The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Games Systems - Part 2

Ron Hale-Evans

February, 2002

Card Game Systems

I was never very fond of the standard deck of playing cards, as I mentioned in my first article in this series. I changed my mind when I came across the concept of a game system. A game system is a set of components that function together in multiple games. A standard deck of cards fits this definition quite well, but there are many other kinds of decks that can be used for multiple games. Tile sets such as Mah Jongg and dominoes also fit the definition, and have much in common with card decks.

As I discussed in the first article, I believe it is important that game systems be free (that is, freely available, freely modifiable, and freely redistributable), so I will examine the "intellectual property" status of most of the games below as well.

Traditional Decks

Traditional card decks are some of the world's earliest game systems, and are still among the most familiar. Most of them were first developed hundreds of years ago, and their lineage has branched and spread across the world. They have been polished and improved by so many hands that today they form an almost perfect symbiosis with the games that are played with them.

Since most traditional card game systems were invented hundreds of years ago, they are nearly all in the public domain. That does not mean you can legally republish the artwork on a particular deck of cards; the artwork itself is usually copyrighted. Similarly, there are probably thousands of card games for these decks that are in the public domain, but specific descriptions of the rules, such as Sid Sackson's book Card Games Around the World (1981), are usually copyrighted.

The best place on the Web to find out about card games is I cannot say enough good things about this site, and it was indispensable for the research of this article. It contains rules for old favourites and for hundreds of exotic games whose names you have probably never heard. The Pagat index Games classified by type of cards or tiles used, was especially useful for this section.

Standard Deck

First, the standard deck of cards. Yes, I've finally become fond of "those protean pieces of pasteboard", as Sid Sackson called them in his book of game rules, A Gamut of Games.

In the standard deck, as you probably know, there are 52 cards in four suits (Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, Spades), with 13 cards in each suit numbering Ace through King, sometimes with one or two Jokers. The four suits of the standard deck are known as "French suits", and the standard deck is sometimes called the "French-suited deck". There are slight variations of the standard deck from place to place and for different games; for example, I own a German deck with French suits and three Jokers. There are also multi-coloured Poker decks available, which have led to expressions that describe a flush (a hand consisting of cards that are all of one suit) as "all blue" or "all green", and so on.

Almost everyone in Western culture is familiar with at least one or two traditional card games for the standard deck, such as Poker, Hearts, Spades, Whist, Bridge, and so on. The variety of mechanisms provided by the standard deck is astonishing when you look into it: there are trick-taking games (Hearts, Spades), fishing games in which players try to capture cards on the table (Scopa, Scopone, Cassino), children's games such as War, Rummy games, showdown games (Poker), banking games (Blackjack), and many more.

There are a number of good books you can read on such card games. Game designer and historian David Parlett has written books of rules for important standard-deck games, as well as historical games you may not have tried. His website contains a bibliography of his books, including his Original Card Games, and also gives rules for a number of his original games. Another good book, containing some startlingly novel games, is Abbott's New Card Games (1963), by Robert Abbott. This book introduced the inductive logic game Eleusis; there was never anything like it before, and there's scarcely anything like it now. Another game in the collection, called Construction, is the first published game, as far as I know, to use playing cards as an extensible game board. (The Icehouse games Zarcana and Gnostica, mentioned in my last article, do something similar with Tarot cards.) You can buy the 1968 edition of Abbott's book at his website, well worth a visit in itself.

Of the games you can play with a standard deck, Poker deserves special attention, because it is halfway between a card game and a game system in its own right. There are some basic betting rules that are almost universal, but often the dealer has the right to decide what "game" is being played during any particular hand, and rules can vary wildly from game to game. You may have heard of the Poker games Five-Card Draw, Seven-Card Stud, and the gambler's favourite, Texas Hold'em, but have you ever heard of Low Flying Outhouse, Double Jesus, or Follow the Mopsqueezer? These are Poker games played by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, including such science fiction writers as Larry Niven and David Gerrold, over 20 years ago. The games are detailed in the document "LASFS Poker Up-to-Date", as transcribed by Tom Jolly (designer of Wiz-War and Drakon), who was part of the group. It is the most interesting list of weird Poker games I know of, although the FAQ links to a few pages of them too.

