Published on December 17th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen


How To Make Your Own Cards

With Spreadsheets and InDesign you can make your own cards

Today I’ll go over how to make your own cards for a game you’ve made up or to make new cards for a game you already own. Customizing your games can be lots of fun, as evidenced by the recent surge in legacy style games on the market recently. No matter the reason, making cards is easy if you know these simple steps.

For my example I’ll be making my own expansion for Timeline, a simple trivia game by Frederic Henry, published by Asmodee in the United States. Timeline is a little different than most trivia games in that you don’t have to answer questions. Instead, play revolves around cards that on one side have a historical event listed, and on the back have the year the event occurred.

Each player is dealt four cards, with the dates hidden. On your turn you must place a card from your “hand” either before or after the starting card in the tableau. When you make your placement, you reveal the date- if correct then the card stays in the tableau complicating things, if incorrect then it’s discarded and you must draw a new card into your hand. The first player to empty their hand wins.

Timeline is one of my favorite trivia games because it allows a certain amount of wiggle room and guess work. On the other hand, it’s still quite difficult. I don’t know, which did come first- adhesive tape or the Empire State Building? (Answer: adhesive tape, by eight years). It’s a game that is fun even when you’re wrong and makes great party fodder.

That said, after I’ve played a set a couple of times I find myself wanting to switch up the content a bit more. While there are various history supplements you can get officially, I was looking for something a little more niche. So, being myself, I decided to make my own.

First I need a theme, and video games seem like a natural choice. Timeline sets come with 110 cards in them, so that’s how many cards I’m going to make for myself. The next step involves setting up a spreadsheet document (I’m using the ever-free Google Drive) with some columns. I’ll need one column for each set of data I’m going to display on the card, which for me will be three (event name, year, and month).

Now I just need to find 110 events to add to my list. Wikipedia has a great set of pages that list exceptional events in the video game world which will make this step pretty simple. I’ll be focusing on company founding dates, console launches and game release dates. I’ve decided to use the earliest release date, regardless of original region, for simplicity’s sake.

If  you want to add unique art for each card, that’s simple too. In your spreadsheet make a new column and in Row 1 make sure the name starts with “@” (without the quotes). So, “@images” or “@icons” for example. In the rows under that, list the file name (eg: “icon01.png”) of the picture you’d like to use for that card remember that it’s case sensitive.

Now to open InDesign. You’ll want to choose a document size that’s right for what you’re making. Standard card size is 2.5″ x 3.5″ but mini-cards like Timeline (or Talisman) uses are 1.635″ x 2.5″ while Tarot cards are 2.75″ x 4.75″.

At this point you can add background images if you want there to be some form of texture/background to your card. Sometimes you can find pre-made templates for cards, and there are stock-image sites that have elements you can use to build your background from those different pieces. Though I don’t add backgrounds to my cards until I’ve playtested my custom rules a couple of times first, it saves effort.

Now you need to make boxes for your card info to go into. I use the text tool, and make three text boxes. These are empty now but will be used to hold the text from the spreadsheet. If you need to prep for card images, use the Rectangle Frame Tool to make a box for that column’s info.

Download your spreadsheet if you’re using Google Drive, and no matter what software you’re using make sure to save it as a .CSV (comma separated value) file. If you’re using images that are referenced in your spreadsheet, make sure those images are stored in the same folder as your spreadsheet.

Using InDesign, find your Data Merge window (Window>Utilities>Data Merge). In the upper-right there is a square with 4 horizontal lines. Click on it and choose “Select Data Source” then select your spreadsheet. This should populate the window with a line for each column you included in your spreadsheet.

Using the Selection Tool (black arrow), click on a box and then click on the line in the Data Merge window you wish to associate to it. Do this for each column. After you’re done, you should be able to hit the “Preview” box in the lower left corner of the Data Merge window to see what your card will look like. Navigate between cards using the arrow keys at the bottom of the Data Merge window.

Use this time to adjust your typeface, text size, position, and see if any of your text doesn’t fit into the boxes you’ve created. Unless you really want it, I’d turn off hyphenation, which is an option in the Paragraph window.

This is great, now is a perfect time to save your work. Seriously, save it right now. You’ll really regret it later if you continue to follow these steps and don’t save right now. Okay, done? Right, if you’re done saving at this point, remember that from now own, do not save as you go. We’re done saving. You’ll thank me later.

To save you had to exit preview mode, which is good because you need to be out of it for this next step too. Using the Selection Tool, select all of the elements on your card. Then group all of those elements together (Object>Group or Ctrl+G), deselect from anything, then re-select the group.

Cut (Edit>Cut or Ctrl+X) the new, grouped object. Create a new frame (Rectangle Frame Tool) that snaps to the corners of the card. Using the Selection Tool, right-click the new frame, then select “Paste Into”. Deselect then re-select. Copy (Edit> Copy or Ctrl+C) the new object.

Create a new document (File>New>Document) and make the dimensions letter sized, or whatever is standard for the printer you’ll be using. We’ll use this document to create a printable sheet of cards from our files. Paste (Edit>Paste or Ctrl+V) the object you had just made into the new letter-sized document. Go into the Data Merge window and select your spreadsheet for this new document.

Underneath the “Select Data Source” button there is a button with four squares within another square and an arrow pointing to it. This is the Create Merged Document button, go ahead and push it.

We want to Merge “All Records” and we’ll be wanting to use “Multiple Documents” for this (because we’ll have more than one card on the page). I’d keep the alert buttons checked, that way the program will tell you if anything is messed up somewhere, which is handy.

When setting up your Multiple Record Layout, keep in mind that most printers allow a margin of .5″ on the left/right and .25″ on the top and bottom. For whatever reason my InDesign defaults to Picas for its unit of measurement, so that’s 3p0 and 1p6 if you’re in the same situation as me. Going with those settings, you should be able to fit a 3×3 set of normal playing cards on there or a 4×4 set of mini cards.

After the settings are arranged to your satisfaction, go ahead and hit “okay”. InDesign will tell you if there was any text that was cut-off during the process, and will generate a new document for you with all of the cards generated into multiple pages. Now you can save this as a PDF (File>Export) and put it up on the internet, or print it off or whatever you like.

As for me, I’m going to playtest some of these custom trivia cards and probably make some more.


About the Author

Luke Turpeinen

was raised by lava wolves deep in the Vesuvian sulfur jungles. He played board games with his family often. The discovery of games like Risk led him to the 1993 TSR classic Dragon Strike which fueled a life long love of games. Luke tends to like games that have high production values, quick-to-learn rules and hard-to-master strategies. Current Favorite Game: Argent: the Consortium.

One Response to How To Make Your Own Cards

  1. Joseph E. Pilkus III says:


    Great stuff! Fortunately, my fellow game designer owns and utilizes InDesign with great frequency and proficiency. While I might have the patience…I’ll stick to writing and editing rules.


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