A Game of War

No. 6, August - September, 1997

For other issues, related links, the catalog of my entire collection, and other administrative or trivial issues, please jump to the end of the page.

To see the individual pages about each deck, click on the small images on this page. To see full-size images of the cards themselves, click on the small images on the individual pages.

War is among the oldest pastimes known to mankind, and one of the most captivating. Whether glorified, demonized or even marginalized, war has found representation in every kind of art, from literature and poetry, sculture and painting, to toys and games. Some of our most popular modern pastimes, from chess to football, are analogous to war. We might well expect themes of war to find expression in playing cards just as they have so many other pastimes.

But playing cards are especially well suited to parallels of war. From their earliest modern history, playing cards have reflected feudal society, breaking down into two separate groups, face cards and number cards. The face cards have always been royalty, representing kings, queens, knights and courtiers, and it is with good reason that war has been called the other sport of kings (horse-racing being the first). Conveniently, the number cards are all faceless, literally, the mere soldiers in the armies of the royalty, the servants in the palaces, or the peasant farmers.

And though there aren't many explicitly warlike card games, there's more to a deck of cards than just the play. Cards themselves have always been the poor-man's portrait galleries, often full of pictures of the important people and events of the times. And since few events are more far-reaching than war, those wars have found their depiction across a myriad of decks of cards. From the heroes of the Trojan War to Charles de Gaulle and the Normandy invasion, the mythical to the modern, the names and the faces of war can be found in cards everywhere.

In this issue we have seven decks to offer in the theme of war, from the men and machines who prosecute the war to the propaganda of war to a tongue-in-cheek antithesis to war. There are many more decks about wars and their effects, even within my own collection, but I wanted to get a representative sample without too much repetition. Even so, there's a lot here. The American Civil War is by far the most popular theme in my collection, but that is probably just because I happen to live in the United States, and the Civil War is a popular theme here. But the Second World War is fast encroaching, with the French Revolution patiently knitting on the sideline, waiting its turn.

[Arms and Armaments]From United States Games Systems comes this deck, part of a brand-new series depicting various elements of the American Civil War. The deck shown here is the Arms and Armaments card game, one of four in the series, which also includes famous Women, Generals and Battles of the war. An educational rummy-like deck, it contains thirteen sets of weapons, from bayonets to gunboats, with four individual weapons depicted in each set. A paragraph of information about each category of weapon is spread across the bottoms of all four cards, and each card contains yet more information about the particular weapon itself.

[Confederate Generals]A much older deck from USGS (well, comparatively - it might be 15 years old now), this deck features portraits of fifty-two Confederate Generals. This is part of a double-deck, the other deck having fifty-two portraits of Union Generals instead. Each card has the engraved picture of a general active in the war, with a reduced image of a regular playing card from the time in the upper left corner, to show the rank of the card. The deck is a reproduction of a deck originally published in 1863, at the height of the war, by M. Nelson of New York. This printing is quite well done, and adds a back design and two extra cards (indexing the generals) that were not in the original.

[Jeu des Croisades]To dispel the illusion that the Civil War has any monopoly on playing cards, I offer this deck from B.P. Grimaud, the Jeu de Cartes des Croisades. It isn't an authentic deck from the Crusades era, but that's only because cards would not be introduced to Europe for a few hundred more years. This deck was designed in 1996 by Sans Peur et Sans Reproche of Lille, France, attempting to capture the aesthetics and atmosphere of mediaeval art, especially as regards the Crusades themselves. Inspired partly by history and partly by legend, it depicts some of the major political forces behind and in the Crusades, on both sides of the wars.

[Airplane Spotters]Another deck from U.S. Games Systems, this one is a reproduction of a deck of cards produced for the Second World War for the purpose of training Civil Defence Officers to be able to recognize airplanes by their silhouette. The Airplane Spotter's Deck shows American, German, Japanese and British planes, since it's equally useful to be able to recognize friendly planes as unfriendly. Each card shows three silhouettes of each plane, front, side and top. The deck also comes with a title card, as well as two other cards, taking the place of jokers, which offer instructions for how to maximize the purpose of the deck while playing regular card games.

[WWII Posters]The World War II Poster Art deck is a collection of posters from the war era in both England and the U.S. The posters cover everything from patriotic propaganda to recruitment, advice and instructions. They're an interesting look at the life and times of civilians in war-torn London, and on the nervous coasts of the United States. Produced in England from various British museums, they naturally lean toward the English perspective, but there is plenty from both sides of the Atlantic.

[Civil War]These Playing Cards Commemorating the American Civil War are from Fournier of Spain. Designed by a professor from a school of fine arts in Madrid, the deck provides a good, external perspective on the American Civil War. The face cards, aces and fours offer images of the most well-known people and events of the war. The deck includes a descriptive pamphlet, which identifies and describes each of the people and battles shown on each of the cards. Neither deep nor surprising, this deck is a simple overview of the war, but a very good view of the European impression of the war.

[Politically Correct War]No collection of playing cards about war would be complete without this tongue-in-cheek antithesis of war. University Games' Non-Violent, Politically-Correct War game is populated with such suits as Peace and Diversity, and has some unmistakable hippies as the face cards. But the satire doesn't stop there - the deck comes with rules for a game by the same name, where the point is to lose all your cards. And the joker, a stereotypical Rambo-style modern warrior, is the weakest card in the game. Not quite over-the-top, this deck teeters dangerously on the brink.

The End of the Page

My collection, the list of publishers and manufacturers, and the history of my personal collection of cards can all be found in the "My Collection" page.

I thought about doing the standard Net thing and assembling a list of useful links surrounding playing cards, collecting and such, but no effort I could produce could possibly rival The Bob Lancaster Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards. He has a monstrous list of collectors, artists, manufacturers and just plain interesting sites about playing cards. And so, in deference to his monumental efforts, I provide only a link to him. I hope he doesn't have to pay by the hit...

And people are always asking me where to buy cards. There are plenty of places throughout the net that sell them, from little theme sites that happen to have a deck or two to enormous cards and games superstores. Bob's site lists many of them, but I have to confess - I just like Newt's Playing Cards. And they've got a heck of a selection.

Other Issues:

Issue 9, 10/99 - 12/99: Oh, the Places You'll Go

Issue 8, 11/98 - 12/98: Playing With Cards

Issue 7, 10/97 - 12/97: Sports Cards

Issue 6, 8/97 - 9/97: A Game of War

Issue 5, 6/97 - 7/97: Playing Cards As Art

Issue 4, 4/97 - 5/97: Court Fashions

Issue 3, 2/97 - 3/97: A Fortune in Playing Cards

Issue 2, 12/96 - 1/97: Literature on Playing Cards

Issue 1, 10/96 - 11/96: Handmade Playing Cards

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