Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sleeving Cards: My Story

Everyone has a different opinion on whether or not to sleeve or not sleeve cards in board games. There are some valid points made for either end, and I respect every one of them. Rather than writing an article that highlights all these thoughts and views, I want to write what sleeves mean to me. It's not as simple as you'd think.

The Gentle Glide

I grew up handling playing cards, specifically Bicycle playing cards. Cracking open a fresh new deck of cards is a wonderful sensation, and that first shuffle - superb. I'm also aware that, over time, dirt and sweat gathers and collects over time, creating dark friction dots on cards, making shuffling a sticky endeavor.

It's this thought that rolled in my head as I sleeved the cards to my first board game in my collection, Pandemic. The plastic guard not only will keep sweat and spills from the cards themselves, but will make shuffling a breeze. I'm used to an air-cushioned finish, how it makes shuffling smooth and fast. And sleeves allow me just that. Maybe this is why I'm so focused on card stock, on what's used, and how it feels in my hands. Nothing gets me more frustrated than a deck that refuses to shuffle well, and sleeves aid in making that action much easier to deal with.

Some of my early card handlings were with TCGs like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh. From there, I learned to build decks to play with others. After a few games, I saw how others sleeved their cards a lot, sometimes double-sleeving them. Some did it for the easy of the shuffling (which I can relate). Most of them did it to preserve their precious and rare cards. I looked at my hands, realizing their exposure and vulnerability.

I don't play these games anymore. The impact of sleeves, though, had carried on to new hobbbies.


The more board games I acquired, the more variety of card thicknesses and quality I was exposed to. My hand quickly (and rather suddenly) developed its own sense of card quality detection, automatically sizing up a single card in hand to determine its weight...literally. With a quick overhand shuffle, I determined then and there whether sleeves are needed or not, and quickly stow away the game before it even hits the table. It wasn't long before my over-protection took over, and soon EVERY game was subject to sleeving.

It didn't matter what type of game it was. If it had cards, it must have sleeves. What if the cards got damaged? What if someone got dirty fingers and handled my cards? What if they got slight knicks on the edges? What if people KNEW where those knicks were and used that knowledge to their unfair advantage? WHAT THEN?

I started buying sleeves in bulk, keeping games on the shelf until they were properly protected. Soon, this was ALL I did with games. They had to be absolutely protected, or they'll never get to the table. The problem was, they never DID get to the table.

Invisible Enemy

Really, all it would take is one card. Or even the mere thought of one card being so visibly scarred that it would potentially ruin a game. We've all heard it before. "Oh, the scratch on the back of the card is visible." "Everyone who knows which cards are flawed will gain an unfair advantage during gameplay." "I can't play this game knowing that there's the possibility of cheating." I'm quite guilty for all of these for any myriad of board games I've sleeved in recent months. But is there any truth to this? Well, some.

Sure, someone could learn which cards are flawed, which black-bordered cards have slight rips, exposing their papery-white origins, and use that knowledge to their unfair advantage. Perhaps the card is a good card that everyone always hopes to draw, or a bad card that many wish to avoid altogether. But the "advantage" of knowing this card will give you an unfair bonus foresight that can possibly sway the odds in your favor at the right time.

"Unfair" Advantage

But will it? Let's REALLY think this through. In reality, you are:

  • taxing your mind to learn extra knowledge that's COMPLETELY not related to the game's original rules at all,
  • convinced yourself and others that this is a big deal that will break the game, and
  • pointing out something that everyone else will notice and, eventually, learn in time.

Most importantly of all, do you know what you've just done? You created a BRAND-NEW metagame that you're playing all by yourself IN ADDITION to the game you're playing now. It's the "Spot-The-Flawed-Card-That-Will-Give-You-Unfair-Extra-Knowledge-For-ONE-Card" game.

And this - ALL of this - is spawned from the seed that a damaged card (or cards) can ruin not only the game's pristine condition, but the gameplay as well.

What I'm REALLY Protecting

There's an old adage I remember time and time again. Generalized, it goes "a well-read book is a well-worn book." It certainly holds true for me and most books I read. I'm not concerned with protecting each and every single page. I fold corners to save pages sometimes, lick my fingers to turn pages, and the edges become ragged over time. By the time I finished a book, its tired leaflets and sagging spine is a reminder of how thorough I read that book.

In a way, I'm fearful that one day, my unprotected game will show its age, how the cards will develop black specs of oil and dirt, how its edges will blatantly show the number of times it hit the edge of the table, how the playing board will reveal cracks in the printed images near the creases, how the cardboard chits start to tear away each layer of paper it's comprised of.

And, while all of that is true and eventual for a game that has no sleeves to protect it, a game that is preserved but never played is still much more frightening than all of that.


That's my story. That's why I sleeve my cards sometimes. I admit, I still sleeve sometimes, but it's more restricted to specific and logical reasons. Even then, sometimes I don't follow those. But I sleeve if:

  • There is a lot of shuffling involved, or
  • There are lots of physical player interaction with cards.

Even then, my habit's starting to wear down. Recently, I bought the Arctic Scavengers expansion, happily sleeving the new cards. But then I saw the state of my base copy, all sleeved so tightly. I remember, because I specifically bought a Japanese-brand sleeve that fit the cards JUST RIGHT to the letter. They all looked cramped, wedged in like cattle to slaughter. To make matters worse, they all had to slot themselves in that plastic insert, with only a centimeter of divider propping these cards up. With the added constraint and card weight, the cards suddenly had some unnatural bends.

I knew then what I had to do.

With my new mission set, I carefully pinched the card with one hand, the tight sleeve with the other, and began the long process of unsleeving all cards. The sleeves weren't going down without a fight, ever so tight. My left index fingernail digs into my thumb's flesh more as it firmly bit on the slim sleeve corner, and with a careful tug, I freed each card, one at a time. Some sleeves were incredibly difficult, making me throw preservation out the window as I mangled sleeve corners to release their grip on my cards.

By the time I finished, I sacrificed much of my inner thumb flesh to my index fingernail, feeling pain in it for a couple of days (at least) afterwards. But there it sits, unsleeved and free. All 200+ cards. No more will I experience the gentle glide from shuffling, or the protection it offers from the elements. Now, they sit idle in their tray, exposed to anything and everything that can damage and deteriorate their condition. And I'm just fine.

It's A Process

I can't bring myself to unsleeve EVERYTHING I want to unsleeve in my collection in one go. Not yet. It takes time for me to adopt this change, to justify what needs to be unsleeved, and what can remain. Not everything can or should be preserved, and I'm prepared to let some age gracefully over time and use. After all, they are meant to be played, not displayed.
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