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Upgrade: The Card Game

In the early 90s I was a small child OBSESSED with Magic: the Gathering. I played it for the first time at boy scout camp, and it was pretty much the greatest thing I had ever experienced. After learning about the game, I immediately set out to create my own card game. I’ve always loved making games even more than playing them, and card games are relatively easy to make: come up with a sweet idea, grab a stack of index cards, railroad some people into playtesting, and you’re good to go.

The results were, unsurprisingly, horrible. At ten years old and lacking anything resembling design sensibilities, the deck was seriously stacked against me. On top of that, I was so obsessed with Magic that anything I made was basically just a bad version of my new favorite game. My favorite aspects of Magic were the strong distinction between colors, deck construction, and the land mechanic to represent resources. All of the games I made had something resembling each of these aspects, and were just terrible. Eventually I realized that Magic was already a good version of Magic, so I’d need to think of something pretty different. I can remember two specific games that I made at this point.

At first I thought it would be cool to make a cooperative game where players shared a deck, had to work together to survive, and each had a secret goal as a win condition. It was sort of like Munchkin, except way overcomplicated and with secret, randomized win conditions instead of ‘reach level 10′ for everyone. I think the idea here was pretty decent, but the game balance destroyed the experience. The majority of test games were just not fun, players were generally far too powerful/weak and I wasn’t able to get it right. It was also way too obvious which ‘secret goal’ players had based on how they played the game. DudeX doesn’t want to spend any gold? He probably has the ‘collect 500 gold’ win condition. Also, it was possible for everyone to lose if the players wiped, and this happened too often.

The other card game I can remember making around that time was called Upgrade. When I saw the Experimental Gameplay Project theme for November (Upgrade), I wanted to reproduce that game as best I could. I no longer have the original game (index cards), but I still remember it pretty well. Back then, one of the constraints I was tied to from being a Magic fan is that different cards have to cost different amounts (roughly) based on their power level. I can remember deciding to make a game where each player just played one card per turn. Based on my previous efforts, I also knew that I wanted to make something much simpler than what I had been working on. I was already starting to learn that complexity was a killer. Upgrade was the result, and it was the first card game I made that I thought was actually halfway decent to play. I was really into Civilization and SimCity around that time, maybe there was some influence?

I’ve done my best to reproduce it here, you can download it in a PDF. Just click the image below. Print it out, cut up the cards. Shuffle up, and play. There’s a sheet of rules. It’s all pretty simple. If you want to be super fancy, you can print the game on nice card stock or something.

Download the PDF here or click the image below.

This is not exactly the same Upgrade I made way back when, but it’s not off by a lot. The rules are very close, and the action cards are probably at least 75% the same (in functionality, not in name). The original version didn’t have any artwork – my wife was kind enough to whip some images up for me to use on this version. We played a bunch of test games, and actually had fun – so maybe someone else out there will have fun with it too. I only really tested this with two players, but it should theoretically work ok with three or more.

I used index cards and the Magic Set Editor (with a modified Dvorak theme) to develop this game. I was planning on adding ‘flavor text’ to the products, but was busy with holiday stuff and never got around to it.

Feel free to send me ideas for cards, balance suggestions, etc. I had a lot of fun working on a non-video-game game for the EGP. The next time I’m at my parents’ house I’m going to search my old bedroom and hopefully find Upgrade in its initial form. If I manage to track it down, I’ll make a comparison post.

Thanks for reading!

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Richard December 31, 2011, 3:16 pm

    i’m giving you some of my ideas, just as a brainstorm: I myself don’t know could they be harmonious in the game. I just thought on them and they could, or could not, be useful.


    The products may have special effects. When they upograde they lose all the previous abilities. They can be “one shot” effects or continuous abilities. The designer should first of all think of the abilities, then conceive the specific products in order to fit for the abilities he wants in the game.
    The same ability may be present in more than one product, even of different levels.
    Different abilities of the same “family” may be in different families of products, and the development of the same product can have a discontinuous ability development: abilities should just fit with the theme of the specific product and not the family’s.

    Abilities of level 3 product can have a great impact on the game.

    Abilities of level 4 products are preferably one-shot effects that don’t disturb too much the other players (very difficult to design!)


    Players have a starting cash of 10,000$, gain 1,000$ at the start of every turn and they have to pay to play cards.
    Discarded cards give cash according to their cost.
    Action cards should usually cost 1,000$ while products should cost usually their level times 1,000$

    Players have a starting amount of 5 ENERGY. Some products give you more energy, while the most of them require it. At the end of the turn if your total products require more energy than you have, you discard some of them.

    These 2 elements will make the game asymmetrical in which some players may have lots of money and energy and use it, while some other may not have nor need it. This couples with the differences in the products of the same family; you could also puit more copies of the level 1 energy product, which could be more technological and give +2 energy.

    One action card gives +10,000$ or, on 1/36, 50,000$. Action cards give a permanent ENERGY+1, ENERGY+2, ENERGY-2. Players will have to face different problems, or none of them.


    Some products may upgrade in 2 different ones, present in different quantitites, and then upgrade in the same one.

    Players have a 7 card in hand limit. Discard is optional, before playing a card, and gains cash. If he doesn’t play a card he doesn’t have to discard one. Hand limit is checked at the end of the turn.


    Complexity is a killer but maybe you can see what is good and discriminate it from which is bad. Goodbye

  • Steve January 19, 2012, 3:01 am

    Richard – Thanks for the feedback! If anyone out there wants to try some of these ideas and do some playtesting, let me know how it goes!

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