Card Games

Looking Back at the History of Card Games

Are you looking for something that symbolizes cross-cultural cooperation and international harmony?

You don’t have to look further. Maybe something in your pocket is the answer. Yes, the pack of cards that have been on your pocket is the symbol that you are looking for. You may not appreciate these cards that much, but they are the product of ideas and refinements from at least four continents and eight countries. And mind you, they have been here for 1,200 years. No wonder playing cards have been a part of every culture and tradition all over the world.

How were card games created? 

We can credit China around the end of the first millennium for the concept and technology to make the paper cards are printed on. It is said that a Princess Tongchang during the Tang dynasty of the 9th century AD played the “leaf game”. They may not be true cards but probably a paper form of dominoes. 100 years later though Emperor Mu- Tsung is recorded as shuffling and dealing the real thing.

It was mid-14th century when cards arrived in Europe. This was probably as the result of trade between the Mamluks of Egypt and Italy or in Islamic Spain. By this time they were already very similar to what it looks like now, so it’s fair to assume that the basic mechanics of cards – the four-suit system, royalty, and perhaps the concept of taking tricks – were established either in the Middle East or India.

Cards were illustrated by hand in the first years after their arrival. It was a symbol of luxury that only people that can afford them were aristocrats. When there were too much demands for packs, they had to find ways on how to produce them in a cheaper value. Germans had mastered printing with wood blocks by the early 15th century. Since hardware was easy to obtain, the popularity of cards were spread to all classes.

What did the earliest packs look like?

It was made up four suits – swords, cups, polo sticks and coins. King and two viceroys made up the royalty and there were no female faces in the game. Card fever really broke out during the mid-15th-century France and this is when court cards and suits were invented that most countries are using today.

Card Games in Europe

Britain was more of a latecomer when it comes to card games. It was in 1463 that cards were first mentioned. This record is in a statute prohibiting their importation. British card manufacturers had their own union by 1629 which is a proof that the law was a failure in containing the card craze.

By 1534, the French writer Rabelais could name 35 different card games. The games played today are the descendants of diversions invented by the Italians (primero, which evolved into ecarte, trump and, ultimately, whist), Spanish (bezique), Uruguayans (canasta), the Brits (cribbage), and even the Amish (euchre).

Several contributions were also made by the New World. The pilgrims manufactured their own decks within decades of arrival. The American were responsible for the joker card (originally a special card in the game called euchre), rounded edges, the process of lamination, and dozens of games including pinochle, poker and bridge.

Pivotal Moments in the Evolution of Cards

It was during the Tang dynasty that cards were invented. It was suggested that cards were derived from real money since first suits are in fact increasing denominations of currency. Other theories say that they were paper adaptation of dice or dominoes.

Early 14th century

Italy was where the cards first arrived in Europe.  They have travelled from China via India and the Middle East, and specifically with the Mamluks of Egypt.


First documentary evidence of cards recorded in Spain.


Swiss monk named John of Rheinfelden made the first detailed description of playing cards in Europe.


There spread has been massive. Mentions of cards crop up as far afield as Basle, Florence, Brabant, Regensburg, Barcelona and Paris.


The treasurer of the household of Charles VI of France in the name of Charbot Poupart or Charles recorded payment for the painting of three sets of cards.


The movable-type press was invented by Johann Gutenberg. Mass production of cards was made possible due to the improvements in printing technology.


This was the earliest reference to cards in Britain. This and most of the mentions thereafter were fulminations against the evils of gambling, banning or notices of arrest for so doing.


France is where the now commonly seen worldwide four suits were first used. It was an adaptation of the German suits of bells, hearts, acorns and leaves.

Late 1400s

The ace or one used to have the lowest value in cards. It was in this era that it started gaining special significance and higher value.

Early 1500s

Card-makers at Rouen hit upon the distinctive card illustrations that we still use today.


First mention of the game of triomphe in Spain. This game may be obsolete now but it has given birth to many games such as whist, euchre and bridge.


The first attempts to lay down authoritative rules for many dice and card games were published in Charles Cotton’s Compleat Gamester.


First systematic tax on packs of cards was introduced.


The Game of Whist by Edmund Hoyle’s Short Treatise was published. After several renditions, it became one of the bestselling publications of the 18th century.


Depictions of royalty on playing cards were banned by post-revolutionary French authorities.  Kings, queens and jacks became liberties, equalities and fraternities.


First game of poker on a Mississippi river steamer was documented.


Joker made its first appearance.

Early 20th century

Canasta is invented in South America. It becomes globally popular after WW2.


Pontoon is the game of choice among soldiers in First World War trenches.


On a cruise from San Francisco to Havana, Harold Stirling Vanderbilt perfected the rules of contract bridge, which becomes the most popular card game in the west.

Click here to learn more about the history of cards.

Card games are indeed fun and engaging. Click here to know more about card games and how they are played.

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