7-in-1 Magnetic Family Game: Cards

Aw. My sun-tan is pretty much gone now. Aw.

This probably breaks the Trade Description Act on two points. Our final entry is neither a game nor magnetic.

At which point, you’re probably wondering what I mean. Well, I mean that the cards aren’t magnetic, which is a shame, as magnetic cards would be awesome. At which you will roll your eyes and say you meant the first half, you posturing ninny. At which point I punch your arm, and point out that cards are actually a device for playing a number of games.

In other words, cards are actually a format.

The nature of the format is what intrigues me. Cards have elements akin to both PC and console games. They’re thoroughly reprogrammable to whatever sort of game you want to play with them. These games are freely distributable. As long as you know how to play any given game of cards, you can play it. However, there’s also a really good actual DRM. The cards are hard to copy. Or rather, if you copy them, you have to copy them all. The fact that cards are indistinguishable from one another is a necessary part of most of the games you can play with them, which means it has to be an absolutely perfect copy. And you can’t mix copied cards with ones you’ve bought. Generally speaking, it’s easier to just buy a set of cards than try and copy ’em. However, it’s also an open format. Anyone can manufacture and sell ’em. It’s the 3D0 of boardgames, if we’re following the analogy to its awkward close. It’s a mature way of doing things. It’s kind of a way I’d like gaming to go in, if I’m being perfectly frank – a good mix between standardization and freedom.

Another way that cards are like consoles is in how the format tends to overrule the actual game you’re playing. Most people say that they’re off to play cards rather than the game they’re playing, in the same way that people talk that they’re off to “Play Playstation” or whatever.

Then there’s their iconic content. I talked about Chess being used as a signifier of things outside the game – that its components are interesting in and of themselves. The standard playing deck works in a similar way. Sure, there’s other decks – and there’s other designs for Chess pieces – but the standard, most familiar ones have a power outside of the games themselves. They’re sexy objects. Seeing a girl with long sleeve tattoos up and down one arm, tattoos of a wall of cards, wasn’t because she was a big fan of Pontoon or something. It’s because she dug the iconography in and of itself.

I’m wandering on this one. I don’t really have a destination here, which I suspect may be the point: cards, as a subject, is too big. The 7-in-1 pack details three games – Snap, Happy Families and Rummy. We only play the latter, as we’re not quite dense enough for the former and are snobbish about any game called “Happily Families”. At least Rummy sounds like it’s a card game, y’know?

Also, the Lady is a little snobby about one-deck games. She’s much more interested in multi-deck games she played with her Italian relatives, which sound like they’re related to Rummy in the same way that Ludo is related to Backgammon. One is a suitable game for adults, and the other is more about introducing the idea of games to children.

52 card pick up is the best of games.

Which is an intriguing one, innit? The idea of gaming literacy. As naturalised gamers, we’re able to grasp concepts with incredible speed – which would be completely alien to those who’ve never played a game before. But we all learned stuff along the way. Some developers try and deal with us from scratch, but they’re still basing their work on assumptions – like, say, you’re able to hold a mouse, or know how to turn on a console, or are used to staring at a screen.

I often feel that there are games which, while you can learn to play from just the tutorials, you’re not really appreciating them until you have obtained a wider variety of skills. Ones not taught in the tutorial. I appreciated Sacrifice much more when I returned to it, years later, for example. There are a variety of explanations for that, but I wonder whether it’s mainly because I had a better handle on the RTS/action tropes it demands. I was better able to “read” Sacrifice, so got more out of it. Or… well, once you’ve learned to “read” one ASCII Rogue-like, you’re able to process all the other ones, at least to a basic level. This is a different thing from saying that a game with a higher level of required literacy is a better game – but it’s worth remembering. You need to have more tools in your reading box to grasp Nabakov over – say – Dickens, or more to read Dickens than – say – Caroll. It doesn’t necessarily mean any of those books are better for the higher level of literacy required. It’s just the entrance fee. It’s an intellectual “You Must Be This High To Ride” marker. Though, much like reading, it’s not actually a barrier to trying it. As my Sacrifice example earlier, I was quite capable of playing Sacrifice first time around – I just didn’t enjoy it as much. You can read any book, but to actually enjoy it, you need to do more than just follow the words.

