This is an excerpt from my ebook, How to Design Card Games.
If you’ve never designed a card game before, it can be easier to start by adding house rules to an existing game.
Here are the top 10 card games that Americans played in 2016 (excluding gambling and adult games):
- Go Fish
- Phase 10
Take a card game you like and make it better. It can be a game played with a standard deck of cards, or a game played with a dedicated deck of cards (for instance, Uno, Skip-Bo, or Phase 10). Here are some of the things that you can do:
- Remove some cards you don’t like.
- Write a few of your own cards.
- Change some rules or even the victory conditions.
- Figure out how to make the game work with more players or solitaire.
If you don’t have access to many card games, there are thousands of card games that you can play for free. Get a deck of traditional cards and a library book on card games. Some libraries also let you check out card games for use in the building. Or buy these great Dover books: A Gamut of Games and Card Games Around the World by Sid Sackson, Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations by R. C. Bell, Games and Fun with Playing Cards by Joseph Leeming, and Favorite Board Games: You Can Make and Play by Asterie Baker Provenzo and Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr.
You can also download many card games as free apps from Google Play or the Apple App Store. And the online site Yucata.de has many modern games that you can play for free against other users.
Looking for ideas for new rules? Make some actions for special cards. Here are some nicknames for cards in a traditional deck:
- Black Widow – The Queen of Spades (Q♠).
- Court Cards – The King, Queen, and Jack of any suit.
- Deuce – A card with the value of two, of any suit.
- Face Cards – Same as Court Cards.
- Honors – Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and Ten.
- Knave – Jack.
- One-Eyed Jack – The Jack of Spades (J♠) or the Jack of Hearts (J♥).
- One-Eyed King – The King of Diamonds (K♦).
- One-Eyed Royal – A One-Eyed Jack or a One-Eyed King.
- Suicide King – The King of Hearts (K♥).
- Trey – A card with the value of three, of any suit.
Different traditional card games often have certain rules involving named sets. Add some other named sets, or change around the winning value of certain sets. Some named sets for inspiration:
- Doubleton – 2 cards in the same suit (like a 2-card flush).
- Flush – 5 cards of the same suit.
- Four of a Kind – 4 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck).
- Five of a Kind – 5 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck and with wildcards).
- Full House – 3 of a kind, plus a pair of a different rank.
- Long Suit – 5 or more cards of the same suit.
- Marriage – King and Queen of the same suit.
- Meld – 3 cards with a value when scoring.
- Pair – 2 cards of the same rank.
- Pinochle – Jack of Diamonds and the Queen of Spades.
- Roundhouse – A marriage in every suit.
- Royal Flush – Ace, King, Queen, Jack, and Ten in the same suit.
- Run – 3 or more sequential cards in the same suit (e.g., 5, 6, 7 of Hearts, or 9, Ten, Jack of Clubs).
- Straight – 5 sequential cards of different suits.
- Straight Flush – 5 sequential cards all in the same suit.
- Three of a Kind – 3 cards of the same value (different suits when playing with one deck).
Many popular mainstream card games are just versions of traditional card games with a dedicated deck and some house rules:
- Uno is a version of Crazy Eights.
- Skip-Bo is a version of Spite and Malice (also known as Cat and Mouse).
- Phase 10 is a version of Liverpool Rummy.
- Balderdash is a version of Fictionary.
- O’No 99 is a version of 99.
Still uncertain where to start? There are lots of varieties of Rummy out there, with many collections of house rules. Start with a grab bag of house rules collected from others, then organize those into your own game.
Example: 99 Game
One of the favorite games of Grace Mary Gilchrist, my great aunt, was 99. Each player had 3 lives (represented by 3 pennies apiece). Each hand involved dealing everyone 3 cards. A player would then play a card of their choice on the discard pile, announce the new running total, and draw a replacement card. For instance, the first card might be a 5. The next player might play a 7, making the total 12. The first player to go over 99 would lose the round and would surrender a life (a penny). The game would continue until all but the final player were eliminated.
On an index card my great aunt had written the special values for certain ranks of cards:
- Ace: +1 or +11, as desired.
- (2, 5..8: Add that value.)
- 3: +3 – Skip the next player.
- 4: +0 – Reverse play.
- 9: =99 – The running total is set to 99, no matter what the prior total was.
- 10: +10 or -10, as desired.
- Jack, Queen, King = +10.
[Update 11/22/2020. I taught my wife and son the card game 99 last night. I remember my great aunt teaching me the rules 41 years ago, on a trip to AZ, but I can’t remember the exact rules. There are a lot of variants, but none seem quite the way I was taught. As best I recall: 4=pass, 9=reverse, 10=-10, J=+10, Q=+10, K=99, A=+1 or +11. Player elimination if you exceeded 99, with 3 lives (represented by pennies) and then an “honor” (last chance). I have such fond memories of playing this with my grandparents and two of my great aunts, all now passed, and it pains me that I can’t remember the rules we used. A little bit of personal history lost.]
(Note that some families play by slightly different rules for these cards and that there’s a different card game also known as 99 that involves trick-taking.)
I always preferred 99 to Uno because it was quicker, built to a conclusion (had a story arc). It also has some interesting strategy to it. The game is often described as a good game for teaching children to add yet it is not great for that, as you can’t add by 4 or 9 since those cards have special meanings.
So here are my house rules for 99:
- Ace: +1 or +11, as desired.
- 2..9: +2..9.
- 10: +10 or -10, as desired.
- Jack: +0 and skip the next player. (Mnemonic: “The Jack is a fool and skips.” A mnemonic is a memory aid.)
- Queen – +0 and reverse play. (Mnemonic: “The Queen changes her mind.”)
- King – The running total is set to 99, no matter what the prior total was. (Mnemonic: “The King is in a hurry”.)
Games that eliminate players aren’t always fun, especially with big groups. So instead, if you lose, you take a penny. The last player with no pennies in front of them wins!