From March 16th to July 16th, I had been in lockdown on a small Caribbean island, Roatán, in Honduras. I originally went to work remotely, complete my divemaster program, and learn to lead a slower lifestyle on an island. After a few months, I intended to leave the island; however, all of that changed with COVID19. Although I attempted to go when things were starting to hit the proverbial fan, I ended up staying on the island, and it was the best decision. One of the best takeaways from this experience was learning a whole new set of card games that not only passed the time but helped me know more about the lives and cultures of my newly acquired quarantine family. How many of you played cards endless through the quarantine?
A Brief History of CArds
While researching the origins of cards, I came across a fantastic piece in the Atlantic about their history and evolution. The origins of cards are contested. There is evidence in China that what we know as cards took the form of yezi ge, which translates to ‘game of leaves’ appearing in the 9th Century. (Atlas Obscura) However, both the French and British lay claim to the game as well, “The French avow their standardization of the carte à jouer and its ancestor, the tarot. And the British allege the earliest mention of a card game in any authenticated register.” (The Atlantic).
We almost take the game, and even the cards themselves, for granted. The design of the cards is packed with meaning and symbolism. For instance, the “card names, colors, emblems, and designs change according to their provenance and the whims of card players themselves. These graphic tablets aren’t just toys, or tools. They are cultural imprints that reveal popular custom.” (The Atlantic). I recommend reading the articles from Atlas Obscura and The Atlantic. They are both enlightening and fascinating overviews of the history of cards.
The Card Games I learned
I wanted to share these games to showcase that one, cards are universal and two, you can learn a lot about a culture from these games, third, that many of these games share similar gameplay or tactics just in different combinations or ways. Aside from a few games specific to a set of cards from Italy, we were able to play most of the games on a standard deck of cards. The range of card games has origins in Canada, the USA, France, and Switzerland. I provide a general overview for each game and link it to each game for the full rules.
1. Canada – Shithead
The objective of Shithead is to get rid of all your cards. You have a set of three cards in your hands that you always have to replenish until the pile is out. Once you have used all the cards in the remaining deck and your hands, you can use the cards laid out in front of you to finish the game.
The catch, there are three cards face up for everyone to see, but there is one card under each of the three cards face down, so the game comes down to chance. This game is excellent for a group or just two. When I played in twos, I added a fourth card to spice things up. My success rate was quite high, leading to a ban on playing the game with certain people.
2. Switzerland – Cabo
This game was taught to me by my Swiss friend, not originally from Switzerland. It is a bit of memory and speed. In Cabo, you are dealt four cards face down with a draw pile. The game’s object is to get rid of all your cards and have the lowest accumulated points in the cards face down. As you play, you will have to be strategic about changing cards in your set, stealing from others, or ‘peeking’ at cards to win the game. Hence the emphasis on memory.
3. France – Corsican Battle
Corsican Battle is like a myth game, it is similar to War; however, when I tried to find offical rules none matched the version I played. It makes me think it’s more of a word of mouth game, which feels rare and also special. The essence of the game is a battle to win all the cards. It took me a long time to win, so much so that once I did, I retired. I think my competitive nature gets the best of me, and my French opponent, and friend, who showed me this game was also very good at this game and won all the time. It became very frustrating; however, don’t let this dissuade you.
This game divides the deck in half between two people. Each person flips a card, and depending on the card will win that battle. but you have to slap the cards to win. Kings, Queens, Jacks, and Aces allow you an extra chance to lay a high card and eventually win the pile. The tapping is where things can get competitive; needless to say, it’s a fun game, but make sure you play on a solid surface and prepare to get your hand slapped, once or twice.
4. France – Spoons
The game Spoons is a lively game. The object is to find a set of four cards of the same value (i.e. all fours) and when you do grab a spoon. Once someone has caught a spoon, it doesn’t matter if you have completed your set; you are now free to grab a spoon and the last person to grab a spoon loses. There will be one less spoon on the table than players. The game goes quickly, expect to be on your toes to get that spoon.
5. USA – Rummy
We all know Gin Rummy, and yet we all have our own version. I know that my version was quite different than the rest, so I guess the cheese stands alone, but maybe I was merging the multiple types of rummy. Looking into the rules of Gin Rummy I realized how many official versions exist.
Travel Pro-Tip: Cards As Souvenirs
While travelling in Taiwan, I came across a super cool deck of cards that showcased all the fantastic street food types in Taiwan. I picked up the deck of cards as a souvenir and a beautiful reminder of Taiwanese food culture and my trip. The other cool thing is they included a list of the best places to get all the types of food!
Now, that is smart marketing but also a great way to help people travel and immerse themselves in a local experience. A deck of cards is an excellent souvenir because it still serves a practical purpose for those moments where you are left waiting for your next plane or train, or you want to pass the time in the evening with a glass of wine and some friends.
What I Learnt From PLaying Cards
The act of playing cards wasn’t so much the focal point as interacting with others, building friendships, learning about other cultures, jeering and cheering for each other, and ultimately making memories that will last a lifetime. I know not every card game or experience will feel this permanent, but I am thankful for the time I had with this incredible group of people. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn a new game but have something to conjure up nostalgia the next time I play. I hope to learn more games, so if you have any to share, please leave a note in the comments box!