Dedicated decks take card games to a new level
Card games are great fun for family and friends
Card games have been a cheap means of entertainment for centuries. My dad can attest that his family constantly played Rook when he was growing up; since they didn't have much money, it was one of their main forms of recreation. (Now it's just a delightful family tradition.)
I grew up learning Rook from my Dad, aunts, and cousins, and I also played Uno quite a lot. At family events, I always gravitated to the game table -- it was fun and you never had to worry about awkward lulls in conversation.
Recently, thanks to Wil Wheaton's web series TableTop, I discovered that there are tons of other options I never knew existed. I particularly love that many of these games (like Gloom and Fluxx) emphasize fun over competition.
In this article, I'll discuss my favorite dedicated deck card games (including Munchkin, pictured) and provide links for you to get them yourself.
Origins of dedicated deck card games
Originally, card decks were fairly uniform, and different games and variations were developed around that standard; games like poker, bridge, hearts and rummy all use a traditional deck. Dedicated decks -- proprietary cards with unique characteristics or illustrations -- were created much later in response to the bad reputation of regular cards.
According to Wikipedia, Parker Brothers developed the Rook cards in the early 1900s for religious individuals who didn't want to use traditional cards "because of their association with gambling and cartomancy." (Rook uses four colors rather than the traditional suits and doesn't contain court cards such as Kings and Queens that hark back to the Tarot.) Eventually, more card games that required a special deck to play were created in response to the popularity of early releases.
I believe the number of proprietary games that exist is probably in the hundreds at this point, although many are out of print or hard to find. Still, there are easily dozens available in a broad variety of themes and variations.
This is probably the first dedicated deck card game, and it's the one I play with my extended family whenever we get together. My dad grew up playing Rook with his siblings and friends, and it's now a family tradition. My father's family didn't have a lot of extra money, so cards provided cheap entertainment. They also gave him an incentive to do well in school: once he got on the honor roll, he could spend his off-period in study hall playing cards!
Rook is a competitive, trick-taking game, sometimes known as a trump game. Players earn points by capturing tricks, although only certain cards are worth points. Four people (two sets of partners) are needed for standard play, but there are variations for other numbers of players. We've played with three players and a dummy hand before, but it changes the dynamic of the game somewhat because you don't have a dedicated partner in that version -- whoever wins the bid also plays the dummy hand.
While Rook can be played by older children, I think it's difficult for them to grasp all the complexities of the game. I'd say Rook is best played with teens or adults.
I think Uno was the first dedicated deck card game I played, and I still find it a good standby when you want a game that doesn't require a lot of thought or strategy. Sometimes, you want a game simply to maintain a relaxed atmosphere for socialization: the cards provide an occupation and ease the pressure of making constant conversation. I enjoyed many pleasant afternoons and evenings playing Uno with friends; it's simple enough that you can play and socialize at the same time. (It's also great for all ages, from kids to adults.)
I learned about Fluxx from the web series TableTop. Seeing Fluxx in action completely sold me on this game. It's so much fun! I love that the rules constantly change, so you really can't get hung up on strategy or be too focused on winning.
There are multiple versions of Fluxx: the original, plus a variety of themed versions that include Pirates, Zombies, Cthulu, Monty Python and more. I'm only familiar with Star Fluxx, which references sci-fi shows and books like Star Trek, Doctor Who, and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A friend of mine has several versions of Fluxx and she says her teenagers love the game (high praise indeed). Her older children also enjoy Fluxx, so it's a game that can be played by a variety of age groups. (There's also a variation called Oz Fluxx that's specifically designed for older kids.)
Fluxx can be played with as few as two people or as many as six. The manufacturers say an average game takes about 30 minutes, but I suspect the time to play varies wildly since the rules change as you go.
Curious about Fluxx? Watch the variation Star Fluxx being played on the web series TableTop!
Munchkin - Best Traditional Card Game, 2001
Munchkin is a funny card game that spoofs traditional role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. It's pretty easy to play, but for me, the charm of this game is in the wacky illustrated cards. The original version of Munchkin proved to be so popular that many expansion packs of new cards have been added, along with variations on other themes (pirates, zombies, cowboys, science fiction, Lovecraft, and more). Keep in mind that expansions (Munchkin 2, Munchkin 3, etc.) need to be used with the original deck, while the variations are stand-alone versions.
Between two and six people can play Munchkin at a time, with the average game lasting about an hour. While I tend to think adults will enjoy it more, I know some people who play it with their children too.
The original card game! You need this pack to play any of the expansions.
Curious about Munchkin? Watch it being played by Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Sandeep Parikh and game creator Steve Jackson on the web series TableTop! (This episode is one of my favorites.)
Note: the players are using the deluxe version of Munchkin, which comes with a game board, but rules for play are the same. The board is nice, but not necessary; many players have made custom boards, and others simply use counters to keep track of what level each player has reached.
Best Traditional Card Game, 2005
Gloom is dark game of storytelling centered around odd families who seem to have sprung straight from the pages of Edward Gorey books. The object is to have your family members die in an unhappy state; you play by applying misery cards to your own characters and unloading happy cards on your opponents. Players are also supposed to weave stories around the events of each card, although you can play the game without this aspect.
The art on the character cards is detailed and whimsical, very much in the Edward Gorey style. The cards that can be played are darkly funny and often use heavy alliteration; characters are mocked by midgets, pierced by porcupines, and trapped on trains, among other fates.
There are several expansions for the original game, plus alternate version Cthulhu Gloom and its expansion Unpleasant Dreams, where family members can be transformed into monsters straight out of the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft.
Given the macabre objective of the Gloom, I wouldn't really recommend this game for young children.
Want to see Gloom in action? You can watch it being played on the web series TableTop.
Note: the players are using the original version of the game without any expansion packs.
© 2012 C A Chancellor