Review: ZSA Cards
A complete card game emulator
One of the things that has interested me since youth, along with writing, archery, and video gaming, is cards. Basically any type except for sports. I had quite the collection of X-Men trading cards, and an impressive Spellfire deck, though I was too shy to actually play with anyone. Most of my friends in high school played Magic and they let me borrow a deck or two to play, but I never really got into it myself. Fast forward to my kids being old enough to play the Pokémon TCG with me, and we've had a lot of fun with that. I don't have the time or the money to be opening packs anymore, so we just buy the preconstructed battle decks, which are more than awesome. I've enjoyed TCGs so much that I put one into my contemporary fantasy series, and guess what? There will be at least two different card-based games featured in the other, slice-of-life fantasy series. It's just that cool of a concept.
I've also always enjoyed regular playing cards. I've acquired a few unique decks over the years, and once tried my hand at stage magic using a marked deck. I'm not sure what it is, but something about the simplicity of the four suits and the concept of a portable, structured system have always appealed to me. A few years ago I invested in an Ergodox EZ keyboard, so when I found out that ZSA was releasing a card product of their own, I was intrigued. That may be too mild of a word, since I rearranged several priorities to get them as soon as I could.
And I was not disappointed. Just look at that quality. The box it comes in is very sturdy, I don't worry about it lasting a while. The cards themselves are divided up into two inner boxes, and can hold more than just half of the total deck. The inner boxes are a refreshing design, they hold the cards in one smaller half and are covered by the other, which means no tuckboxes here. This is quite welcome as tuckboxes are great but they wear out more quickly than you want them to.
So now it's important to note that the ZSA Cards are not just a deck of cards. They're actually two complete decks, with eight total suits (an excellent number!) and extra cards beyond the standard Ace to King spread. They added cards with rank 1 and X, and changed the 10 to a 0, probably because they're programmers. The extra four suits are Stars & Planets (green), Keycaps & Keyswitches (purple). Diamonds & Hearts in the standard set are still red, but Clubs & Spades are blue, probably to offset all of the black on the rest of each card.
The non-face cards are all structured the same, with a word or name at the top, the expected rank and suit in the upper left, and a running number on the upper right. In the middle is a simple visual of the card's name, and at the bottom is a prompt, an inspiration or phrase that's intended to get you thinking. Playing with these with my kids takes longer than with normal cards since they enjoy reading each prompt out loud as they play them (sometimes when they draw them). The running numbers uniquely identify each card from 00-119, again because starting at zero is awesome. The face cards don't have titles, but do have prompts.
All of this you could've just read off of the product website, but I thought it was important enough to get out of the way first. Now we get to the real review part of the article, because at their ♥, ZSA Cards aren't just for playing one game, they're for playing any game. What we have here is a playing card game emulator.
Emulation of old (and new) video game systems has been around since the early days, and I am all for it. I have a handheld gaming device that can accurately play any title from the Atari 2600 up to the Nintendo 64.1 And now, we have one for card games as well. Through the flexibility and the structure of the ZSA double-deck-plus system, you can accurately play a very wide range of card games that would normally require special decks, or at least multiple standard decks combined.
Want to play regular games like poker, hearts, crazy eights? Separate out four suits, two with matching colors, take out the 1's and X's, and you're ready to go (Zero has to serve as 10 in a standard A-K deck, unless you want to be really nerdy and have the numbers run from 0-9, or be very bohemian and use X as the 10). A game that requires two decks, like blackjack or spider solitaire? Add in the other four suits. Do your kids like Uno but they lost a few of the cards? Provided you group the suits by color, you have enough.
Even more complicated, technical deck requirements are covered. ZSA mentions Pairs on their site, and I quickly got lost in all the variants that Crab Fragment Games has come up with for a relatively simple deck layout. Initially, I took three standard decks and mashed them together to make a Pairs deck, but with ZSA cards I can do it easily and elegantly. We've been playing lots of Autumn Leaves, standard Pairs, and Bread Basket. The weird, five-suited Vines deck is totally usable as well.
