The 90s were a magical time for card games. Somehow, we managed to get a high-quality release every year or so, and many of the card games that emerged were related to other media that we enjoyed.
Not every game was great or original, but the sheer variety of cards appealed to tons of people. For a while, it seemed like everyone had a deck of their favorite cards in their backpack at school, waiting to trade or battle with their friends.
Here is a list of some of the coolest card games from the 90s, presented in no particular order and with only a little bit of personal bias.
Magic: The Gathering
You can call it Magic. You can call it MTG. It doesn’t matter because as soon as you whip out a deck of these, you’re a certified nerd in my book. Just kidding.
Magic: The Gathering came out in 1993, offering the players a unique and deep card game that requires a fair amount of strategy and a tad of sheer luck to win.
The basics involve you having a 60-card deck and acting as a planeswalker (nerd) with the goal to reduce all of your opponent’s life points from 20 to 0. Only two players can battle at a time, and they can only draw cards and act on their turn. That’s the most basic and extremely lacking version of the game’s rules.
Suffice it to say that the game is so deep with strategy and deck builds that you could spend all day learning about MTG and still have a lot to learn.
The thing that blows my mind about MTG is that it didn’t have the benefit of the internet to help spread its popularity. Also, there was no Pikachu on TV urging you to buy these cards or trade them with your friends. MTG was not part of a media strategy, but it still gained popularity through word-of-mouth alone.
Magic gained popularity in hushed schoolyard corners and inside the card and comic stores like Legends, where people would agonize over their build and try to hunt down the best cards.
The game was so popular that new expansions were released practically every subsequent year following the initial release, something that also helped the game stay fresh and relevant.
As I said, the game’s rules were very involved, and that was attractive to people looking for a challenge. Also, the art on the cards is absolutely gorgeous and frightening. Take a look at some of them.
The craziest thing is that the game didn’t trail off and die at the end of the 90s in the same way that others did. In fact, the game could be more popular now than ever.
Billions of cards are in circulation and there are tens of millions of active players. Check out the thriving fanbases online or get your feet wet by learning the ropes of Magic: The Gathering Arena, an online version of the game.
Pokémon Trading Card Game
The Pokémon Trading Card Game was so popular and ingrained in our culture for a few years that I feel like everyone was in on it. You were either playing the game, collecting cards, buying the cards for someone else, using them to relate to your kids, or fruitlessly trying to ban them.
The PTCG was launched in 1996, and it came about as part of a complete media blitz from Nintendo. Pokémon had a manga, TV show, video games, toys, and a card game. The video game and TV show had primed kids for everything related to Pokémon, so the timely release of the card game was like pouring gas on a fire.
The game made it to the shores of the U.S. in 1998 and people went nuts. The concepts involved with PTCG were very, very similar to MTG at first glance, but it was simplified a great deal.
Two players would use a 60-card deck to battle each other. Instead of life points, you had to make up Pokémon battle and faint. Every time you defeated an enemy monster, you drew one of your 6 prize cards. Once you drew all 6, the game was over. Like magic, there is an energy system that you must use to act, and there are certain type advantages that mirror those in the game and show.
Although the rules between the two were similar enough to get cries of plagiarism, the popularity of Pokémon TCG was far more calculated than MTG. People already wanted everything to do with Pokémon, so people collected the cards (especially the holographic rares) even if they never intended to battle with them.
People that wanted to test their deck against another person found that Pokémon League battles were being held at malls and toy stores across the world. Kids would compete for the championship or become mentors to others.
This card game was simplified to the point where anyone could learn it in an hour or two, taking away some of the mystique that made MTG more of a slow burn. Also, the mainstream appeal of Pokémon cards ensured that kids weren’t looked down upon for buying them like they were for MTG.
The value of these cards went through the roof, too. I remember my brother got one of those rare Base-set holographic Charizards and sold it to a card store for $120!
With all these different factors in play, it’s no small wonder that PTCG has sold over 30 billion cards around the world as of 2020, and it became a hit game on the Game Boy Color.
Dune (Dune: Eye of the Storm)
Alright, it’s time to take a break from the heavy hitters for a moment. The Dune card game showed up a little late in the game to be a hit, but it was still interesting. Released in 1997, the game was initially sold as Dune: Eye of the Storm and it was your task to make your family powerful enough to gain entry into the Landsraad, the assembly of noble houses in the Dune universe.
Like the book series, the goal of this game is to gain Spice or Favor, 10 units or more of each collected by a player ends the game. However, getting to this point is difficult. Instead of making monsters battle on your behalf, you were tasked with using your Great House or Faction sponsor, your homeworld, and your rising house’s talents to gain influence and allies.
