The Crosswire Cards

Crosswire is not a finished project. In fact, it's two cards in search of a game; I never invented any rules. But it may be interesting as an illustration of design under wacky conditions.

The Challenge

At one time, when Andy Looney was preparing to print his Aquarius decks, he thought he was going to have a great deal of wasted space on each print sheet. (Sixty cards on a ninety-card sheet, or something like that.) So he decided to franchise out the extra space -- to allow his friends to print cards, of any design whatsoever, for maybe a hundred bucks per card. Several thousand copies of each card, that is to say. Business cards, small games -- anything.

I was, at the time, unemployed, and I figured that I could just about budget two hundred dollars for this silliness.

The question, of course, is: What kind of game can be played with a deck composed of exactly two kinds of cards?

The Ideas

My first thought was, okay, these are two-sided cards. Naturally all the Aquarius cards have the same back (except the goals), but mine don't have to. So for $200, I really have four cards in my deck. Of course, now my game -- whatever it is -- is constrained; I can't have a deck of face-down cards, for example. But we accept these constraints in the spirit of art. Right?

Then I had a deeper breakthrough. If I use two cards as a unit of play, there are many more combinations available.

I immediately thought of two cards lying crossed on the table. If the cards are not symmetrical, there are now 32 possible crosses. (Four possible faces on the bottom, four on top, and the pair can have two different relative rotations.)

The Results

Well, jumping ahead of the story quite a bit, here are the finished card faces:

[card 1 front] [card 1 back]
Card 1, front and back

[card 2 front] [card 2 back]
Card 2, front and back

And here are four of the 32 possible crosses they make:

[cross] [cross]
[cross] [cross]

The Design

The main feature, of course, is the large magenta pathways. Each pair of paths twists zero or one time on the sides of the card, and zero, one, or two times on the ends. When two cards are crossed, the inner twist-nodes on the bottom card are covered, but the outer twist-nodes on the ends stick out; they are effectively concatenated to the sides of the top card.

Then there's the question of how the crosses are arranged on the board.

At first I tried overlapping the crosses. That is, the ends of the arms would cover (or be covered by) the ends of the arms of the neighboring crosses. However, a little experimentation with actual cards showed that this was unworkable. The cards didn't lay flat enough, with all the overlapping, and they slid around too easily. Just putting down a card in the middle of the board could crash the whole pattern.

So I simplified it to the arrangement shown above: The crosses themselves are placed arm-to-arm in a square grid. This is still a little shaky -- the cards slide out of adjustment -- but they're easy to put back.

In this arrangement, there are zero to four twists between each cross and its neighbor. If you're just tracing paths, this is only two possibilities (the paths are switched or they're not); but perhaps the number of twists can be important too.

The Symbols

To add even more combinatorial fun, I designed the four half-icons that you see on the ends of the cards.

[block] [rod] [arch] [ray]

This uses the arrangement of crosses on the board, as opposed to the choice of cards in a cross. When two half-icons are adjacent (as in the lower pair of crosses shown) they form one of ten possible symbols.

[*] Road ... Wall [*]
[*] Eye ... Star [*]
[*] House ... Church [*]
[*] Hammer ... Spade [*]
[*] Dagger ... Ship [*]

Yes, the Ship is a bit of a stretch, but I'm pleased with the others. The House might be a Barn, and the Wall could be a Stone... or a Stone Wall for that matter. Hmmm... should I turn the Ship upside down and call it a Flower? Thistle? Hard to say.

But the balance of symbols is good. Weapons, tools, religion, mundanity, transportation, barrier. Considering the constraints -- that word again -- it's very flexible.

The arrangement of half-icons was more of a pain. If I put two on each end of each card, then every pair of crosses would form two symbols. That was way too many; I wanted them rarer, like Trumps in a game of Arcana.

So, one on each end. But left or right? I wanted every combination to be possible; and remember, there are only four card faces available. The arrangement I chose makes everything available, and with equal probability.

There is some dependency between the paths and the symbols. For example, the rod half-icon always appears on an end with a twist. So a Road symbol will never appear between two crosses joined by untwisted paths. There will always be two, three, or four twists by a Road. There's no way around that kind of problem, with this system.

The Details

The blue and green nodes in the center... were a whim. I have no idea what they could be good for. Their arrangement is the same on every card -- I didn't try to vary them. But there's undoubtedly a use somewhere.

The light paths in the background are purely decorative. They're also the same on each card. They're designed to join up within each cross, and between crosses. The little spheres are end-caps of some of these paths, in the cross arrangement.

Note that the cards work just as well in a standard rectangular grid, edge to edge. But there's much less variety available.

Yes, I wrote the cards in PostScript.

The Game...?

My intent was to get a huge pile of cards, and then mess around with them until I had a game.

Some ideas that went by:

Sadly, Andy found another printer for Aquarius; and suddenly he could use a print sheet of exactly the right size. So I never got my cards. As you might expect, I never came up with a game, either.

So there it sits.

The Conclusion

The poets were right all along. Constraint is the wellspring of art. Ha!

Last updated June 26, 1998.

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