Games played with cards are much older than one would think. That’s the axiom I went by when I came up with the idea for this website, but of course I never imagined I’d be using it on myself. My initial mental image was of bored knights and nobility in the days of Charlemagne, but even earlier examples are recorded in 9th century China, with the common suits and face-cards in common usage today coming from France by way of Germany in the 14th century. But it’s not just the cards, but the games, that took me by surprise. As a young lad, I admittedly learned of the common playing card from watching my dad play Solitaire for Windows. My first deck was probably an UNO set, but subsequently I learned to play with real cards (primarily War and Crazy Eights) through the book, Play According to Hoyle.
The stylings of the book, and perhaps purposely archaic language, gave me the impression of the book and its rules only being as old as, say, the 1960s or 1970s. For the book, this was probably true; for the actual rules, this is somewhat more up-in-the-air. But one thing can be said for certain: the man whose name appears on this book could not have published the actual book. The man – Edmond Hoyle – died in 1769, “60 years before poker was invented.” In that respect, it’s debatable whether any of the games and variants described in popularly available “According to Hoyle” books are even his work. And, of course, Mr. Hoyle, as much of an authority as he was on table and card games like Whist, could not have possibly had a say in the creation of the computer games based on his namesake (now a licensed property of Brown & Bigelow).
No, the credit for that belongs to computer game company Sierra On-Line, who may have been one of the first companies to put significant effort into simulating not just the rules and play of a card game, but the actual experience of playing a game of cards with a group of people. Because while card games in the past may have simulated opponents for the benefit of those players who don’t know anybody to play Crazy Eights with, seemingly nobody before Sierra ever had the idea to give the computer opponents the ability to talk, make faces, or otherwise liven up the experience of clicking on cards. All this is most certainly the case in Hoyle: Official Book of Games Volume 1, released in 1989 for MS-DOS PC, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, and Apple Macintosh. Hoyle offers the user six unique card games to play, all but one being intended for at least 2 players (but no more than 4). There is no hotseat multiplayer, so you are limited to computer opponents…not that this is necessarily a bad thing.
The cast of characters ranges from semi-acknowledged clichés (“The Kid”, in the upper-left, is every infamous gambler from a 1940s Western film) to ordinary-looking people (programmer Warren Schwader and his son) to admittedly ridiculous (Leisure Suit Larry, Bulldog, and Space Quest‘s Roger Wilco, who is bad at every game and constantly asks for you to help get him back to his own game). Interestingly, not all of the “Not-So Serious Players” is from another game, nor are all of the “More-Serious Players” supposed to be real people (Colonel Henri Dijon and Officer Sonny Bonds, for example). Even the serious players have their bouts of chuckle-worthy reactions (especially when Warren winds up with the Old Maid), so you’re not limiting yourself to dry and soulless chatter by ignoring the more blatantly off-the-wall folks.
The actual play of a Hoyle game is fairly simple; the games are admittedly not terribly complicated in rules (except perhaps for Cribbage), but represent a fairly wide spectrum of competitive card play. Crazy Eights and Old Maid are fast, simple games for everybody (Old Maid being largely luck-based, to the point where no opponents have listed skill ratings on it). Hearts actually requires a fair bit of strategy, while Gin Rummy and Cribbage are – as ashamed as I am to admit – somewhat beyond me to learn to play. Lastly, there is Klondike, the solitaire game that everybody is already familiar with.
This is really the only place where Hoyle shows some weakness in execution, in my opinion. Given Hoyle‘s release a year before Microsoft Windows 3.0, computer software makers were still trying to figure out the whole “mouse” thing. While, certainly, the Apple Macintosh was designed almost entirely around the concept of clicking and dragging, with Amiga’s Workbench and Atari’s GEM-based TOS following in similar footsteps, IBM-compatible PC owners were not only not quite introduced to the idea of drag-and-drop, a significant number of users in 1989 still did not even own a mouse (significant enough that Hoyle‘s installation program offers the option to play without one). Without click-and-drag, playing a round of Klondike becomes a less natural point-to-point affair. The game still works, of course, but I find little reason to go back to this particular variant when – even by the standards of 1989 – I’m quite spoiled for choices when it comes to Klondike.
No, if you’re really going to go back to a card game from 1989, you’re going back to it because it has personality. It has the nerve to grin at you like an idiot and call you an Old Maid. It gloats when it wins, it grumbles and grouses when it loses, and quite importantly, it’ll never get pissed off, rip the cards in half, and slam the door on the way out.