Existing Alternate Card Game Systems

Featured image: Red7

Research for the Ultimate Deck of cards.  What other existing card systems are there, and what interesting features do they have?  We can go to the “game system” page of boardgamegeek, and filter by card game.

There are many recurring themes that can be found, and I’ve attempted to categorize them below.  However, there are also many fully-fledged card game systems that have enough unique features components that they deserve their own individual analyses. I’ll detail them in a future blog post:

  1. Decktet
  2. Galloway
  3. Glyph: Multi-use card system, similar to Rainbow.  See link for breakdown.
  4. Green Box of Games
  5. Holydeck: Mash-up. Each card shows a playing card, letter, die result, and a number.
  6. Mesa Playing Cards
  7. Monster Deck 55
  8. Pentology
  9. Rainbow Deck
  10. The Roman Empire
  11. Scroker
  12. Sconudi
  13. Tack
  14. Zont

The other kinds of card systems are grouped below.

Extended ranks and/or suits

The simplest kind of custom deck, still contains the basic structure of [a..b] ranks x S suits, varying the numbers. Some decks have unranked cards outside the hierarchy, such as Jokers or the major arcana of the Tarot.


An interesting subset are decks with 1 suit; that is, [a…b] x 1 suit, or just a sequential set of numbers.  (Pictured: Badger Rainbow)

Unequal size suits

The most common form is the ‘pyramidal’ deck, where there is one [1], two [2]’s, and so on, until you have X copies of rank [X]. These are usually unsuited, but some variations have suited cards.

  • Pairs: Pyramid 10 (55 cards). The total number of cards for a pyramid deck of N ranks is N(N+1)/2.
  • The Great Dalmuti: Pyramid 12.
  • Detestable Deck: Pyramid deck 7, + [‘sword’] x 7 suits + [‘gate’] = 28 + 7 + 1 = 36 cards.

Duplicate cards

In a standard deck of cards, each card is unique. Some decks have duplicate cards, either because of multiple copies of certain ranks, or because their cards are unranked. (pictured: Coloretto)

  • Coloretto: 8 unranked x 7 suits + special cards
  • Dice Deck: 21 cards x 3 suits, but ranks of cards come in a bell distribution to mirror dice [2, 3, 11, 12] x 1 + [4, 5, 9, 10] x 2 + [6, 7, 8] x 3
  • Finger Bomb: [0] x 5 suits + [1..5] x 2 copies x 5 suits = 55. For kids.  This can be used to play Hanabi.
  • Hanafuda: 4 unranked cards x 12 suits = 48 cards.  Pictorial; cards may or may not have ribbons on them.  There is an entire class of Asian games using these ‘flower cards’.
  • Jackpot Slots: Unranked cards, different distributions per suit.
  • Tamps: [5 suits] x [5 colors]

Higher Dimensionality

Standard cards are ‘two-dimensional’, defined by a <suit, rank> coordinate pair. Some card decks extend these to 3 or even 4 dimensions; these dimensions must be mutually independent from each other.  (pictured: Set)

  • Beadecked: 5 shapes x 4 colors x 3 patterns = 60 cards
  • Mystique Deck: [1..5] x 3 colors x 4 suits = 60 cards
  • Colourcards, Kaleidocards: 5 text choices (‘black’, ‘red’, ‘white’, ‘blue’, ‘green’) x 5 background colors x 4 text colors (cannot be the same as background color) = 100 cards
  • Quarq: [1..5] x 4 colors x 3 shapes + 12 cards each depicting one specific attribute (i.e., shape only, or color only) = 60 + 12 = 72 cards.
  • Set: 3 counts of objects ([1..3]) x 3 colors x 3 shapes x 3 shading types = 81 cards.  4 Dimensions of cards.
  • Triple Topper: [1..5] x 5 suits x 5 colors = 125 cards

Dimensions as ordered tuples

In some card systems, each card can have more than one rank or suit.  There are many ways this can be done, and some are highlighted below.

  • Deck of Dice: 36 cards.  Each card has no suit and two values from [1..6], exhaustively representing all the possible outcomes of a 2D6 roll. Note that a <3, 4> and a <4, 3> both appear, even though these are identical cards.
  • Decktet: Interesting enough to have its own analysis.
  • Double Nine Dominoes: Each card has two values from 0-9, but there are no duplicate permutations of cards (i.e., a <2, 3> and a <3, 2> are the same and only appear once).  The distribution is pyramidal 10.

  • DecaDeck: 45 cards, 10 total suits,  two suits per card (10C2 = 45).  The two suits of cards cannot be the same  (<A, B> and <B, A> exist, but not <A, A>).  Like a double-nine domino set, but without doubles.  The cards are also ranked [1..9] x 5 copies each, but I’m not aware of the logic of the mapping of the ranks to the suits.
  • Dual Deck, Dual Value Playing Cards:  Normal playing cards, but two suits/ranks on the card. On the upper left side of the card, there is another suit/rank underneath the usual one.  Unknown how the ranks are distributed, though it would be nice to have a mathematical basis to do so.
  • Split Deck Playing Cards: card is literally split on the diagonal, one with a white background and another with a yellow background.  Organizing the cards this way means that the suits are meant to be used one-or-the-other, not in tandem.

