size of the border and shadow, you also increase the size of the card. It might just be a few millimeters, but it’s enough to go from ‘fits perfectly in the card sleeve’ to ‘constantly trimming to make it fit’. Zoom in to 100% and check it with a ruler or sleeve, then reduce the shape size as needed to fit.
Step 3: add a border and/or a shadow
In the picture above, the blue represents the fill, the white is the border, and the black is the shadow. Right click on the shape, then click ‘Format Shape…’ at the bottom to bring up the right-side toolbar. By default, that shadow has some blur to it. Reduce the blur to 0 to give the shadow a hard edge.
Step 4: add text boxes and pictures to the card
Wait, we’ve only talked about one card thus far! Yep – the idea is to get the design right on one card, then click-and-drag across the area to copy your design. We’ll get to that in a second.
Obviously this is going to vary based on what’s on your card, so I’ll use a card from my game Who Shot The Sheriff:
This card basically just has four elements:
- The gray border
- The Deputy star image
- A text box for the word ‘Deputy’
- A text box for the role and goal
The next version I make of this card will add a bit more whitespace to the left and right of the text box, but for the purposes of playtesting, this is all I need.
Add the text box by going to Insert > Text Box, then click and drag the size you want, where you want it. Images? Just click and drag from your folder of choice into PowerPoint, then resize.
Step 5: Copy. Paste.
Ahh, the old Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. Two of my favorite keyboard shortcuts. Click and drag over the shape to select all the elements, then copy, paste, and align. Remember you can hold Ctrl (or Cmd) to click on and select multiple items at once, and that you can copy entire pages from the left thumbnail bar. While PowerPoint is pretty good about ‘snapping’ images or text boxes to the center or in line with other elements, it can easily get confused when there’s a lot going on. Check the alignment while zoomed in at 100%
Since many of my games use poker-sized cards with thick, colored borders, I have a template for that. You’re welcome to download it as a starting place for your own designs (note that it’s set up for A4 paper size).
Step 6: Continue creating, then print
This is the rest of the story for your specific project, naturally, but it’s basically just repeating stuff we’ve talked about before — add stuff, align stuff, copy and paste stuff.
Printing can be tricky thanks to the plethora of settings — and the wide variety of them. In general, choose the ‘Best’ option over the ‘ink-saving’ or ‘draft’ options. Try not to ‘Fit to Page’, unless the printer can’t handle your document’s margins. That just shrinks every card on the page.
Two obstacles of PowerPoint, and how to overcome them
- There’s currently no Microsoft-created way to do a mail merge from an Excel file to a PowerPoint file. I’ve read you can go from Excel to Publisher, but that’s a whole different ball of wax. I’ve also heard about SlideMight, which has a free trial (it watermarks output) and claims to handle this, but I haven’t spent the time to learn it yet.
- There’s currently no way to have both portrait slides and landscape slides in the same presentation — all slides must be the same size. My workaround is to have two different files for one game — one set in portrait, one set in landscape. It’s important to change the version numbers to keep everything in sync, but that’s not usually a problem.
Over to you
There’s obviously a bunch more to working in PowerPoint — working in layers, playing with 3-D objects, and so on — and I’ll write about it if there’s interest. For now, what questions do you have about PowerPoint as a game design tool?