OG Roundtable: Traditional Card Games

Will these be unknown in 20 years?

After Brandon Kempf’s recent analysis of the top ranked games on BGG that he had not played, lots of Opinionated Gamers got interested in running the same thought experiment.  Unsurprisingly, this led to a lot of good old-fashioned qualms with the rankings, and pining for the days of yore.  While some of us (mostly yours truly) were busy wishing El Grande and Tigris & Euphrates could still be in Top 10, others had more interesting thoughts to contribute.  Jonathan Franklin shared a fascinating YouTube video with us that he described vividly as “like watching the movie of a trip I took.”  While that video displayed the changing rankings over time, Brandon Kempf then circulated a different visualization about “staying power” that reimagined the rankings based on duration of time ranked highly.  And somehow this led us down the rabbit hole of discussing traditional card games at some length.  I’ve decided to pull these musings together into a traditional OG Roundtable, which used to be a thing in years past when we bantered about crowdfunding, gateway games, or just Legends of Andor.  So if you’re interested in hearing our collective meandering thoughts on Euchre, Pinochle, Cribbage, and the rest, then buckle up!

This all started after I saw the video shared by Jonathan above, and I commented that it was surprisingly sad to watch all of the classics fall off the bottom of the video frame, and while I fully recognize there are many millions of far worse things in the world, I think this video makes the current Top 20 seem even more like nonsense.  I attribute this partly to the obvious expansion / sequel / re-work effect that mistakenly propels subsequent editions into the stratosphere, and partly to the unavailability of so many classic strategy board games at game stores.  When I talk to employees at my local FLGS, they are incredibly knowledgeable about games from the past two or three years, but know remarkably little about games from before 2015, let alone 2010 or 2000.  When I reference similarities to Caylus, El Grande, Nexus Ops, or others, they generally have no idea what I’m talking about, which just feels so strange, and unfortunate.  I personally find it so much more interesting to look at current board game developments through the lens of what came before, and the shoulders on which today’s games stand… but I suppose the same could just as easily be said about my ignorance with respect to games that came before my awareness or birth.

Larry Levy wisely noted: “And it was ever thus.  I know gamers who cursed all those games you’re citing, Talia, because they were crowding out their favorites from the 90s.  I guess it’s the price we have to pay for a dynamic game industry.  Once, all you found in the game stores were Monopoly and Memory.  Now you have tons of titles, but all of them are new!”

There are also those folks who think that Princes of Florence represents the End of Gaming as We Know It, because it included individual player boards.  I’m also thinking about something Patrick Brennan said in a recent discussion about the history of games:  “Kids don’t play cards these days.”  Thinking back to the days of my youth, in the 60’s and 70’s — everyone played cards, including some form of Rummy.  But outside of Poker, do people play cards anymore?  Gin, Cribbage, 500 Rummy, Hearts — will these be unknown in 20 years?

That turned out to be the spark that lit the OG fires.

And lo did the Opinionated Gamers have opinions a plenty…

Jeff Allers kicked things off by responding with his detailed insights on the topic newly at hand:

“Well, Larry, I honestly didn’t play card games growing up, either. My parents certainly did, and they continued to do so at family gatherings. But I was always drawn to those new electronic games and, later, TV game consoles. 

Doppelkopf Cover Artwork

Of course, we know now that “video didn’t kill the board game stars,” but it’s an interesting point that video gamers have a strong influence on new board games these days. I suppose that many of them grew up on video games, and now that they’ve discovered board games, they are looking at them from a video game perspective. My thought is always, “If you want a video game experience, just play a video game.”  The problem of accessibility I had as a kid (the good ones were in the arcade, and I wasn’t allowed an Atari console at home) is now gone, as anyone can play just about everything on their phone or home computer. 

Back to card games: I associate them with big family get-togethers or parties my parents had with other adults.  I’m sure kids learning card games at family gatherings used to be part of the “coming of age” ritual.  “I am now on the same level as an adult in this game.”  My growing-up years were not only notable due to the rise of the personal computer, but also, I think, because of the gradual age segregation in the family and in our society. 

For some reason, too, I see less of this in Germany. In Essen, there are plenty of families with kids of all ages playing all sorts of games. And German teens also know how to play classic card games like Doppelkopf, Skat, etc. — even though computer games are just as popular here as in the U.S.

Tery Noseworthy added that: “All of the children I am related to know the classic card games like Rummy, Hearts, and Gin, and all of them also know how to play Cribbage.  My nieces and nephews all have parents who play them as well, so I assume that is part of it, but their friends know many of them, too.”

