Thursday, November 09, 2006

Three More Traditional Card Game Styles

The January, 2007 issue of Knucklebones magazine is now out, and it features my second article for them, "Clubs, Spades and ... Orange Chameleons?!" The article generally discusses how traditional card styles are increasingly being updated into modern, commercial games by professional game designers. In the article I overview three different styles of play:

Mu & More
Four Dragons
Mystery Rummy

Go take a look at Knucklebones if you'd like to read more; the January issue has stuff on Mattel, Immortal Eyes, and reprints too. In the meantime for this week's Gone Gaming I have a sequel to this month's Knucklebones article: a discussion of three more styles of traditional card games being adapted for commercial play that didn't make it into the main article for space reasons.

Value Climbing Games

Value-climbing games are a traditional card game mechanic widely seen in Asian games but not in America. The object of these games is to empty your hand of cards. This is done by playing “tricks” of a sort, except that players may play multiple cards over multiple rounds of a single “trick”.

A “trick” starts when a player either plays a single card, a pair, a triplet, or a five-card hand (which can be one of several Poker-like sets: a flush, a straight, a full house, or a straight flush). Players then follow in the trick by playing the same number of cards, but of higher value—or else by passing. So, a pair of twos might be followed by a pair of sevens. Or, a flush of green cards could be followed by a flush of red cards, then a straight, then a full house. Play continues around (and around) the table until no one can play, and then the last person to play to the trick takes it and gets to start a new one. Carefully breaking down your hand to figure out how to get rid of all of your cards is important, as is controlling the lead so that you can start the right sorts of tricks to optimize your cardplay.

In 2002 two companies released relatively traditional versions of these games. However, because of their Asian origin these games use unique decks of cards that couldn’t be easily copied with a traditional American card deck. One was Golden Deuce (Playroom Entertainment) which is a family-oriented version of the game with some elements of luck, while another is Gang of Four (Days of Wonder), which is a serious and strategic variant. Gang of Four was just re-released in a new edition this Summer.

Mark Kaufman, in discussing his company’s publication of Gang of Four, reveals that even when a commercial company produces a fairly traditional game, they still tweak it to try and improve the gameplay: “While Gang of Four's underlying mechanics are similar to Choh Dai Di and other Chinese street card games, Lee Yih introduced several aspects that are subtle but have a significant impact on the game. The use of only 3 suits of cards, tightens up the tactical play. The scoring system, which is more punitive to those who are caught holding high numbers of cards, really effects the meta-game of how people work with or against each other to improve their position in the game. And the possibility of the Gang of Four [a four of a kind] being dropped at anytime adds a very important element of risk that you might be trumped, no matter how strong your play.”

The Great Dalmutti (Wizards of the Coast) and Dilbert: Corporate Shuffle (Wizards of the Coast) are party games in the value-climbing genre, while another strategic entrant, this one originating from Germany, is Tichu (Abacus Spiele). Each game offers some slight variants on the standard value-climbing gameplay.

Card Matching Games

In card-matching games players try and empty their hands of cards by matching (via some method) the last card played. Crazy Eights and the commercial Uno (Mattel) are the two best known examples of this gameplay. Steve Jackson Games published the thematic Spooks in this genre while Mike Fitzgerald’s Lord of the Rings Tarot Deck and Card Game (U.S. Game Systems) is another themed commercial example.

Solitaire is a sort of one-player card-matching. Many variants have been created with traditional card decks. A commercial variant is “Solar Solitaire”, one of the games in Space Dominoes (Games & Names), where you try and create structures by matching the three-piece dominoes shown on each card.

Card Fishing Games

Card-fishing games feature a central pool of cards. You take cards from that pool by playing certain (matching) cards to the table. Casino, one of the few traditional games in this style, disappeared after the 19th century, but modern games like Anathema (APE Games) and “Safarü” in Mu & More (Rio Grande Games) keep the genre alive.


If you've read many of my reviews or my TT&T articles at Skotos, you know that I love classifying things. I find patterns in game design (or elsewhere) interesting and intriguing. As a game designer it's interesting for me to break down these patterns to better understand the possibilities for a new game (would a card matching mechanism be viable here? how about hand comparison?) As a player I also find classification useful, because it helps me to find other games in similar categories to those that I already like.

And thus I present six of the most traditional patterns in card game design: trick-taking, set-collection, and hand-comparison (for more on which, see Knucklebones); and value-climbing, card-matching, and card-fishing.

Now get out there and play some cards!


Smatt said...

So do you attempt to break the molds and create new genres or what? Surely there are yet more ways to play with a deck of cards...

Shannon Appelcline said...

I generally think that these six styles of cardplay have been used a lot because they're powerful. I've got two card games in development right now, and I suppose they're both set-collection games, but as non-traditional games they vary a lot more from the base than anything I wrote about.

As for breaking the mold, that's probably a valid design methodology. What else could you do with cards? That'd be a fun topic to look at.