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Best Brain Training Card Games for Children

Updated on July 12, 2016
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TR Smith is a product designer and former teacher who uses math in her work every day.

Playing card games with your children will make them smarter. (Pixabay)
Playing card games with your children will make them smarter. (Pixabay)

Classic Hearts
Addition War
Crazy Eights
Thirteen Ring
Fifteens Concentration
Straight Gin Rummy
Fifteens Old Maid
Set (TM)

Looking for simple card games that will help your children learn strategy, logical thinking, math, and better concentration? Try these nine fast-paced games that will exercise your children's brains. Most of these games use a standard 52-card deck and have simple rules that eight-year-olds can understand; some are suitable for even younger players. Playing strategy games with your children is a fun way to bond and can help raise their grades and test scores. See also Arithmetic Card Games and Arithmetic Dice Games.

Classic Hearts

This is one of the easiest trick-taking games to learn and has a simple scoring system.

  • Number of Players: 4, but accommodations can be made for more or fewer players.
  • How to Play: Deal 13 cards to each player. The player who holds the 2 of clubs goes first and puts that card face up in the center. Play proceeds clockwise with other players matching the suit of the lead card (clubs in this case). The player who puts down the highest card of the leading suit wins that "trick" and leads the next . If you cannot follow suit, you can put down any other card. If you can follow suit, you must do so. Also, you cannot play a heart or the queen of spades in the very first round, unless these are the only cards you can play. (In a four-player game the likelihood of this happening is about 1 in 45.4 billion.)
  • How to Score: At the end of 13 rounds, players receive 1 penalty point for each heart and 13 penalty points for the queen of spades. However, if one player manages to collect 13 hearts and the queen of spades, that player has the choice to either subtract 26 penalty points from his own score, or add 26 to the other players' scores. This is called "shooting the moon."
  • How to Win: The object of the game is to earn as few penalty points as possible. As soon as one player reaches 100 penalty points the game ends and the player with the lowest score wins.
  • Three Players: With three players, remove the two of diamonds from the deck and deal 17 cards to each player. Alternatively, you can deal 13 cards to each player as usual and set aside 13 cards for a "dummy" who plays blindly (and sometimes breaks rules). Yet another way to adapt the game for three players is to add two jokers to the deck and deal each player 18 cards. Jokers are valueless and cannot win tricks.
  • Five Players: Remove the two of diamonds and two of clubs from the deck and deal each player 10 cards. In this case, the player with the three of clubs leads the first round. Alternatively, some groups of five players remove two cards randomly and set them aside face down. The first person to throw hearts gets these cards, but neither the recipient nor any of the other players can look at them until the end of the 13 rounds. Yet another method of accommodating five players: add the 13 diamond cards from a similar deck and deal each player 13 cards as usual. if there is a tie, the second person to play the matching card takes the trick.
  • Passing Variation: After the 13 cards are dealt, players select three cards and pass them to the player on their left, right, or across the table.

Shooting the moon in hearts. (author's photo)
Shooting the moon in hearts. (author's photo)

Addition War (Timed)

This is a variation of the classic card game war that helps kids practice simple addition. It's also timed to avoid the game dragging on forever and making your child bored.

  • Number of Players: 2
  • How to Play: Aces count for 1, face cards (J, Q, K) count for 10, and all other cards count for their numerical value. Deal out the entire deck to both players so that each has 26 cards. Both players put down two cards face up. Whoever's pair of cards has the higher sum gets to take all the cards on the table and put them under her pile. In case of a tie, both players deal two more cards face up and the one with the higher sum wins that round. Play continues until time is up. A good time limit is two or three minutes.
  • How to Win: Whoever has more cards in her pile at the end of the game wins.
  • Variations: You can break ties with by seeing whose cards have the larger product or larger difference.

Crazy Eights

The original crazy eights game has spawned many more elaborate versions such as Mau-Mau, Mao, Switch, and the branded game Uno.