After reading below about some of the more unusual decks in this article, such as the Stardeck and Alpha Playing Cards, both of which can be used to play versions of Poker, you may want to ask yourself: what about Poker games where the dealer can choose not only the game, but also the deck? What about LASFS Stardeck Poker or LASFS Alpha Poker? What about hybridising other games and game systems?

Other European Decks

Many European countries have their own national decks that are quite similar to one another and to the standard deck. The German-suited deck, used throughout central Europe, has Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, and Bells. The Swiss-suited deck, used primarily in Switzerland, has Acorns, Flowers, Shields, and Bells. Latin-suited cards, used in Spain, Italy, South America, and northern Africa, have Swords, Staves (or "Batons"), Cups, and Coins. All of these decks have varying proportions of number and face cards, but they tend to be used for much the same sort of games that the standard deck is.

Tarot Decks

Most people in the United States are only familiar with Tarot decks as they are used for divination, or "fortune-telling". However, even the alt.tarot FAQ admits that the Tarot deck was most likely used for card games initially, and not divination.

The Tarot decks with which most people in the United States are familiar are Latin-suited, such as the Rider-Waite deck and its many derivatives, which were designed for divination and use the suits Swords, Staves (or Wands), Cups, and Coins (or Pentacles). There are also French-suited Tarot decks available, which use the Spades, Clubs, Hearts, and Diamonds of the standard deck.

Most divinatory Tarot decks have individual scenes of people and animals on the number and face cards, whereas Tarot cards designed for gaming often bear more abstract designs. For example, the Seven of Swords in a gaming deck usually depicts only seven swords, whereas the same card in a divinatory deck often depicts people carrying or fighting with the swords.

In addition to number and face cards, Tarot decks also include 21 Trump cards depicting various scenes, and a special card called the Fool, which is historically unrelated to the Joker. As you might expect from decks having a special suit called Trumps, Tarot decks are used mainly for various kinds of trick-taking games. (Note on terminology: people who use the Tarot for divination call the 21 Trump cards plus the Fool the "Major Arcana" or "Major Trumps", and all the other cards the "Lesser Arcana" or "Lesser Trumps".)

Hungarian Tarokk CardOne of the Tarot games described as most personally rewarding by John McLeod, the maintainer of the Pagat site, is Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk (in fact, "Pagat" is the name of a card from this game). Unfortunately, I simply cannot get my mind around it. I have printed out page after page of rules on "Ill-Hung Tarokk", as I like to abbreviate it, but I am either very, very stupid, or the game is very, very hard. There are many tables of what trumps what, and how much the first "what" is worth, with complex annotations that make no sense to me. There is a long list of clever Tarokk customs, with sayings that should be knowingly intoned when someone makes a certain play (but not so as to give away anything about one's hand). And one of the players has to wear a silly hat. In fact, the game of which Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk reminds me most is Double Fanucci (see below).

Although I am exaggerating the complexity of this game, I am serious about learning to play it. But I don't think I can learn it from the printed page. If you live in Seattle, know Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk, and are willing to teach it to me, please drop me a line.

Finally, devout Discordians are invited to devise games to be played with the Discordian Tarot. All others are sternly fnord warned against this practice.

Asian Decks

There are many interesting kinds of playing cards from Asia. In fact, there are more than I can describe in detail, so I shall merely make a few remarks on each.

From Japan come Flower Cards (or Hanafuda). They are common in Korea and Hawaii as well. They tend to be used for fishing games (compare the European games Scopa, Scopone, and Cassino). Each suit bears an image of a different flower associated with a specific month of the year.

There are also Chess Cards, developed in China and based on the pieces in Xiangqi (Chinese Chess). Four-Colour Chess Cards come from China and are used for a Rummy-like game. Two-Colour Chess Cards are used for a trick-taking game in Vietnam. Presumably, these cards are used for other games as well, but not many people in the U.S. know about them.