A couple of other things I find interesting about cards. One was a game which the Lady played and I didn’t. As in, Patience. Of all the games in the box, Cards is the only one which foreshadows videogames in this way. I tend to think that what’s most unique about videogames is the single player experience. Everything else is more traditional gaming but via a new technological channel. The possibility of playing a game with no other human involvement is something which I’ve often said videogames have allowed. And it’s not that the computer is merely taking the role of a human opposition – it’s doing a completely different job than just being an equal competitor to you. It’s there to amuse you by presenting a series of challenges (some which may only *appear* to be challenges). Mostly, anyway: FPS bots would be an obvious exception. The computer AI in Civ4 or whatever… though they’ll be somewhat naive. The computer isn’t playing a game to beat you in Civ4, but to present an interesting experience to you. It’s there to be character-ful. Anyway – point being, seeing something like Patience played, reminds me that my position is more bullshit than I’d like to admit. While technological possibilities put strict limitations on what they can do, single-player games without a real antagonist, which are more than just a puzzle, and closer to an experience, do exist. The point of Patience isn’t really to solve it – as nice as that is. The joy of Patience is losing yourself in the sorting mechanism, the game’s flow.

One final thing. When playing cards, the Lady and I found ourselves talking about Cards. I mentioned her games with her cousins before, but I was chewing over playing Crib with my Granddad, sixth-form center games of something frenzied I can’t recall the name of now – alternating with tarot reading – and… well, I’m reminded of the other side of the literacy thing. That being, literacy as part of culture. Cards, as a concept, are a form of gaming which is part of life, part of our memories and gaming so ingrained in how the world works that no-one would ever thing of it really as gaming. In other words, it’s gaming’s real future if it even steps away from either niche or novelty.



  1. Coulla says:

    This has been a really interesting series – hope you do more in the future.
    Your reference to Sacrifice really made sense to me, as I just picked it up from GoG yesterday on a whim. I played the demo when it first came out, but only now, however many years later, did I properly enjoy it. I was too overwhelmed by it the first time.
    Plus, Rummy rocks.

  2. MrFake says:

    And how do you analogize using cards for magic tricks? Demoscene?

  3. Vinraith says:

    For reasons I’ve never been able to pin down, cards have always been a deeply offputting gaming format for me. I adore board games, video games, and most other similar structures, but I find it impossible to become invested in card games. There’s something about the abstraction involved and the excessively “book keeping” nature of most of the games, that I just find completely non-engrossing.

  4. bansama says:

    You can never go wrong with a deck of cards. Unless of course, you’ve doctored you set to win all the time in a multiplayer game and some catches you out, cries hacks and watches as you then get thrown out of the game for good.

    And I’m not sad to say that I did have doctored decks although I never got caught either >_> But my be all and end all deck of cards? My standard deck merged with hanafuna cards. With these, I have access to a wealth of traditional card games and a whole bunch of hanafuna based ones too.

    And hey, if it weren’t for cards, we wouldn’t have had Nintendo. And who doesn’t like Nintendo for at least something?

  5. bansama says:

    Yeah, no edit I see. you = your, some = someone.

  6. Serondal says:

    Well done, my mind is blown.

  7. Serondal says:

    Chris Angel is a well know card haxor

  8. Lewis says:

    The big question is: why weren’t you taking advantage of the glorious sunshine by wearing a short-sleeved shirt?

  9. Serondal says:

    I suspect it is because glorious sunshine is the natural enemy of pale skin as can be observed on the hands of our benefactor of magnetic jollies.

  10. Serondal says:

    Also he was hiding cards up those long sleeves in order to cheat his lady friend.

  11. Oddtwang says:

    Was the Lady talking, by any chance, about Canasta or a similar game? McKinley, possibly. There are some nice rummy-type games like that (usually four-handed) which are a lot of fun – they don’t have the arcane conventions and learning curve of Bridge.

  12. James G says:

    Gaming linguistics as you put it is becoming an even more important field, as it begins stretching beyond basic game mechanics into something more less functional.

    Fer instance, the graphics of many of Introversion’s games, particularly Darwinia, are ones which rely on a basic knowledge of gaming history. While some of this is the reasonably mainstream recognition of centipede for instance, other elements rely on familiarity with the 16bit era demo/piracy scene. (Ie. The bootloader)

    Similarly, the central plot twist element in Bioshock is one which will have a greater impact for those familiar with gaming convention, than someone without.

    One idea I’m interested in exploring is the idea of misdirection, using gaming tropes and assumptions to misdirect seasoned gamers. I’ve occasionally seen elements of this as a symptom of bad game design (such as requiring a button press in something which appeared to be a cutscene) but can’t think of anything which has addressed it directly.

    To bring the last point back to cards, I suppose this may be seen as the way in which misdirection may be used. When performing magic for an inexperienced audience, misdirection is a fairly simple concept. However once that audience becomes familiar with the tropes of magic, not only will using the same tricks disappoint, but it will also leave you open to being seen through. At this point you can actually use the audiences expectations to misdirect them.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Gnarl says:

    Do kids these days still play cards in six-forms? Or do they spend all their time on these new fangled PSP lite things? Could be a commonality lost for the younger generation.

