Pimp My Game – Part 1 – Card Sleeves

I’ve always had a tendency to want to enhance and modify my games. Way back in the mists of time when I had Advanced Heroquest as a kid, I remember making little torn scraps of paper with clues or maps on, for the adventurers to find. I’d stain them with tea so they looked like old parchment. Or painting my 2nd edition Blood Bowl board (the 3D polystyrene one) so it looked like blood splattered stone. Yeah, I had a pretty lonely childhood.

Although many years have passed since my mum complained about me spilling cold tea all over the kitchen, I still like to tweak and enhance my board games. This is the reason I often paint the figures that come with a game. So welcome to a loosely grouped series of posts called ‘Pimp My Game’

I thought I’d start gently, and cover something any board gamer can turn their hand to – sleeving their cards.

Why sleeve your cards?

With any hobby, you’ll find forums filled with posts offering (and arguing) differing points of view on any topic, and card sleeving is one of those topics. It’s true there are pros and cons, this isn’t as much of a no-brainer as it sounds.

Pros:

  • Protect your cards – Board games are expensive and sometimes hard to get hold of. The cards in those games are generally pretty fragile, made of cardboard (dhur!) and easily damaged. Sleeving is a good choice if you want to play your game away from home, in a pub for example. One small puddle of beer and your cards and game, could be ruined. Throttling a stranger in a pub over some wet cardboard isn’t a great way to end your evening.
  • Shuffling – Two points here, if a game requires a lot of shuffling (Dominion and other deck builders spring to mind) the cards are far more likely to get damaged through the frequent & repeated handling. Secondly, sleeved cards are MUCH easier to shuffle, take a look
  • Proxies or marked cards – Some sleeves have opaque backs, this will disguise any marked/damaged cards you have. If you want to play with proxy cards (ones you’ve printed yourself) this sort of sleeve is more or less essential

Cons:

  • Cost – Sleeves appear cheap until you realise you need something like 500+ sleeves to do a game like Netrunner or Pathfinder: ACG. In some cases sleeving a game which is nothing but cards, it can almost cost as much as the game itself. Advice here is to shop around, or buy the cheapest sleeves you can.
  • Size – Sleeved cards take up more room. So what? Well games like Dominion and Pathfinder have nice plastic box inserts to hold the cards, it’s likely they won’t fit when sleeved. However this isn’t always as much as a problem as it sounds, you just might need to get creative with how you store your game.

Sleeve Sizes

Lets assume you’ve weighed up the options and decided to sleeve your game, what sleeves to buy. Now you’re confronted with a matrix of choices. Let’s tackle them one by one. Sleeve size – you don’t have much choice here, but it’s easy to assume that “cards are cards”, and are all the same size, sadly not. There are approx 5 main sizes that cards in a board game can come in, however there are many others, I’m just covering the ones you are 98% most likely to encounter:

Standard Card Game / Trading Card (63.5x88mm) – Your “normal” size used for Magic the Gathering and countless other trading card games. A very common size, even for board games, as you might expect the cards in Fantasy Flight LCGs are this size

Standard American (57x89mm) – At first glance the same size as a standard card, but slightly narrower and sometimes about 1mm taller. Used in a lot of Fantasy Flight games

Standard European (59×92 mm) – Narrow and even taller, used by Dominion and many others, typically euro games, but generally rarer than the above two sizes

Mini American (41×63 mm) - Small card, very common in FFG games like Arkham Horror, Descent etc.

Mini Euro (44x68m) – Another small card size, but slightly bigger than than mini-american. Not so common

Card Sizes

Card Sizes. Top row: Mini-Euro, Mini-American. Bottom Row: Standard, American and Euro

Blimey! Confusing isn’t it? It gets worse – There is no agreed standard naming convention for these sizes, so manufactures call them different things (I went with the most common names I could find). Also some games deviate from these sizes ever so slightly – it’s a minefield. My advice – check BGG, there’s an excellent thread collecting sizing reference info for almost every game you could think of. But ultimately the cards in the game are the size they are, you can’t pick and choose.

Which Sleeves?

Next, what sleeve manufacturer? Here you have a lot of choice. But in the UK it more or less boils down to three companies. Mayday, Fantasy Flight Games (FFG) and UltraPro. I can only talk of my own experience here, so let me relay my thoughts.

I’ve found FFG sleeves to be excellent quality, very consistent, shuffle very well, they feel good in the hand, the only downside – they are pricey. If you have a Fantasy Flight game you might have noticed a little thingy like the image on the right on the box. It’s a guide to how many of their sleeves you need and in what sizes, as FFG colour code the different sizes they sell. It makes life a lot easier, assuming you are happy to give FFG even more of your money!

Mayday do a far wider choice of sleeves (in some sizes I’ve not covered above) they also offer a choice of “premium” and “standard” quality. Standard come in packs of 100 (rather than 50) and are much thinner, and cheaper, you will often see these referred to as “penny sleeves”, Many of the sleeve companies make these thin penny-sleeves (but not FFG). Mayday sleeves are OK but I’ve had occasional problems with inconsistent sizing and slightly frayed edges, making them not as slick/smooth to shuffle as they should be. Mayday are a good choice if you’re on a budget but the quality is not on par with Fantasy Flight, even their premium sleeves.
UltraPro I’ve not really used since my Magic playing days however I still have a big stash of their sleeves. With UltraPro you also get a choice of premium (packs of 50) and normal/soft (packs of 100). UltraPro’s main market is CCGs so it’s hard to find anything other than their standard/trading card size. Unlike Mayday and FFG they do make opaque backed sleeves and if you’re into sleeves with goofy art and skulls on the back then you are in luck, as they have a huge range of these things.

Where to Buy?

Where to buy? Easy – eBay. If you’re lucky enough to have local game store then by all means give them your business, but for the rest of us – shop around on eBay for the best price, and choice.

Conclusion

It’s easy to think sleeving is for the anally retentive geek, and maybe it is,  but then again we’re talking about games where we pretend to be wizards or hackers in cyberspace, the geek criticism doesn’t cut it with me. I feel it’s worthwhile sleeving some of your games. For someone with a lot of games (like me!) I wouldn’t recommend it for all your entire collection, that’s an unnecessary time and money sink. However I think investing a little, in order to protect the games we enjoy is a very good idea.

Author: Ben Coleman

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3 Comments

  1. I’ve tried sleeving but for games with a good pile of cards it’s impossible – they literally don’t stay there, instead sliding all across each other. This means I have to start making tuckboxes, chucking away box inserts and escalating the whole effort far beyond the point where it works for me.

    BUT! I have a 5 year old son, which makes it attractive again. Hnngh.

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  2. You neglected *feel*. Good cards are pleasant to handle. I’ve not yet experienced sleeves that are as nice to handle.

    Also a lot of sleeves have opaque backs, hiding the often attractive card backs the game makers have painstakingly designed.

    It takes an awful lot of play before cards get tatty – unless you’re playing one of those silly speed games.

    So I’d only advise sleeving if you intend to handle the cards an awful lot *and* they’re difficult/expensive to replace. Which is only really CCGs like Magic The Gathering.

    Don’t sleeve the Catan cards – you’ll never need to replace them, and if you do you can get replacements cheaply.

    Sleeves are very useful for print-and-play games – print on normal paper, and sleeve them, perhaps with a real playing card behind to add strength.

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  3. Also I don’t buy the shuffling argument. The shuffle demonstrated in the video is a pretty clumsy alternative to real shuffling. Shuffling an unsleeved 52 card deck is easy. Sleeved, it will be too thick to shuffle as easily.

    That said, some games have decks that are already too thick to shuffle easily.

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