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Designer Blog #3 - Wanna Play Cards?

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

"Escalation: Nuclear War in Europe" is a Card Driven Game (CDG), which means that all actions are performed by playing cards. I find it fascinating how the cards combine history with gameplay. They increase the immersion and allow me to bend the rules, creating a more challenging experience. I used the CDG system in my previous game - Brotherhood & Unity, to great success, and I decided to use it here as well.

Let me briefly explain how this system works in the game. Each faction (NATO and Warsaw Pact) has a deck of 50-ish cards divided into three war stages: Cold, Conventional, and Nuclear War. The game begins with players drawing a set of cards into their hands. And then, they play those cards in succession, using them to perform actions or events.

Each card shows some historical event, person, or weapon. It also has a value, so-called Action Points, written as a big number on each card. When you play a card, you can choose to activate the event written on it or play it for its Action Points (which allows you to perform actions).

Playing a card for an event allows you to change the rules a bit, to surprise your opponent (like performing an otherwise unallowed action, or changing the effect of your move). If you play it for an action, you use the "Action Menu" and choose which action are you going to perform. Each stage (Cold, Conventional, Nuclear War) introduces a new set of actions or changes existing ones. I will talk about them more in the following blog posts.

Cards also allow us to add some flavor to the game. Their design is reminiscent of an old-school comic book cover. On the top we have a title bar (showing the war stage), Action Point value (in the top left corner), and a faction symbol (NATO or Warsaw Pact mailing stamp, as if this comic book was sent to you by mail).

In the top section of the card, we have an illustration of a particular event. This is a very important part of the card, as it allows us to add visual elements to the game, to make it more attractive and immersive. We have tried to use the style which evokes the Cold War period, in the form of comic book illustrations, political cartoons, caricatures, weapon blueprints, flags, logotypes .. you name it.

The tools we use for this are mostly Adobe Illustrator (for vector graphics) and Photoshop (for pixel graphics). Some images are created by hand and digitized and edited afterwards, while others are created digitally from the start. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of work to design these cards. For a full set of a hundred cards — it took us a couple of months (and there's still work to be done). But using these tools and being efficient allowed us to save time and keep inside a limited (read: indie) budget.

Now let me share with you a couple of cards from the game.


Solidarity was the first independent trade union in a Soviet-Bloc country. It was established in September 1980 in Poland. The union was the result of growing resistance to the government and its policies, led by a group of intellectuals and workers, including Lech Wałęsa. Solidarity became the first opposition movement to participate in free elections in a Soviet-Bloc nation since the 1940s and formed a coalition government with the United Workers’ Party. The government imposed martial law in 1981 to suppress the movement. Solidarity was declared illegal and its leaders were arrested. However, the union continued to operate underground. In 1988, a new wave of strikes and labor unrest led to the legalization of Solidarity and its participation in free elections in 1989. Candidates endorsed by the union won the majority of seats in the newly formed Senate and Sejm. In 1990, Wałęsa was elected president of Poland. Despite its seminal role in the new government, the direct role of the union in the country’s political scene diminished as new political parties emerged in the 1990s.

Lech Wałęsa standing in front of crowd
Solidarity - Lech Wałęsa

This event is used on one of the NATO COUP cards. It gives you the event: "Stage successful Coup in Area in Poland where Influence 1. Place 3 Insurgent Units there." So when you play this card, you can stage a coup even if you don't have any agents in Poland. You also get 3 insurgents in the area (you usually get only one insurgent). That can mess up your enemy, as these uprisings damage his score and cohesion and reduce his combat ability.


The unity of NATO was challenged during Charles de Gaulle’s presidency (France) due to his objections to the strong role of the United States and its special relationship with the UK. De Gaulle sought the creation of a tripartite directorate to give France equal footing. When his proposal was rejected, he began building an independent defense force and withdrew France’s fleet from NATO command. This caused the US to transfer military aircraft and return control of air force bases to France. France remained a member of NATO and committed to Europe’s defense but withdrew from its integrated military command and asked all non-French NATO troops to leave France.

Charles De Gaulle leaves the NATO meeting
De Gaulle leaves the meeting

This card has the following event text: "NATO chooses: increase +3 Escalation, or WP infiltrates France to Flag space (place Agent from Map)." It gives your opponent a choice between two bad things. I didn't want to create "gotcha" cards that could significantly damage your opponent without them having any say. By making these negative effects an opponent's choice, I have created a better playing experience.


Seven Days to River Rhine was a secret military simulation exercise developed by the Warsaw Pact in 1979. It depicted a scenario of a seven-day nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact forces. According to the simulation, NATO would launch a nuclear attack on Polish and Czechoslovak cities. As a result, two million Polish civilians could die, while Polish operational strength would be completely destroyed. A Soviet counter-strike would be launched against West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, and North-East Italy. Maps associated with the plan show that Vienna, Vicenza, Verona, Padua, Stuttgart, Munich, and Nuremberg in West Germany would be destroyed, and Hungary would capture Vienna.

Soviet tanks rolling into attack
Soviet tanks in offensive

This event is used on one of the Warsaw Pact OPERATION cards. It has the following event: "Use 3 AP for Military actions. Units can split and still attack. Eliminate 3 Units (total per card)

before battles (total per card)." So this card allows you to execute military actions more powerfully. You can split and attack, which is usually not possible. You also eliminate several enemy units before combat, which comes as a great bonus.


Tu-95 Bear is a large, four-engine turboprop-powered bomber and missile platform first flown in 1952. It subsequently entered service in 1956 with the Soviet Air Forces and is expected to remain in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces until at least 2040. The Tu-95 is the only propeller-powered strategic bomber still in use and is recognizable by its swept-back wings, contra-rotating propellers, and loud sound. A variant of the Tu-95 was used to carry and drop the AN602 device, known as the Tsar Bomba, which was the most powerful thermonuclear device ever detonated. The early versions of the bomber had a dank and dingy interior, but the best crews were assigned to it due to the nature of their mission. The crews frequently practiced transpolar strikes against the US in the Arctic, although they purportedly never flew with live nuclear weapons.

Blueprint of Tu-95 Bear bomber
Tu-95 Bear

This event is represented on the Warsaw Pact ABILITY card, with the following event text: "Reduce 4 defending Units before Attack (total per card)." These Ability cards allow you to boost your actions, giving you more power or even immediate effects. You play them in pairs with other action cards, meaning you lose one round of play later. But the bonus they provide enables you to execute actions successfully or to have a more significant effect.

Phew, what a blast! Well, if it's not too much trouble, I invite you to subscribe to our newsletter to be notified when we come close to release. You can subscribe on this page:

Have fun! 🖐️😀



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