Trials, Triumphs and Trivialities Article
Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #117:

Strategic Insights: Card Games

by Shannon Appelcline

May 1, 2003 — Last week we introduced a card game to the Skotos community. Gang of Four was a bit of a stretch for our gaming channel, because we'd never before offered a game that took under an hour to play. However, it seemed a nice complement to what we already had. After all, you can't always log in and have several hours free to really immerse yourself in the RPing of Castle Marrach. Or, alternatively, a player might want something to do between entering new orders into Hegemony and waiting for their results. Hence, Gang of Four — what will hopefully be the first of many professional tabletop board games here at Skotos.

Not surprisingly the introduction of Gang of Four really got me thinking about card games and how they fit into the structure of strategy games that I've been laying out for the last few months. Theoretically, according to my theory of strategy games, the choice of whether to use cards in your game is solely a question of what components you choose to include in your game; you can then build any type of gameplay you want from those components. You could even go a step further, after referring to my gameplay article, and say that most card games center around token interaction activities, with victory resulting from either token acquisition (taking tricks or high-value cards) or token destruction (discarding cards).

And, I think that's all entirely correct, and a very valid way to look at card games. However, card games are such a heavily studied and played subset of strategy games, that I think it's actually more helpful to look at card games in and of themselves — to treat them as a gameplay all their own.

So that's what I plan to do.

In writing all this I should clearly state that I'm not an expert on card games. I've played them for over twenty years, but never that seriously. Nowadays, I'm much more likely to play a game with a board and little wood pieces than just cards. I'm sure there are other folks out there who have written better treatises on the mechanics of the cards themselves. But, hopefully I'll also be able to offer some new insights on the interface between card games and the broader category of strategy games.

I've reviewed a couple of card games during my recent look into strategy games. You can find them here: Gang of Four (a traditional Oriental card game), Res Publica (a card game with unique card acquisition methods), Dungeoneer (an example of a game using cards as components, but none of the traditional card gameplay), Citadels (non-standard card gameplay, but interesting card acquisition methods) and Fist of Dragonstones (ditto, non standard card gameplay, but interesting card acquisition).

Types of Card Games

If you're trying to design a card game, your first question should be, "What type of gameplay do I want to include?" Card games tend to answer this question in a number of very traditional ways. I've included the most common ones below. Some of this terminology is borrowed from various card game web sites. I particularly suggest this one for lots of neat info about card games.

As with any type of gameplay, you need to start off by laying out the activities. This is what I've done below, with notes on the most common victories linked with each.

Trick Taking: The main activity of this sort of gameplay is taking individual sets of cards ("tricks"). Most commonly a trick involves each player playing one card and the "best" card of that set winning the trick. Many trick taking games are led off by bidding, whereby each player says how many tricks he'll be able to take. Most trick taking games mark their victory based on how many tricks each player takes, but as the example of Hearts shows, this isn't always the case.

Bridge is probably the best known example of this card game type. Players bid a combination of trump suit and trick number and the highest bid is then given the opportunity to try and take the bid number of tricks, with his requested suit as trump.

Hearts is a less common example because it reverse the normal victory conditions. In this game the core activity is still trick taking, but now players are actively trying to avoid taking tricks with Hearts or the Queen of Spades in them, because taking those cards results in negative victory points.

Hand Improvement: The main activity of this sort of game is slowly improving the valuation of your cards. This can be done in any number of ways: either by taking new cards, learning about new cards, or bluffing players with better cards out of the game. Victory is almost always entirely reciprocal to this activity: you compare cards at the end to see whose cards are best (though whose cards are worst is also a possibility, such as in a high/low Poker hand). Rules for adjudicating this comparison can be totally arbitrary though most Western players are familiar with the most common ranking: high card/pair/two-pair/three-of-a-kind/etc.

Poker, in its many variants, is the most well-known hand comparison game. In its most basic form, of unadulterated stud, players are given their cards one at a time and try to calculate statistics and attest their values to other players in an effort to be the player who remains in play the longest with the best hand.

Black Jack is a much more limited form of a hand comparison game. The comparison is based upon a simple valuation between 2 and 21. Players have the ability to increase their hand value, but at the potential cost of going over the limit and being disqualified.

Set Making: The main activity of this type of game is creating sets: typically pairs, triplets or quartets of the same card or else sequenced runs of cards ("2-3-4, etc"), either all in a required suit or not. Some set making games base their victory upon simply emptying your hand, while others base it upon the total value of the sets made (often minus the total value of the cards you didn't use).