Indian Circular cardIndian Circular Cards (or Ganjifa) are now rare. They are called Circular Cards because, yes, they are shaped like a circle. They have up to 12 suits of 12 cards each (ten number cards and two face cards), and are used to play a group of trick-taking games with a ferocious memory component, as well as a banking game (compare Blackjack or Baccarat).

Money Cards originated in China. They vary widely, but tend to have at least three suits, each of which denotes a denomination of money: Coins, Strings (Hundreds) of Coins, and Myriads (Thousands) of Coins. Mah Jongg tiles are derived from Money Cards. While many people think of Mah Jongg tiles as a game rather than a game system, they are used to play many computerised solitaire games (released commercially as Shanghai, and non-commercially under many different names), as well as Mah Jongg itself.

There is as much (or more) variation among decks of cards from Asia as there is among decks from Europe, so these descriptions should be taken as rough guidelines only.

Dominoes and Domino Decks

Dominoes, which also originated in China, are a game system midway between cards and dice; generally speaking, each half of a Western domino is meant to represent the roll of one die, so each domino represents the roll of two dice. According to David Parlett, in China, dominoes usually display both dice at both ends, so they are not used to play positional games with table layouts, as Western dominoes are. Instead, they are used as cards are, for trick-taking games, fishing games, and the like. Therefore, they are sometimes replaced by domino cards, which are marked the same way as dominoes.

I have never seen it suggested that dominoes and Mah Jongg tiles have a common origin, but it is possible that there was some mutual influence; both Mah Jongg and many Chinese domino games are Rummy-like.

"Dice cards" as such will be discussed in detail in my upcoming dice game systems article.

Multi-Suited Decks

Did you ever have a dream in which you came across an extra room in your house that you hadn't known existed? Playing with the decks below feels like being in that sort of dream; they are usually based on the standard deck, but have more than the standard four suits.


Judging by the number of mentions of it I have seen on the Internet, and by the fact that I actually know people besides myself who own one, one of the most currently popular multi-suited decks is the Stardeck. The Stardeck contains the four French suits (Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, Spades) in their usual colours, plus a fifth suit, Stars, which are both red and black.

Poker would seem to be the game most likely to attract people to buy the Stardeck, which makes possible many new Poker hands, including a "natural" five-of-a-kind (as opposed to one formed with a wild card). Five-suited Spades has its fans as well.

The first game I ever played with a Stardeck was Rummy. Afterward, my wife declared it was too easy to make books (also known as sets) when there were five suits. Her opinion of the commercial five-suited Rummy game (not game system) Five Crowns is similar: "Rummy is already easy!"


The Cinco-Loco deck has five suits: Spades (black), Hearts (red), Clubs (green), Diamonds (blue), and Cincos, which seem to be a multi-coloured design incorporating the four other suits. Its manufacturer, the USA Playing Card Company, does not list any games you can play with it, but presumably you can play most games you can play with a Stardeck. (It is, however, about four times as expensive.)


The Empire Deck contains the four regular French suits in their usual colours, plus two extra suits: Crowns (red) and Anchors (black). The site includes rules for Rummy and Hearts variants with the new deck.


The game magazine WGR, issue 12, mentions a six-suited deck called Sextet, designed by Peggy and Ralph Peterson, and published by Secobra in 1964 and 1986. It contains the four usual French suits, plus two new suits, Wheels and Rackets, which are blue. It was possible (and may yet be) to buy rulebooks for several six-suited games, including six-handed Bridge, along with the deck.

Do It Yourself!

R. Wayne Schmittberger, in his classic game design primer New Rules for Classic Games (1992), describes how you can make your own six-suited deck. Obtain two standard decks with the same backs. Set one aside, and take the Hearts and Diamonds from the second. Draw an arrow through each Heart with a permanent black marker to make a suit of Valentines, and draw an 'X' through each Diamond to make a Kites suit. Shuffle these two new suits together with the deck you set aside, and presto! a six-suited Schmittberger deck! (Of course, you can remove either Kites or Valentines to create a five-suited deck like the Stardeck.)