Mark Jackson shared his experience with a variety of card games: “My experience with classic card games was mixed.  I learned Hearts & Rummy as a kid, but they weren’t played on a regular basis by my family or at family gatherings. The big card game in our midwestern-based family was Rook.

Serious play of Spades, Hearts, and Gin Rummy (scored Hollywood style) all waited until college.  Canasta, that’s a weird twist of family history.  Evidently, my dad played Canasta a ton growing up – but we never played when I was a kid.  When I started dating my wife, her family played Canasta constantly… so I learned as an adult and then grew to enjoy it.”

Joe Huber riffed on this to note: “Growing up the family gathering game was Pinochle, the parents & friends game was Bridge, and the games we kids played were Euchre and Hearts.  I learned Bridge growing up, but played rarely until joining a game at work in the 90s.  I didn’t get around to playing Pinochle in person until later, and I’ve never played it so much as other traditional card games.”

Cover art

Larry Levy rejoined the conversation that he’d kicked off by sharing his own experience: “As I mentioned, we played cards a lot when I was growing up.  Go Fish, Crazy Eights, Pig, and Michigan Rummy got played when I was very young.  Later, Rummy games were the big favorite: straight Rummy, Gin, 500 Rum. We also played a lot of Canasta, including its wilder variants Samba and Bolivia.  Pinochle was also played and I played a good deal of 2-handed Pinochle with my grandfather (who was a fabulous card player).  My grandmother taught us a game called Pische Pasche (no idea if that’s the proper spelling–it’s pronounced Pish-uh, Pay-shuh), which seemed to be a popular game in Jewish households.  We would occasionally have Blackjack or Poker sessions with my immediate family, playing for chips, of course. Hearts were rarely played and I don’t think I ever played Spades as a youngster.  I didn’t learn Bridge until I was an adult (like Joe, it was at work); same for Cribbage.

I’m glad to hear there are places where traditional card games are still commonly played.  My thinking was of the children of the 80’s and after, where the kids of the video game generation are now parents, so they don’t teach their offspring card games because they were playing Pac Man when they were growing up.  I think this will definitely be a thing in the future — with luck, pockets of traditional card game playing will still happen.

Brandon Kempf may have dashed Larry’s dreams when he replied: “We played and watched a lot of card games as kids… Pitch, Poker, Hearts, Euchre, Cribbage, and Kings Corner mostly. My kids though don’t seem at all that interested in them like I was.”

Homer - Wikipedia
The oral tradition…

Nathan Beeler countered that “Family get-togethers nowadays always feature some amount of Cribbage.

“Pinochle, Cribbage, and Pitch were the cornerstones of my family card gaming while growing up.  Canasta, 99, Kings in the Corner, Golf, and many others also had a place.  These games were taught in an oral tradition, with likely regional and accidental variants, despite having at least one Hoyle around.

I even remember watching my grandmother play a lot of klondike solitaire, and she would duly teach us kids (my last time as a solo gamer). And yet somehow we managed to work in some board games as well.

Larry Levy responded: “Yeah, we all played a ton of solitaire card games during my youth.  Mostly Klondike, but I had a book of 150 Ways to Play Solitaire and I tried out a bunch of them!  Played Spider with real cards well before I ever played it on a computer.  Tough game!

I wonder about the importance of extended families for passing down card games.  Something you can play with your grandparents and aunts and uncles.  In your immediate family, I would think it would just be video games or more interesting board games.  I mean, I don’t have kids, but I did expose my nephews to gaming, and even before I discovered German games, I was teaching them stuff like Careers, Fast Food Franchise, and Axis & Allies, but never card games.”

File:Ace of spades.svg - Wikimedia Commons
Dale is our ace in the hole!

Dale Yu joined the fray at this point to share his card game evolution from childhood to adulthood: “For me, it was Pitch, Gin, and Cribbage as a kid.  In High School, 500 was the game of choice, and Screw Your Neighbor (a.k.a. Egyptian Ratscrew), plus Euchre on weekends at the tennis club.  In college, Spades.  Nothing but Spades… often for a dime a point, and always with the 10-for-200 rule.  Spades pretty much paid for my fraternity dues every semester.  And now, as an adult, whatever wackiness James Nathan brings out of his miniscule bag of JP games.”

Matt Carlson added a few more card games to the growing list: “Our extended family played Rook and Skip-Bo — both mainstream titles in the midwest where traditional playing cards might be suspect.  I think that the grandparents themselves probably didn’t mind so much, but they didn’t want to put anyone else’s knickers in a knot by playing.  Locally in Indiana, I see a lot of teens still playing Euchre (at lunch and often on trips). I picked up Spades and Hearts in college.  I love the first and loath the other.

