Should I sleeve the cards in my board games?
Well… Yes, no, and it’s complicated.
Just to start off with some full disclosure, I was adamantly opposed to sleeving the cards of a board game for a long time. I really only looked at the situation through the lens of cost/benefit, and subsequently I had a tough time rationalizing card sleeves. I’m admittedly still not a big proponent of sleeving for this reason. Currently, I now have about half a dozen games with sleeved cards. Of those, I have only actually purchased sleeves for “Citadels” and the second edition of “Atlantis Rising.” I’ll get to those later, because each offers a prime example of a game that absolutely should be sleeved- in my opinion. But first I’m going to tackle the most important bullet points of sleeving cards…
I’ll begin by stating the obvious; sleeves protect your cards. Cards play a central role in a lot of board games these days. They are handled and shuffled a lot, and as a result, they are subject to a fair amount of wear and tear. When you think about it, they aren’t particularly durable by design; just little slips of thin, compressed cardboard- making them the weak link in your game. By doing everything you can to protect those slips of cardboard, you can extend the lifespan of a board game, sometimes considerably. Sleeving also has the potential to improve the look and feel of your cards, spiffing up the presentation of your game. Holding sleeved cards just feels good, and personally I think they’re easier to shuffle. Honestly, I prefer sleeved cards; but…
Despite that, most of the time sleeving a game is unnecessary. The majority of publishers know what they’re doing, and produce their games at a sufficient level of quality, such that they just don’t need that extra layer of protection. Sleeves also aren’t always the right shape; outside of the basic types of card sizes, most companies generally embrace the one size fits all strategy. As a result, sleeving cards can be perceived as a little bit wasteful, especially considering the cost. In some cases, you can as much as double the price of a game by adding card sleeves. There’s another angle here too- labeling wear and tear as ‘damage’ is a bit short sighted, as it can provide character to an item, giving it a sense of history. Personally, I’ve grown fond of those little signs of wear that show that my family loves this game, and that we play it often.
So, let’s get to the point: When should you sleeve your cards?
There are a lot of games these days using a small number of heavily handled cards. In our collection I’ve sleeved “Citadels,” but I’d also point at games like “Inis,” “Love Letter,” and “Coup” as well. That combination of less than 20 cards that you’re handling all of the time is just not a great mix, especially when you’re regularly shuffling and re-distributing those cards. These types of games should absolutely be sleeved, unless you’re prepared to purchase a replacement copy.
Any game that has lower quality cards, which you plan on playing on a fairly regular basis should probably be sleeved. One of the best examples of this that I can think of is “Res Arcana,” in which the cards are just not great. Couple that with a game that, I kid you not, you’ll sit down and play five times in a row (it’s very good) before you’re ready to move on to something else, and you have a title that desperately needs sleeves. A lot of deck builders tend to fall under this umbrella too; but due to cost, I’d recommend against sleeving them unless the publisher is kind enough to include sleeves with the game.
I guess I’ve got to mention those titles you just want to keep as is. Admittedly, this is a pretty broad label, so I’d recommendation a more measured approach. In this case, I’ll bring up the recently released second edition of “Atlantis Rising” from Elf Creek Games. I ordered the deluxe edition via the Kickstarter, and upon opening that box I found one of the most beautiful games I now own… And thick, ivory core cards. I’ve had enough problems with these in the past that I’m not sure they will hold up, especially with art to the edges. I decided that I’d prefer to sleeve these in order to preserve them as they are.
So in the end;
Should you sleeve your cards? There’s no perfect answer to this question. If you feel that sleeves will improve your game, go for it! Ultimately, I suspect that perhaps the better piece of advice I can give you on the matter is this: board games are not an investment. They are entertainment. A hobby, a passion, and a community too- but entertainment all the same. Start looking at your games in that light, and I promise you will spare yourself a lot of grief in the long run.