I sometimes wonder why I pay out for designer board games when I could just be playing with a deck of cards. No really. I appreciate card games cannot tell stories, and some mechanics like area control, or resource engine building you will struggle to get out 4 suits of numbers, but for anything involving set collection or winning quick rounds give me the cards.
Particularly when it comes to designer card games, I like Lost Cities, Red7, Lords of Scotland etc, but I think the games below are as good, perhaps better.
Some preliminary thoughts;
- I recommend getting a show off deck of cards. Most of these decks done by companies like Jocu or Riffle Shuffle, or Art of Play are for cardisry and magic, but they do look so good. Components make or break many games. Adding a good deck will raise your interest in card games.
So much better looking than many designer games, never mind card decks
- I’m in the never play for money camp (see this link before playing against strangers: 10 Levels of Sleight of Hand), but others only play for money. Money does provide a tangible value to any points in a game, and does raise the stakes in one’s mind.
- I recommend a tumbler of scotch, or a coctail as long as its suitably refined. A tweed jacket also wouldn't go a miss.
- If you think card games of luck, play for money against someone who is good.
Right now, I have one opponent most of the time, so here’s my top 5 two player games with a deck (or two) of cards:
A point trick taker from France. Stack and shuffle two decks A – 7 with Aces and Tens ranked above the court cards. Deal each player 8, play tricks with a trumph card flipped from the top of the deck at the end of the deal. You don’t need to follow suit on a trick (I am assuming everyone knows what trick taking is).
The kicker is each time you win a trick, you earn the right to play a set(meld) from your hand, giving you two ways to get points in this game, and trade-offs galore. 10 points are earned for capturing 10s and aces in tricks and a lot more points are gain for laying 4s of a kind or marriages or bezique’s (Queen of spaces having an affair with the jack of diamonds).
Having to trade off melding sets vs spending your best cards winning suits is great game play, the double deck balances the deal a bit meaning blow outs are rare. This game has really got its hooks in me, I love working the draw probabilities and deciding when to gamble on future draws or cut my losses and play out my hand. For the last 8 tricks the rules change adn you must follow suit and try to win if you can. So the game enforces some longer term strategy on top of the medium term trade offs. Famously this was Chuchill's favourite game.
I’ve played cribbage for several years, it’s an old English pub game, and some pubs have tables with cribbage scoring boards fixed to the tables.
Deal 6 to each player, with each player discarding two cards to the dealers ‘crib’. The game has three rounds, one of card play, two of pure scoring. First players alternate playing a card, adding the running total until you hit 31 and reset if there are any cards remaining. You score points if you play the card that hits 15, or 31, or a pair, or a sequence. The strategy is in goading your opponent into laying cards you can then add to, gaining a score. The second round, both players score their hands using a turn up card if they wish, making as many 15s, runs, or sets in as many combinations as they can. Then the dealer repeats this with the crib.
This is a game that chucks points at you, the skill is in getting even more, rinsing every last drop. Understanding probabilities, and learning your opponent’s tendencies is fairly key. The only downside is there is a fairly strong first dealer advantage. You play to 121 points, with dealers alternating, but getting that first crib does give one player a notable head start all things being equal. You can bid points for first deal to even it up though.
A complex two decker game of rummy from Uruguay. Stack and shuffle two decks with jokers and deal 15 cards to two players. Draw two discard one on your turn, and lay down as many sets as you can. First out gets 100 bonus points and ends the round. A Canasta is a set of 7 cards, and you need two canasta to earn the right to go out.
Where canasta steps above basic rummy games is in how the discard pile works. You can draw off the deck, or the discard pile. But if you take the top card off the discard pile, you must combine it into a set straight away, and you pick up every card beneath it. This is therefore a game of big brass balls. Are you gonna pick up 6 useless cards, or perhaps 10 to get 2 cards you want from that pile? Perhaps we have both discarded enough cards to make whole sets just from the discard pile? Games are often won or lost spectacularly on someone picking up a thick deck in the mid game.
Twos and jacks are wild cards for sets, and twos and black threes can lock or freeze the discard pile making it harder to pick up, and there is plenty of interplay around what to discard and when. Other than perhaps Mahjong, Canasta is peak rummy.
4. Gin Rummy
Having said Canasta is peak rummy, Gin Rummy is still a strong contender.
Gin rummy is a purist’s rummy, the game distilled down to push your luck and discard watching. You have a 10 card hand, draw one, discard one. When you have less than 10 card value not grouped in sets or runs in your hand (the deadwood), knock and end the round for scoring. Pretty simple stuff, your score is your deadwood minus theirs with a 25 point bonus if you had no deadwood, and a 25 point bonus if your opponent knocked and you’ve less dead wood than them. It is a very tense game as you don't know when your opponent is going to slam on the breaks vaulting you through the car window.
Gin is a bit suceptable to a badly shuffled deck and hands can end very quickly, but when it fires it fires. A good game for poker faces and over reading discards.
5. Sixty Six / Schnapsen
Paradoxically this might be the best game on the list. However I’ve only played it once, and I won 7 nil, so my opponent wouldn’t play again. Sixty Six is a point trick taker with set collection and very similar to bezique. But where Bezique uses two decks and many sets, Sixty six uses a single deck stripped below 9 and the only sets you score for are suit marriages.
Schnapsen is possibly derrived from schnaps!
With a very short deck and a hand of only 6 cards this is a much tighter game than Bezique. You score for capturing court cards, aces and tens, but have to memorise your score as you go with first to reach 66 getting one game point for the round. If you win by more than 33 points you get two game points, if you win every trick you get 3. One final wrinkle is you can lock the draw pile, by declaring that you can win with just what is in your hand. If you fail your opponent gets bonus points.
By allowing you to lock the deck sixty six adds a great gambling dimension to a really tight trick taker. This is a sharp game that I’d like to play a lot more of. Schnapsen is very similar to sixty six but with an even smaller deck and some differences in the play once the deck has been closed.
What do you think are the best two player card games? I might follow this up with some 3-4 player games when I am allowed to play them again.