In the Spring of 2012, game designers James Ernest and Paul Peterson invented a press-your-luck card game called Quicksilver, played with a standard poker deck. In Quicksilver, players try to get the best poker hand by taking cards one at a time. Quicksilver was later modified into a custom deck game, using a Tarot-style deck, and the rules were modified to include “losing” as well as “winning,” based on different combinations of cards. Although Quicksilver is still unpublished, that game laid the foundation for Pairs, Ernest and Peterson’s “New Classic Pub Game.”
James Ernest is no stranger to pub games. He was the lead designer for the Fable II pub games (Microsoft / Lionhead, 2008), and has published dozens of similar games through Cheapass Games. James is also an avid casino gambler, and the co-author of two poker books, including Dealer’s Choice, with Mike Selinker and Phil Foglio.
What defines a “pub game?” Ernest says “Pub games are quick, simple, and portable. Players should be able to watch one game and join in the next. It also doesn’t hurt if you can play for money.” Technically, Ernest distinguishes a “pub game” from a “casino game” in that the former doesn’t have a house player, or any built-in advantage for the house.
In the summer of 2013, Ernest and Peterson set out to create a new pub game based on Quicksilver, and invented Pairs. The core mechanic is that getting a pair is bad. Based on that, the game designers adopted a 55-card triangular deck: one card of rank 1, two of rank 2, and so on up to rank 10. This distribution changes the odds of getting a pair based on the rank of the card, a nuance that’s missing from the standard poker deck.
“We had a concept for a more complex deck,” explains Ernest. “We’re math guys, so we overcomplicate things. Using the same number of cards, you can actually create a deck numbered 1 through 10 in three different directions, which we called a ‘Pyramid’ deck. Pairs only has one of these dimensions, so we tend to call it a ‘triangle.’ We brainstormed a few games for the Pyramid deck, but they mostly wound up using only one dimension. So usually the Pairs deck can do the same job, with much simpler labels.”
Based on the simple mechanic of “pairs are bad,” Ernest and Peterson developed Pairs around penalty points. When you get a pair of 10s, you score 10 points, and points are bad. This accentuates the triangular dynamic of the deck, making 10’s super-risky. When you earn too many points, you lose the game, and rather than paring the players down to one winner, the game ends with only one loser.
James Ernest traveled to several conventions and shows with Pairs in the Fall of 2013, including the Global Gaming Expo, where he bounced it off some of the casino industry’s top math professionals. He also made sure to test the game with “non-gamers,” getting great results with nearly every type of player, and over the course of several months he honed the mechanics and worked out the math.
“The question of whether to take a card is a complex puzzle,” muses Ernest. “The solution can depend on the rank of the card, your current score, what cards you have seen, and even your estimation of the other players’ skill levels. If there were a simple method for playing correctly, the game would be boring. We worked out the numbers to make sure this wasn’t true.”
Pairs was introduced to the world in Spring 2014. It was a great success, partially due to a partnership with Patrick Rothfuss, who lent his stories and images to four of the twelve first-generation Pairs decks, bringing in a steady stream of interested new gamers.
The core Fruit Pairs deck plays on the name of the game, with simple artwork of fruits and vegetables, and a Pear on the 1 (which, ironically, can’t be paired). Some limited-edition decks from the first year include Pete Venters’ Goblin Deck, John Kovalic’s Shallow Ones, and Echo Chernik’s Barmaids.
Each Pairs deck comes with its own game variant, and all the variants are collected online at playpairs.com. Some favorite games include:
Pairs is a card game for two-eight players ages 10 and up. The original Fruit Deck, limited edition art decks, and the newest Pairs game, Deadfall, are available at fine game retailers for $10 each. Learn more about Pairs at PlayPairs.com and Cheapass.com.