  • Number of Players: 2 - 4 with a single deck, 5 - 8 with a double deck
  • How to Play: Dealer deals each player eight cards face down and turns up one card from the draw pile to form the discard pile. Dealer goes first. On a player's turn he must play a card that matches either the suit or the denomination of the top card on the discard pile. If he cannot match either the suit or the denomination, he can play an eight and declare a new suit which the next player must follow. If he does not have an eight, he must draw cards from the draw pile until he obtains a card he can play. If the draw pile is exhausted, play continues as usual except that if a player cannot go, he loses his turn.
  • How to Win: Play continues until one player discards all her cards and that player is the winner. If nobody can shed all their cards, the player with the fewest cards wins. There may be ties in this case.
  • Optional Scoring System for Multiple Rounds: The winner of a round gets points according to the value of the cards her opponents hold. She gets 50 points for every eight, 10 points per face card, and the face values of the spot cards. This makes it unwise to hold onto an eight when someone is close to getting rid of all her cards. The first player to reach a certain number of points wins.
  • Strategy: This game allows for strategic play if you can keep track of which cards have been played and which suits your opponents have not been able to match. For example, suppose in a two-player game your opponent has one card left while you are holding 11 and the draw pile is exhausted. If you know what your opponent holds, you may be able to play your cards in a particular order that forces your opponent to keep losing her turn, eventually allowing you to shed all your cards.

Thirteen Ring

This game combines the strategy of Matchsticks with simple arithmetic practice.

  • Number of Players: 2 - 4
  • How to Play: Aces are worth 1 point, jacks are worth 11, queens are worth 12, kings are worth 13, and all other cards are worth their face value. Dealer lays 13 cards face down in the shape of a ring on the table. The dealer goes first and can remove either one or two cards from the ring and add the points of those cards to his score. The player who ends up taking the last card does not get the points for that card, instead the other players get 20 points added to their scores. The round ends and 13 more cards are dealt out in a ring. Players take turns being the dealer. If there are two or four players you can play four rounds; with three players you can play three or six rounds. This let's everyone go first an equal number of times
  • How to Win: Player with the highest score wins.
  • Strategy: With two players, the second player can always force the first player to take the last card.

She took the last card. (Pixabay)
She took the last card. (Pixabay)


This game does not have much strategy, but it's great for improving memory and concentration, hence the name.

  • Number of Players: 2 or 3
  • How to Play: Lay out all the cards face down on the table. You can include the jokers if you have an even number of them. Players take turns flipping over two cards at a time. If they match, the player puts them in her pile and goes again. Otherwise she turns them back down in the original places. The game proceeds until there are no more cards on the table.
  • How to Win: The player with the most cards (pairs) wins.
  • Strategy: This is a game about spatial memorization. If you can remember the values of the cards that have been flipped over better than your opponent, you can collect more pairs.

Fifteens Concentration

This is a variation of concentration that adds a little bit of math and strategy.

  • Number of Players: 2 with a single deck, 3 or 4 with a double deck
  • How to Play: Remove the 10s and face cards from the deck or decks. Aces are worth 1, and all other cards are worth their spot values. Lay out all the cards face down as in regular concentration. Players take turns flipping over three cards at a time. If the three cards add up to 15, the player puts them in his pile and goes again, otherwise he turns the cards back down in their original spots. Play ends when there are no more three-card sets of 15 left on the board. (Sometimes the game can end with cards still on the table.)
  • How to Win: As in regular concentration, the player with the most cards at the end wins.
  • Strategy: Not only do players need to be good at memorizing the values of the face down cards, but also they need to know which card combos add up to 15.

Straight Gin Rummy

Rummy games have simple rules and discovering the right strategy is what makes them fun. Straight gin rummy is one of the simplest for elementary school children to learn, and you can further streamline the game by not keeping score.

  • Number of Players: 2 or 3 with a single deck, 4 with a double deck
  • How to Play: Dealer gives 10 cards face down to each player and stacks the rest of the cards in the center to form the draw pile. At the beginning of the game, one card from the draw pile is turned face up to start the discard pile. On each player's turn she can either take one card from the draw pile or the top one from the discard pile, add it to her hand, and then discard one of her cards onto the discard pile. You can discard the same card you draw. The object is to form three "melds," two melds of three cards each and one meld of four cards each. A meld is either cards of the same rank (e.g. 8♣ 8♥ 8♦) or consecutive cards of the same suit (e.g. 9♥ 10♥ J♥ Q♥). Aces count low, thus Q-K-A is not a valid meld but A-2-3 is. If the draw pile is exhausted, the discard pile is reshuffled.
  • How to Win: The first player to make "gin" (three melds) wins. A card cannot be used to complete two melds. You have to be able to separate your hand into three distinct melds of at least three cards each. For example, the following hand does not win because the 9 of diamonds is necessary to complete two melds

    2♠ 3♠ 4♠ 5♠ 6♠
    9♣ 9♥ 9♦ 10♦ J♦

    However, the following hand is a winner because the 9 of diamonds isn't needed for the straight of diamonds

    2♠ 3♠ 4♠ 5♠
    9♣ 9♥ 9♦ 10♦ J♦ Q♦

    This hand can be split into three melds as

    2♠ 3♠ 4♠ 5♠
    9♣ 9♥ 9♦
    10♦ J♦ Q♦
  • Optional Scoring: The first player to make gin gets points for all the "deadwood" cards in his opponents' hands, that is, the cards that do not belong to any melds. Aces count for 1, face cards count for 10, and all other cards count for their spot value. First player to reach 100 or 200 points wins.

