A card game is played with a deck or pack of playing cards which are identical in size and shape. Each card has two sides, the face and the back. Normally the backs of the cards are indistinguishable. The faces of the cards may all be unique, or there can be duplicates. The composition of a deck is known to each player. In some cases several decks are shuffled together to form a single pack or shoe.
The first playing cards appeared in the ninth century during Tang dynasty China. The first reference to the card game in world history dates no later than the 9th century, when the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang Dynasty writer Su E, described Princess Tongchang (daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang) playing the "leaf game" in 868 with members of the Wei clan (the family of the princess' husband). The Song dynasty statesman and historian Ouyang Xiu has noted that paper playing cards arose in connection to an earlier development in the book format from scrolls to pages. During the Ming dynasty (13681644), characters from popular novels such as the Water Margin were widely featured on the faces of playing cards. A precise description of Chinese money playing cards (in four suits) survived from the 15th century. Mahjong tiles are a 19th-century invention based on three-suited money playing card decks, similar to the way in which Rummikub tiles were derived recently from modern Western playing cards.
The same kind of games can also be played with tiles made of wood, plastic, bone, or similar materials. The most notable examples of such tile sets are dominoes, mahjong tiles and Rummikub tiles. Chinese dominoes are also available as playing cards. It is not clear whether Emperor Muzong of Liao really played with domino cards as early as 969, though. Legend dates the invention of dominoes in the year 1112, and the earliest known domino rules are from the following decade. 500 years later domino cards were reported as a new invention.
Playing cards first appeared in Europe in the last quarter of the 14th century. The earliest European references speak of a Saracen or Moorish game called naib, and in fact an almost complete Mamluk Egyptian deck of 52 cards in a distinct oriental design has survived from around the same time, with the four suits swords, polo sticks, cups and coins and the ranks king, governor, second governor, and ten to one.
The 1430s in Italy saw the invention of the tarot deck, a full Latin-suited deck augmented by suitless cards with painted motifs that played a special role as trumps. Tarot card games are still played with (subsets of) these decks in parts of Central Europe. A full tarot deck contains 14 cards in each suit; low cards labeled 110, and court cards Valet (Jack), Chevalier (Cavalier/Knight), Dame (Queen), and Roi (King), plus the Fool or Excuse card, and 21 trump cards. In the 18th century the card images of the traditional Italian tarot decks became popular in cartomancy and evolved into "esoteric" decks used primarily for the purpose; today most tarot decks sold in North America are the occult type, and are closely associated with fortune telling. In Europe, "playing tarot" decks remain popular for games, and have evolved since the 18th century to use regional suits (Spades/Hearts/Diamonds/Clubs in France, Leaves/Hearts/Bells/Acorns in Germany) as well as other familiar aspects of the Anglo-American deck such as corner card indices and "stamped" card symbols for non-court cards. Decks differ regionally based on the number of cards needed to play the games; the French tarot consists of the "full" 78 cards, while Germanic, Spanish and Italian Tarot variants remove certain values (usually low suited cards) from the deck, creating a deck with as few as 32 cards.
The French suits were introduced around 1480 and, in France, mostly replaced the earlier Latin suits of swords, clubs, cups and coins. (which are still common in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries as well as in some northern regions of Italy) The suit symbols, being very simple and single-color, could be stamped onto the playing cards to create a deck, thus only requiring special full-color card art for the court cards. This drastically simplifies the production of a deck of cards versus the traditional Italian deck, which used unique full-color art for each card in the deck. The French suits became popular in English playing cards in the 16th century (despite historic animosity between France and England), and from there were introduced to British colonies including North America. The rise of Western culture has led to the near-universal popularity and availability of French-suited playing cards even in areas with their own regional card art.
In Japan, a distinct 48-card hanafuda deck is popular. It is derived from 16th-century Portuguese decks, after undergoing a long evolution driven by laws enacted by the Tokugawa Shogunate attempting to ban the use of playing cards
The best-known deck internationally is the 52-card Anglo-American deck used for such games as poker and contract bridge. It contains one card for each unique combination of thirteen ranks and the four French suits spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. The ranks (from highest to lowest in bridge and poker) are ace, king, queen, jack (or knave), and the numbers from ten down to two (or deuce). The trump cards and knight cards from the French playing tarot are not included.
Originally the term "knave" was more common than "jack"; the card had been called a jack as part of the terminology of All-Fours since the 17th century, but the word was considered vulgar. (Note the exclamation by Estella in Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations: "He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!") However, because the card abbreviation for knave ("Kn") was so close to that of the king, it was very easy to confuse them, especially after suits and rankings were moved to the corners of the card in order to enable people to fan them in one hand and still see all the values. (The earliest known deck to place suits and rankings in the corner of the card is from 1693, but these cards did not become common until after 1864 when Hart reintroduced them along with the knave-to-jack change.) However, books of card games published in the third quarter of the 19th century evidently still referred to the "knave", and the term with this definition is still recognized in the United Kingdom.
Since the 19th century some decks have been specially printed for certain games. Old Maid, Phase 10, Rook, and Uno are examples of games that can be played with one or more 52 card decks but are usually played with custom decks. Cards play an important role in board games like Risk and Monopoly.