Pla(y)in' Cards

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There Will Be Games

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ukranianThere seems to be a curious snobbery amongst hobby gamers regarding one of the oldest forms of game around, playing cards. It’s doubly odd because classic games that have survived the test of time are often celebrated, or at the very least admired rather than ignored. It’s trebly odd because a lot of card games a very good indeed and can, of course, be enjoyed for a tiny fraction of the price of a board game which as an important consideration in this time of rising prices.

So is it simply familiarity that’s bred the contempt? You might be surprised to learn that there are innumerable variations of the basic theme of playing cards many of which are beautiful to behold as well as inexpensive to acquire. The basic 52 card deck that everyone is familiar with originated in France. However other European countries use variations on the theme that allow a much greater licence in terms of artistic interpretation of card design. An Italian deck has 40 cards in the suits Coins, Swords, Cups and Clubs, all of which are rather more interesting to observe than the standard suites from the French deck. In Switzerland they play with a 36 card deck in suites Roses, Bells, Acorns and Shields. There are other national and regional variations on these themes with slightly different suites or card counts. For real artistic impact though, you have to go back to France and look at the 78 card, five suit Tarot decks which are used for gaming and not for fortune telling. The fifth suite, Trumps, has 21 cards and no standard format, so illustrators are free to design the cards pretty much as they wish so long as they put a number in diagonally opposite corners and some of the results are beautiful.

So if gamers are put off playing cards games because of production values or over-familiarity then that’s their loss. I’m staggered that people seem will to pay good money for commercial packages that are thin re-workings of standard playing card classics. And if money is such an object that you don’t want to acquire a nice looking deck of cards for Italian or Swiss games then it’s easy to buy the cheapest playing cards you can find and just convert them by taking out the ones you don’t need. You can even make your own deck for Tarot games by getting two decks of cheap cards with the same back and doing some quick work with an indelible pen.

But enough about the art. Let’s talk about the games. And before we talk about the games, let’s talk about, the site which is the card gaming equivalent of boardgamegeek’s database. The rules for every single card game I’ve ever heard of can be found there, along with many hundreds of others that I have not. If you’re anything like me, the first time you browse through Pagat, you’ll end up wondering why the hell you even own any board games since there are so many fantastic sounding games you can play with a deck of playing cards. Unfortunately one important thing it lacks is any kind of rating or review system which does limit its usefulness somewhat, as there are plenty of very uninteresting games mixed in with the good stuff. It does tend to include links to cheap or free computer implementations of the games with AI though, so that’s a good way to try some of them if you want.

So the only filter I am able to apply is my own meandering experience with card games. Some of my favourites are so well known as to need no explanation: I still think that Hearts is an absolute classic although I learned it, and still know it, by the rather quainter name of Slippery Anne, the moniker for the dreaded queen of spades which, interestingly, doesn’t seem to be listed on Pagat. I particularly enjoy the drafting element, which fills me with such malicious glee that I actually feel disappointed when I get a “good” hand and have nothing horrible to pass on to my unlucky recipient. Another classic favourite of mine is the adding game Ninety-Nine, usually listed as a drinking game because it requires virtually no skill, but it also happens to be fast, furious and exciting and thus an excellent way to fill a short space of time. When I was at college, students would frequently be found gathered in empty classrooms during free periods when the weather was bad, playing this game obsessively. Of the more refined classic games, my pick would be Cribbage. I love the pre-game ritual of considering which cards need to be put into the box, and the way that every card that goes down has tension riding on it as you don’t know whether your opponent can use it to make a score. I also like to play Poker, although I detest learning its many variants: there are far too many and they’re too full of jargon. Give me either five card draw or Texas Hold ‘Em. I learned an interesting lesson from playing Poker: playing without money is pointless, playing with any appreciable sum is too scary (I’m rubbish at Poker) so eventually I settled on playing for piddling sums, marvelling at the difference in excitement it makes to be playing for real money, no matter how trifling. When my friends and I have a poker evening, we usually limt the pot at £5 per player and have a great time.

So much for the classics. Interestingly, and for reasons that I cannot fathom, my top three card games are all little-known in England and (presumably by extension) the US. It can’t be that I’ve particularly enjoyed them because of their novelty: I’ve played all three many, many more times than I have any of the classics, and I still think they’re more fun. All three share one common mechanic which is a running tally of score over multiple games to a predetermined total to get a winner which is appealing, I suspect, because it takes a lot of the randomness out of the games and puts the focus back on skillful play. All three also use one of the variant decks described above, so if you want to try them, better get some cheap cards and a magic marker. I learned each of them from a native of their country of origin who were international students at the University I attended, and sometimes I wonder which was the more enlightening piece of education: studying for a degree, or learning weird European card games.

