I don’t recall how it started, but I’m at the tail end of a several-day Wikipedia crawl through playing cards and card games. Read on for fun trivia, neat games you might not have heard of, and, if your playing card experience is primarily American, probably the destruction of a lot of your assumptions around what a “standard deck of cards” is.
These mostly reflect my interest in the how we ended up with the 52-card, four-suit deck I grew up playing cards with.
- The Tarot trumps started life as a dedicated trump suit for Italian playing cards. France imported them from Italy, some folks started using them for cartomancy in the XVIIIth Century, and then that got exported to England.
- Those “exotic” suits of Wands, Cups, Pentacles/Coins, and Swords? Yeah, those turn out to just be the standard “Latin” suits in use in Italy, and still used some today in Italy, Spain, and thereabouts.
- Corner indices - a small notation of the suit and rank at the corners of the cards, to let you easily read your hand with the cards fanned, without having to study the whole face over - are kinda recent. They seem most common with Anglo/French cards, and you can still find other flavors of decks without them.
- Corner indices are what drove the adoption in English of “Jack” as the name for the lowest court card. Before that, “Jack” was kinda slightly scandalous/lower class, and everyone called them “Knaves”, even up into the XIXth Century it seems. But it turned out to be way too easy to confuse the “K” and the “Kn” when you had your cards fanned, so, out with the Knave, and in with the Jack!
- French suits - hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades - partly took off because they are such simple shapes that they make it easy to just stamp out the pip cards. This made them a lot cheaper and to produce. No fancy crossed seven clubs art needed!
- The English names for French suits reflect that English card playing started with the Latin suits. What we call “clubs” and “spades”, the French call “clovers” and “pikes”. The corresponding Latin suits actually are clubs and swords, and “spades” is just a name for a kind of sword.
- The French suits actually evolved out of the German suits of Hearts, Bells, Acorns, and Leaves. (The Swiss swap Hearts for Roses and Leaves for Shields, because they’re cool like that.)
- You can still buy German-suited decks today! And some of the German games get played with both systems, and there’s even a hybrid, compromise deck (used in tournaments for the German card game Skat) that uses French suit symbols with German suit colors.
- Cards are used to play card games, and card games can be used for gambling, so people sometimes banned cards. So you’d sometimes see tiles pop up, or a renewed interest in Dominos, or, if you’re purebred American Puritan, you’ve got your XXth Century Rook deck, with 4 colored suits (just colors: black, red, yellow, and green) of 14 cards (which matches a tarot deck having four court cards per suit of jack, knight, queen, king, or similar), plus a blue Rook card that acts kinda like a trump. It’s mostly just used nowadays (and maybe ever?) to play a card game named after the deck.
- The “red suits” (vs the “black suits”, or if you fancy the Latin decks, the “long suits” vs “round suits”) used to rank their pip cards the other way around, where 1 (ace) is high and 10 is low, rather than 10 high and 1 low. This old-school inverted ranking is still used when playing modern-day French Tarot!
- Jokers started life as a “super trump” for Euchre. “The Imperial Bower” takes all comers. Then they spread from there, till you can find some games having six jokers in play. Because they’re such a recent card, their design is not standardized, but usually, in two-joker decks, there’s a “greater” and a “lesser” joker, where the lesser either is uncolored or has the deck’s guarantee printed on it or whatever. This allows to rank the two jokers against each other for cases where they’re at the top of the trumps.
- The French court cards are considered as depicting specific historical/literary characters, rather than just being anonymous stand-ins. Decks sometimes have the character’s name written vertically along the edge.
- “Stripped decks”, where you play with less than 52 cards, sometimes way less, by throwing out whole ranks across all the suits, are actually pretty darn common! You see this in some games played with an Anglo-French deck, like Euchre, but for some other-suited decks, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone selling a deck with all 52 cards, simply because the most popular games played with those decks (like Skat with the German deck) don’t need that many cards. This goes for, well, basically every deck flavor other than the Anglo-French – at least, that’s the impression I’ve retained after browsing around. That includes most Tarot card decks.
Most of these stuck out for me based on national popularity. Like, “Whoah, there’s this game I never knew existed, and it’s the biggest card game ever in (some country/region)?”
- The big German games are Skat, Doppelkopf, and Schafkopf. Skat especially is big, with an active playing community and standardized rules for competition.