Gin Rummy is the best-known Western example of set making gameplay. Players are forming sets in the hope of being able to complete their hand and go out before their opponent. Rummy 500 is a, to me, more interesting multiplayer variant. Each player places sets as he makes them, and there is the opportunity to add to sets created by other players. In addition, player can choose to offset risk with reward by increasing the number of cards in their hand through picking up parts of the discard pile.

Together trick taking, hand comparison, and set making games make up the majority of the card games played in the Western World, but there are other less well-known styles of game play which are at least equally interesting.

Card Matching: This sort of game sharply limits the activity of the game by restricting which cards can be played based on what cards are already on the table. The victory conditions can again vary, but most typically involve emptying your hand of cards. In this way they're somewhat similar to set making games.

Uno is probably the best known example of this game. You have to match either suit (color) or number of the previous card in order to play, and win as long as you can thus play all of your cards (as long as you don't forget to call Uno).

Many Solitaire games also tend to fall into this category, as you're forced to match cards in a complex array on the board. (We'll also return to Solitaire when we talk about abstract environments, below.)

Value Climbing: This type of game is most popular in the Orient. In it the main activity is playing cards of higher value than those already on the table until a current cycle of play has ended. (In this way it could really be seen as a very narrow subset of "card matching" games.) Victory is almost always based upon emptying one's hand.

Gang of Four is a clear example of this play. Through each cycle of play you drop down increasingly valuable cards, where the number of cards played must match the number chosen by the initiator of a cycle (e.g., you must follow a pair with a pair, a full house with some other 5-card combo, etc.). When one player goes out, the rest are given negative victory points based on how many cards they had left, and then another round of play begins.

Before I close out this listing of types of gameplay, I want to codify the various victory conditions which I've listed above, and which can actually be used piecemeal with the above activities, even if they haven't been traditionally. Victory breaks down into four general categories.

  • Most Cards - Player with most cards wins. More typically, the player with the the most tricks, or at least the bid number of tricks, wins.
  • Least Cards - Players with the least cards wins. More typically, the player with the least "bad" cards wins.
  • Most Valuable - Player with the highest card value wins.
  • Least Valuable - Players with the least card value wins.

Here's what everything I've talked about looks like in an activity/victory gameplay chart:

Trick Taking Hand Improvement Set Making Card Matching Value Climbing
Most Cards Bridge ? ? ? ?
Least Cards Hearts ? Gin Rummy Uno, Solitaire Gang of Four
Most Valuable ? Poker, Blackjack Rummy 500 ? ?
Least Valuable ? Lowball Poker ? ? ?

What I've described thus far does a good job, I think, of outlining in broad strokes how almost all traditional card games work. However, they're really just the edge of what can be done with card games, and perhaps not the most interesting possibilities if you're considering higher levels of complex strategy. However, strategy games — European strategy games in particular — have really shown the way to expand card games beyond the conservative methodologies, via: abstract environments, complex acquisition, and complex cards.

Varying the Genre: Abstract Environments

Most card games have no environment to speak of. You play your cards into a trick, or else just on top of the previous card played, and no other cards beyond that trick or that singleton card matter. However, some cards, including a few already mentioned, do something more complex: they turn cards into the environment through play.

Rummy 500 is a simple example of this. Once you put down a set, either you or other players can then play additional cards on that set. For example if you play 3 Aces, any player can then play the fourth. If you play 3-4-5 of Spades, someone can then play a "2" or a "6" (and after that an "Ace" or a "7"). This is a very abstract, dynamically changing environment.

Most versions of Solitaire work much the same. In Klondike — the most common variant of solitaire — an abstract environment known as a "tableau" is created out of seven columns of card, each with one card face up and a number of cards face down (between 0 and 6, depending on the columns). Cards are played to the tableau by placing on top of the face-up cards in descending, alternating-color order. In addition there is a "foundation" which initially starts out empty but which is peopled during gameplay by forming four piles of cards, one for each suit in ascending order. During play you can thus play to up to 11 different places within the environment: the 7 tableau spots and the 4 foundation spots.

Titan: The Arena, by Reiner Knizia and Don Greenwood, is a good example of a less traditional card game that succeeds at least partially based on its heavy use of cards as environment. Here there are 8 "suits", each of which is an arena warrior (Cyclops, Ranger, Dragon, Hydra, etc.) You play into an environment defined by the current round, with each suit of cards only playable into a suit-specific column. Once each round of play ends, the current environment is then examined to determine which arena contestant was killed in that round of combat (basically, once a card has been played into each surviving suit/column, and there are no longer any lowest-card ties, the column with the lowest card value is eliminated). Although this could be defined as a sort of "card matching" game with a "lowest value" anti-victory condition, the arrangement of everything into a specific environment dramatically changes the game from a standard card game dynamic into a much more interactive and centralized gameplay.

