Part of the series: Culture-Games

What Makes a Good Culture-Game?

I’ll tell you about my plan for 2023: I want to embark on a year-long media campaign to plant the seeds of a new card game in Anglophone culture.

Previously I spoke about my ambivalence towards bridge. But that ambivalence comes along with a realization: just because I think bridge isn’t a very fun game, it’s not enough to claim that there are superior options out there and leave it at that. A game makes its way into people’s lives and habits on the strength of their encounters with it in their culture and society, just as much its formal characteristics. If we want a compelling alternative to suggest to people wanting a fun way to spend time with each other, it can’t just be a good game; it has to have a real, full, multifaceted cultural presence. There needs to be writing about it, discourse, Youtube videos. Podcasts.

Well, let’s get started, then.

What makes a good culture-game? A current conviction of mine is: which game it is is actually not all that important. The point is the culture. Of course, certain games are more amenable to consciously willing a culture into existence than others.

It does, among other things, need to be a good game. Even bridge is a good game. I don’t think it’s particularly fun, but I’d be a fool to claim it isn’t good, and to claim that its success is not in part due to its being good. So, embarking on a public-relations campaign, to select the game that has the best chance of challenging bridge in the English-speaking world and to make this exercise worth our while, we ought to limit ourselves to games which are well-balanced, generally enjoyable, and have enough depth to provide interest and delight.

I also have an inkling—this is a bias, but I think it’s a bias that most people share—that modern, commercial, or branded board games and card games have a much steeper hill to climb in this respect. By all accounts Dominion is a great game, but I think it will never be successful outside of the group of people who already identify as board game enthusiasts. Partially this is because you have to spend money on it, and it comes in a big box; partially because all of the different art and card types and (one imagines) little cardboard tokens seem extremely complex and fiddly; partially because those art and card types are simply unfamiliar1; more than anything else, though, there’s stuff like this:

…You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums…

Feodums? Here I must give voice to sheer prejudice, mostly certain that I speak for the greater game-curious public. There’s a family resemblance among games like Dominion, and Magic: The Gathering, and Settlers of Catan; and high medieval fantasy, wizards, knights, and the like; and a group of passionate fans who have already opted into participation in a subculture which has no need to appeal to the mainstream. This family is nerdy, and so many commercial games have nerdy themes and content2. That will be a barrier; it is for me.

Anyway, my personal area of interest is traditional card games, so that’s our focus today.

Finally, let’s restrict ourselves to games for more than two players. This is slightly arbitrary, in that there are many very good and deep two-player card games, and more generally, many of the best and oldest table games around the world are for exactly two players. Nevertheless, I think there’s a subtle difference between games for two and games for more than two: games for two tend to create a closed social atmosphere, one that doesn’t easily expand to accomodate others, and by extension can shut down on socialization. Games for more than two, at their best, become matrices for the pleasurable spending of time by groups of people.

Let’s enumerate a (highly personal) list of games that meet our initial conditions:

All of these are good games. That is, they all meet the basic requirement that they reward skillful play, they have an element of chance and excitement to them, they tend to create enough opportunities to do well for oneself, et cetera. Some are more complex than others.

Let’s say then that a culture-game-in-waiting also ought to be on the deeper side; there ought to be multiple levels of play, with subtle and at-times sophisticated strategies available to advanced players. This gives us room to grow as players, material to write our guidebooks about, and finer points to cover in post-match analyses.

Let’s say, finally: a tarot game has less of a chance to become a sensation in the English-speaking world than other sorts of games. I say this with a heavy heart, because I love tarot games; but the “standard” deck of cards is essentially ubiquitous and cheap, and even German, Hungarian or Italian patterns are easy to get on Amazon and affordable; and games played with those patterns can have an Anglo-American deck swapped in trivially. Tarot decks are harder to find3; when one does find them they tend to be on the pricier side, and the confusion between fortune-telling and games-playing continues to be an annoyance. And, unlike German, Hungarian or Italian games, tarot games require tarot packs, because they’re structurally unique. None of this is a strike against tarot games—the structure of the tarot packs is part of what makes the games so wonderful—but it does mean that introducing them on the Anglophone world stage is more of a varsity maneuver.

That leaves a healthy set to choose from. For which one should we dedicate a year of our lives to building a grassroots community of play and discourse? Back to my conviction: it doesn’t really matter which one. The point is actually to pick one and stick with it, because the one thing we can be sure of is that the public, though they cry out for recreation, are not and will not become enthusiasts. They don’t want to be led through a typological tour of the world’s card game families, and the historical, sociological, or linguistic origins of any particular one will probably not delight them as much as they delight us.

Instead: pick one and stick with it. Play it regularly enough to develop a sense of mastery and familiarity; by the same stroke, to think about it at length and discuss it in depth.

By happy coincidence, I played Ulti for the first time recently, and nearly fell in love.

The one special thing to Ulti is the practice of “robbing” the talon4. There’s an auction5 to determine the contract, which is quite common, but: at each turn, the bidder picks up the talon, names their bid, and discards 2 cards; the next player then picks up those cards, makes their bid, and discards; and so on. Thus players get a chance to grow and adjust their holdings and bids over the course of the auction, as well as getting glimpses of their opponents’ hands—both from what they bid and from what they discard. It makes for a natural sense of drama and escalation that I find really compelling.

