“A deck of cards is like a musical instrument,” says NYU Game Center professor Jesse Fuchs. It’s as portable as a harmonica and as versatile as a piano—and it’s only as good as the games you know.
In Fuchs’s Traditional Card Game Literacy and Design course, students learn one to three card games each week. About half of them are historical, going all the way back to “fussy, complicated” games like Piquet, from the 17th century, and half are modern creations by specific designers riffing on the traditional 52-card deck.
Over the course of the semester, students learn to appreciate the history and near-universality of card games, and see examples of how to “be resourceful and canny” in solving problems using a “small, elegant set of materials,” Fuchs explains.
The day we visited, students were exploring Eleusis and Leopard—two games by designer Robert Abbott. In Eleusis, a type of “Crazy Eights”-style game where the object is to shed all one’s cards by successfully playing them to a sequence on the table, a “judge” player creates a secret rule that other players must try to guess.
“Since it’s a class for game designers, I think everyone enjoys the more mechanically weird modern games,” Fuchs says. “Seeing a designer use the same old 52-card deck in a radically different way is a big inspiration for them.”
But Fuchs is working on opening up the course, which he sees as a “bridge between the familiar and the strange” to non-designers as well. “You may have never taken a game design or games literacy class,” he says, “but you’ve definitely played some game with a regular deck of cards, and that’s the really the only background knowledge needed.” On a personal level, Fuchs says he prefers cards over games of “perfect information,” such as Chess or Go, which induce in him a feeling designers call “analysis paralysis.”
And as for games everybody should know? You can’t go wrong with Gin, Hearts, and Whist, Fuch says. “These are immensely sturdy games with rules simple enough to be memorized, and between them you’ve got two, three, and four players well covered.”
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