2009 November 25

Card Games Family Tree


Playing cards are amazingly versatile; they can be used for thousands of different games. But even with all that diversity, games with cards display similarities that let us group them together into a “family tree” of card games.

The main classification scheme used here is the mechanism of play, which follows the pioneering work of both David Parlett [Note 1] and John McLeod [Note 2]. As Parlett says,

This has the merit of making primary groups of games that go together because they ‘feel’ the same in play… (62)

McLeod adds:

…in this classification games that are historically related, being derived from each other or having a common ancestor, tend to end up together in the same group.

Although I’ve shamelessly plundered both sources (drawing on Parlett for the broad divisions and McLeod for the detailed groups and game lists), I’ve made a few tweaks. When possible, I try to follow a modern cladistic approach to phylogeny, with groups bifurcating at each level based on a single differing feature. As a result, any quibbles you have with classification are probably my error and should not be held against either Parlett or McLeod.

Naturally, some games include more than one type of mechanism. (McLeod calls these “compendium” games.) I have tried to sort these by the mechamism that seems most fundamental to the nature of the game.

Click Expand button to expand nested groups; click Collapse button to collapse nested groups.

click to toggle displayComparison Games

Players compare cards to see which is best.

click to toggle displayExchange Games

Players exchange cards to improve their holdings.

click to toggle displayOutplay Games

Players release cards from their hands, generally to capture other cards or eliminate their own cards.

Miscellaneous Games

Games that do not fit into any other category.


  1. Parlett, David. A History of Card Games. Oxford University Press, 1991. Back
  2. McLeod, John. Games Classified by Mechanism. From the Card Games Web Site. Accessed 2009 Nov 6 at https://www.pagat.com/class/#mechanism. Back
  3. The simple children’s game War is usually classified along with these games, but the simultaneity of play in War means it is essentially a Comparison game. Beggar My Neighbor and the others I have called “forced-play games” have a more sequential mechanism, in which the value of the card is important but not how it compares with other players’ cards. Back