To Sleeve or Not to Sleeve
It’s game night and the table’s set: Concordia’s taking center stage, your group all ready for some thrilling trading in the Mediterranean. You’ve explained the rules, answered the questions, and now it’s time to set out the market. Someone want to shuffle and deal, you ask.
Barely are the words out of your mouth before you realize Cheeto Dan, his hands freshly dusted by his favorite snack, just happens to be sitting near the deck, its myriad pleasures at his cheesy mercy.
You see what’s coming and reach out, determined to stop the horror before it starts, only to have your elbow whack your beverage, scattering its sticky soda all over your cards. Doubly panicking, you try to rescue your precious paper, whipping them up from the puddle, whereupon their sodden skins slip from your grip and fall to the ground… where Penny—your loyal canine pal—is waiting to take a chomp.
This nightmare, my friends, can all be avoided with this one simple trick: card sleeves.
These plastic pals for your cards give them armor, a defense against the day-to-day terrors this world inflicts upon the cardboard creations we treasure. A slight spill, a saucy finger, or even a shuffler who likes whacking the cards together like he’s meting out justice can all be defeated by these simple shells.
Yet, for all its simplicity, sleeving your games isn’t as easy as it should be.
What’s Worth A Sleeve?
While Cheeto Dan might strike any game in your collection, that doesn’t mean you need to wrap them all. Sleeves aren’t expensive, but they aren’t free either, and cloaking every card is going to take both time and money that might be better spent elsewhere—like, say, on more Concordia boards. Before you go ordering up your new card guardians, take a second to decide what in your collection deserves defending.
Here’s what I look at when considering sleeving a game:
How many cards are there, and how much action do they see?
- If the goal is to keep our cards safe, best to start with the games that put our friendly cardboard rectangles in the most danger: deck-builders. I’m looking at you Dominion, Clank, Aeon’s End, Undaunted, Star Realms, etc. Deck-builders all invite the players to mash the cards repeatedly every session. We’re talking crinkled edges, the accidental fold, the splaying out across the table during play. Card sleeves protect those decks from wear and tear, ensuring your cards will stay known by their fronts and not the creases and stains on their backs.
- Also, if a game has a small number of cards, it’s cheaper to sleeve, making the protection an easier equation. Dune: Imperium’s relatively small number of cards compared to its cost makes it a simpler call. Ditto Lost Ruins of Arnak. I mentioned Dominion above, but if you’re collecting every expansion, make sure those hundreds of sleeves are worth the price to you. Which brings me to point number two…
How expensive or replaceable is the game?
- Look, I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen a sleeved deck of ordinary Bicycle cards. In fact, I’d argue the amount of grease on a given playing card deck tells a story about how many adventures it’s been on. A badge of dirty honor. If you’re going to spend more on sleeving the game than it cost to buy the game itself, maybe think twice.
- Similarly, if you can walk into your FLGS and snag a new copy of the game at a moment’s notice—think evergreens like Munchkin, Fluxx, Catan—then sleeving might not be worth the added expense.
- On the other side, I sleeve more expensive, rarer titles even if the cards themselves don’t see collision-worthy play, like Food Chain Magnate and Brass.
Is the game’s table importance important to you?
There are card sleeves with every kind of background you can imagine out there. If you want to deluxe-ify your game with some targeted sleeves just to give it that extra special kick, that might outweigh every criterion above. Sure, Jaipur might be cheap, it might be easy to find, but gilding those cards with some opulent sleeves might make every competition over those camels something to remember.
So You Want to Sleeve, Now What?
Like choosing the first space for your cowboy in Great Western Trail, deciding to buy sleeves kicks you off onto a delightful, if specific, journey. The dark world of card sizes is a can of worms I shan’t open here, save to say that you’ll want to measure twice, buy once before investing in your sleeve collection.
My go-to resource? Sleeve Your Games.
It’s a simple tool that lets you punch in your chosen game and find the right amount of sleeves, and in what sizes, you’ll need. They track expansions too, making it easy to pop the sleeves you need into a spreadsheet, a notepad, or your sturdy memory and run off to the store confident you won’t wind up with a spare card or two left unguarded.
Done and done, right? Not quite.
Box Crowding from Card Sleeves
While taking the sleeves and putting them on the cards is hardly a difficult task, the aftermath brings with it some unique problems. Namely, the plastic insert lovingly packed into your cardboard masterpiece by the publisher. Many don’t include the room for sleeved cards, either in the plastic dimensions or the box size itself. When I run into this, I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and do the following:
- Dig into Board Game Geek and see if anyone’s asked about sleeved cards for the game I’m working with
- See if I can follow their recommendations – custom inserts, different organizing methods, or even out-of-the-box solutions like moving the game from its original package into something different are all options. Don’t be scared here – frequently, you’ll find a new storage solution knocks minutes off your setup time, making the game an easier play.
- If I don’t find anything there (a truly rare occurrence) I’ll go back to the list above and consider whether sleeving the game is worth it. If I still think it is—looking at you, Imperium Classics and Legends—I’ll ditch the included insert entirely and use card dividers to keep things arranged as best I can while keeping an eye out for new inserts.
But wait, there’s like, a million card sleeves out there?
You know what sleeves you need, and you know how you’re going to store your game once the precious cargo is coated, but what happens when you get to the store and see a dozen brands all offering the same thing? How do you choose?
As with most things, the answer comes down to cost and quality. Where you should fall on that spectrum goes back to the second dot in the list above: if the game is easier to replace and inexpensive, going for premium sleeves might not make much sense. We’re talking practical protection here. Your copy of Guillotine might be delightful, but it probably doesn’t need armor plating on every about-to-be-sliced royal.
The Thickness of Card Sleeves
• Thin sleeves (40-60 microns) are the cheapest bets out there. Flimsy, and liable to split even while you’re first putting them on, these guys nonetheless have a purpose: a little bit is better than nothing, and these will still ward off Cheeto Dan’s dust. I go for these when a game is on the cheaper end but I know it’ll see play in rough spots: like out camping, or a bar’s beer-soaked table.
• Middle-grade sleeves (60-90 microns) blend quality protection with slimmer sizes and weights. If you want your sleeved cards to keep fitting in their original box, these are your targets. They’ll hold up to repeat plays, feel good to shuffle, and can be the mainstay of your sleeved empire.
• Thick sleeves (90+ microns) are for your true prized possessions, the games you’ll go to long lengths to protect. These sleeves will cost you more, but you’ll be afforded the best protection from spills, tears, aggressive shuffles and the like. That thickness also means they can be difficult to fit—and beware sleeving any large decks with these, as the towers are liable to slip and slide over. These are my go-to for expensive trading cards or collector’s editions.
What Card Sleeve Brands Are Available?
If you’re sleeving a full set of cards for a particular board game, it may be worth checking out Sleeve Kings first. They make game-specific sleeve bundles for popular board/card games. So if you’ve got a copy of Disney Villainous you want to keep in mint condition, their Disney Villainous Compatible Sleeve Bundle will give you exactly what you need!
- Sleeve Kings
- Mayday Games
- Fantasy Flight
- Ultra Pro Standard
- Ultra Pro Specialty
- Arcane Tinmen
- Legion Events
- Paladin Card Protection
So the next time you’re getting ready for game night, snag some card sleeves. You’ll get yourself some peace of mind, the cards will stay nimble, and when Cheeto Dan reaches for that deck, you can let him get right on shuffling!
Written by Adam Knight
Spinning stories and playing games under the direction of his two cats, Adam delights in the roll of the dice and a well-told tale. Find more of his adventures at Black Key Books.