Playing With Cards

No. 8, November - December, 1998

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.

Cards, as I'm fond of saying, are very old. They're also very portable, so they tend to travel a lot, and they tend to be played when very little other entertainment is available. They are readily accessible, and so, for many populations, they are virtually omnipresent. They provide instant socialization and entertainment - just add people. And, historically, because of their popularity, they have tended to absorb and inform the cultural interests and concerns of the day. Some times, they also absorb other games. This month, I decided to look at cards that have done just this, and become more than just playing cards; some are part of other games, some inform other games, some are other games entirely, and some merely entertain.

Cards, by their very simplicity, lend themselves to being drawn into other applications. Some times you will see them used much like flash cards, like the Airplane Spotter's Deck from World War II, where cards were used to train the eyes of civil defence officers. Or you may find decks like the Football Widows deck, which is primarily a tutorial on the rules of football, with suits and ranks as an afterthought. And of course, there is the whole, venerable suite of fortune-telling systems which co-opt playing cards into a completely different line of work.

So, there's more than one way to play with cards. Sure, there are plenty of old stand-by card games, like Bridge, Pinochle, Canasta and Cribbage. But then there are games that use playing cards in whole, new ways, some times not even as playing cards at all, but just rectangular pieces of paper which happen to also have suits and ranks on them. And there are the more subtle games-within-games, where under the guise of playing a hand of cards you are actually playing at something very different. Think James Bond in the original Casino Royale, where under the auspices of a game of Chemin de Fer (Baccarat), he was playing out a subterfuge of the whole East German espoinage network. Or, closer to home, consider a simple game of strip poker - and tell me what subtle games are being played under the guise of a simple hand of cards.

This issue I present a collection of decks that are more than playing cards.  Among them I have a complete board game, a book of poetry melded with a riddle-solving contest, educational cards for children, optical illusions, a lottery number generator, and, of course, the tried-and-true matching rummy game. There are certainly plenty more decks like these, some of which I've displayed in the past.  But let these be merely an example of what mysterious crossbreeds of playing cards are to be found in the wild.

[Gone With the Wind]First up this issue we have a complete trivia board game from Classic Games, called Gone With the Wind. It plumbs deep into the trivia of both the book and the movie, and is great fun for the serious buff. It's a mite bewildering to the rest of  us. It's almost as an afterthought that the trivia question-and-answer cards are also playing cards. The deck comes with two complete 52-card decks, though with no jokers, and is fairly suitable for any playing-card game, except that the cards are twice as big as regular cards, and the suits have been changed to characters in the movie.

[Key to the Kingdom]Next up, we have the Key to the Kingdom, a creation of Tony Meeuwissen from Running Press. This is easily one of my favorite decks of cards, full of beautiful and subtle pictures, and accompanied by a book of delightful poetry to go with each picture. But be careful - there's a mystery to be discovered somewhere within these cards, and a $10,000 reward for the first to figure it out (the deadline for entry was, alas, 1994). For the artwork alone, it's a deck well worth having. But the extra features, the poetry and the riddle, make it a surpassing delight.

[Brain Quest]Next we have the logical marriage of playing cards and flash cards, in a fiendish plot to get children to learn while they play. The Brain Quest series, from Workman Publishing (printed by the venerable USPCC), is broken down into grade levels so the questions will always be appropriately challenging. Here I present the deck for Grades 3-4 ("you can't take 4 from 3, 3 is less than 4..."). The game consists of two decks of cards - one, with suits and ranks, has sets of four questions and answers. The other, without markings, contains instructions for playing the game (e.g. "Answer the next three questions"; or "Ask your best friend for help on the next question"). And the set also has instructions for taking standard children's games like Go Fish and fusing the question-and-answer features of Brain Quest into them.

[Optical Illusions]Another entry in the playing-cards-as-picture-galleries field is the well-heeled form of optical illusions decks. This particular entry is from Y&B Associates, and is a simple collection of many of the standard optical illusions. While unsophisticated in its presentation, this deck is both fun and educational, in the sense that it presents the illusions without clothing them in mystery. It's a good survey of all the standard illusions you will see from other sources.  It's not a game in and of itself, but merely visual entertainment. As an added bonus, the experienced player can try to guess his opponent's cards by which way his eyes are crossing.

[Lottery Numbers]Suspicious of the "quick-pick" lottery number generators at lottery outlets? Want to make up your own numbers but can't seem to find the time to do it right?  This deck is for you. The Deal Away - 56 World Lotto Playing Cards deck from Nuventions, Inc. is, at it's heart, a random number generator.  Shuffle the deck, and lay out a hand with enough cards, and you have a winning pick for the next lottery.  With four jokers, this deck can count all the way up to 56, and the cards also form repeating series of one-digit numbers, perfect for daily lottery numbers. Not especially complex, it serves its stated purpose admirably.

[Indian Chiefs]And finally (I decided against doing Fore Play, a variation on simple strip-poker, with special instructions on the cards), I offer the classic game-within-a-game educational deck. Thanks in great part to the product line of U.S. Games Systems (whose deck this is), there has been an explosion of matching-rummy games made on standard playing cards. This one, Indian Chiefs of the Old West, is structurally identical to so many others - there are thirteen sets of four cards, with each set giving different information about its particular subject. But it's an educational and interesting deck.

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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