    Also, the use of the ‘D’ acronym got me all confused, as I thought Mr. Gillen was suggesting copying my graphics card. A feat tried once and never again. The lack of compatability between decks makes more analogy sense.

  14. manintheshack says:

    Great read.

    Cards really do appeal as the ultimate timewasting entertainment. Went to the Gambia recently and spent a good portion of every evening drinking, smoking and playing Shithead with my girlfriend. The iconography statement is a really important one and its the reason that, by the end of the holiday, with the hotel night staff that i’m not entirely sure were literate, we managed to teach them the game via a format that they knew well. And they kicked our arses.

    Also the way that the rules of certain games differ from person to person… There’s always a great deal of configuration and learning before you can sit down to a game you’ve known all your life with people that you never play with. The objectives are usually the same but they way you approach them is different.

  15. Meat Circus says:

    I played “cards” once. It was rubbish.

  16. l1ddl3monkey says:

    Cards are deeply symbolic. The four suits correspond to the four seasons and the 13 cards in each suit match the 13 lunar phases, there are 52 cards in a deck (weeks in a year) and if you add all the number cards together it adds up to 256 (days). There are numerous origin stories for cards but the most likely is that they are of Chinese origin and had some significance in astrology.

  17. Jazmeister says:

    Mmm. Many delicious concepts here. Tutorial in Assassin’s Creed, for example – easy, right? Stabby. Good. Onwards. My Wife tried it and hated it, couple years ago at the dawn of her initiation. There’s a little time-crisis in there, you see? She’s worried about moving the mouse, and it being both the camera and the character-turny-mechanism, and doesn’t want some guard chasing and stabbing her while she practices her climbing. TF2 has no entry point at all for the unfamiliar – it doesn’t even say “WASD to move, idiot”, doesn’t have a manual, nothing. It’s interesting.

    Will future formats be environments where anything is possible, like cards? Will future games be player-imposed rulesets?

    Yesssssssssssss. I liked that one.

  18. Meat Circus says:

    That said, I’m off to Vegas in a few days’ time, and can only thank the Lord that cards enable the majesty that is No Limit Texas Hold’em.

    Somebody, (can’t have been anyone important) , said on one of the previous posts that games where it is possible to play a perfect game, make a perfect move every time, even if that move is (currently) computationally infeasible to calculate, then the game is in some way trivial and a bit dull.

    The only way to beat this triviality is to mix in luck (where you have to learn to play probabilities) and psychology (where you have to learn to play The Man). This is why I find Backgammon to be a far more interesting game than Chess.

    Cards, in their simplicity, and their take-anywhere ubiquity, allow such games to emerge. No Limit Texas Hold’em. Bridge. Shithead. NO LIMIT TEXAS HOLD’EM.

    The other thing which I think is worth mentioning about cards is their essential arbitrariness.

    There’s nothing about the structure of the modern deck of cards that implies either success or failure. Why four suits? Why thirteen ranks? THIRTEEN? Why all the major and minor royalty? What the hell is a Jack and an Ace anyway? Why is the club shaped like that?

    No. Cards have succeeded because they were an open standard in the right place at the right time.

    This probably says something about the value of open standards vs de facto standards. But I’ll leave that to you guys, I have to pack for Vegas.

  19. BarkingDog says:

    One-up-one-down Irish Snap is great, especially when the loser consumes a measure of alcohol proportionate to the pile. By that I mean that despite the simplicity of the concept (though slamming the card only if it’s one above or one below and not the same adds a degree of complexity) the game itself becomes vastly entertaining when there’s a penalty for the loser.

  20. Dinger says:

    First off, let’s do Gaming Orthography:
    It’s Nabokov, and ol’ Vlad will be easier to grasp than Dickens for exactly the same reasons you argue the opposite. His conventions are transparent while those Dickens uses are opaque (serialized novels + paid by the word + 19th-century circumlocutions = WTF?).

    So yeah, gaming grammar: it really becomes apparent in one of two cases: A.) when someone who has no experience tries to play, or B.) when they break the rules.
    For example, I’m still trying to play through the PC Port of Beyond Good and Evil. The controls obey the rules of some console or other, but they’ve been transposed to keyboard-and-mouse, with no possibility to remap to a controller. The result is a control scheme about as insightful, intuitive and grammatical as reading the original German text dropped into Google Translate, to wit:

    Provided that the truth is a woman – how? is suspected not established that all the philosophers, if they were dogmatic, is poorly understood in women? shows that the court Ernst, the awkward intrusiveness with which they have on the truth tended to engage in, clumsy and unseemly funds were to
    just a women’s room for itself einzunehmen?