Imaginary and Semi-Imaginary Decks

Sometimes a game system designer will sketch out a plan for a new deck of cards that never gets published in the real world. Perhaps the deck is merely satirical, perhaps the designer doesn't have the time or skill to make the deck himself, or perhaps no one was ever interested. All three of these cases are represented below by the Double Fanucci Deck, the Sandler Deck, and the Black Smudge Deck.

Double Fanucci Deck

Double Fanucci is an imaginary card game played with a very large deck of cards. It stems from the Zork series of adventure games from Infocom, and is even more complicated -- though not much -- than Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk (see "Tarot Decks", above).

Double Fanucci isn't a real game, but the passage below suggests that at least two games are supposed to be played with the deck, so it qualifies as a game system, albeit an imaginary one. It would certainly be possible to invent games that could be played with this deck, and I would be interested in hearing from people who have done so, or made their own decks.

From the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, Appendix C:

Despite years of research, our team... has been unable to get a complete grasp of this game. Fanucci is in fact so complicated that some who do not wish to waste the time required to learn the rules simply play a corrupted version of the game, known as Gabber Tumper. Those who do elect to brave the dangers of Fanucci are immediately faced with an immense deck of 174 cards.

This deck is divided into face cards and suits. The 15 suits (Mazes, Books, Rain, Bugs, Fromps, Inkblots, Scythes, Plungers, Faces, Time, Lamps, Hives, Ears, Zurfs, and Tops) each have eleven cards, valued at 0-9 and Infinity. The face cards are as follows: Granola, Death, Light, Snail, Beauty, Time, Grue, Lobster, and Jester...

Play progresses with players taking one turn after the other, either drawing or discarding a card or using one of their current cards to execute a special play. These possible plays are as follows: Combine, One-Play, Two-Play, Pass, Overpass, Trump, Undertrump, Reverse, Muttonate, Divide, and Ionize.

This is where our comprehension of Double Fanucci becomes a little vague...

The Zork fan fiction site Do-It-Yourself Double Fanucci has illustrations of the suit and face cards, as well as more "rules". The existence of such a site, as well as the presence of much of the original Infocom material online, seems to indicate that any rights to this deck are not being strenuously prosecuted.

Note: The imaginary game of Double Fanucci should not be confused with the doubly-imaginary game of Fizzbin, which was fabricated on the spur of the moment by Captain Kirk of Star Trek to bamboozle some alien mobsters on the planet Beta Antares IV.

Sandler Deck

The Sandler Deck was designed by Ben Sandler of Cornell University because the standard 52-card deck has a very limited number of divisors (2, 4, 13, and 26), which makes it impossible to play, for example, six-handed Bridge, because 52 is not evenly divisible by 6.

The Sandler Deck has 108 cards -- not quite as many as Double Fanucci! 108 is (2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3), so it can be evenly divided in many ways -- for example, by 4, 6, 9, 12, 27, and so on. The deck has three colours, each of which has three suits (Red: Hearts, Diamonds, and Suns; Black: Clubs, Spades, and Omegas; Green: Stars, Moons, and Hammers). Each suit has number cards Ace through 9, with face cards Knight, Dragon, and Princess (in ascending order). A Joker can be added, which makes 109 cards, a prime number. (Quite a Joker.)

The page I have linked to says that the Sandler Deck is copyright 1997 by Ben Sandler, but ideas cannot be copyrighted, only their expression can; Sandler could copyright the artwork on his cards if he manufactured a deck, but not the deck itself. I don't believe the deck is patented.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has made or played with a Sandler Deck, not least Ben himself; his Web page vanished years ago and is only available via the magic of the WayBack Machine.

