Quicksteel is a fast, strategic, two-player card game where each player takes on the role of a fencer. Each fencer has a deck of 65 cards. The decks are identical and consist of varied combat maneuvers such as lunges and parries. Like blades, the cards of Quicksteel interact in a dance of skill and timing.

Game Design

Since I can remember, I’ve wanted to make a competitive card game that simulated first-person, player-vs-player melee combat. I took a few years of fencing in college and learned about the different attacks and defenses of swordplay, how they interact, cancel one another out and which are best in different situations. The ember of this idea sat in the back of my mind, smoldering for years.

It was about 2009 that I began researching the topic, to clarify what I had been taught – and to make sure what I remembered was accurate! Then I started making prototype cards. This included sketches, writing the verbiage and figuring out how all the different combat maneuvers were going to interact.

My prototype card, colored, then Rob's sketch, art & final card

My guiding principle for this entire game was KEEP IT SIMPLE. Keep it simple, I repeatedly said to myself when the temptation came to complicate things. Keep the wording simple. Keep the color palette simple. Keep the gameplay simple.

Card info accessible even in a fan

I wholeheartedly wanted the game to be so simple anyone, even non-gamers, could pick it up and learn how to play in under a minute. I wanted it to be ‘easy to play, yet difficult to master’ – simple cards, simple rules, simple gameplay but, like chess, deep enough for strategy and with an infinite number of combinations.

One of the ways I did this was to use color: red for offensive, blue for defensive, purple for specialty/augmenting cards and green for cards that determine who goes first. It was a simple device that anyone could see, quickly understand and use.

I also envisioned it to be a ‘first-person’ experience…that is, everything the player experienced in the game would be from the perspective of a fencer in a duel, and the art reflects that. A specific attack (lunge) comes at you, and you defend (parry) with a specific defensive maneuver which counters that attack.


In fencing, there are these things called ‘lines.’ The side of your body with the sword is your ‘outside line,’ the side facing away from your opponent is your ‘inside line,’ and then there are ‘high’ and ‘low’ lines too. These four locations form a cross – creating quadrants.

This worked great for game design, because once I had the basic maneuvers pinned down I could have some fun and design all the ‘Specialty’ cards which augment the four basic attacks and defenses.

Prototype parry card
Prototype specialty card

If you’re another designer, you can probably relate to what I’m about to share. It’s a fantastic feeling when you test your game out and discover it works! So more game testing ensued, bugs were found, wording was rewritten and clarified. The game was becoming streamlined.

Art & Development

As I mentioned above, I had always envisioned Quicksteel to be a ‘first-person’ card game. So I drew very basic sketches on the cards to capture the position of the blade when you (as a player) lunge or parry.

I had these sketches for a while, because they served well enough for game testing. When I decided to make the game happen, I got together with an awesome artist named Rob Cannon. Together we decided how best to illustrate the cards in order to capture the essence of fencing: explosive speed, acrobatic finesse and deadly accuracy.

Some of Rob's concept paintings

We worked together on many iterations of art. We would start by clarifying the goal for a particular piece of art: what it needed to convey for game play, how we could capture the spirit of the maneuver in question, and just how to make it look sweet. Variations of color, positioning and the like were discussed, some were dropped, others accentuated.

He was very patient, because I was a stickler for real-world accuracy. Details matter, folks! In any case, the two of us moved from card to card, assembling the look of our game.

Initially, I had imagined a very black and white, almost chess-like look to the game art (aside from the colors designating attacks, defenses, etc), but Rob suggested a more vibrant color palette. He was right. I had to let go of my ideas and be open to the talent and ideas of another. Collaboration at its best!

Final card design

A lot of the art design happened like that. I would detail what I wanted to get across, he would do some preliminary sketches, we would go back and forth a bit, brainstorming, and at some point he would say something like, ‘Let me try something. I have an idea.’

As the days between emails passed (we emailed a lot), I tried to keep an open mind and be ready to let go of how I envisioned the game for something that worked better. I was always pleasantly surprised.


Another thing I wanted to point out was something that happened via collaboration which added tremendously to the game. At the time, we were looking for a simple way to help players understand which cards countered one another. You see, if I attack your lower left quadrant, from my perspective I’m attacking down and to the left, BUT TO YOU it’s your lower right quadrant that needs defending!

Rob called this ‘mental kung fu.’ He wasn’t kidding. It was difficult enough for us to understand what was happening during combat, let alone what future players would experience. We struggled with this for a while, eventually finding our solution (once again) in colors.

Early iteration of card design

Since we were using quadrants as the primary targets for each fencer, we figured out it was like fencing through a four-paned window. So, Rob designated a color for each quadrant, making our four-paned window into a four-paned stained glass window! Each quadrant now had its own, unique color, no matter what the text on the card said (because the quadrant’s text switches, depending on whether you are attacking or defending).

I know it sounds complicated but, like Legend: A Game of Maps – Part 2, the mental work needed to be on our side, ensuring players had an easy to understand, light and fun experience.

Rob Cannon designated these additional colors, placed abstract squares of those colors in front of the correct fencers and, most importantly, put a little four-paned, stained glass window icon on the card, further clarifying what was going on.

Now the most complicated aspect of the game was super-simplified, easy to use and didn’t slow combat down. In fact, you could actually play the basic combat of the game using ONLY colors, no reading necessary!

A huge win.

Final card

Lessons Learned

Thanks for reading!

 All work © Ron M. Francesangelo