Tangential opinion: I was taught Pinochle on a road trip out east and decided it had to be invented by folks in a bar after a solid evening of drinking. “My hand is crap, we need to get rid of these low cards and put in more high cards.” “These scores are dismal, we should all get more points.”  “Hey, what if everyone got points even before we started the game?”  “Yeah, we can collect sets and runs for points.  In fact, let’s give out points for everything.  We can marry off the kings and queens and pretend this queen here uses her spade to hit the jack there to steal his diamonds…”

Fraser McHarg shared the view from Australia: “Growing up, I used to play 500 a lot with my grandmother and a bit at school too.  Also 21 and Gin Rummy a bit. At Uni we played Spade and Hearts at lunch time.”

Alan How added his childhood experience from across the globe in the United Kingdom: “My childhood and youth was heavily influenced by playing Hearts with my brother and friends and even more so by playing Crib (cribbage) with my grandfather. He had a small table next to his seat in his living room and a pack of well worn cards was always to hand.  If he was on his own, he’d play Patience and I’d come to sit next to the table.  As we played Crib hundreds of times we had many memories to recall and recount. I think these times we had together made me appreciate playing a game multiple times, sharing the competition and the ability to recall past unusual events.

We used to wind each other up with what hands we had in Crib, and I remember one time saying I’d got a hand of 28 points which is highly unusual. He mocked me of course but I did have that hand and I remember him saying “Well I go to hell!” which was his favourite phrase about an extraordinary situation.  I always thought that if I was on Desert Island Discs, my one treasure to take with me would be a wear-proof deck of cards.”

Epic suing Apple and Google over Fortnite bans: Everything you need to know  - CNET
21st century family get-together…?

Jeff Allers added an intriguing thought to the growing global conversation: “Are there any family get-togethers in which they all play Fortnight together?  I don’t think most board games make it into those, either, to be honest.  Something about card games that makes them ideal for this: their ease of play, quick playing time—and rhythm.”

“Tabletop games are great for big groups, because you just break it down into 4-player groups at different tables.  They didn’t call foldable tables “card tables” for nothing!  I remember the parties my parents used to host with all their friends: moving from table to table, switching partners each time. It was like a gaming square dance!  And, of course, lots of chatter and laughter. I would always sneak down from my bedroom to spy on them, because it looked like too much fun to pass up.”

Oh Hell! Cover Artwork

Brian Leet then contributed his family’s experience: “Pinochle was definitely my grandparents and great-grandparents game. I learned when young, but always needed a reference sheet to follow the play.  Oh Hell took over, and the extended family on my Dad’s side still play whenever there is a large gathering.  Two decks are used if we want to get ten or so around the table.  Scrabble has also been a family game for a long time on both  sides — it was the favorite game of both of my grandmothers and my parents play regularly.  I have three crokinole boards, the oldest of which is from the 1900’s or 1910’s on my paternal grandmother’s family farm (on the eastern side of Lake Ontario) and likely made by either my great grandfather or his brother.  The second, found on the same property, was a commercial product from the 1930’s. However, when located there were no strong memories of my grandmother about that being played.”

Simon Weinberg added his family’s broader game experience: “I was lucky enough to have a sister only 2 years older than me and parents who were stuck about what to buy me every Christmas so I played quite a few board games growing up with her: The Business Game, Stratego, Escape from Colditz, and Campaign. With my parents we played Masterpiece and Flutter and on holidays we always played Yahtzee for my Mum and Solo for my Dad, who loves TT card games. 

My kids have been brought up on card and board games and never touched a video game until my youngest was 14 and got a Wii, which he rarely uses. I never showed them any “traditional” hoyles  games but we have got through 3 copies of Frank’s Zoo and 2 copies of Bohnanza as they grew up and of course a cupboard full of all kinds of family games from Formule Dé mini to all the Zoch “worm” and “hen” games to things like Mr. Jack or For Sale or even Louis XIV. And of course I reviewed family games for Counter so they got to try many of those too. 

Reiner Knizia | Board Game Designer | BoardGameGeek
The man, the myth, the legend

These days they and all their friends are all board gamers, a “halo” effect which I’m very proud of! My daughter is 24 and has a regular game night on Yucata with 2 friends, for example.  So not all youth want stuff derived from video games but frankly I love the fact that more people are playing games than ever and I don’t mind if they are not the more classic games.  I think they will delve deeper if and when they feel the urge.

Even at my work games club I have to explain who Knizia is to 30-year-old colleagues who can whip me three times in a row at Terra Mystica!

