Musings on a Quartet of Classic Kids Card Games: Snap, Happy Family, Old Maid and Donkey.

Uncredited designers

Various publishers

It’s interesting that the tuckbox artwork has changed over the years but the card illustrations have not.

Snap, Old Maid, Donkey and Happy Family are four classic card games that I grew up with. With the recent pandemic forcing us indoors, my family has more opportunities to try out different card games, including classics. These games are still floating around the market, suggesting to me there is still some demand, which is surprising. I mean these games are so outdated it’s not even funny. Still, the fact that they are around tells me that the games are still being played and the market for it exists. I know that the board games most of us (gamers) play do not represent the mass market. Far from it, the Euros we play probably represent a small fraction of games played by the global market. Many classic games survive because they have an extremely wide and casual audience who has little to no knowledge on how rich the board gaming world is currently. These card games represent a throwback to the past and in some cases, the graphics, names on these cards are not-PC and decades if not centuries old.

My earliest memory of playing games started with these classics. Even decades later, I still vividly and fondly remember these games, especially playing with my parents and siblings. These memories are so strong that I wonder if it played a part in sustaining my love for gaming well into adulthood. Perhaps these games served as a springboard to keep my interests alive. Who knows, really.

To recap, and there is really not much to recap, Old Maid and Donkey are one and the same. The graphics are different but the game play is similar. In all, there are 17 pairs of cards and one odd card: Old Maid or Donkey. Cards are equally dealt out to all players (2-5 I believe?) and pairs are discarded. Players then rotate around in turn order randomly selecting cards for their neighbors hands. Again, pairs that are formed are discarded. Eventually, the loser will be left with the odd card and be mercilessly teased as Old Maid or Donkey. Play take 10 minutes tops. There is a lot of taunting after the game and it is completely ageist and sexist, at least for Old Maid.

Snap on the other is a pattern recognition game. In my version of Snap, each card comes in 4 copies and there are a total of 9 sets (36 cards). Cards are dealt out equally and players in turn order will flip a card from their own facedown pile to the front. If a matching pair is flipped, the first player to yell “Snap” claims both piles of cards, including every card at the bottom of each pile. If there is an error or if both people call out simultaneously, the cards are placed in a central pool to be won by the winner of the next hand. Play continues all cards are exhausted.

Finally in Happy Family, players draft cards to form a complete set of 4 cards symbolized by the 4 family members (father, mother, daughter and son). Since the game dates back to the mid 1800s’, family name were often attached to their profession. For example a Mr. and Mrs Tack would be tailors (I half expected a Taylor to be correct version) while a Mr. and Mrs. Stone are bricklayers. The sons and daughters for each family unit have unique names. For example, Sally Stone and Stanley Stone or Tommy Tack and Tilly Tack. The gist of the game is to ask for a particular person to complete your set. You are free to ask anyone playing and the person must honor the request. You lose a turn if end up asking the wrong person and the next person goes. Once a quartet is formed, the placed on the table and counted as a set. The person with the most completed set wins.

Even as we thumb our noses at these classics, the mechanisms in some of these games are still recognizable in today’s designs. Snap for example can still be found in games such as Speed Jungle, Beep! Beep! or any pattern recognition game which requires rapid responses to win a hand. Of course Snap really only showcase a single variable while games these days feature 2 or 3 variables to make things more difficult to recognize. The core mechanism though, remains the same. No doubt Snap is a precursor for some of these games but the original game is just too easy and too short to be any fun. My version of Snap features kids in colorful costumes and to their credit, the costumes are all brightly colored and probably require more than just a glance to tell them apart. Old Maid/Donkey is straight up just a fishing card game. Player fish for cards to complete their pairs and hope to do that without picking out the odd card. There aren’t too many games that feature this mechanism now, as it is mostly luck of the draw. However, it is interesting if you can tell a shift in facial expressions when someone draws the Donkey or Old Maid. Certainly with kids, they have a hard time keeping a straight face and it is fun just to see their excitement or disappointment when the odd card circulates around the table. Finally, set collection in Happy Families is a really ubiquitous mechanism in many games. While we no longer verbally ask for cards to complete sets in most modern games, I would argue that the spirit of the mechanism is quite similar, just that the execution differs.

One of the defining feature for all these card games is the lack of decision-making throughout the entire game. Snap is a dexterity game, so theoretically it doesn’t count. One can argue that there is a slight memory component in Happy Family (you have to remember who you previously asked a card from), but it’s still mainly depends on luck. Donkey/Old Maid is just pure luck. In the end, my family played these games for a couple of days and will probably continue to play it for a little while longer. My five year old enjoys the simplicity of these brainless games as well as the silly outdated graphics. However, I am quite sure these card games will quickly fade away and supplanted by something more involved. That said, I cannot help but notice that despite all the flaws and shortcomings I listed, my child still squeals with delight every time her parents are stuck with the last card in Old Maid or Donkey for which she follows up with merciless taunts of her parents being old or just being an ass.

These games are nostalgic for most people, myself included. They have been around for ages and I bet they will continue to be around much longer than even some of our modern classics. Of course, many of these games are no longer considered “good” by most folks, especially for gamers, and rightfully so. I think these games are a relic of their era and should be judged as such. For sure, some of the graphics and terminology in all these classic games are really outdated. I have no clue why my version has never been updated. A quick glance at the BGG database would indicate that dozens of versions are available across the world and these variants are probably all public domain by now? I am not sure if Milton Bradley still holds any rights to the game or if all the other variants are simply bootlegged versions. Suffice to say, these classic games have been around for a while and haven’t encountered any particular legal issues.

It’s still not clear to me after all this time with all the quality games out there, why these four cards games are still hanging around. A total mystery. In the Western hemisphere, these games are probably tough to find and possible quite alien to many kids. In South-East Asia at least, they are widely available and often found in party favors. I wondered if this is possibly one of the colonial legacies that is still lingering around. Interesting as it may be, I think there are way superior kids games these days and I won’t necessarily rue the day when these games disappear from the mass market.

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