Four Card Games that you Definitely Haven't Heard of

Collage by Friedhelm BackhausLandesmuseum Württemberg

Turn 'em over, please!

Regardless of whether it is poker, quartets, blackjack or Uno, card games are enjoyable and bring people together. But have you heard of uta-karuta? Or have you ever learned a language by playing cards?

A branch institution of the Landesmuseum Württemberg, the German Playing Card Museum in Leinfelden-Echterdingen, has acquired and safeguarded valuable card games from all over the world for the past 40 years. Drawing from its collection of over 30,000 games, we have selected four games that you definitely have not heard of. Let's take a look!

Four card games that you definitely haven't heard of (2022/2022)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Uta-karuta Brocade envelopes with reading cards and field cardsLandesmuseum Württemberg

1. Uta-karuta

These playing cards originate from Edo period Japan between 1603 and 1868. Hand-painted and lettered in India ink, silver paper was glued onto their other side. Of the total 200 cards, half depict a portrait and were inscribed with the name of a particular poet, 100 in total, along with the beginning of a poem. The remaining 100 feature the corresponding continuation of each poem. The selections were taken from a traditional collection of poems (Ogura Hyakin Isshu), compiled in the 13th century. To this day, the game remains a beloved card game.

Uta-karuta Six pairs of uta-karutaLandesmuseum Württemberg

Knowledge and quickness are essential: each round begins with the recitation of the start of a poem drawn from the first half of the total cards, the reading cards. The so-called field cards with the continuation of the poem are laid out in front of the players. The goal is to be the first to snatch the field card with the correct ending of the poem. For hundreds of years, playing cards was a pastime of the nobility and scholars in Japan. Today uta-karuta (poetry cards) is played by all demographic groups. There are even official competitions. Many players can identify the poem from the first few syllables alone.

鳥文斎栄之画 「畧六花撰」|Matching Shells (Kaiawase), from the series Modern Parodies of the Six Poetic Immortals (Yatsushi rokkasen) (ca. 1796–98) by Chōbunsai EishiThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Japanese paper card games (karuta) originated after the first contact with European traders in the 16th century. The basic concept of uta-karuta is borrowed from an older seashell game, kai-awase, that predates karuta by 500 years...

...the interior of two parts of a seashell were painted and lettered, and when joined, formed a complementary and meaningful union. Outside of Japan, games where sets of similar cards are matched are well-loved, with concentration and quartets providing fine examples.

Playing cards with church figures as suits (ca. 1550)Landesmuseum Württemberg

2. The Monastery Cards

This German card game was printed around 1550 and is unique among the games of the world: specifically, it is divided into suits of monks, nuns, priests and cardinals.
Already in the first European card games, cards were assigned one of four different symbols; these symbols were also known as suits or simply "colours". The most well-known system today is the so-called French system, with suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. The colours of the symbols, for example red and black, are not important for all card games. 
Our monastery card game is such a game where its symbols are not coloured in at all.

The burning of games (ca. 1520) by Hans SchäufelinLandesmuseum Württemberg

In the 16th century, playing cards were widely disseminated. Some princes and bishops found this troubling: card games played for money and under the influence of alcohol often ended in quarrels and brawls, and indebted players slipped into poverty and criminality. The Catholic Church was especially concerned and feared moral decay. 

Sermonizers such as John of Capistrano (1386–1456) denounced games as vanities and deadly sins. As we can see in this woodcut, it sometimes even came to the burning of games. Card games appeared to be completely incompatible with the priesthood or monastic life. 


Satirical medal of the Catholic Church ReverseLandesmuseum Württemberg

Playing cards with nuns and monks? Who could have thought this up? Perhaps in this case clever inhabitants of monasteries were at work: instead of employing "immoral" suits and colours, they played with those of their own invention. Conceivably, it is also possible that supporters of the Reformation also used these cards. 

Just like this medal, which depending on your perspective, portrays a cardinal or a jester, these cards can be regarded as a satire of the Catholic clergy. In the end however, we cannot make out who was behind these mysterious cards.

Satirical medal of the Catholic Church Satirical medal of the Catholic ChurchLandesmuseum Württemberg

Playing cards with Augsburg peddlers (18th century)Landesmuseum Württemberg

3. The Augsburg Peddler Cards

These cards were printed in Augsburg in the 18th century. Besides the "German" suits of bells, hearts, acorns and leaves, as well as the numbers from six to ten and the king, alternative cards were printed: the over, under and sow (Daus) cards. In some regions of Germany these cards continue to be played up until today. These cards replace queens, jacks and aces. Most conspicuous are the illustration of various peddlers that one would encounter in 18th century Augsburg and its surroundings.

Playing cards with Augsburg peddlers (18th century)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Agricultural and artisinal products, such as sauerkraut, corn flowers, as well as wooden tubs and ladders, depicted on the cards are tendered.