The game required more than a little bit of thought, as one might imagine. The game had at least two different expansions planned, but they fell through as the card craze was already coming to an end.
I thought the game had the potential to be bigger than it was. I enjoyed the art style, too.
Personally, I think the idea that you can be successful through direct battle, diplomacy, or intrigue was very interesting but perhaps too complicated for the card game. Now, if we ever got a video game or board game that delved into this universe, I would be all about it.
I don’t remember buying Doomtrooper cards, but I remember them suddenly appearing around my house in droves as a child.
Doomtrooper, also known as Doom Trooper, was released in 1995 and based on a pen-and-paper RPG called Mutant Chronicles. The game came out the same year that the video game debuted. Based on the reviews, I would say that the card game fared quite well compared with the video game.
The basic concept of Doomtrooper involves you using a 60-card deck to build your Squad or Kohort to battle for Promotion Points and Destiny points. You can use your Destiny Points (D) to bring characters into play and more, and your Promotion Points could be used to win the game.
You need to gain 25 Promotion Points to win the game or other amounts in different variations. To do that, you have to kill enemies, complete your missions, or play specific cards.
There are 13 different card types and they each have a special purpose. For example, warriors fight for you, weapons are equipped by warriors, and dark symmetry imbues your warrior with magic. There’s a lot going on here, so I am just going to drop the First Edition rules and let you figure it out.
All in all, this would have been an average, somewhat-convoluted card game that would have died off despite releasing 1,100 cards. BUT, some fantastic, nostalgic people revived the game and it is currently being developed on Steam with a virtual interface.
I love to see these old games get a second chance at making people happy. From what I’ve read, the game is still a little busted, but it’s going to make CCG aficionados extra happy.
Sim City: The Card Game
No, really. They spelled it “Sim City” instead of SimCity like the game it’s based on.
The game asks whether you have ever wanted to play the role of a small-time city manager. It’s almost like Parks and Recreation, but you’re Kyle instead of Ron.
All jokes aside, the game had an interesting concept. You weren’t so much battling against the world; you were trying to build one. That means the only big thing that would crush your spirit in this game was a natural disaster or getting your zoning denied.
While you play with other people, you all draw from the same pile of cards. Your goal is to build the best goshdarn city by developing successful city blocks and earning money equal to the value that is on the card. You can earn more money by combining certain cards on a city block, increasing the likelihood that you’ll win the game.
The biggest problem here is that the game is almost entirely dependent on the luck of the draw. In fact, one person is made the “mayor” at the start of the game, and they get two votes to break ties in the council sessions. So, the game is very hard to play with two people.
Yet, Sim City: The Card Game shines with 3 or 4 players because there is the ability to utilize absolute corruption and favoritism to help players reverse their fortunes.
Any time that you want to change one city block into another sort of city block, there has to be a vote. It’s just like a city council meeting. That means you can use bribes, agreements, or any other back-alley politicking you want to make it happen. How fun is that?
The game is under-developed, a little ugly, but at least somewhat appealing due to the reliance on luck and being the most corrupt politician. Nobody wonders why this game died off, though.
It’s time to d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d- duel!
Yu-Gi-Oh! is another monster-battling card game that pits players against each other in duels. You can play the game 1v1 or 2v2, adding a little extra fun to the game. The basic concept is pretty simple. You start off with 8,000 Life Points, and it’s up to you to protect your points while cutting down your enemy’s Life Points.
You can win by reducing your enemy’s Life Points to 0, forcing a player to draw from a depleted deck, meeting specific conditions like creating Exodia, or annoying your enemy so badly that they quit.
Your deck maxes out at 60 cards, like all the others, and you have access to three basic kinds of cards. Monsters, spells, and trap cards. Monsters can either attack or defend (which can protect your Life Points), spells have a variety of uses, and trap cards are activated upon certain conditions, usually to the detriment of your enemy.
The card game is simply awesome. It’s not as deep as MTG, but it has a great concept, a swift playstyle, and fantastic art on the cards.
The television show and subsequent video games made the game even more impressive. While I absolutely loathe the “heart of the cards” concept, I watched a fair few episodes of the show.
For a while, this was the most popular card game by the number of cards sold. To date, it has sold 25.2 billion cards, so it still has a massive fan base that loves the game. Also, a new variation was launched this year, called Yu-Gi-Oh! rush duel. It’s here to stay.
Digimon: Digi-Battle Card Game
Digimon lived in the shadow of Pokémon, and it kinda sunk this CCG before it had a chance to flourish.
The Digimon franchise launched in 1997 and the Digimon: Digi-Battle Card Game emerged in 1999. Needless to say, the game could not have picked a worse time to launch with everyone so caught up in the Poké-craze.