  • Split Suit Playing Cards: Normal deck of cards, but adds four entirely new suits as a ‘sub-suit’ underneath the main suit. Very.. interesting? Visual design, with overlapping suits that look like street art spray paint, though I question the utility.


Genre Mashup Cards

Cards are not limited to numeric values; uses words, pictures, etc for other game systems. Pictured: Double Play

  1. Alpha Playing Cards: Letters on cards, but the ‘vowel’ cards have two options (e.g. “A” and “E” while consonant cards have just one option
  2. Damage Deck [2..10, A] x 4 + [‘head’, ‘torso’, ‘groin’, ‘left arm’, ‘right arm’, ‘left leg’, ‘right leg’] x 2. Probably used for fighting games and such.
  3. Double Play, Versatiletters: Letters on cards, but each letter is an ambigram to a different letter (e.g. ‘a’ and ‘e’), to various degrees of understandability.
  4. King’s caste: Extended deck of cards with chess ranks.  16 ranks x 4 suits  = [1..8] (pawns), [9..10] (bishops), [‘rook’] x 2, [‘knight’] x 2, Q, K] x 4 suits.  See also Royal Chess for cards without the rank.
  5. Letter Head, Lexicon: Cards with letters and point values, similar to Scrabble tiles. in Wibbell, Each card has two letters on it.
  6. Sigma: 15 types of cards, showing a 3,2 square tile which is either colored black or white.  Used for area control games or Go-type games.

Other Interesting Mechanics (pictured: Four operations deck)

  1. 1000 Blank White Cards, Blank: “legacy” decks, i.e., changing the content of the cards permanently
  2. Binary Playing cards, Zbyte:  Normal card deck, but pips have been changed to logical operators (and, or, not) to give additional meaning for custom game.
  3. Chards: Patterned after chess pieces.  Cards have facing and movement at their sides or diagonals.
  4. Duelo Primigenio,: Scan: The back side of the cards shows the suit of the card, but not the rank.  See Nertz for a deck superset.
  5. Four Operations Math Deck: [1..9] x 6 suits (suits paired into 3 colors). Borders have math operations on them (e.g. 5 has ‘+5’, ‘-5’, ‘x5’, ‘/5’ on the borders. Cards can be overlapped to make equations for games.
  6. Ganjifa: Circular cards.
  7. Perfect Pyramid: Suits look like the bricks of a pyramid and are stacked, meaning some suits cannot be played without the ‘foundation’ of others.


Non-card decks

  1. Deck of Dice: [1..6] x 6 suits, on d6 faces.
  2. Tiledeck: Square tiles. [1..15] x 4 suits. Tiles have “gates” on any or all of its four sides, allowing tiles to be tessellated together.
  3. Twist Hold Em Poker Cube – 3×3 ‘Rubiks’ style cube, with card faces.  6 x 9 = 54 standard playing card faces and jokers.



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 pagat.com 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, but bland and soulless; it’s utilitarian but no one will ever enjoy playing with it.  Compare this to the Glyph system, which was designed with beauty 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:


Buzzword.xlsm: A word game where your greed is your own worst enemy


Today’s game is Buzzword.  The premise is simiple – you have a limited number of letters, which appear one at a time.  Use the letters to form words – the longer and more complex the word, the higher the score.

The problem is that you have limited space for the letters that arrive.  Should you go for the smaller, safer words? Should you wait for more letters but at the risk of overflowing your rack?  Should you risk words you’re not sure exist? Do you want to use low scoring words to get rid of the harder letters? Why is your rack full of J’s, V’s and U’s??

Also for this version please don’t play with sound.  It’s annoying.

Buzzword.xlsm v1.0 – Link here, two files for both 32-and 64-bit versions of Excel.

Battle Snake.xlsm: A 1-3 player snake game on a single keyboard

Hello, Please feel free to play my first game, Battle Snake!  If you’re looking for games that start out fun end up destroying friendships by the end, look no further.  It’s like a Mario Party you can play on your work PC.

Get the file here. (Version 1.1 – Updated 150806).  There are two files there; if the 32-bit version doesn’t work try the other one.


  1. Same-keyboard co-op! Up to three people can play at once, squeezing together uncomfortably in the chair.
  2. Customizable features, such as snake speed and initial snake length.  Keyboard mapping isn’t allowed, though. 😦

Some additional hints:

  1. Doesn’t work in Open Office, needs Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). VBA code is currently unlocked, so you can see there’s nothing malicious in it.
  2. When you press “start”, the snake doesn’t actually start moving until you press an initial arrow key.
  3. Once a snake crashes, that player is out of the game – but he isn’t necessarily the loser! For example, in a two player game, if the If he’s in the lead, the game will continue until either the other player has overtaken him or they’ve crashed with less points.  Of course, now that one player is out of the picture, his opponent can take their sweet time.

Please feel free to leave comments or email feedback to wilhelm.su@gmail.com. Thanks!