This snippet of Wikipedia just tickled my fancy:
In Germany, Schafkopf is not deemed a gambling game and can therefore be legally played for money. Especially in Bavaria it is normally played for small amounts of money to make it more interesting and the players more focused. Normal rates are 10 Euro cents for normal and 50 for solo games.
- You need like 5-7 riffle shuffles to properly randomize a deck. Using a machine saves your hands and gives you a seriously randomized deck, which is why you see them used so often in gambling games.
- True randomness isn’t even really desirable in some card games! The Grand Skat Authority (not their actual name) actually ruled against using a shuffling machine, since it’d introduce too much randomness in the deck. On the far side of “eh, random shuffling, meh”, the rules of Belote straight up bar shuffling between hands: You just cut the deck before beginning dealing for the hand, instead.
- The big French games look to be Belote and French Tarot these days. Formerly, Piquet was pretty big, and it had its hey-day in England, as well.
- The big Eastern European game is Durak, or “Fool”, which is an interesting shedding-type game (your aim: end up holding no cards, as fast as you can). In characteristic Eastern European style, it seems the game has no winners, only a designated loser, the fool who’s the last one left holding cards at the end of the game.
- I didn’t touch on East Asia in the card deck bit, but they’ve got their own thing going on, with games you mostly won’t find in the US, aside from a Hanafuda import popular in Hawaii called Koi-Koi. Japanese deck evolution was driven by the Tokugawa Shogunate’s anti-Western bent, though there are also games that derive from a kind of “finish the poem” matching game mold. I often found the descriptions on Wikipedia of these games kind of hard to follow, probably because they’ve received less attention - I was reading the English-language Wikipedia, after all, and it has its biases.
- The play style I’m familiar with in Euchre is pretty similar to a class of games related to Whist. Hearts is a “negative game” where the goal is to not score points (“card golf”), while Spades seems like it might be treated as Bridge with Training Wheels?
- Euchre has a less confusing recent variant called Bacon, which doesn’t have the suit-shifting fun times of the Left Bower.
- The game Ombre (“I’m l'Hombre, err, the man!”) introduced auctions into card games.
- Whist eventually evolved into Contract Bridge, which seems completely bonkers from the outside, especially once you run into the notion of Brown-Sticker and Yellow-Sticker bidding conventions/tendencies.
- Scarto is a three-player Tarot game that’s supposed to be an easy starting point if you want to get into that class of game. Loser of the game buys the next round of beers. What’s not to love?
- Cribbage is supposedly kinda big in England? I know of the game, but haven’t really ever played it, though I recall puzzling over a cribbage board my mom had once or twice as a kid.
- Cribbage is also apparently kinda “The Game” for US submariners, and they keep a WWII-vintage cribbage board in the wardroom of the oldest submarine, and pass it on to the now-oldest whenever that one gets decommissioned.
- Scopa is a major Italian game, also apparently kinda popular in Brazil and some parts of the US. It’s a kind of matching/capturing game.
- I grew up playing “plain trick games”, where scoring is basically just who got how many tricks, with maybe some bonuses for a shut-out or playing alone, but nothing fancy. Loads of European games, though, are what are called “point-trick” games, where the scoring depends on the specific cards captured and their assigned point-values. Sounds like kind of a pain to track to me, but I’m sure it becomes easy-peasy after a few evenings, especially given their widespread popularity!
- OK, in case point-trick games weren’t complicated enough, a ton of games also include “declarations”, where you can score points for holding certain combos of cards, at the price of revealing info about your hand to your opponents. And some games (OK, mostly just the German games!) have several different “game modes”, where the flavor of the game varies based on deal or sometimes choice, or sometimes it just cycles through the game flavors. Forcing cycling seems more common in competitive play, with stuff like, “everyone has to trigger this one game mode at least once” popping up across several different games.
- There are some really cool looking decks with suits I knew nothing about out there. Many wouldn’t be too useful for playing the card games I’m used to, due to their starting life as a stripped deck for playing the games most popularly played in their region.
The big regional games are probably worth looking at if you’re looking for something new to play:
- French Tarot
- Contract Bridge is, uh, shall we say, “baroque”. Think “C++ template metaprogramming”. It’s at the end of a long evolution begun with Whist, but it seems frozen as a result of competitive international play. If you really want to lose yourself in detail, though, this might be the game for you!