You can play some word-based games (I think) because of the titles and texts on each one, but something like Scrabble might be difficult. A fun game to play with the words is just drawing several random cards and laying them out together, then trying to come up with a story based on them:
Hmm…The inside of the plane was very messy, because of the shuffled jumble of skateboards. The second draft was looking much better than the first, but no new order was emerging. The passengers were feeling playful, but each one knew it would be too dangerous to take a leap right then.
See, you can use it for prompts for those super-popular flash fiction things that keep popping up everywhere. Or you can take it less literally and just ponder the simplicity of the images and the deep meaning of each title. It’s totally up to you.
What's even more enjoyable about this product, however, is its high level of appropriateness for families, children in particular. As a purveyor of safe, clean, family-friendly literature, I have to make sure that everything I share is up to those same standards, and these cards are definitely that. I've had to throw away several Pokémon cards because of the questionable clothing choices of the female trainers2, but there's no concern about that here. Every card is suitable for any family member (the ones old enough to not eat them, of course).
On top of that, the text, artwork, and overall style is completely lacking even hints of the modern, liberal ideals that have become so pervasive in all media lately. Just look at the cards that depict members of the human race:
First of all, notice how many genders there are. 100% accurate! Next, see that both the potential of infancy and the wisdom of age are represented, not just the prime of youth. This was a shocking and pleasant surprise. I appreciated how the creators honor our humanity and the dignity of each person through the simple choices they've made.
With such a complex and versatile card-based product, the concern may come up that it could be used for tarot or some other kind of divination. While I suppose that it’s possible to do that with any sufficiently randomized set of individual glyphs or numbers, I especially wanted to ensure this wasn’t the case when buying this deck. When doing the research, I noticed that it had been inspired and based partially off of the Everdeck, and being curious about anything related to cards I checked it out. The Everdeck is a framework for playing cards that attempts to emulate various different games and systems also, but it also has all of the cards necessary for a session of tarot.
Not being able to see a deck list of every card included, I wanted to make certain that I wouldn’t be making a potentially hazardous decision here. Having had a good experience with ZSA customer service in the past3, I emailed them to get my questions answered. None less than Erez Zukerman, Mister EZ himself, responded to me, assuring me that I wouldn’t run into any such thing. And he was right!
It wouldn’t be fair to give so much praise without some criticism as well. But fortunately, I have only a little. The biggest one is that the mini-boxes don’t stay closed on their own at all. I guess that’s the tradeoff we get for not having tuckboxes. If you keep them inside the larger box you’ll be fine, or even just sitting on a table, but if you want to take one with you anywhere you’ll need to put a rubber band around it or you’re going to lose all of your fancy cards everywhere.
The other small thing I noticed is after a week or so of heavy play, the cards began to get a little dirty around the edges. I was able to scrape it off with my thumb pretty easily, but if you’re wanting to buy these as a collector’s item or conversation piece, you’ll want to be careful when handling them. Or use card sleeves!
That’s about all I have to say about this awesome thing for now. Note I said, for now. If you want to pick up a box for yourself, you can do that at their site zsa.fun. I don’t have any kind of affiliate link, I’m just doing this for the love of the cards. As far as I’m aware they aren’t being sold anywhere else, so you have no choice but to support the Shopify Revolution and order them directly from the creators. Which is the way everything should be. Good luck out there, and remember to have fun.
And yes, I only emulate video games that I legally own copies of. Collections and anniversary anthologies are great for this. But that will be the topic of another post for sure.
We started playing seriously right at the transition point from Sun & Moon to Sword & Shield. The Cramorant with Continuous Gulp Missile is one of my absolute favorite cards, and the Nessa card is essential for the flow, getting all four Arrokudas out of the discard pile in one turn. But the artwork is highly questionable, so we made a house rule that the Gym Trainer card would have the effect of Nessa instead. Problem solved!
Asking whether or not I could order each half of my Ergodox EZ in a different color. White on the right, of course. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible, so black for both halves it was. But now my keyboard matches my special deck of cards, so there you go!