Fifteens Old Maid

Classic old maid is a very simple game of chance, but this variation adds a little more strategy and can help sharpen your mental math skills.

  • Number of Players: 2 - 4
  • How to Play: Remove all the 10s from the deck and remove one jack and one king. Aces count for 1, face cards do not have point values. Deal out the remainder of the deck to all the players. It's okay if some players have one more card than others. At the beginning, all players remove sets of three cards that either (A) add up to 15, or (B) consist of J, Q, K. Next, players take turns taking two cards from the player on their left. The taker chooses blindly at random. Whenever a player has a set of three cards in his hand that adds up to 15 or consists of JQK, he can discard it. If a player has only one card in his hand, then the player on his right must take that one. Players with no cards in their hands still take two from the person on their left so long as the game is still going. Running out of cards in your hand does not necessarily put you out of the game.
  • How to Win: In this game, there is one loser and the rest of the players are the non-losers. The primary way to lose is when all the spot cards have been grouped into sets adding up to 15, all the jacks and kings have been grouped into JQK sets, and one player is holding the leftover queen, aka the old maid. The player holding the old maid is the loser.

    Sometimes the remaining spot cards cannot be grouped into sets of three that add up to 15. For instance, at the end of the game if the remaining spot cards are 9, 9, 8, 2, 1, 1, there is no way to make a three-card set that adds up to 15. As soon as one player realizes it, she can call it. This means all the players show their cards. If the caller is correct, the player who happens to have the old maid at the time of the call is the loser. If the caller is incorrect and a three-card set adding up to 15 can be made, the caller is declared the loser. This part of the game is where some strategy is useful.

Queens of each suit. (Pixabay)
Queens of each suit. (Pixabay)

Set (TM)

Set is a branded game with a special deck and it has one of the highest ratings on Amazon among family card games. Though it was invented by a geneticist and was originally popular among adults in science and tech, more and more elementary schools are introducing it to children as an educational game.

The game consists of 81 cards; each card depicts four aspects (color, shape, number, and shading style) and there are three variations of each aspect, listed below.

Color: red, green, or purple
Shape: oval, diamond, or squiggle
Number: one, two, or three
Shading Style: none, stripes, or solid

In this game, a "set" is a group of three cards such that for each aspect they either have the same variation or they all have a different variation. For example, if one card in a set is red and another is green, then the third card must be purple, thus making the cards all different for the color aspect. If one card in a set had diamonds and another has diamonds, then the third card must also have diamonds, thus making the cards all the same for the shape aspect.

  • Number of Players: 2 - 6
  • How to Play: The best player serves as the dealer since being the dealer is a bit of a handicap. Lay out 12 cards face up. If you spot a set among the 12 cards, you call out "Set!" and grab the cards. The designated dealer then replaces them with three more cards face up. If nobody can see a set after a certain amount of time, the dealer lays out three more cards. Play continues until the deck is exhausted. It is possible for the game to end with 6, 9, 12, 15, or 18 cards on the table because nobody can find sets among the cards.
  • How to Win: The player who has gathered the most sets wins
  • Strategy: Set is a game that rewards good visual perception and logical thinking.
  • Mathematical Considerations: For every possible pair of cards there is exactly one other card that will work to form a set with that pair. This means there are 3240 possible sets that can be made from the deck. If there are 21 cards on the table there will always be at least one set. In other words, the maximum number of cards you can lay out without having a single set is 20.

Can you find the sets in this layout? (author's photo)
Can you find the sets in this layout? (author's photo)


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    • FitnezzJim profile image

      FitnezzJim 18 months ago from Fredericksburg, Virginia

      Interesting, there are some neat new games to try here.


    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 18 months ago from Chicago

      What an interesting article. Isn't amazing how much fun learning can be?

    • Farawaytree profile image

      Michelle Zunter 17 months ago from California

      I love this hub. So unique! I will try these with our 11 year old and maybe even 3 year old ;)

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