  21. manintheshack says:

    ‘if you add all the number cards together it adds up to 256 (days).’

    Now, hold on a minute… I can spot two inaccuracies right there.

  22. Quinns says:

    The fucking village in the background of those photos!

  23. ...hmm... says:

    my favourite card game is cowboys and indians. does anybody want to play?

  24. Kieron Gillen says:

    Dinger: I knew someone was going to pick me up for that. I wrote quickly and didn’t question my initial choices too much, as I knew that way madness lay.

    Quinns: I’ll forward you the full shots. They’re on The Lady’s Facebook. It’s fucking insane.

  25. Psychopomp says:

    Man, every time I try to play poker, I swear to god everyone is using cardhax or some shit.

  26. Butler` says:

    When I think playing cards I think……… drinking games.

  27. Nick says:

    No strip poker?

  28. Dr Gonzo says:

    @ Quinns: I believe it’s CS_Italy.

  29. Ed says:

    I second all references to Texas Hold’Em Poker – the game of giants. It’s better than card games which rely solely on luck, and is more exciting than computationally reduceable games such as chess, because the outcome is never certain until everyone shows their hands. Victory comes not from perfect strategy, nor from luck, but from the perfect balance of the two. It’s a brilliant game.

    While we’re (not really) on the subject of card games being analogous to computer games, Texas Hold’Em is like Thief. You play sneakily, use misdirection, wait for the perfect moment and then clobber someone across the back of the head and take all their money.

  30. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    @Nick: It’s never the lady who loses strip poker. With that in mind, think about what you just said.

  31. Nick says:

    Oh, I didn’t expect pictures, just Kieron’s love of tying (no pun intended) sex into games wherever possible =)

  32. GuiSim says:

    I love you. You mentionned Sacrifice. I never thought I’d read about that game ever again. It’s such an awesome game. I will have my copy till I die.. and I will show my children how to play..

    May you rest in peace Shiny.

  33. GuiSim says:

    ‘We’re too late again master. All dead. ‘

    How many times have I heard this ?.. I lost count.

  34. Aftershock says:

    You can play RPG’s with cards too, anyone know Mafia?

    Also games that involve luck and playing the probabilities annoy me so much. However, bluffing and tricking the other opponents of the table is the best concept ever. Hence why i love cheat/bullshit/shithead so much. It’s also a great social game, yelling and shouting at each other, compared the poker where you’ve gotta sit down and shut up.

  35. Hajimete no Paso Kon says:


  36. solipsistnation says:

    @Meat Circus:

    Man, you don’t know the history of cards? It’s totally NOT arbitrary.
    The 4 suits are directly descended from the much older set of Tarot cards– they did get reduced a bit, since there’s no Major Arcana in modern decks, and one of the face cards was lost along the way (the knight, between the jack/page and the queen). They did mutate quite a bit, but there are existing decks dating back hundreds of years that show the intermediary steps as swords turned to spades (the blade of the sword and the handle), wands to clubs (’cause wands are also staves, and they got shorter as they went), and pentacles to diamonds (the pentacles were also coins, and referred to wealth).
    Check this out: link to en.wikipedia.org

    It seems arbitrary now, but decks of cards are history lessons in themselves…

  37. Sartoris says:

    I wonder which city that is in the background. Sure looks like Dubrovnik to me.

  38. Meat Circus says:


    Interesting link, thanks. But for the purposes of playing games, the design of a modern deck of playing cards is no less arbitrary.

    What I mean is, there’s really nothing in the design of a deck that implies success or failure as a reusable fixture in gaming.

  39. Greg says:

    I didn’t think for ages that there were any good, satisfying, 1v1 card games that could be played with two reasonably serious-minded players. Then… Cuttle! It has a pretty steep learning curve, though.

  40. The Fanciest of Pants says:

    Man, this series has really dredged up some interesting questions about the nature of games. Bravo Kieron, really.

    Great reading.

  41. c-Row says:

    Patience, as mentioned by Kieron in his original post, however has one major flaw – depending on what cards are in the deck and which are on the table face down, you will never be able to finish it. In these rare cases, even the most skilled player won’t be able to solve the puzzle he is presented, and the game is broken.

  42. Funky Badger says:

    Fucking Rummy.

    Played this with my gran, a lot. You have about ten minutes of play with tactical decisions to make, then just cycling through the deck looking for the finishing card. Gin Rummy’s a better game by far. Also as with OC/console games the multiplayers are much better.

