In 1889, Nintendo was established by Fusajiro Yamauchi to produce hanafuda: Japanese playing cards, which often feature elegant designs of flowers and foliage. The company became the biggest hanafuda manufacturer in Kyoto, notably selling many decks to the yakuza. In subsequent decades, Nintendo branched into taxi services, ramen noodles and toys before finally arriving at video games in the 1970s. It still makes hanafuda cards today, now bearing the likenesses of Mario and Pokémon, beloved stars from its gaming empire.
Playing cards are a social technology that has long offered an excuse to get a group of people around a table to join in some light-hearted entertainment and let their defences down. While today this role is often fulfilled by video games — groups of young men often best express their feelings over a game of FIFA — playing cards have not disappeared, and continue to find their way into all manner of video game genres.
In Card Shark, one of this year’s best indie titles for the Nintendo Switch, you join a con artist and must cheat your way to the top of 18th-century French society through the medium of card tricks. Meanwhile, Inscryption, winner of several major awards when it was released last year, subverts a simple card game into something new by lurching nightmarishly into a postmodern horror story. More than a millennium after they were first used, playing cards can still surprise and delight us. What gives them this endurance, when all around them the 21st century offers forms of entertainment infinitely more visceral and spectacular?
Cards seem to have originated in China around the ninth century, creeping slowly westwards before spreading across Europe in the 15th century. Early suits included swords, polo sticks, cups and coins before the French established the hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades we today view as standard. They also decided that each king should resemble a historical monarch: King David for spades, Alexander the Great for clubs, Charlemagne for hearts and Julius Caesar for diamonds.
The recent death of the Queen might cause upset to contemporary card players who follow “the British rule”, which states that the hierarchy of king and queen cards shifts according to the gender of the reigning monarch. Despite being banned and maligned for their association with gambling, cards were always able to adapt and persist — the joker, an American invention, only became normal in the 1940s.
For players of a certain generation, it’s likely that their first introduction to digital games was Solitaire, which was built into early Windows PCs. Digital technology has expanded this game’s horizons dramatically: while the physical version is a simple affair to be enjoyed alone, video game versions allow players to compete against friends online or test out The Zachtronics Solitaire Collection, where indie designer Zach Barth offers seven wildly original takes on the classic game.
Collectible trading card games such as Pokémon, Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh! have capitalised on the principle of cards as a medium for transporting players into fantasy worlds, where little numbers on each card provide all the fuel your imagination needs to conduct epic battles between monsters. Each of these has inspired video game versions which remain popular for the visual flair they add to the strategic gameplay.
But the influence of cards is more notable in the popular genre of “deck-building” games. These titles such as Slay the Spire and the enormously popular Hearthstone, from World of Warcraft creator Blizzard, prove particularly compelling because they augment cards with all the capabilities of digital technology, offering seamless online multiplayer modes, visual pyrotechnics and an eternally expanding set of possible cards from which to choose.
Sometimes custom card games are added as side-quests within larger fantasy adventures — the game-within-a-game of Gwent in The Witcher 3 and Final Fantasy’s Triple Triad and Tetra Master were so popular that they have spawned spin-off releases with their own dedicated communities. In the sprawling freedom of an open-world game, there is something soothing about the strict rules and predictability of these card games, where you can while away a few quiet minutes between quests.
The enduring presence of cards is credit to their adaptability. Cards are not a game in themselves but a highly flexible medium which can be used as metaphors for combat, vehicles for strategy or links to a long lineage of play that stretches far back into human history. Today you can build memories out of houses of cards in Where Cards Fall or use cards as units of dialogue in Signs of the Sojourner. Rather than killing off the humble playing card, video games have given them thousands of fresh possibilities.
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