Black Smudge Deck

I learned about the Black Smudge Deck in Ned Brooks' science fiction fanzine It Goes On The Shelf, issues 20 and 21. Whether or not the deck itself was ever published is still in question, but its specifications were published in 1938 in a book by Ernest W. Black. It was apparently designed as World War II propaganda for American soldiers. It had 48 cards numbered from 1 to 12, in four suits (red, white, and blue -- of course! -- and black). Each card bore a famous quotation, except for two, which showed a Witch and a Devil. (It is unclear from Brooks' account whether these two cards are part of the 48 cards already mentioned.) There were also three Jokers: an Army Mule Joker, a Navy Goat joker, and a Russian Vodka joker. The book lists numerous games, including Army Rummy, Navy Casino, and Russian Vodka, for as few as three players and as many as eight, plus one game called Tri-Color Solitaire.

Apart from the question of whether the deck was ever published, Brooks brings up another mystery: "How did Ernest Black know in 1938 that there would be an alliance with Russia against the Axis, and thus include the Russian Vodka Joker and game? The non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin was signed in 1939 and only broken in 1941 when the Germans invaded Russia." In fact, the U.S. did not even join the war until 1941! In the following issue, one of Brooks' correspondents, Milt Stevens, partially clears up the Black Smudge mystery. "[He] notes, with reference to the mysterious Black Smudge card deck," Brooks writes, "that there was a brief period in 1938 when it was thought that Germany might ally with Poland to attack Russia..."

I do not know whether the Black Smudge Deck was patented. If so, however, its patent has undoubtedly expired.

Miscellaneous Decks

This section is a grab-bag of commercial card game systems, all of which significantly resemble traditional decks.

Triple Topper

Triple Topper cardTriple Topper was invented by Brian Ciesicki, and bills itself as "The world's first 3 Dimensional Multi-game Card Deck" [sic]. It has five colours, with five suits and five numbers in each colour. That's (5 x 5 x 5), or 125 cards, plus two Jokers. The system is called three-dimensional because colour, suit, and number vary independently; thus, there are not only red Hearts and black Clubs (or "Blobs"), but also black Hearts and red Clubs, as well as yellow Hearts, yellow Clubs, and so on. One interesting feature that I haven't seen elsewhere is a separate deck of "Chit Cards", which are designed to randomly specify which dimensions of the deck (number, colour, or suit) are meaningful in a given game.

Ciesicki provides printable graphics of the cards, and the game system is certainly worthy of investigation, but beware: low production values, an attempt to sell advertising on the cards themselves, and crude conservative humour make the site painful to navigate. (The hype doesn't help either.)

The Triple Topper deck is interesting, but not unique; for example, Set is a four-dimensional card game system in Ciesicki's sense; cards are distinguished not only by number, colour, and shape (suit), but also by shading. (Set will be discussed in a later article.) Similarly, Quarto is a three-dimensional board game; pieces are distinguished by colour, shape, and size.

Like Ben Sandler, Ciesicki believes he can copyright his deck, but this is simply not so, although the artwork on the cards is copyrighted. He could try to patent the deck, but there is plenty of prior art that would make his patent invalid: Set and Quarto, for two.

M & Mehr

M & Mehr, published by Doris & Frank, means "M & More" in English. The cards come in the suits of Panthers, Unicorns, Dragons, Phoenixes, and Hedgehogs. The cards are numbered from 0 to 9 with two 1s and two 7s in each suit. Each card also bears zero, one, or two triangle markings on it, depending on which card it is (the 1 and 9 cards in each suit have zero triangles, the 6 and 7 have two triangles, and the rest have one triangle). The triangles serve as an extra "dimension" (in the Triple Topper sense), and are used in various ways (or not at all) in the games in the M & Mehr rulebook.

M itself is a complicated trick-taking game, and I have not yet been able to persuade my gaming group to play it, although it is widely regarded as one of the better games of this sort that is commercially available. Since many people in the group like Hearts, though, we've played The Last Panther (the Hearts equivalent in this game system) a couple of times, and it was well-liked. One interesting feature of The Last Panther is that it is possible to obtain "positive" points, instead of just "negative" points, as in Hearts.