    Bridge = L4D & TF2 rolled into one.

  43. c-Row says:

    Regarding the multiplayer aspect – are all card games competitive, or does anybody know any cooperative/team games?

  44. Funky Badger says:

    Bridge – co-op multiplayer, if you like. 2vs.2.

  45. Playing Cards says:

    Very well done. My mind is trying to grasp the “physics” involved.

  46. toonu says:

    This was the last one right? shame, things like this are awesome to get involved with. I have played games for 25 years since the age of 2 :) and up until recently, I never compared the usual games like Ludo and FUCKING Ludo to current game mechanics.

    It doesn’t seem obvious to me that my favourite computer games have anything to do with a board game I might have played but I guess the principles will always be the same.

    Does this mean we will have some sort of revolution where those types who only say original works are the best ones give up their PC’s and Xbox in favor of playing only backgammon, chinese checkers and FUCKING Ludo?
    You know the ones I am talking about, LP lovers, Beta Max lovers and candles over lightbulb lovers…well perhaps not.

  47. SuperNashwan says:

    I played a *lot* of card games at college in the time between lessons (mostly blackjack) and the evolution of the initial fairly simple rule set to encompass all sorts of outlandish situations was brilliant. Every refinement brought new tactical challenge, particularly adding in more decks. When I tried to play what was supposedly the same game with people at university it all ended horribly with arguing over the rules and which provided more tactical gameplay, being impossible to simply explain the subtleties of a game system evolved over years of play. So yeah, modding then.

  48. Masked Dave says:

    The six form game you played wasn’t “shit head” aka “bastard” aka any other number of similar names, was it? Three cards in front of you face down, then three face up ontop of each of them. Everyone starts with a certain number in their hand and play progresses around the table, putting down any amount of the same number value, which has to be higher than the last played on the pile. There are magic cards which can do a number of things (ie, a 2 kills the pack, 7 lets you put any number on top of it). If you can’t go then you pick up the pile. Goal is to get rid of all your cards, including the ones in front of you.

    The reason I ask is that everyone I have ever known played this game when they were in sixth form, wherever that was in the country, whatever age. Never before sixth form and never since, but all the bloody time while they were in that common room.

    It’s just spooky.

  49. Kieron Gillen says:

    Masked Dave: Yeah, we did play shithead, but that wasn’t the one which I was thinking of. It was some kind of hyper-snap/patience cross. I’m not sure it even had a name.


  50. Quirk says:

    Somebody, (can’t have been anyone important) , said on one of the previous posts that games where it is possible to play a perfect game, make a perfect move every time, even if that move is (currently) computationally infeasible to calculate, then the game is in some way trivial and a bit dull.

    The only way to beat this triviality is to mix in luck (where you have to learn to play probabilities) and psychology (where you have to learn to play The Man). This is why I find Backgammon to be a far more interesting game than Chess.
    I find your opinion interesting, but disagree. Having spent a large chunk of my life playing strategy games of both the highly deterministic and partially random variety (let’s, for now, represent them with Chess and Bridge), I don’t find that luck alters that “perfect move” scenario at all, for me. The best players will usually play the same move when simple probability (with no psychology) intrudes, as in backgammon, the move that maximises their chance of winning. Much of the time it will work. Sometimes it will not. Therein lies a certain frustration; the strategy may be no less pure, but it ends up taking longer to distinguish an excellent player from a good player, and a good player from a merely okay one. The game isn’t rendered deeper by the added distraction of luck; it doesn’t make the game any better to the strategist, but only to the gambler.

    Psychology is another matter, and one too easily lost in games of perfect knowledge. A game I used to play was both deterministic and relatively rich in statespace, but for each turn both players submitted their moves simultaneously, and only saw the results when both moves were in. For the most part, this game was susceptible to the same kind of thinking as something like chess; exposing yourself to less risk through more careful play was normally the best strategy, and within those who understood that basic axiom there came hierarchies of understanding what those risks were and how to defend against them. However, when two players with a roughly equal understanding of the strategies available clashed heads, there was room for a certain subtle psychological manoeuvring, a taking into account of the way the other had jumped in the past and attempting to take advantage of it.

    However, even then, it was possible to banish psychology from the simplest levels of decision by carrying on with the same brutal logic of eliminating risk. To illustrate, suppose both players could choose A or B, and if both choose the same the first player loses; if they choose differently, the game continues. Either player could opt to eliminate the danger of being predicted by simply flipping a coin. And so, at the last, even psychology may fail to provide an edge against the truly random number.