Whether you’re trying to remember the rules to an old game you played growing up, find a new version of poker for Game Night with The Buds, or decode the Soviet numbers station that is the local Bridge column, you’ll likely end up on Pagat.com. At 25 years old, Pagat maintains an exhaustive list of classic card games, their rules, and every conceivable variation therein. The site has developed a reputation among professional card players and historians of card games as the ultimate card game resource.
Pagat’s editor John McLeod strives for authenticity, reporting rules as “people actually play them,” and often contextualizes its games within their regions of origin. The recommended page for African Casino notes different rules for the Swazi version and the South African version. The Sheepshead page, a reproduction of an older write-up, names itself “Sheepshead, according to Hoyle, Bushnell, and most of Milwaukee, WI.” McLeod works at sourcing Pagat’s games and determining their popularity and history somewhere in the world. But all of this goes out the window when it comes to the “invented games” page.
Card Games and Invented Games
According to McLeod, an invented game is any card game without a “well established tradition of play independent of the original inventor.” In practice, the invented games page is mostly stocked with card game variants practiced among friends or families. The only criteria for inclusion is sending an email to McLeod with an explanation of the rules. The design of these games reveals their origins, and their aims are so transparent as to provide you with a window into the psyches of their inventors. Yet despite their novelty, nearly every one of these games belongs to the centuries-old tradition of playing cards.
Most entries are simple variations on existing games. For instance, there are nearly 100 different versions of War. War’s rules are entirely deterministic and require no decision making, but the game does provide micro-doses of adrenaline at particularly exciting card flips. As players age past ten years old, many try to fix the game to recapture that sense of youthful excitement. McLeod classifies War as a “Duel Game,” a banner which also includes the ten or so entries which bill themselves as attempts at recreating Magic: the Gathering using a 52-card deck. As with War, it is painfully easy to envision a teenager, perhaps myself, stuck at their grandparents’ house with only a Bicycle deck and too much free time. The deeper you get, however, the weirder things turn.
For example, Pys’ngtaut (2005) is an alien card game created for the never-released novel Armistice, and clarifies that the rules presented are the version for use by humans. Quar (2004) is a card game with an elaborate, Borgesian constructed history complete with an imaginary players’ society. Clan (2001) comes from the Society for Creative Anachronism, and as such the rules are written in a 17th-century Scottish brogue.
Unlike modern hobby board games, which use setting to inform artistic design and gameplay, these inventors use setting to situate their games within a history, real or imagined. Classic, popular card games very rarely have a single, definitive inventor. Instead, they evolve naturalistically over time, their rules changing and morphing such that a site the size of Pagat is required to contain them. Modern Contract Bridge, today one of the most popular card games in existence, began as a modification of Auction Bridge, itself a take on Bridge-Whist, a variant of the 18th-century London staple Whist, based itself on the even older game of Ruff and Honours. The creators of these invented games seem to believe that they must thus manufacture a culture and history around their games to add authenticity to their creations.
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Literal and Metaphorical Violence
Unfortunately, many peculiarities are less nuanced and more perplexing. Pain (2004) is a game where each player reveals a single card. “Now the fun part,” the author writes, as he instructs the players to punch each other in the shoulder down the chain of highest cards. Related is Ace of Death (2004), in which players take turns revealing cards until one unlucky loser flips up the Ace of Spades, at which point the other players beat them up. “I, personally, do not play allowing face shots” the author disclaims, “but some of my friends are all for that.” It’s easy to see either of these games being played in schoolyards around the world, put to a stop only when a teacher finally looks up and realizes there’s ten kids crowded around a deck of cards punching the crap out of each other.
The stud poker section plays host to a number of questionable games. Sex in the Middle East (2004) sounds more like an ill-advised cocktail name than a stud poker variant where 5’s are wild, but it’s the least of the confusing entries. Posted in 2004, Who Da Baby Daddy Is (not to be confused with the later entry, 2010’s Babies’ Daddy) vaguely gets its name from its mechanic of having the last dealt card be wild (the mysterious Baby Daddy). And then there’s Smack My Bitch Up (2004), in which queens are wild until a player reveals a king, shouts “Smack!,” and kings become wild instead. This game’s submitter helpfully notes that they do not condone beating women, and that they named the game after the Prodigy song after “we had thrown back a few cold ones.”
The thematic nadir of the invented games page is the Molestation Game (2018), which is precisely as bad as it sounds. The rules are difficult to parse, but the gist is that each player receives a role: The Boy, who wants to molest The Lady, who wants to molest The King of Queers, who wants to molest The Perverted Old Man, who wants to molest The Boy. The winner of the main gameplay phase (“dirty talking round”) gets to molest a player, and either takes a red card (a “sexperience”) or gives a black card (“trauma”). The game ends when one player becomes a “sex maniac” by gathering up six red cards, or when every player goes insane by getting at least five black cards. Just a fun, casual game about driving your friends insane with repeated sexual abuse.
The Molestation Game is something of an outlier in its overly-deliberate rules, theming, and slick presentation. The other games tell a clear story about their creation, their entries revealing small stories about the creators and their lives. They relate failed creative projects, childhood memories, or late nights with friends. The invented games page shows how these games are formed among small groups and spread to others by word of mouth.
All card games start out this way, without the cultural history and tradition that makes them iconic. Games spread through compelling gameplay and develop cultural mass, snowballing into kitchen table mainstays. The invented games page is, for all its oddities and frustrations, a rare look at the start of a card games’ lifecycle, distilled into a personal note and a few paragraphs of rules. There’s no expectation of fame or recognition with these games, just a desire to share your own experiences. “It’s a stupid game,” says the rules for Ace of Death, “but if you play it, it really does become wildly entertaining.”