Understanding cards – most universal game platform

It fits in your pocket, it costs a few dollars (pounds), you can buy it everywhere and immediately play hundreds of games with it. It does not require any power source. This is of course a deck of cards. Most versatile and comfortable gaming platform in the world! If you want to fully appreciate its charms, if you want to really understand it, you have to learn something about its history and all possible uses in games!

Try guess! How many card games are out there in the world? Less than 50? More than 100?

Nah! There are hundreds of card games and in my opinion no one ever counted them all. Deck of cards is an exceptional tool for everyone who love games. It is also an interesting cultural artifact and some decks are simply artworks.

There are card games for one person (patiences or solitairies). Some of them have much random elements, some are more strategic. There are solitairies using one deck of cards or played with multiple decks. With jokers or without them.

When it comes to games for two or more players there are few types of them.

  • Trick-taking games (like Bridge, Skat, Whist, Spades, Ecarte, Preferance, Oh Hell and many more).
  • Trick-avoiding games (many variants of Hearts)
  • Point-trick games with melds (66, Thousand, Bezique and their numerous variants).
  • Matching games (especially Rummy and Canasta variants).
  • Comparing games (like Cribbage and some gambling games like Poker or Baccarat).
  • Shedding games (Makao, Crazy Eights and many more)
  • Games using cards as elements of board built during play.
  • Games where players attempt to determine the rule established by one player (Eleusis).
  • Multi-genre games combining elements from all presented types.

Almost all card games have element of luck. Despite this, some of these games are serious mind sports (like Bridge). It is not surprising because – as I explained earlier – games with element of luck also require thinking to win. You can reduce random element from competition through so-called duplicate games – when  same deals are played at each table and scoring is based on relative performance. This allows to compare how individual players coped with cards they got.

Deck of cards is very flexible “game platform”. There are 52 cards in standard deck  but you can add additional jokers. You can play with multiple decks at the same time, but there are also “short” decks from 7s to Aces (32 cards) or from 9s to Aces (24 cards). Some games use multiple short decks (for example two 24-card decks from 9s to aces).

Most often contemporary decks are so called French decks including aces, pip cards and “court” or face cards (Jacks, Queens and Kings). There are four cards of each rank, divided into four suits: hearts (), diamonds (), clubs () and spades (). It is interesting that clubs are called “clubs” but  they look more like a clover. Spades don’t really look as spades, rather like leaves. In Poland  clubs are called “acorns” or “trefle” (this second word means nothing more to Poles than the name of card suit). And diamonds in Poland are called   “bells” or “karo”. Did you ever wondered from where these different names come from? It can be explained but first you must know some history of cards.

History of playing cards in short

Far and Middle East

The first playing cards probably originated in China, like dominoes. This could happen as early as the 9th century AD. In China, the invention of the cards probably coincided with the invention of the books made of pages instead of paper rolls.

First cards could be simply a paper version of the Chinese dominoes, such as those used to play games of Tien Gow or Pai Gow. Let me remind you that Chinese domino tiles have not only value but also a suit! There are two groups of tiles in one set – “military” and “civilian”.

There are also theories that the first playing cards were just money (banknotes and/or coins). Maybe such games with money gave rise not only to cards but also to Mahjong.

Through the Silk Road cards arrived in Persia. And there, in the 13th century, they gave rise to a game known as Ganjifa, Ganjapa or Gânjaphâ. This game uses a set of round or rectangular cards, including ten pip cards and two court cards (king and vizier). They had four suits. Suits could use such motifs as cups, coins or swords instead of clubs, hearts or spades we know today.

Various Ganjifa variants arose with time and cards used varied motifs. There were cards with zodiac signs, with pictures showing Krishna struggling with demons, cards with avatars of god Vishnu. There were sets with different numbers of cards for different games and for different numbers of players. The image below shows the cards from 19th century, but designed for the old Indian game of Ganjifa. On this basis you can imagine ancestors of contemporary playing cards.

Note that there are five flowers on one card and three jugs on other. You could say this is a “Three of Flowers” and  “Five of Jugs”.

Ganjifa cards from Rajasthan (XIX century). Opaque watercolor on cardboard. Photo of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (public domain)

In Egypt playing cards could appear early – in 11th century – but we know it only thanks to few oldest surviving cards. But there is one full set of cards from the 15th century. It was found by Leo Aryeh Mayer in the Topkapi Palace. This set was probably  composed of three different packs by replacing missing cards. It probably contained 52 cards divided into four suits: polo sticks, coins, swords and cups. Each suit contained ten pip cards and three court cards: king, deputy king and under-deputy.

This cards were made extremely decoratively in true Arabian aesthetics. On the picture below you can see four cards from this set: Six of Coins, Ten of Polo Sticks, Three of Cups and Seven of Swords.

Cards from Topkapı Sarayı (image author: Countakeshi lic. CC By-SA 4.0)

Cards in Europe

Cards such as those from Egypt were brought to Europe around the 14th century. Of course there was a need to adapt them. Polo was not known sport in Europe, so polo sticks were replaced by clubs or cudgels.

First cards were painted by hand, but in the 15th century in Europe people start to make them just as earlier in China. Cards were printed using woodcut technique. Colours and ornaments were painted later on print. Professional card makers appeared. A beautiful example of deck from this period is known as Hofjaren Jachtpakket. It is now the part collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This deck has already Jacks, Queens and Kings. The suits are based on hunting motifs like hound tethers or horns.

Hofjaren Jachtpakket (public domain)

There were more such hunting decks. As you can see the suits were not so standardized as today. There had to be just four suits and that’s all.

