So, I’m willing to bet you didn’t know that with a deck of cards, you’re holding history in your hands. History! You could be playing games that date back centuries. More than that, from its relationship with China’s invention of paper; to its inclusion in the proliferation of ideas flowing from East to West; to teaching about famous courtly men like Charlemagne, Alexander, and King David; to introducing common idioms we still use today such as, “He’s not playing with a full deck” (I hear that one a lot for some reason); and even to fomenting the American Revolution and thus the maturation of human rights (what, so I can get a bit dramatic!); the history of cards is fascinating and diverse. No, really!
We’re a board gaming site. We really dig board games and we know that you do, too – that’s why you’re here! It’s a great hobby and a wonderful way to spend time with family and friends – and to make new ones. But they do have their drawbacks. When it comes down to it, often times I’m just as content or more to revisit some good old traditional card games. Because a deck of cards can be better than a board game – and here are 10 reasons why.
1. The Spice of Life
With just one deck of cards, you can step into a whole world of games. The number of titles, plethora of individual variations, and diversity of styles are literally unimaginable and practically endless. You can play simple games, quick games, complex games, long games, ones with sheer luck, or ones with more strategy. Even though it blows the mind, many of them are still easy to learn and quite accessible!
Special recommendation: Whist – the “grandfather” of all trick-taking games has so many variations, it could keep you content for a year: 2-7 players, a children’s form, no bidding, with bidding, no trumps, with trumps, majority trick-taking, exact trick-taking, no trick-taking – ah, the Spice of Life, indeed!
2. Cheap Cheap!
Not only do you have a tremendous variety of options with one deck of cards, it’s also inexpensive. Many options at one low price? That adds up to tremendous value! Even my imported European decks are much cheaper than any hobby game could ever dream of – and that includes smaller commercial card games. As a matter of fact, cards are so inexpensive that if you lose a card, spill something on them, bend them, tear them, or just plain play the faces off of them, just buy a new pack. No problem!
Special recommendation: Rummy – the standard and classic set collection game known to all but who live under a rock…it is so basic I wouldn’t want to pay any amount more than the cost of a deck to play.
3. A Comfy Blanket
The vast majority out there are familiar with a deck of cards. Period. People don’t have to be gamers to know about suits, rankings, and playing cards around a table. Whether it’s with a basic title like Go Fish or Crazy 8, or with a more sophisticated game such as Hearts or Spades, the foundation is already laid for you to build upon. Many people have even stronger roots in the genre, with card games writing an important story in their family history. In any event, breaking out a deck of cards to teach a traditional game is much easier than introducing a brand new board game. Newbies won’t look at you like you’ve just given them a Greek dictionary.
Special recommendation: Basra – a basic fishing game where you play a card from your hand to capture cards from the table that equal its value; not like the kid game Go Fish, but those familiar with it will learn this one just fine.
4. Micro Games? Please!
What’s with all the recent rage and craze over supposed “micro games?” Well, a deck of cards is the original micro game! A breeze to transport, easy to pull out, little time required for set-up, and just as quick to put away, a deck of cards is your gold standard for quick play with economy of components. But it’s not just quick play for the sake of quick play. Thanks to the variety available (see Point #1 above), you can have a deep, challenging, and rewarding game that will stand the test of time and lure you back again and again…unlike 90% of today’s forgettable, so-called “micro games.”
Special recommendation: Euchre – a lesser known 4-player partnership trick-taking game played with 24 cards in 5 rounds (now that’s micro!).
5. On Your Own Clock
Micro or not, the great thing about most traditional games with a deck of cards is that you get to customize your time commitment to suit your needs and that of your friends. Just set the victory threshold to whatever you wish. You can play a long game of many hands towards a high, set point total. Maybe you just want to knock out a few rounds for a quick session where the victor is whoever’s on top when you wrap up. Or any amount in between, even averaging multiple short games. Either way, you’re not locked in by design for a predetermined amount of time, nor does your group need to fuss and fret over finding a board game that fits whatever time you have available at that moment.
Special recommendation: Pitch – this 4-5 player trick-taking game offers several variations and a lot of flexibility on end-game goals (the 5-player “call for your partner” version is particularly a blast).
