“Different countries, different customs” also applies to playing cards
Koehler's card board for playing cards is celebrating its anniversary. We have been manufacturing this high-quality product and selling it in more than 100 countries for 85 years. But as we know: Different countries, different customs, even when it comes to playing cards. Whether in Europe, America, Africa or Asia, there are a huge variety of card games played. Here we will explore which decks of cards have established themselves and what the symbols mean.
Playing cards are usually slightly rounded, rectangular, handy pieces of card board with a typical size of 6 x 9 centimeters. In Europe they usually have a grammage of 310 g/m², while in Asia they are thicker. European cards also have a different look than Asian ones. But one thing is always the same: The front of the card shows individual values and symbols and the back always has a uniform pattern so that the value of a card cannot be seen when it is face down.
Biblical figures and medieval rulers served as a model
The most widespread and well-known playing cards are the French deck. This deck is not only in use in Europe and America but has also taken hold nearly worldwide. In China, for example, it is used to play the traditional card games “Tichu” and “Gong Zhu.” It is even used in Somalia for the popular game “Arpaa Turup.”
The French deck is characterized by the suits (symbols) clubs, spades, hearts and diamonds. The playing card suits symbolize the four classes:
Clubs shows a three-leaf clover and represents peasants.
Spades symbolizes a spearhead and stands for the nobility.
Hearts stands for the clergy since it symbolizes goodness.
Diamonds shows a red cobblestone. This indicates the bourgeoisie, since they often used cobblestones as weapons during uprisings.
The value of the card is represented by numbers and by figures (jack, queen, king). We have all certainly asked ourselves at one time who these figures actually are. They actually symbolize well-known historical personalities such as biblical figures and medieval rulers. For example, the king of clubs represents Alexander the Great, who became king of Macedonia in 336 BCE and was one of the most influential commanders in history. The queen of spades embodies Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and strategy. Hector, another figure with roots in Greek mythology, is the inspiration for the jack of diamonds.
The pattern on the front is usually symmetrical so that the suit and the value of the card are opposite each other. This allows the card to be identified even when it is partially covered.
Comparison of European card decks
The German and Italian-Spanish decks also have four suits, but they are different than in the French deck.
The equivalent of the French clubs is the German acorns and the Italian-Spanish staffs.
The leaves in the German deck and the swords in the Italian-Spanish deck correspond to spades in the French deck.
Both the French and the German decks have hearts, but the Italian-Spanish deck has chalices instead.
The equivalent of the French diamonds is the German bells and the Italian-Spanish coins.
The German deck is used particularly in German-speaking countries (Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Lichtenstein).
In contrast to European decks of cards, Japanese cards are not centered around four suits and the figures as we know them.
The Japanese card game “Karuta” can also be played with two European decks, but in traditional types of card games, flower cards, poem cards and monster cards, among others, are the focus.
Could it also work the other way around, with a round of Rummy played with Japanese flower cards?
In the Japanese game “Hanafuda,” a variety of the game “Karuta,” flower cards play a central role.
European card decks are apparently here to stay in every country on earth. But regardless of which symbols, figures or images can be seen on the front of the cards, playing cards are used, known and loved all over the world. And the card board they are made of comes from Oberkirch.