"Carrico!" You'll hear cried as highly valued hands in Briscola are played at Italian family gatherings. Heated card games like Briscola, or Scopa were part and parcel of growing up Italian in the suburbs of Adelaide, South Australia. Games played to pass the time, and for nothing more than bragging rights.
Years later, living through a global pandemic in my Sydney apartment, I began teaching my (non-Italian) girlfriend how to play some of these popular Italian card games to break the monotony of lock-down Scrabble nights.
She quickly got the hang of the ornate Tarot-esque card designs as well as the rules. Soon enough, it came time to buy her a deck of her own. I don't actually remember ever buying a deck before—they always just seemed to be in a drawer when you needed them. As I browsed online for a new deck, I noticed that there were many more varieties than the Napoletane style cards I'd grown up playing with.
What I discovered was that there are broadly three different card types—North Western (French styled), North Eastern (Tarot) and Southern Italian (Spanish styled)—with 15 individual styles which differ slightly between regions.
I became obsessed. I had to collect them all!
Southern Italian cards such as the Napoletane regional style most familiar to me are a deck of 40 cards made up of 4 suits: Denari (Coins), Coppe (Cups), Bastoni (Clubs) and Spade (Swords).
There are 7 number cards (including an Ace) and 3 picture cards in each suit: Il Fante (The Infantryman), Il Cavallo (The Horse, or Knight) and Il Re (The King).
Like picture cards, the Ace, Two and Three often have larger or more ornate designs than other number cards, and sometimes play a more significant role in various games.
Full set of Napoletane regional cards
North Western decks also contain 40 cards across 4 suits yet resemble French-suited, international playing cards. They consist of Cuori (Hearts), Quadri (Diamonds), Fiori (Flowers/Clubs) and Picche (Pikes/Spades).
The suits map to Dinari, Coppe, Spade and Bastoni for certain games where suit specific cards matter. In Scopa where the Denari count in terms of scoring, Hearts are the North Western equivalent.
Example cards from a Trieste regional set
The North Eastern Italian playing cards resemble the Southern Cards and contain the same suits. However, they are often much more ornately styled, and like North Western cards, have picture cards with mirrored figures.
North Eastern cards feature less distinctive properties between the different suits and number card layouts. In the example below, you'll notice why number cards can be difficult to interpret by the untrained eye. The similarity between the Two and Three, Four and Five, or Six and Seven of Swords (or Clubs) make them almost indistinguishable.
Aside from their visual uniqueness, North Eastern cards are usually tall and thin in dimension (like a Tarot card). Some regional variations can include up to 10 number cards.
Full set of Bolognese regional cards
Having gone on this journey of discovery through the various regional Italian playing card designs, I became inspired to create my own. My excitement rose further after finding makeplayingcards.com, a service which offers creators almost infinite options for designing, printing and selling their own cards online.
So, designing a deck of my own Italian Cards gave me the opportunity to get creative during the pandemic, as well as trial this cool service. Furthermore, with the holidays around the corner—a peak time for Briscola playing—the cards could also serve as gifts for family and friends.
The first decision to make was easy; my deck would be based on the Southern regional style of cards because it's the part of Italy I am from, and the cards I grew up playing with. Stylistically, I wanted them to be visually minimalist to give them my own spin and juxtapose the ornate Tarot derived aesthetic of the traditional artworks.
I was conscious that going too far in a minimalist direction could interfere with creating a set that actually resembled Italian playing cards. To reach my goals, I developed these three principles to help steer decision making:
Designing the base suit icons was fundamental and came together rather quickly by limiting (for the most part) elements to hard geometric shapes.
With the essence of the original design at the fore, I avoided getting carried away with minimalism, like so:
The minimalist starting concept did not adhere to the first principle
Adding further detail before refining the embellishments allowed me to achieve a "bare essential" resemblance without compromising the familiarity of the iconography as Italian card suits.
Final minimalist suit icons (left to right: Coppe, Denari, Spade, Bastoni)
Once the suit iconography was established, the number card layouts came together naturally. Each suit's version of a number was given a slight variation which, while distinct from the classic designs, were not so overt as to interfere with a players ability to identify them quickly during a game.
Minimalist number 5 cards for each suit
The aces were built upon the base suit icon by adding a few details. This was to ensure they didn't feel too bare when placed as large singular figures on the card canvas.
Striking a balance between making the picture cards playable as well as minimalist in nature proved to be the most challenging element of the deck.