The M deck does not seem to be patented, but the artwork and the rules for the six games that come with it are copyrighted.


ZByte is a binary deck designed by Hal Layer, based on ideas from computer science. It is nearly isomorphic to the standard deck, in that there are 52 cards in four suits (two red and two black), with cards running Ace through King, and two Jokers. Three of the suits, however (ANDs, ORs, and NOTs), are based on electronic logic gates, and usually used in a fashion analogous to their namesakes. (The fourth suit, Bytes, is open-ended.) King and Queen cards portray famous mathematicians and computer scientists, such as Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.

An example of how ZByte cards are used: in one Gin Rummy variant in the rulebook, you can form a set with two five cards, an AND, and a two and a three (because 2 + 3 = 5). Of course, AND gates do not perform addition, but I don't think anyone who has played ZByte with me has minded. The important thing is that all four suits are used to good effect, even the catchall Byte suit.

ZByte cards have an extra dimension or two as well; for instance, all the number cards bear either a large 0 or 1, so that each card has a binary value. This feature is used in such games as Binary Solitaire, which looks interesting, if a bit random.

The ZByte rulebook contains 13 games. Six are Poker variants, and four are Gin Rummy variants, one for each suit. Some members of my game group and I adapted the Gin Rummy rules to a Rummy 500 game. We played that every Rummy hand rotated the special suit, much as card-passing is rotated in Hearts. (Another possibility is "dealer's choice" of special suit, as in Poker.)

Switching special suits each hand in our version of ZByte Rummy proved so brain-bending (some said "dull") that we gave up partway through. Some of us found the potential dual use of the special suits as both ordinary cards and special effect cards to be difficult to understand. Nevertheless, there's more to ZByte than Rummy, and I'm sure we'll be exploring it further.

The ZByte art and rules are copyrighted, and the designer seems to take a hard-line view against imitators. However, he told me in email that he is currently looking to sell his business. Since his game system has enjoyed some commercial success (it is frequently sold in science museum gift shops), perhaps this would be a sensible business purchase -- and perhaps the new owner could free the system further, thereby making the system more popular.

If you enjoy ZByte, you may well enjoy BINO, which is best described as a new binary scoring system for card games with the standard deck.

Rook and Quitli

The Rook deck was introduced in 1906 by Parker Brothers for use in Fundamentalist Protestant Christian communities such as the Mennonites where decks of playing cards are regarded as "the Devil's picture-book".

Instead of French suits, Rook cards use the colours black, green, red, and yellow. Cards are numbered from 1 to 14 in each colour, and there is one Joker-like card called the Rook, bearing a picture of that bird. Since the structure of the deck is so similar to the standard deck, many similar games can be played, such as a Hearts-like game called Golden Ten; in fact, some Rook games have been adapted to the standard deck and are currently popular at Princeton.

Central European Jews were also forbidden by religious law to play with the standard deck, and developed a similar alternative deck called Kvitlech or Kvitlakh, produced commercially by Piatnik as Quitli. It contains cards with numbers but without suits. According to David Parlett in A History of Card Games, the Kvitlech deck is used to play, among other games, one similar to Blackjack. Gamers will be gamers.

Alphabet Decks

Alphabet decks are card game systems designed for word games; they usually have a single letter on each card, accompanied by a number indicating the "value" of that letter (as on Scrabble tiles). It would be interesting to see a "standard" alphabet deck develop out of the competing decks currently on the market, but meanwhile, since many decks are very similar, you can usually play games designed for one deck with another deck. For example, the Alpha, WhizORD, and A-B-C OY! decks described below are all very compatible. Of course, all three decks have different deck sizes, card distributions, and numerical values for letters, but these differences should be trivial when adapting games from one system to another. The main difference between these three decks is that Alpha cards have semi-wild vowels. That is, a given vowel card can be either an "A" or an "E", for example.