The first of them, which is also the most complex and indeed the one I’ve not played for the longest time - I had to look the rules up as a reminder - is Swiss Jass. For four players only in pairs, and played with the Swiss deck, Jass is a point-trick game which is played like basic Whist with a number of strange variations. First of all, before the game the current lead player has to pick a trump suit depending on what he has in his hand and what he guesses is in his partners hand. You can also play no trumps and “reverse trumps” (i.e. low cards count high) for extra points if you want. Then, before play, players declare “melds” which are sequences of cards they hold in their hand, a bit like the sequences you might aim for in a Poker game. Then you play a series of tricks, like whist, aiming to capture particular cards which are worth more than others. Tot up the points for the hand, add it to the running total and first pair to a pre-determined value (2500 is traditional) is the winner. It’s the bells and whistles in Jass that make it for me. Bidding can be excruciating because it’s rare you’ll have an obvious trump suit to pick and you won’t know what’s in your partners hand. The meld is equally awkward because if you declare melds you score points for them but - obviously - you also reveal what you’ve got in your hand to the other players. Sometimes this is useful for your partner, but sometimes it gives vital information away to the opposing team and sometimes, especially for low scoring combinations, it’s best to keep it hidden. And then there’s the following tension of playing out the tricks, looking for and trying to capture the scoring cards.

The second game is an Italian favourite known as Scopa, played as you might expect with the Latin deck. I have never come across an obviously or directly related game or family for this one, which is probably part of its appeal. It’s best with four played in pairs, although it can be played with two and I seem to recall playing it with three as well, although I can’t find the variant rules on this one. Each player gets three cards and four are laid face up on the table. You then play a card from your hand. What you want to do is try and match the value of one or more of the face up cards: so if you play a seven, you can capture one face-up seven or two or more face-up cards which add up to the value of seven. If you can do this, you win all the cards, including the one you played. If not, then your card joins the face up stack. After each player has played their three cards they get another three and so on until the deck runs out. You get a point if you capture the most cards, another for the most of one suite (diamonds if using a standard deck), another for the most sevens and another for the seven of diamonds. Aside from card counting, much of the strategy in the game therefore revolves around trying to ensure that there isn’t a match for seven amongst the face-up cards, so that your opponents have to lay their sevens for you to capture rather than being able to capture it themselves which creates a surprising amount of tension. But the real kicker is “scopa” itself: if you can lay a capture that clears the table of face-up cards you get to shout “scopa!” and score another point. In pairs games this can lead to complete massacres where one player gets scopa, then someone from the opposing team has to lay a face up card (as there are no matches to capture) then the partner of the original player cleans up with another scopa and so on, leading to point tallies that sometimes dwarf the four available from each run through the deck. It’s a fast, furious and very fun game and the primary appeal comes from the immense satisfaction of slapping down a card that you know is going to win you multiple points.

My final pick, my favourite, and the only one for which I own a custom speciality deck is French Tarot. It’s another point-trick game which plays 3-5, where the basic structure is just like Whist, except that you’ve got five suits and the fifth suit - which runs from 1 to 21 - is always trumps. The appeal of the game though derives almost entirely from its bizarre partnership structure. Players bid to take the lead, and in three and four player games the other players then play against them. There is a “dog” or “kitty” of cards which gets dealt into in addition to the players hands and one side or the other - usually the lead - gets to use these depending on the bid. In a five player game, for added interest, whoever wins the bid gets to nominate a king and whoever holds that king becomes their partner - but that person is not revealed until the king in question is played, adding an absolutely delightful element of paranoia to proceedings. Obviously, whoever has the lead is at a numeric disadvantage and while the “dog” helps balance things out, I was taught that Tarot decks should never be shuffled, only cut, and cards dealt in threes which helps create imbalanced hands, allowing one person to make a confident bid. I’ve since learned this is actually an unusual variant and the standard approach is to shuffle and then, if no-one bids, to re-shuffle and deal again. But the bottom line is that watching your hand to see if it’s good enough to bid on the lead, the actual bidding and then the excitement of a dynamic partnership structure each and every game is incredibly addictive. Beyond the strategies that arise from the partnerships, there isn’t much thought in the individual tricks beyond trying to flush out and win the one of trumps, one of three cards that’s vitally important to the scoring of the game and the only one of the three that isn’t guaranteed to be won by its original owner. Once all the tricks are played, each partnerships totals up points scored for royal cards in the tricks it has won and the total needed to win depends on how many of those three scoring cards you managed to capture. The winning side’s score is then multiplied depending on the bid and the total divided amongst the players on that side. First single player to a pre-determined total is the winner which adds further interest to the bidding late in the game as players may try and take the lead on a relatively weak hand in order to further their chances of a sudden individual victory. It sounds fussy but it’s actually relatively simple and it’s totally the bidding and the related partnership versus single player win mechanics that drive the game.

So there you have it. Three of my favourites and a catalogue of classics to check out, all playable for the cost of one or two decks of cheap cards. It’s coming up to the holiday season so hopefully plenty of chances to try out some new card games with your friends and family if you don’t find the board games you wanted under the tree. Or, if you like the sound of what you read here, perhaps even if you do.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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