Card-playing, as a pastime, depends on the ability of people to gather freely, in close quarters, and handle the same objects in turn. It is not, however, utterly reliant. Playing cards together can migrate to Zoom; it just takes a bit of legwork.
Generally speaking, when it comes to choice of medium, there are two main options: on the one hand there are online a few different generic card or board game engines, where players can all join a room and manipulate some set of objects (say, a deck of cards and a few score counters). You only need a few primitives to simulate pretty much any card game in this way: the ability to draw cards, turn them over, split them into piles, and bring them into a player’s hand. On the other hand, there are websites or native apps that directly simulate some specific game: a Poker app, a Euchre app, et cetera. These expose to the player the actions of the game itself, as well as encode its rules; for instance, they will prevent a player from playing an illegal card.
After a bit of experimentation, I strongly prefer the latter. The promise of the former is lovely and it’s nice to have something to fall back to, but it will almost always be an order of magnitude faster and more fluid to play a dedicated app than to manipulate on-screen objects as though they were cards.
In general, what one looks for is speed, fluidity, and unobtrusiveness. Even if, in general, computer games benefit from a degree of interface richness and delight, in this case we do not expect to dedicate any more attention to the actual interface than we must. To replicate a weekly dinner table card game, we’ll be on Zoom or Facetime, and if we have two monitors we’d like to have our opponents’ faces in video on the other screen; so as we select games to play we’ll be looking for a system that exposes the mechanics of the game to us with a minimum of fuss.
I’ll offer a brief survey of where to play what. I’ll organize these entries by number of players and complexity level; hopefully you can find an entry that suits your needs.
Schnapsen: a game that is quite uncomplicated, in its way, but brutally unforgiving. There are a few interesting wrinkles that might give pause to a brand-new cards player, but most offputting is the degree to which it drains the blood, silences casual conversation, and induces a grim, white-knuckled concentration in the two players. This is not not an endorsement.
Playok is entirely free of adornment; to the untrained eye, it looks half-built, but in fact it means that one can get to the actual play with a minimum of distraction. They also have Skat and Euchre, if you want to embrace the minimalism.
Sergeant Major: I’m not an old hand at this one quite yet, but I appreciate it for what it is. The gameplay is very firmly in the traditional whist mold; the twist is that each player receives a quota for each round, and if they miss their quota then they get all their best cards taken on the next one. The result is a slow but inevitable slide into marginalization and defeat, which all feels very British.
CardzMania mostly has its name against it; unlike the implication of any name that unnecessarily inserts Zs where they don’t belong, play is generally on the level and bullshit free.
Skat: a complex, rewarding game of the point-trick variety. Very popular in Germany. A high learning curve: the bidding system is imposing and requires no little bit of memorization and mental arithmetic to be able to participate.
The first couple pages are in German, but once you sign up the interface is fully English. There is an in-game currency, as well as a premium subscription, but players can play normally without paying. The site is very active and pretty bug-free.
Link: Skat Palast
Slovenian Tarok: quite possibly my favorite game. More obscure than Skat, but for my money slightly more exciting and dramatic. Arguably, it doesn’t require the same mental fortitude and discipline that Skat does; unfortunately, the elaborate bidding system, novel partner selection mechanism, positive and negative contracts, extra bonuses, and of course the fact that it’s played with tarot cards make for an imposing and utterly unfamiliar package.
Valat.si is always thronging with Slovenians who are very good at this game, except at 9pm EST when the entire server restarts and every game crashes. The interface is mostly in English, though not entirely, and of course that’s only if you click English, which is easy to overlook—then you’re stuck in Slovenian for the rest of the game (‘naprej’ means ‘skip’, or ‘next’; that’s all I’ve picked up). Despite all this the actual gameplay is extremely smooth and fast-paced; for a game with some interesting and unusual complexities, that’s no mean feat.
Euchre: A very popular and relatively simple game. Almost no bidding and a short deck, so games are fast. Much of the American Midwest is fanatical and new players are very easily inducted, though it can feel a bit simplistic to those used to more elaborate bidding systems.
Euchre 3D is more or less the standard; Euchre is one of the few card games with a substantial English-speaking community online, and when people discuss games online it’s almost always assumed they’ll be playing on Euchre 3D. Why a card game would need to be in 3D is beyond me, but it doesn’t end up getting in the way. Apps available for both iOS and Android.
Manillen: completely unknown in the US, but apparently very popular in Flanders (that’s in Belgium). Related to Belote and other Jass games. Despite its obscurity, it’s a compact and simple game. Very little bidding to speak of (only slightly more than Euchre) and fewer elaborations than other members of the family; dare we say it’s the Euchre of the point-trick world?1
As online interfaces go, Manillen Online is right up my alley. Essentially no visual decoration, a snappy interface, with full English coverage. A donation link covers expenses; no chips, bonuses or otherwise in sight.
Link: Manillen Online
Bid Whist: a game with simple rules and a pretty healthy player base, but that affords a lot of skill and strategy, especially through the bidding system. A close relative to Bridge, though arguably much more inviting to new players.
The name is awful but the interface is actually quite smooth and unobtrusive. There are some annoying “rewards” like Stars, Bonuses, Chips: I have no idea what any of them are for but at least at the level of casual play they don’t seem to be necessary to actually play the game.
Link: CardzMania (be sure to select ‘Bid Whist’, this site also offers ‘Classic’ whist which is really quite dull)
Belote: an excellent and perhaps the ideally balanced member of the expansive Jass family. Like Manillen, but with more moving parts, and thus a little more interest in the long term. The point-trick factor, odd ordering and the promotion of the Jack and 9 in the trump suit will all raise some eyebrows for those of us raised on a diet of Hearts and Spades; but hey, at least it’s still a “normal” deck of cards.
EryodSoft makes quite a few apps, which are of uniformly high quality. Lots of rule variations and a robust interface; English translation is good. There are Belote versions for both iOS and Android; unfortunately, only iOS can actually play online.
(See under 3 player games; the game for 4 players is more fun, for my money, though the game for 3 affords more opportunities for skillful play)
If all fails, there are apps that allow you to play your own games by giving you the raw materials.
For our purposes, we actually want the absolute minimally functional interface: the fancier, richer apps lend themselves to a wide variety of board games, card games, commercial games, by exposing realistic physics and 3d models. We don’t need any of that, and the more there is the more unnecessary actions are likely to be in the way.
To that end, the best generic engine I’ve found is PlayingCards.io, insofar as it simply offers you the fewest things you can do. As I note, I still have a lot more fun playing a dedicated app; nevertheless, it’s worth trying this out if you have some favorite game that you can’t find anywhere else.