Among his many aphorisms, Ben Franklin reportedly said “games lubricate the body and the mind.” Given the large number of quotes attributed to the sage, it is suspect. But, his generation certainly understood games, both as a way of sharpening the mind and passing time in amicable company. Franklin was fond of chess, but not above games of chance and gambling. George and Martha Washington often played different card games with their guests. George, of course, also made an occasional wager, particularly when traveling on business. Even today, many parlors in restored colonial homes will contain a gaming table.
They were less popular in the Puritan-influenced areas of New England. John Adams, never particularly amicable company, complained about unread books amidst all the gaming: “This is not Misspence of Time. This is a wise, a profitable, Improvement of Time. Cards, and Back Gammon, are fashionable Diversions. I’le be curst if any young fellow can study, in this town. What Pleasure can a young Gentleman, who is capable of thinking, take in playing Cards? It gratifies none of the Senses, nor Sight, Hearing, taste, smell, feeling. It can entertain the Mind only by hushing its Clamours. Cards, Back Gammon are the great antidotes to Reflection, to thinking, that cruel Tyrant within Us. What Learning, or Sense, are we to expect from young Gentlemen, in whom a fondness for Cards, &c. outgrows and choaks the Desire of Knowledge?”
Since schools are closed in Virginia and everyone is attempting to telework or trying their hands at distance learning, we opted to fill a few hours with games, Adams’ condemnation of the practice notwithstanding. With that in mind, we tried our hands at a recent acquisition: Deal or Duel: An Alexander Hamilton Card Game. The object is to be the first to pile up $1000 or be the last person standing after a series of duels.
Each player in this 2-6 player card game receives two sets of cards, a suit of face cards representing people, and a handful of “action” cards that they can play at various points in a turn. A third pile of “Hamilton cards” modify the rules slightly in every turn. Face cards with differing values represent individuals with some particular common characteristic, small portraits and a few biographical facts on the back. Thus, women comprise one suit, Europeans another, and so on. (Some of the relationships are tenuous, at best.) Face cards represent individuals from the Revolution and early years of the republic. One might view them as assets to be sold, protected, or used to challenge a similarly valued face card to a duel.
The game is played in rounds, with each player taking his or her turn. Players first play an action card, which may enable them to challenge another player to a duel, collect money from the bank or another player, alter the terms of a duel, or withdraw from a duel. Players may also “sell” a face card into debtor’s prison in order to collect the cash; they can later be freed by paying the debt back to the bank.
One action a player may take is the eponymous duel. A challenger puts up his own card and declares who he is challenging, placing an action card with a certain value face down together with the face card on the “dueling field.” Players take steps away from one another over the course of different game events, turn, and “fire” when they reach ten steps. At that point, the face down action cards are flipped to reveal a dueling value. The card with the higher value wins. The winner collects the victim, adding the face card’s value to his bank, coming closer to eliminating his opponent from the game and reaching his own goal of banking $1000. At the end of each round, someone flips a “Hamilton Card,” which will slightly modify the rules for the next round. A gaming mat helpfully organizes the card stacks, players, and dueling fields.
Deal or Duel is designed for players ages 10 and up. It is not particularly difficult, although some of the elements feel kluged together. The gaming system itself is generic and could be grafted on to any particular back story. But, we enjoyed this one and its connection with history. Some of the face cards are well known to students of the period: George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Sam Adams, for instance. Others are less well-known and may spark a little curiosity. For instance, I had no idea that Samuel Seabury was the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the colonies and a prominent Loyalist. (Not surprising, come to think of it, since I haven’t seen the musical. I’m told Seabury and Hamilton engage in a rap battle.) Now, thanks to the game, I know. Undoubtedly, we’ll play it again, Adams’ thoughts on gaming notwithstanding.
 John Adams Diary, February 11, 1759, Founders Online.