It’s got some other qualities that make it a good culture-game candidate:

It’s got another quality that intrigues me: it is already a culture-game, albeit one that has essentially no footprint whatsoever outside of its country of origin. Quoth Pagat:

Although Ulti is the most popular card game in Hungary, it is almost unknown outside its native land.

This is not some historical curiosity we’re talking about; this is a game that is already deeply enmeshed in the folkways, idioms and so on of the Hungarians. It all just happens to be taking place in arguably the most impenetrable language spoken in Europe. Nevertheless, there are dozens of texts already written on Ulti’s history and strategy. It is alive and well. There are, at this very moment, many people that an interested party could play against on Ultistars, as have there been every time I’ve ever looked.

In other words, the ambitious evangelist wouldn’t be starting from scratch. They’d simply have to, you know, learn Hungarian6.

So, it’s settled. 2023 will be the year of Ulti. It seems to have everything we need to make a go of building some sliver of an English-speaking culture, however marginal. I resolve to play it regularly, rather than dipping into different games as they strike my fancy, and actively try to become a proficient player; and to cajole my friends to do the same up to whatever level they’ll tolerate.

If it wasn’t obvious: this is as much a personal matter as a public one. The “us” of this text is, mostly, me; by nature I’m a card games enthusiast, and I play a great many different ones in any given month, and think and talk with my fellow enthusiasts about even more. What if I focused on one, instead? I really enjoy my dilettantism, but I’m interested in the effects of depth, too. As a personal exercise, I’d like to focus, cultivate a degree of skill, and even work with the boredom and desire to hop around that will no doubt arise in time7.

The whole “sliver of an English-speaking culture” angle—well, it’s quixotic at best, I’m aware of that. But having acknowledged that reality, let’s proceed without it. For the next year, let us be campaigners to deepen the recreational resources of our culture. We will imagine a future where Ulti has captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and groups of friends gather at kitchen tables, cafes and bars everywhere and happily while away their hours in friendly, sociable, engaging play. Its genesis is—also happily—the play itself. My theory of change, such as it is, is that the material of the game-culture might, or at least could only, flow from this. The only realization of a game is in the playing; so we shall start there.

  1. Another important bit of guidance to the would-be evangelist, easily overlooked by the enthusiast: familiarity matters greatly! The cards in the German pattern can be mapped, trivially, 1:1 with their Anglo-American equivalents. Even a Russian or Swedish or what-have-you pack look just like the Anglo-American, except the indices might be in Cyrillic, or might say D for Q, et cetera. And yet. When they are dealt to a player who hasn’t prepared themselves for, and has no particular interest in, the act of real-time translation: they can be awfully unsettling. Card players do and always have thrived on familiarity. The cards ought to be so utterly familiar that every detail of them is invisible to the player, and the player knows their suit and rank entirely unconsciously.

  2. We can take this further; commercial board games tend, almost all of them, to be themed: they are about something, a player plays as someone. To the extent that these games are usually introduced with a summary of the theme even before one finds out what kind of game it is. Domnion starts off “You are a monarch…”; another game is introduced with “You play a group of human survivors killing zombies”; the only thing I know about Wingspan, which has been recommended to me many times, is that it is in some mystical way about birds. I don’t want to play a game that’s about anything. I don’t want to play as anyone else. I want to play as myself. I want to interact with the people across from me, in my living room, in the circumstances of my ordinary life. I’m pretty sure this is a bias that’s much stronger in me than in the average person, for whatever reason; hence its relegation to a footnote. But I do think that poker would never have experienced its boom if a new player were introduced to it starting with, “You play a cranky dwarf…”

  3. I’ve recently had a fantasy of pro bono writing a new frontend for; its confusing interface aside, I want to strongly recommend that site as a convenient source for well-priced tarot (and other) packs in the United States.

  4. The talon, or kitty: a small set of cards left over at the deal, often drawn from or exchanged with as a part of the subsequent play.

  5. The auction is a very common feature of card games: before the players play out the hand, they all go around and bid on the type of game (or contract) that they would be willing to play. The bids are ordered, generally with the more difficult contracts corresponding to higher bids. If you win the auction, you get some privileges which make it easier to win the game, like being able to name trumps, or exchange with the talon (which is why a player wants to win the auction), but you also usually incur some penalty if you go on to lose the hand (whch is way a player doesn’t want to bid a contract higher than they have a chance of playing and winning).

  6. This is a humorous exaggeration. There’s a 90% chance that I won’t learn Hungarian.

  7. I think part of this also has to do with the general thinking I’ve been doing about games-playing. In the traditional communities that gave rise to all of these games, a relatively stable (though always evolving) population often played—and play; this still happens—the same game, regularly, for years, often decades. What’s that like? What role does the game assume for the players when it is so intimately familiar to everyone playing? What role does it play in the community and the greater life of its players when it’s a fixed, shared point of cultural reference?

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