In the 15th century Tarot decks appeared. Today we see Tarot as something related to divination but Tarot decks were first used to play. Today we can still meet people who play Tarot games but it’s rather a rarity. Of course Tarot decks were always more expensive and more ornate that standard decks.

It’s interesting how the price of cards affected their role. Cheap “ordinary” cards remained a popular “game platform” while expensive Tarot cards took the place of unusual gadgets to perform magic.

Tarot could be invented during experiments with adding a fifth suit to a deck of cards. Idea of fifth suit today is partly implemented by trump suit, present in many games with a Bridge as a best example.

Clubs or acorns? Deck types

Cards conquered all Europe and in different countries new concepts of suits emerged. Former Egyptian or Latin motifs were replaced by hearts, roses, acorns or bells. Viziers and advisors were replaced by kings and queens.

Today we mostly use French deck with four suits – hearts (), diamonds) (), clubs () and spades (). In French this suits are called cœur (heart), carreaux (tile, tiles), trèfle (clover) and pique (spear, lance). So symbols on most contemporary decks are in fact hearts, tiles, clovers and spears.

But French deck is not only the type of deck known and used today. There are other types and we can recognize them thanks to suits.

  • German deck (suits: hearts Bay_herz.svg, bells Bay_schellen.svg, acorns Bay_eichel.svg, leaves Bay_gras.svg).
  • Swiss-German deck (roses RosendeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, bells SchellendeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, acorns EichelndeutschschweizerBlatt.svg, shields Bouclier_jeu_de_carte.svg)
  • Italian deck (cups Seme_coppe_carte_trevisane.svg, coins Seme_denari_carte_trevisane.svg, clubs Seme_bastoni_carte_trevisane.svg, swordsSeme_spade_carte_trevisane.svg)
  • Spanish deck (cups Seme_coppe_carte_spagnole.svg, coins Seme_denari_carte_spagnole.svg, clubs Seme_bastoni_carte_spagnole.svg, swords Seme_spade_carte_spagnole.svg)

French is the most popular type of deck but many Skat players like to use German deck (after all Skat is German game). A friend from Puerto Rico told me Spanish cards are used there (and I think that’s cool!)

Below you can see example Spanish and German decks. Note the distinctive suits!

Spanish deck (photo author: Countakeshi lic. CC BY-SA 4.0)
German deck (photo author. Arnulf zu Linden, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Apart from the suits, typical card patterns were developed. In various countries clothes of kings and queens had national motifs. Even regional patterns appeared like Bavarian or Castilian patterns.

National and regional patterns traveled through the world and inspired creators of new cards and card games. For example Spanish deck gave rise to Portuguese deck. And Portuguese sailors brought their cards to Japan and gave a birth to the Japanese card game called Karuta. Below you can see the Unsun karuta deck. Those dragons are awesome!

Unsun karuta cards (photo author: Outlookxp, lic. CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tradition and habits

If you carefully looked at the decks shown above you could notice two things. There are no queens in German and Spanish deck! Court cards typical for Spanish suit are: sota (jack), caballo (horse), and rey (king).

In German deck instead of Jack and Queen there is Over Knave (Ober with “O” letter) and Under Knave (Unter with “U” letter).  You can distinguish Ober and Unter by placing of suit symbol. Obers have a suit symbol placed on the level of young man’s head. Unters have suit symbol placed low.

In Poland Ober is called “Wyżnik” (someone on higher level) and Unter is called “Niżnik” (someone on lower level). In the past Wyżniks and Niżniks were depicted as mounted knights or knights on foot (as in Spanish cards).

Today in Poland you can still find people who use a word “Niżnik” to describe a Jack. And clubs in Poland are still called “acorns” by many people. This is obvious effect of old habits. English term “clubs” is also a relict of old card symbols. And what about “spades”? Italian word “spade” means “swords” so English “spades” may have derived from the swords in Italian and Spanish suits.


Not only suits and patterns were improved but also a way of composing images on cards. Before the 18th century court cards were drawn as full-lenght characters. Reversible (splited) court cards were probably invented in France and this eliminated the need to reverse court cards during the game. Unfortunately, this invention did not please the French government, which regulated the way of presenting characters on the cards. That’s why groundbreaking cards invention was patented by UK citizen later in 1799.

From the practical point of view round corners were serious invention. Sharp corners wear out more quickly and could possibly be used to mark cars value.


Joker was another important invention in card games. It was introduced in USA as a special card for the game of Euchre.  The earliest joker-like card was called “Best Bower” or Imperial Bower and  it was added to Samuel Hart’s cards sets. in some Eucher variants “Best Bower” was a trump card. Probably the term “Joker” comes from Juker or Juckerspiel – the original German spelling of Euchre.

Note that this early jokers contains instructions for players unfamiliar with it.


In the past people who played Euchre sometimes used just blank cards as jokers. Such cards were added to card sets to replace missing cards. Joker cards depicting clowns and jesters appeared later. Jokers are historically the youngest. Their appearance today is treated much more freely than the appearance of Queens or Jacks.

Contemporary cards are printed in color, often coated with plastic, cheap, durable and comfortable. There are different sizes and patterns. You can buy traditional German or Spanish decks but French deck is most popular. You can buy full decks, reduced decks, sets of few decks.

Exercise: Take a deck of cards and invent a game!

As I already mentioned there are hundreds of card games. There are dozens of really well-known games, and each of them has numerous lesser known variants. But it is still possible to invent dozens of new games. Did you ever thought about inventing your own?

This is perfect exercise for game designers. Take the deck of cards and invent the game! You can invent new solitaire or game for 2,3,4 maybe even 5 or 6 people. You can use one deck or two, three or more decks. You can introduce jokers or not, you can determine cards rank etc.

Challenge accepted? I can proudly say I already invented new card game. But let me  describe it later 🙂

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