6. Dynamic Duos
One thing that board gaming sorely lacks is titles with team play – specifically partnership play. Cooperative designs had their triumph in the sun and continue to be somewhat popular, but the team vs. team or partner vs. partner title is rare indeed – even rarer when searching for one done well. The few team/partner hobby games that do exist are usually larger Ameritrash designs or, not surprisingly, smaller commercial card games. The number of partnership games that you can play with a mere deck of cards is legion. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks of card gaming, so ubiquitous that many players won’t consider a card game without a partner. The synergy and chemistry built with your partner as you read, lead, support, and build upon one another is rewarding, exciting, and often the source of much social bonding, as well as bragging and derision. Alas, it’s also almost exclusively unique to card gaming and sorely missed in board games.
Special recommendation: Spades – a classic 4-player partnership trick-taking game with strong partner play as you bid separately, but must win that bid together.
7. Let’s Play a Game
By their nature, classic card games are interactive. You’re playing off of, and hoping not to feed, your opponents. Even more, many classics involve bidding, a common form of interaction in gaming. There are two types in card games, with each having different effects. In the first, players bid for the right to control a hand, therefore hopefully scoring more points. This is usually done through bidding to choose trump, the ranking suit for that round. The second style of bidding is simply to declare how many points you think you’ll win, and then try to earn them. At the same time, you want to prevent your opponents from meeting theirs. While keeping you engaged and involved with ways to directly affect your adversary, this interaction is not overly abrasive or spiteful. There are board games with this same level of interaction, but so many are too extreme and direct, while others are almost completely solitary.
Special recommendation: Hearts – in this 4-player free-for-all, you’re hoping to avoid points (Hearts and the Queen of Spades), so there’s lots of interaction as you try to stick others with point cards; plus you will regularly trade cards amongst your opponents, as well.
8. Theme Schmeme
One of the more awkward dances in the board gaming hobby is around theme. Some have lots of it, some totally eschew it, and many more in between pretend to have it. With a deck of cards, there’s no need to make something up, because you don’t need it. You don’t have to try and force some narrative or artwork to bring reason to mechanics. With many titles, the effort is obviously contrived or ridiculous, which lessens the experience. Boring, odd, or overused themes may turn off gamers. At worse, some can be outright offensive. With a deck of cards, theme is never a concern. With a traditional card game, you need not worry about some artificial theme rubbing would-be players the wrong way. The cards, and the rules of your chosen title, are all that matter. It doesn’t get any purer that that.
Special recommendation: Cribbage – a (usually) 2-player adding and set collection game that utilizes a board for scoring; as in a Euro game, the only goal here is to earn points, but without the need to cram a forced theme down your face.
9. Blind Man’s Bluff
Traditional card games have a wonderful balance between known and hidden information. While true of some board games, a deck of cards is a near perfect venue in which to engage in information analysis. In almost all card games, you have access to information that no one else does – of course, that means the opposite is true, as well. Many games also reveal some cards for all players to see at various times, while many others keep some information hidden for an entire hand or round. While strict card-counting is not necessary, you do need to be aware of what previously hidden information has been revealed is. This can be challenging and intellectually rewarding. And thanks to its condensed size, it is very manageable – unlike many board games where information overload creates paralysis and spreadsheets.
Special recommendation: Poker – the universally recognized vying game is really about analyzing what you know and don’t know; and using that information to read your opponents, calculate odds, and bluff.
10. Create Your Own Luck
Okay, so card games are random. After all, it’s where we get the phrase, “Luck of the draw.” You can only work with what’s in your hand, but isn’t that the point? In board games, whether by design or not, randomness often just creates turmoil, arbitrarily changes game play at crucial moments, adds a catch-up mechanism, or injects some unnecessary risk-loss element. It can be chaos beyond player control. There may be times for that. However, with a deck of cards, you don’t have to worry that capricious randomness will mess with the game beyond the initial deal. It’s still player skills and decisions that drive game play.
Special recommendation: Briscola – very simple 2-5 player trick-taking game; a rare one with almost no restrictions to force players to play certain cards, which allows for more freedom and, thus, greater strategy.