We all hate playing-card games.
At least, that’s the conclusion we all came to when we sat down for our latest meetup.
For many, the reason was simple. Why would we bust out a pack of playing cards for a round of luck-based War when we could construct decks of magical monsters and strategically wage war with Magic? Why play Go Fish when you can hack corporations in Netrunner? Or bullshit your friends when you can build better empires than them in Dominion? Playing cards don’t hit the table because there are so many other games we’d rather play. There’s no flavor, no room for expansion, no meat to discussing what the best build is when it comes to a pathetic pack of playing cards.
And yet, here we were, set out with the task of dissecting what, if anything, we could glean from some of our favorite card games (and the ones we hated).
What Are They Good For?
Games, that is, games that use a single pack of playing cards, span a wide range of genres and brands of “fun.” For some of us, we liked the social engineering aspect of games like Bullshit or Poker. We like to lie and get away with it, to fake each other out, or keep each other guessing. For others, games like Rummy 500 give you objectives worth working towards. Building combos, taking risks, knowing whether to take what you can get or press your luck all keep us playing just one more round. Hell, even games like War, which almost all of us listed as our most despised game, has the tactile joy of revealing cards to one another and reveling in an immediate win, loss, or the shock of a tie.
Still, these are all mechanics that can be featured in games engineered to be really great at that specific thing, with all the more flavor to boot. A pack of playing cards is as lifeless as a bag of dice. A fine diversion, but an ultimately lifeless and forgettable experience.
So, of all things, we decided to play with and iterate on Memory. That’s right, we took a pack of 52 cards, shuffled them up, placed them face-down on the table and took turns flipping over two at a time, going again if we got a match. Yup, we were four year olds again.
And you know what? We had fun doing it. We found out some of us have terrible memories, some people had dumb luck and others just had short attention spans. The thing that stuck out to us the most is how much focus a seemingly simple game like Memory requires. You had to pay attention to every person’s turn, remember what came before, and then not goof up your own turn.
Which is a lot harder than it sounds, by the way. There were multiple times we kept flipping the same card over and over again, even when we knew it was the wrong card to flip. Why? Who knows. The human brain reacts to patterns in strange ways, I guess.
At any rate, it was time for iteration. What were the problems with Memory and how, if at all, could it be improved? We began spitballing some ideas. For many, the problem was the sheer amount of cards you had to remember. It was difficult and required an immense amount of effort. Drift off on just one person’s turn and the entire room would let you have it if you missed out on an easy match when your turn came around.
We decided to try and reduce the amount of cards that we needed to pay attention to, then added a bit of private knowledge to the mix. We split suits by red and black. We dealt all the red cards (hearts and diamonds) to each of the players, then placed the black ones (spades and clubs) face down. We drew six black cards and laid them face down on the table and took turns playing memory as usual. Except this time, if you flipped a card and it matched with one in your hand, you had a match. You would then replace the matched card with a new face down card and go again.
It certainly felt more like a “game” with rules and mechanics, but I’ll be damned if flipping a gigantic information-overload field of 52 cards over wasn’t more fun. We realized, by the end, all of us had almost the same amount of matches – and why wouldn’t we? Unless one us managed to snag a lucky two-black pair with the six cards on the table at the time (ahem, yours truly), you’re essentially just waiting for everyone to find their specific match.
That got us thinking. Is Memory the only game where having too much information works as a mechanic? Sure, there was less to keep track of in our iteration, but there was none of the social fun. Six cards were easy to keep track of such that any time a card was revealed, you were almost always guaranteed a match when your turn came around. After all, there was a very low chance someone else was going to take your match.
Which is to say, maybe the four year olds had it right the whole time. Could we iterate a better version of Memory? With more than two hours at the drawing board, probably. As it was, we were already talking about increasing the amount of cards on the table to get some of that “ooooh, where was it? I think it was here!” moments back.
But also, maybe it’s best to leave it as it is. Card games are great entry points to the more interesting games we love to play that hit the table all the time. Why play solitaire when we have Nintendo Switches? Why combo in Rummy 500 when you can make a humming Dominion deck? What’s War even good for?
It’s a fun experiment to limit yourself to the tools you have available, and playing cards are about as ubiquitous as a game supply as you can find. We learned a lot about what we liked and didn’t like about some of the most popular card games.
We’d just rather explore those mechanics in a different way.
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