Starting with Il Re (The King), it became apparent early in the process that trying to introduce a human face would move the overall style away from the intended (minimalist) aesthetic.
Early concept for the kings
The element that I preferred from the original King concept was the crown. It was what identified the figure as a King and I decided it could be used in isolation. I removed all the other elements and made the crowns larger, retaining the main colour from each suit as a differentiator, acknowledging I would need to incorporate the suit icon on the final card layout to complete the cards.
Final refinement for the king crowns
Much like The King, Il Cavallo (The Horse or Knight) went through a few variations. I started with something a little more direct and chess inspired. However, as with the Kings, the direction didn't feel right in terms of minimalism.
Early concept for the horses
Much like the use of a crown for the Kings, it occurred to me that a horse-shoe could symbolise the card with a distinct and somewhat quirky, iconic shape.
Early stage of the horse-shoe concept
The horse shoe concept was much more inline with the minimal style, but there was too much detail in the rendering which gave them a realistic look. This could be attributed to the nail holes which were distracting, especially their interplay with the shadowing.
Final refinement of the horse-shoe concept
The final refinement required a small amendments such as removing the nail holes. This gave the horse shoes a sophisticated appearance without losing recognition.
The last picture card I tackled, Il Fante, became the toughest to crack. After years of believing the card literally represented, "La Donna" or "The Lady", I was surprised that the card technically represents a soldier.
Again, I decided to aim for a piece of iconography which could be associated with the traditional meaning rather than trying to incorporate a human figure.
To that end, the feathered cap become an interesting motif to explore. However, while it was good symbolically, it really didn't work as a sharp icon.
A feathered cap was an early concept for Il Fante
I decided on a bolder shape, and explored historic infantry helmets which had been worn across Italy. While this direction for the iconography would be a deviation from the original card, it was a much cleaner and bolder design which better fit the style of the overall deck.
The finished "Fante" helmets
I acknowledged that this particular design would create the biggest learning curve in a player's transition from a traditional set. Yet, I was confident players could make the switch without too much cognitive trouble.
Once the iconography was finished, the full deck of card layouts came together rather efficiently, especially for the number cards. Incorporating the suit icons on the picture cards, however, required some special attention to keep them balanced.
Full set of the minimalist deck
One thing all good decks of Italian cards have is a nice tuck box to store them in. That, or a rubber band. Those manufactured by the popular Dal Negro and Modiano brands have a certain type of black and white backing pattern which give the optical illusion of seeming grey. That is something I took inspiration from.
Some iconic card backing pattern designs
To give the deck a distinctive brand, I was particularly interested in the backing patterns which used geometric illusions. That use of flat shapes fit well with the card designs and would give the deck a contemporary feel.
In an early concept for the pattern, I used small black and white triangles. This led to a very dark appearacne which was harsh to look at, like so:
An early version of the brand pattern and tuck box design
I adjusted the size and created two types of triangles to sit on white: one solid black, and the other with an etched-style made of alternating black and white lines. This gave the whole pattern a softer feel, making it easier to look at, as well as seeming random.
This was followed by the choice of an Art Deco inspired typeface with sharp letter forms and etching for the label to match the triangular pattern.
The final tuck box design
The box design was reversed for the back of card pattern by placing the pattern within the border, rather than outside the white space reserved for label.
I finished the packaging with an insert card which included some expanded details from the front of box label.
The back of card pattern and deck insert
One of the key three principles for designing the cards was to make them playable. So, my girlfriend (who can be seen in the video below showing off her shuffling skills) and I played many games of Briscola and Scopa to test out each draft deck.
This was a critical part of the process as it allowed us to interrogate the cards in action, including everything from the iconography to the card stock, finish and thickness.
After the rigorous testing process, a few final tweaks were made and the finished product completed.
Minimalist Italian playing cards promo video
The box and insert card
While I had not set upon this project to be anything more than a piece of graphic design fun, I am quite proud of the outcome. I have gained a new respect for the design and manufacturing of playing cards, as well as an appreciation of why they don't tend to change much over time.
Playing cards must remain familiar, universal and feel right. Any learning curve imposed on players by making changes to original artwork, shape, or size can affect a player's ability to think quickly about their hand and cause them to make mistakes. Therefore, the importance of adhering to the principles was validated.
So, my novel, minimalist deck cannot challenge or replace the use of traditional cards. That was never my intent. They are but a humble tribute, a designer's salute, to all those wonderful games played with family and friends over the years, and the many more to come.
Purchase your very own deck of Minimalist Italian Playing Cards from MPC.