Matt Carlson brought us full circle to answer the questions originally posed by Larry and Jeff: “Playing cards with the grandparents was one of the ways to bridge the child-grandparent gap (Rook & Skip-Bo as I mentioned earlier).  In our immediate family, I was the game player.  Almost all I ever asked for on birthdays or at Christmas was games.  At our “family meetings” held somewhat regularly, I was in charge of the “game” we would play.  My dad liked Chess a bit, so I picked that up when I was four.  Never really pushed it because even as a kid I liked watching how more complex rules played out.  My brother was a good source of game-playing partner, at least until he hit pre-teens and started not hanging out with his 1.5 year younger sibling.  My interest in video games was primarily spawned by my lack of sufficient boardgame-playing partners.  I could play a game on the computer whenever I wanted without having to drum up an opponent.”

* * *

I myself played a good deal of Hearts, Cribbage, and President growing up in upstate New York in the 1990s, and while I have fond memories of those games, I haven’t played any of them as an adult, and I don’t feel any inclination to do so.  I am particularly surprised that no one else mentioned President though since that was easily my and my friends’ favorite card game in high school — we played in the cafeteria at school all the time!  And to answer Jeff’s question about video games above, my immediate family and my child don’t play Fortnite together, but we definitely do love all playing Mario Kart, New Super Mario Brothers, Mario Olympics, and Mario Maker together!

(Larry Levy subsequently pointed out, much to my surprise, that President is actually a relatively new game, having been unknown outside of the Far East prior to 1980… so the older OG members would not have known about it during their formative years.  And yet, while I was playing President in high school, Larry was in fact playing a very similar game called The Bum Game during lunch at work.)

So what traditional card games did you, dear reader, play growing up?  Do any of our experiences sound familiar?  Do you still play any traditional card games or see them being played in your community?  And do you have any favorites or favorite house rules to share below?

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6 Responses to OG Roundtable: Traditional Card Games

  1. qwertyuiop says:

    The big one in my family when I was growing up was a version of Hearts we knew as “Slippery Anne”. There were some great phrases that went along with it – being forced to play the Queen of Spades because you’d run out of other spades was called “keeping her till she stank” and trying to force that to happen to someone else was “digging”. Unlike Hearts, every Heart counted face-value and the Queen of Spades was 25. Also if you took the 2 of Hearts, that doubled your entire score for the hand!

    I didn’t learn Cribbage until I was an adult but have played it a ton with my wife, as well as Scopa. The other game using a traditional deck that I play regularly is David Parlett’s brilliant Ninety-Nine (now available on BoardGameArena too).

    • qwertyuiop says:

      Popular high school game was ‘shithead’ and at college ‘blob’ (a version of Oh Hell). Oh and another school one was the rather unpleasant ‘scabby queen’, a version of Old Maid in which the loser had their knuckles viciously rapped with the end of the deck of cards. The number and severity of ‘raps’ was determined by a random card cut from the deck!

  2. Clark King says:

    Being a bit older, we played a lot of Canasta, Pit and Flinch when I was young. Also Touring (Milles Bornes) was a favorite. When I served in the Army, I played a lot of Pitch and Cribbage. Today, I regularly play euchre with others and even enter euchre tournaments.

  3. Zahid Hussain says:

    My first gaming memory was actually a partnership trick-taking game, taught to me by my parents called Court Piece or Rang… https://www.pagat.com/whist/rang.html

    Then through most of my sixth form and college years, the common room would always be home to games of Shi*head, Switch, President, Cheat, and all manner of similar casual games.

  4. Brett Myers says:

    Growing up in Michigan, I played a ton of Euchre. I learned Cribbage as a youngster and have fond memories of playing it with my grandfather. My parents game was Bridge and sometimes Pinochle. I also remember playing a game with four decks shuffled together, called Hand and Foot. My sister was always a Solitaire player.

    Moving to Wisconsin as an adult, I have learned and love the regional favorite Sheepshead, though with its, frankly, bizarre trump, card ranking, and point structure, it’s a bear to learn. I’m actually working on a variant which uses a dedicated deck which I’m calling Cheeseheads. Much easier to learn!

  5. dbvanderark says:

    We played Spades, Euchre and Set Back growing up in Michigan. There are still Euchre and Set Back leagues at the local VFW and American Legion Halls around here. When I started dating my wife I learned double-deck partnership Pinochle because that’s what her family in Illinois played. We had a weekly Pinochle/Euchre night with another couple for about 5 years before our first child was born. My wife and I taught ourselves Cribbage about 30 years ago, and it’s now my most-played and favorite game of all time.

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