Alpha Playing Cards

In terms of intellectual freedom, the Alpha deck is the most open game system of the alphabet decks listed here. Designer Tim Schutz not only posts all the rules for his system on his site, but also provides colour PDF files of Alpha cards gratis, for download and printing.

The games provided with the Alpha deck are fun; my sister-in-law is addicted to the game NewWord and the solitaire games in the Alpha rules booklet. Tim has provided me with a playtest version of his rules for Poker with an Alpha deck, and they look very playable. Unlike the Poker rules provided with WhizORD (see below), which only take into account letter values, Alpha Poker rules provide for the analogue of a hand with three-of-a-kind and a pair (for example): a hand containing a three-letter word and a two-letter word. Only after hand types are compared are letter values for similar hands compared.

The Alpha deck is my favourite of the alphabet decks I have seen. The production values on the commercially-published deck are high, and I appreciate the freedom of the system. On the other hand, the "semi-wild" vowels innovation may make it difficult to play certain old standard alphabet-deck games, such as the Victorian game Anagrams, at least in the usual way.


WhizORD is an alphabet card game system that resembles Alpha a great deal. Unfortunately, the WhizORD cards seem to be of significantly lower production quality than the Alpha cards, having blank centers, for example, instead of large, clearly-printed letters. The system is also incredibly overhyped; the home page is titled, "WhizORD - The Best Card Game Ever", and the hype just gets worse from there.

The WhizORD deck is the next most free after Alpha; if you can cut through the egomaniacal bragging of the inventor, you will find the rules for several games he has developed for WhizORD on the home page. Some look interesting. WhizORD Poker struck me with its elegance when I first read the rules, but I now find I prefer Alpha Poker, which mimics standard-deck Poker much better.

A-B-C OY! and 1-2-3 OY!

Least free and open is A-B-C OY!, and most of the games that come with it are not likely to appeal to a strategy gamer; they are aimed at the educational market (think spelling bees).

However, if you are fond of strategyless "instant recognition" games such as Set or Bongo, if you're an educator, or if you're just a gamer with kids, A-B-C OY! could well be worth purchase. Games typically involve turning over a "target letter" from the draw pile and trying to be the first to create a word using the target letter from the letters in one's hand.

You might also want to look at 1-2-3 OY!. 1-2-3 OY! uses numbers instead of letters, and it was developed before its alphabetic sibling, so it has the greater number of games (1-2-3 has ten and A-B-C has seven). Intriguingly enough, many of the games in one system have analogues in the other. Whereas games in A-B-C OY! center around trying to make words with a target letter, 1-2-3 OY! games center around trying to add, subtract, multiply, and divide the numbers on the cards in your hand to equal a target number. Thus, Slap Match OY!, the original 1-2-3 game, becomes Slapspell OY! in the A-B-C system. (Note: 1-2-3 OY! has the potential to interest even number theorists; any mathematical operation agreed on by the players can be used to make the target number, not just the basic four taught in elementary school.)

ALPHAbet Playing Cards

I found out about ALPHAbet Playing Cards (not to be confused with Alpha Playing Cards, above) too soon before this article's deadline to obtain a deck. It looks interesting. However, it is unclear whether the letter cards have number values (which would make it possible to play games designed for "standard" alphabet decks with it). It does have suits, though: red Triangles, green Circles, blue Stars, and brown Squares. This innovation should make novel kinds of word card games possible. Keep an eye on this system.

Alpha Blitz

Alpha Blitz, published by Wizards of the Coast, barely qualifies as a game system; the rules booklet contains only two games, and I have not heard of any other games published for the system. Perhaps that is because it does not have enough dimensions to provide hooks for game designers: the cards bear neither suits nor letter values, just letters. I haven't played either game in the rule booklet, but The Game Report reviews the system favourably.


We'll finish up this discussion of card game systems with a system I consider to be sui generis, both in its design and in the amount of fervor that has gone into it with so little effect on the marketplace.

