The Ultimate Deck of Cards

I want to make a single card game system than can play anything.

I’ve always had a strange fascination with card game systems. As Shut Up and sit Down says, “In terms of price, tactile joy, depth, presentation and flexibility, the 54 card deck is the greatest board gaming product ever made.”  They’re ubiquitous and interesting, rich with mathematics and symbolism.  Sites like have pages and pages of amazing games invented for the humble 54-card deck.

But I want more.

There’s a list on BoardGameGeek that lists the basic deck structure (number of suits, ranks, special cards needed) for many amazing, modern games.  Now the fantasy is this – can I have one single deck that can play all of those games?

Existing Efforts

I was not surprised that there have been extensive efforts to do something like this, either as a design exercise or to try to build a portable “game travel kit” of sorts.  Of these efforts, the Rainbow Deck is probably the most popular.  In general though, I’ve found alternative card systems to come in three different types:

  1. Decks of existing games. A lot of these decks just have extra ranks and suits, and can play basic games which require [S] suits x [R] ranks.  Search in BGG and you’ll find several geeklists that begin “Games you can play with a/an ____ Deck”.
  2. Designed Game Systems: Designed from the start with this specific purpose; i.e., to prototype or play a whole bunch of other games.
  3. Unique Gaming Systems, with their own mathematics.  These decks are designed in reverse. That is, they’re game systems first, and then invite you to create or prototype games with them.  I think these systems are small enough that I won’t put them in my deck, with the exception of the Decktet.

Despite all the existing efforts, I haven’t really found one that I’m fully satisfied with. I’ve found that they fall into one of three traps:

  • Tries to cram too much unrelated stuff. I don’t agree with maximizing the card’s real estate by putting random letters or pictures in it, unless it contributes to a coherent design. (pictured: Emergency Games Kit)ultimatedeck_kevan
  • The deck loses character: Cards have a long history of symbolism, and it’s a disservice to remove it. Stripped of character, decks like Rage and Sticheln are reduced to [M x N] arrays. Even the Rainbow deck is mathematically beautiful, I feel it’s bland without any theme.  Compare this to the Glyph system, which looks like it’s developed with unity of theme in mind.


  • Information density is too low. I own the Badger Deck (featured header image), and it’s incredibly beautiful.  There’s nothing in it though that separates it from a simple extended-deck suit.

The deck I want to build balances the three of these concerns into one single package.  I’ve developed a draft and will be posting about it in future posts.


Here are some other interesting references I’ve found:

2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Deck of Cards”

  1. Hello, great post. I’m currently searching for the “ultimate deck” to play various games and I’m wondering what would you currently recommend on buying? Thanks


  2. Hi Luka, it depends on what kind of games you’re planning to play. I haven’t touched this in a year, but from what last I checked there are only two ones I can recommend:

    1. I have a copy of the Badger Deck ( and it’s beautiful.
    – You can use it to play anything with an extended number of suits and ranks (Lost Cities, Schotten Totten, Arboretum). The cards also look similar enough to normal playing cards that you can use them to play games without any issue.
    – The downside is that it’s *literally* nothing but an extended set of cards and doesn’t have any more mathematical properties than M suits x N ranks.

    2. The second one is the Rainbow Deck ( This deck can do SO MUCH more, from dice, to sequential / pyramidal sets, etc.
    – The downside is that the deck looks a bit bland. The deck is serviceable, but I wouldn’t personally buy it.

    I’d get the badger deck.


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