Varying the Genre: Complex Acquisition

Most card games have specific, and fairly boring rules for how you acquire your cards. Most frequently, such as in Bridge, you're dealt a hand of cards and go from there. Some games, such as Stud Poker, string out that dealing for gameplay reasons while other games, such as Draw Poker, let you discard and redraw some of your hand. Some games, such as Hearts, let you exchange a certain number of cards with a specific player before play starts. Other games, such as Rummy 500, let you choose your newly drawn cards from a variety of places (in the case of Rummy 500, either from the face-down draw pile or the face-up discard pile).

The best of these methods allow you to engage in a bit of extra gameplay strategy, to allow you to better your hand and also give you a bit of insight into what cards your fellows might be holding. However, they're only the very edge of the potential that you as a game designer have for making card acquisition an integral and unique part of your game. If you work at it, the acquisition of cards can be just as large a portion of your gameplay as getting rid of them. Usually this is done by introducing various trading methods as less important gameplay elements.

For example:

Purchase: Players purchase cards with some limited resource. Some variants of Poker actually allow this; for example some "Baseball" variants allow you to purchase an extra card by paying the pot some amount of money whenever you're dealt a face-up four.

Auction: Players purchase cards with some limited resource in opposition to other players. Fist of Dragonstones by Bruno Faidutti is a European card game which makes this acquisition method an integral part of its gameplay. Each complex card (for more of which, see below) is put out in a closed-fist auction. When all the bids are revealed, the top bidder takes the card.

Open Selection: Players take revealed cards from a limited set in a specific order. Citadels, also by Bruno Faidutti, uses this method. A set of complex cards, where the size of the set is equal to one more than the number of players, is passed around the table in order. Each player selects a card in turn, based either upon benefitting himself or keeping players after him from taking a specific card.

Trading: Players have a specific, usually constrained, way that they can use to exchange cards among themselves. Res Publica by Reiner Knizia offers a good example of this, where each turn a player either requests a card or offers a card for trade, and then each additional player gets to offer one exchange meeting his criteria.

You can read lots more about trading, and think more about its use in card games if you read last week's article.

Varying the Genre: Complex Cards

We're starting to get further and further from traditional card gameplay methods. At a certain points, things are different enough that thinking about the old card game paradigm really doesn't make a lot of sense. However, I think it's still worthwhile to consider how traditional card games can be extended by having complex cards.

Typically cards only have valuation. Through whatever manner (ranking of cards, ranking of suits, trump) the cards are ordered, and that's the main purpose of having different types of cards.

Some small number of card games include a limited number of cards that are more complex. For example many Poker variants make some cards "wild" — usable as any other card in the deck. Deuces wild, suicide kings wild, and one-eyed Jacks wild are all well-known possibilities. Baseball is one of the most extreme Poker games in this way. "3"s and "9"s are wild and "4" allow the drawing (or purchase) of another card. Uno is another game with a few complex cards. Besides wild cards which can always be played there are "Skip"s which omit a player, "Reverse"s which change the direction of play, and "Draw Two"s which force the next player to add to his hand.

Galaxy: The Dark Ages is an interesting game because it builds on a slightly more standard card game (the aforementioned Titan: The Arena) but also gives each and every card in the deck an additional power which can be used when it was played (the end result was a bit too complex, a topic of a former column, but the possibility of intermingling standard card valuations and more complex abilities is an interesting one).

Other games, which are so far removed from the standard card paradigm that I'm not sure this article is ultimately relevant for them, set aside the entire standard methodology of cards, with it suits and ranks, and instead make the only purpose of each card to have a complex effect. Fist of Dragonstones is a good example of this; each card can be used to gain access to certain limited resources (cards, stones, auction tokens) or to turn those resources into victory points.


Before I close up entirely on the topic of card games, I'd like to offer a brief reminder that cards can be used as macrocosm or microcosm. Through most of this article I've discussed the methods in which card games can work on their own, but that's really only part of the story, because any strategy game can use cards as an individual component.

The Settlers of Catan has its development cards, which are one of many paths to victory while Wizwar uses cards to denote players' movement, spells, and even items. All of these possibilities can possibly be improved if the design of the card gameplay itself is carefully considered, as per my discussion this week.

And with that, I'll see you next time.

Recent Discussions on Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities:

jump new