Sample Zoki cardsZoki is one of the more weird and novel card game systems I have encountered. It incorporates elements of both standard playing cards and dominoes, and with the right group of gamers to support it and invent new games for it, it could go far. Unfortunately, the Zoki system is unlikely to gather much support, because the unbelievable hype on their website (and elsewhere) trumps, if you'll excuse the expression, not only that of Triple Topper, but even that of WhizORD. (They can't both be the best game ever -- can they?)

The game's inventor, Zoran Pavlovic, is a one-man publicity machine from Yugoslavia ("Zoki" is a diminutive of "Zoran", as "Bill" is short for "William"). Pavlovic's biography is full of overblown claims, and also downplays the flexibility of other game systems:

"To his frustration, Pavlovic realized that, without exception, all existing games impose limits on the number or kinds of games that can be played with their particular formats. These limits are imposed by the game platforms -- the playing pieces, boards, graphics, symbols, etc. There is only one game that can be played with Chess pieces, and that's Chess. Backgammon is the only game that can be played with its particular pieces and board. For that matter, there are probably no more than thirty games that can be played with standard playing cards with variations."

When I paraphrased this bit of hyperbole to my game group, hoots of mockery orbited the table. I hope the present series of articles puts the lie to it.

As for the 50 games (elsewhere they claim "hundreds of games") playable with Zoki, the rules page lists only 11, all presumably written by Pavlovic. Contrast this with Icehouse -- since the last article in this series, the number of games at S.L.I.C.K. (the Sortable List of Icehouse's Cool Kindred), has hit the 100 mark. Even the piecepack game system, whose design was released into the public domain only in October 2000, has over 25 games written for it as of February 2002. But if Pavlovic has played 50,000 sessions of his own games since 1993, as his hagiography claims, he is probably too busy to notice.

After describing the hype to my game group, it was hard to get anyone interested in Zoki, which is too bad, because it is unusual and innovative. When I mentioned that the Zoki game Red Alexa resembled Hearts, one game night regular said, "What's wrong with Hearts?" (Of course, this is a good question to ask about any new game system's variant of an older game, such as the "Hearts" game called The Last Panther, from Mue & Mehr.)

I have found some Zoki games to be more fun (and logical) than others. I expect I will enjoy Zoki the more I play it, and may even invent a couple of Zoki games myself. I just think I would enjoy it more if the Zoki people would turn the hype machine down. If you think I've been exaggerating so far, consider the "Game History" page:

"There are numerous stories in regard to the true creation of the ZOKI(R) concept. It was created by Zoran Pavlovic, yet it is thought by many that his inspiration for the game may have come to him in a moment of divine or psychic intervention. In any event, here are the Legends of ZOKI(R). Perhaps they are all true, or maybe any combination my [sic] have legitimacy. Regardless, they all are pretty good stories."

Ironically, the rest of the page is blank.

Last Cards on the Table

To forestall questions from readers who have played multiple kinds of games with the Set and Uno decks: I didn't go into more depth on them because I mean to describe them in my "Never Meant To Be Game Systems" article, along with other games that took on their own life in the hands of the gaming community, such as Diplomacy and Cosmic Encounter.

Future articles in this series will also include dice game systems, board game systems, chess variants, game systems and intellectual property issues, and low-tech game systems (coins, paper and pencil, hands and fingers).


In my last article I mentioned that since only the game Icehouse itself was patented, and not Icehouse pieces, it should be legal to make and even sell your own Icehouse set. Thanks to the Icehouse mailing list, I have since located a page giving the official Icehouse piece specifications, and even a set of plans from Looney Labs for making your own Icehouse set. Kudos are due John Cooper and Andy Looney for making their creation so freely available.

Thanks also and especially go to: The Games Journal; John McLeod, the maintainer of, for providing an incredible wealth of knowledge on which I have relied heavily; Tim Schutz, for lending me his extensive collection of word card games; Lesley Hooker, for lending me her Five Crowns set; Seattle Cosmic Game Night, for being friends as well as guinea pigs; and Marty Hale-Evans, for editing and everything.

- Ron Hale-Evans

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