Card Game

Tagged: Game | Theme

Term used to describe a form of Game played with physical cards, generally made from paper, cardboard or plastic, and marked with symbols that make them part of a set. Playing cards appear to have been invented in ancient China at some point between the ninth and thirteenth Centuries CE; some confusion arises from the fact that the earliest examples seem to have been "domino cards" marked with the possible results of throwing a pair of six-sided dice, rather than sets employed for actual Card Games. The subsequent history of playing cards is somewhat obscure, but it is probable that they were introduced into Europe in the late fourteenth century by way of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt. They then spread rapidly across the continent, in a wide variety of versions with different suits and numbers of cards in a pack. The fifteenth century saw the creation of both the first Tarot deck (in Italy) and (in France) the four suits used in most modern sets. A far more detailed history of the evolution of traditional Card Games such as Whist and Poker can be found in David Parlett's book The Oxford Guide To Card Games (1990), as well as a comprehensive classification of them by type.

Science-fictional Card Games, almost by definition, require special decks. Their appearance thus had to wait for both the evolution of the written genre and the invention of printing processes cheap enough to make the manufacture of specific sets of cards economically viable. The earliest examples appear to date from the 1930s, when Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1936 All-Fair) was released for children as a spinoff from the Comic Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (from 1929). Later examples include Orbit (circa 1959 Arrco; vt Space-O), another children's game with sf themed art, and Astronaut (circa 1962 Pepys), which is based on the US-Soviet race for the Moon. The earliest sf like Card Game which is still widely remembered today, however, is probably Nuclear War (1965) designed by Douglas Malewicki, a satirical simulation of the world of Mutually Assured Destruction, especially notable for the fact that by the time a typical game ends all players have lost. As with Board Games, games designers who were sf and fantasy readers began to appear in the 1970s and create works influenced by the written genre. While such games have never been particularly common, there are a number of interesting examples, including Illuminati (1982), inspired by the novels of Robert Anton Wilson, Chrononauts (2000), the German Starship Catan (2001) (see Starfarers of Catan) and the satirical Star Munchkin (2002 Steve Jackson Games) designed by Steve Jackson, which parodies cliched sf Role Playing Games. The most significant contribution made by these designers to the evolution of Card Games to date, however, is the invention of the modern Collectible Card Game.

The first game using individually collectible playing cards – as opposed to a single standard deck – appears to have been The Base Ball Card Game (1904 Allegheny Card Company), an obscure set of baseball trading cards which included information printed on the card backs allowing a game to be played with them. This game did not become popular, however, and the concept was forgotten until it was reinvented by Richard Garfield for the Sword and Sorcery game Magic: The Gathering (1993 Wizards of the Coast [WOTC]). Magic depicts a duel between wizards, represented by players who use cards to generate magical power, summon creatures and cast spells. The cards are sold as a core pack which allows players to engage in a basic game and extra sets containing cards randomly selected according to various criteria. Thus, players who buy extra sets cannot know in advance exactly which cards they are buying. The most interesting feature of the game's design is its self-modifying nature; as in Cosmic Encounter (1977) there is a set of "meta rules" which allow players to use a wide variety of cards, each of which has its own attached list of special rules. Since players will generally use different decks containing their own preferred choices of cards, individual games of Magic are often very different. Magic rapidly became highly popular, in part due to its excellent design and the epic fantasy storyline on which the card designs were based, and in part to many players' enthusiasm for collecting the cards for their own sake and buying multiple extra sets in the hope of acquiring rare and valuable items. It was soon followed by many similar games, some using mechanics licenced from Wizards of the Coast.

Of the immediate successors to Magic, two of the more interesting examples are the Cyberpunk game Netrunner (1996) (see Cyberpunk), which has an asymmetric design in which the 2 players must use completely different cards, and Jyhad (1994 WOTC; 1995 rev vt Vampire: The Eternal Struggle) designed by Richard Garfield, a game based on the gothic fantasy Role Playing Game Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) (see Fading Suns) which encourages social interactions among its players by including cards enabling "political" changes to be enforced as a result of simulated votes. A different approach was taken in Mythos (1996) (see Call of Cthulhu), which emphasized the narrative aspects of the form by adding "adventure" cards which defined a simple plot; the main objective of the game is to play out these stories. Collectible Card Games enjoyed a great deal of commercial success during the mid 1990s, to the extent that they were responsible for a significant decline in the sales of miniatures-based Wargames, Board Games and RPGs. The much larger Videogame industry was essentially unaffected. In the late 1990s, however, the release of large numbers of new games of often questionable quality caused a crash in the market. The form has since regained much of its lost popularity, but not without alteration. Current Collectible Card Games are less likely to experiment with the design mechanics than their forebears, and – with the exception of the perennial Magic – are predominantly sold to younger players and licenced from popular television shows and Videogames, as opposed to being bought by adult role players and having original themes, or ones drawn from existing RPGs and Wargames. [NT]

further reading

  • David Parlett. The Oxford Guide to Card Games (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1990) [nonfiction: hb/Georges de la Tour]
  • Thomas S Owens and Diana Star Helmer. Inside Collectible Card Games (Brookfield, Connecticut: The Millbrook Press, 1996) [nonfiction: while primarily aimed at younger readers, this book includes some interesting comments from Richard Garfield on the genesis of Magic: The Gathering: hb/photographic]


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