You start off the battle with a deck of 30 cards. You start with one “rookie” level monster and then draw 10 cards from the deck into your hand after shuffling. At the start of the battle phase, you can try to “digivolve” your Digimon if you have their later form in the digivolve zone of the battle map. If you both have the chance to digivolve, then you flip a coin to see who goes first.
Once you’re all set to battle, you make your monsters fight, and then you use the scale on the card to determine how many points you win for defeating them. The first person to 1,000 points, or whatever number you’re playing to, wins!
Then you get to digi-clean up your digi-cards and put them in the digi-box.
Oh my dear God. I have semantic satiation for digi-everything from now until the end of time.
Seriously, though, I’m simplifying things. The card game isn’t anything transcendent or wholly original, but it’s fun. Even though the original run of the game only released about 350 cards, it still received praise and has fans to this day. An updated version of the card game debuted in Spring 2020, so you can still try it out.
Shadowrun: The Trading Card Game
Like the tabletop RPG and video game, Shadowrun: The Trading Card Game is dense, steeped in a unique world, and has a very dedicated fan following. It was released in 1997, but it was very different from so many of the games at that time that it didn’t compete with the bigger card games. On the other hand, it never received the recognition of some of the bigger games.
You take on the role of a mercenary called a “shadowrunner” and perform different tasks to empower your character and complete tasks.
The story involves prototypical cyberpunk and fantasy elements, mashing them together so you have elves fighting against megacorporations that control the world. Rather than dealing with confrontations against another player, your most direct enemies are various obstacles that you face while performing “shadowruns.”
You can choose to make your character human, elf, dwarf, ork, or troll and then add in class specialties to them. That will make your character more capable of taking damage, performing feats of agility or cunning, and more.
It’s right about now that you realize we haven’t talked about the gameplay much at all. We’re still setting up, and that is why this is one of the longest card games that you can play. The early portion of the game is slow and borders on tedious, but the action ramps up quickly.
The card game is interesting, but you almost need the optimal four players to make it worth your time. The games are very long and the lack of early excitement can make people disregard the game entirely.
Star Trek Customizable Card Game
The Star Trek Customizable Card Game came out in 1994, apparently had a good following, and then went out of print in 2002 with the advent of the Second Edition of the game. The Second Edition went out of print in 2007
The original release launched with 363 cards, more than most card games right away. It didn’t take long for the game to start printing new expansion booster sets, vastly inflating the number of cards that were available.
The basic goal of the game was for you to obtain 100 points. These could be acquired in many different ways, starting with missions and objectives. These would play out in scenarios that were derived from the television series. The success of your missions was hinged on your ability to form affiliations and successfully maneuver given the cards you had available.
The CCG had a lot of depth to it, and it only increased with the expansions as new areas were covered. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last.
The game started to run into trouble when the editions started getting released. The problem was the lack of compatibility between the card sets. The First Edition (1E) was not compatible outright with the Second Edition (2E), but some cards were backward compatible (1EC). While some cards could play against other sets, it is best for 1E to play against other 1E decks.
As you can see, it started to get a little convoluted, and the player base fractured a good bit. Even the Second Edition ended in 2007. However, the fan base is holding the game together with sheer nerdy willpower, and virtual sets of cards are being released by dedicated people. Seriously, The Continuing Committee are rockstars in my book.
On a side note, I’ve never met someone that has played the game despite being around Trekkies. Go figure.
The Catan Card Game
The Catan Card Game is based on the incredible board game, The Settlers of Catan, and it was released in 1996. So far, there have been 7 different expansions introduced to the game that have increased the depth of the game by varying degrees.
The concept of this game is not all that different from the board game. You start with two settlements and the road between them and build up your principality to the best of your ability.
You have to obtain and utilize resource cards to improve your settlement, attack other settlements or fend off their attacks, and build an army and trade fleet to do your bidding. The first person to obtain 12 victory points wins the game. These are obtained through a combination of trade, military strength, development of your cities, and more.
The Catan Card Game is somewhat deep, but it’s not a collectors card game like many of the others on this list. The different expansions brought a lot of interesting gameplay facets to the card game, like metropolises. Also, the game received a new edition in 2010, so people continue to play a modified version of this game.
The Best Card Games of the 90s Were the Collectors
Even though some of the card games listed here were fun, like the Sim City Card Game, the true strength of the best card games of the 90s was rooted firmly in the collectible card games.
Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon The Trading Card Game, Yu-Gi-Oh! and the games of that sort were special. People spent time building decks, collecting special cards, and developing build theories, largely without the support of online communities. That kind of pure nerdy goodness is something that we should never forget.
Then again, the way that many of these card games continue to sell and receive updates, it might be impossible to forget them at all. Games like MTG and Pokémon continue to have a large following in the present, and many diehard fans will continue to support these games.