Under each picture what the peddler would call out if they are pitching a certain good is printed; this is indeed written in the Swabian dialect that is spoken in Augsburg today.

This man carrying a heavy pack yells out: "Kohla, Kohla" (eng. "Coal, coal"). Underneath there is a French translation "des Charbons" – coal. He is transporting coal in a bundle on his back to the city.

Street vendor selling playing cards (end of the 18th Century)Landesmuseum Württemberg

In the 18th century, traders from places both close or further abroad visited Augsburg. Not all of these individuals would have been able to understand the local Swabian dialect. French was, however, a language that was largely spoken or understood throughout Europe.

Were these playing cards a means of expanding vocabulary, that, for example, could be bought from this street vendor? Perhaps they served as souvenirs that visitors to Augsburg could take home to remember the city. In any event, this card game acted as an important reminder of the Swabian dialect, which could be of use for future stays in the city.

Tarot card game Tarot card game (2002) by Niki de Saint PhalleLandesmuseum Württemberg

4. The Tarot Cards of Niki de Saint Phalle

Chiefly remembered for her sculptures, Niki de Saint Phalle was a significant modern artist. Inspired by the figures that appear on tarot cards, the French-American artist developed her own colourful designs for a tarot card game. In doing this, de Saint Phalle reflected on the centuries-old characters portrayed on individual cards.
This card game was produced in 2002, the last year of the artist's life.

The fortune-teller (1830–1840)Original Source: Museum des Witzes, der Laune und der Satyre

Playing cards have been used for centuries as a means of foretelling the future. The 15th century Italian card game tarocchi is no exception. It was only in the 18th century that fortune telling with tarot cards became a widespread phenomenon.

The theologian and Freemason Antoine Court de Gébelin (1719–1784) researched the lost divinatory meanings of the figure cards in the tarot card game. His studies on the matter provided the basis for the spiritual preoccupation with tarot cards. Today, these cards are the definitive cards for fortune-telling and the interpretation of dreams.

Sculpture of the “Sun” by Niki de Saint PhalleOriginal Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Il_Giardino_dei_Tarocchi_(The_Garden_of_Tarot)_(15078706686).jpg?uselang=en

In Garavicchio, Italy, starting in the 1970s, Niki de Saint Phalle began constructing an entire garden landscape with giant tarot sculptures, some of which could be walked-through. She even installed an apartment that she set up in a larger than life figure of the Empress. Since 1998 the garden can be visited in the homeland where tarot originated.

Tarot card game Tarot cardsLandesmuseum Württemberg

Niki de Saint Phalle explained her relationship to playing cards in a book dedicated to her tarot designs:

"If life is a game of cards. We are born without knowing the rules. Yet we must play our hand."

German playing cards (2nd half of the 16th Century)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Since when have there been playing cards?

Already in the 7th century, there were playing cards in China. In Europe, however, we first can trace them back to the 14th century. In their initial period, card games were a pastime for nobles and scholars all over the world. Playing cards would first need to be aided by printing technology before they trickled down into lower classes in Europe. These playing cards manufactured with woodcuts were discovered in a church in Muri (Switzerland). They show that through advanced printing technology, playing cards were long since exclusively a pastime of the aristocracy.

Vishnu as the king of spades in a Dashavatara Ganjifa game (1900–1966) by unknownLandesmuseum Württemberg

Where are there playing cards around the world?

Card games exist on every continent and in every country of the world. Many playing cards tell tales of historical cultural transference, with some pertaining to colonialism.

An example here is this card from the Indian game "Dashavatara Ganjifa"; it presents the Hindu god Vishnu and has a traditional round format. The suit employed here is, however, "French" (spade).

Courtly festival at the Neue Veste in Munich (1500) by Matthäus ZasingerLandesmuseum Württemberg

Why are there card games?

One could also pose the question: why do humans play at all? Isn't playing essentially a meaningless and pointless activity? At any rate this is definitely not the case when it comes to sociability: playing cards bring together people of all ages, and in some cases it can even overcome linguistic barriers. Playing games together can make getting to know people easier or strengthen the cohesion of a group.

Even if card games were once a phenomenon for courtly festivals and scholarly circles, today they are distributed throughout society, bringing entertainment to lives of many people.

Credits: Story

Concept/text: Judith Thomann
Editorial/realization; Anna Gnyp
English Translation: Marcus Berendsen
Photos and video: Hendrik Zwietasch and Jonathan Leliveldt

German Playing Card Museum: https://www.leinfelden-echterdingen.de/Startseite/Kultur/Spielkartenmuseum.html

Association for the Promotion of the German Playing Card Museum Leinfelden-Echterdingen e.V.: https://www.foerderverein-spielkartenmuseum.de/


Copyright of the tarot cards Niki de Saint Phalle: Niki Charitable Art Foundation / Deutsches Spielkartenmuseum Leinfelden-Echterdingen

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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