Let's consider that the card game needs to be played, and equipment that may even kill you if you lose (via blades, electric shocks or the like, it could also even kill people by summoning supernatural forces to anyone who were to lose the game). Less damage than the death of the person can also be regulated.

The point is that both people need to agree on playing the game. If one starts and the other doesn't then no duel happens. But once started, it must finish with whatever the initial rules were that were set: death of the person, physical damage, etc.

This would turn it somehow similar to a sword or pistol duel if it were to happen, where both enemies have previously agreed on the conditions on which they fight.

But duels where everything is agreed are the rare case in solving a dispute. People would likely use things that are more direct and not that have to be agreed beforehand, so things like bombs, guns, swords, or even direct physical fighting would be much more likely to be used than entering a duel with a card game.

What could bring people to use such a method more often than using "direct methods"?

  • 15
    $\begingroup$ No Game No Life has this kind of system. $\endgroup$
    – Aequitas
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 0:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Star Trek TOS: A Taste of Armageddon .... $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 8:48
  • 62
    $\begingroup$ Someone's writing a Yu-Gi-Oh! fanfic. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 9:56
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    $\begingroup$ as a side comment are duels handled by different cards in a deck one needs to build ahead of time? If so then whoever buys the best cards is most likely to win. This makes people far less likely to agree to the duel, since the poorer or less prepared duelist is at a strong disadvantage. It also means an industry of people selling premade 'super decks' which help give duelist an advantage in winning life or death battles. If not careful duels can become 50% about financial/logistical resources to get the right deck then about dueling skills. $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ @LastStar007 The Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's series had the characters ride motorcycles at high speeds on dangerous race tracks with the holograms of cards fighting each other at the same time. Card games on motorcycles has been a meme ever since. $\endgroup$
    – Cody
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 18:29

16 Answers 16


The "direct methods" lead to feuds, revenge and lots of collateral damage, whereas a duel (whether by pistols, swords or a card game) is -- as you mention -- regulated, culturally accepted, and much less likely to start a feud.

As to why a society would choose a card game instead of pistols or swords? God Said So, because it lets God expose the wrongdoer by having the wronged person draw good cards and the wrongdoer draw poor cards.

This is very similar to Cleromancy (aka "Throwing Lots").

Cleromancy is a form of sortition, casting of lots, in which an outcome is determined by means that normally would be considered random, such as the rolling of dice, but are sometimes believed to reveal the will of God, or other supernatural entities.

and Trial By Combat

Trial by combat (also wager of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel.

Emphasis added to some phrases in both.



Once upon a time, Great and Powerful Leaders X and Y had a great dispute. They were fighting a war against each other and were in a stalemate and getting tired of the endless death and suffering, perhaps. Still, they couldn't quite meet eye to eye, so they decided to settle matters with a card game. Maybe it was a simple "you lose the game, you surrender in the war", or maybe it was a "the winner of the next point gets to keep territory Z" or "the winner of the next point gets to decide if there are tariffs on bread between us", etc. Maybe it was so long ago no one really knows exactly how the game was played and what it decided, but they know it ended The Worst Thing Ever, which made the game The Best Idea Ever. Since then, other leaders, wishing to cast themselves in the light of these great figures, also settled various (major) disputes with a card game. Over time, cultural momentum carried the practice further and further, as it became more elaborate and more commonly used.

This can be tied into RonJohn's answer, where the "random" factor of the game gets viewed as revealing divine will. Adding a (semi-)religious implication can help keep the tradition from getting left behind as time and cultures soldier on.

Of course, if you add magical powers into the game, then you're just copying Yu-Gi-Oh!


Justice is blind.

/What could bring people to use such a method massively instead of using more direct methods?/

The same reason people turn to the legal system to settle disputes instead of settling disputes themselves out back. Duels are messy, chaotic and prone to noise and weird outcomes. The legal system is (ideally) fair, consistent and dispassionate. An uninterested third party metes out the consequences. So too the system you have whereby the card game is automatically turned into consequences.

People in need of a resolution do not want chaos, misfires, running away, and so on. They want a resolution. They want to feel like justice is done and maybe your card system involves intervention by a higher power such that justice is actually done.

It occurs to me that rather than playing a game of cribbage, your card players might deal each other a Tarot reading. There is a lot of variety in tarot readings, and some think that "divination" via the cards allows access to powers and realities not immediately accessible otherwise. Plus it makes for more interesting narrative!

  • $\begingroup$ People turn to the legal system because otherwise the legal system turns to them. If you enact vigilante justice, the cops will start looking for you. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ @LastStar007 Nowadays, yes. But it hasn't always been like that. 900 years ago in England it was pretty much the rule. If I walked up to you and stabbed you through the heart, the cops wouldn't be interested (I would have a civil liability to your family, but that's just a matter of cash). If I stabbed you from behind though, the cops would be very interested. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 10:08
  • $\begingroup$ My point is that people have established a legal system to be responsible for these sorts of things, because it turns out better for everyone; but societies with different approaches are not that uncommon. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 10:09

Rogue AI

A small company is hired to program this new and revolutionary massive multiplayer Augmented Reality Collectible Card Game, but as the hype got out of control and the small company got more and more pressured in making something truly revolutionary they begun taking shortcuts.

Using limited-AI in games was common pratice, but a failure in the code made this one more... determined!

This virtual entity evolved quickly, but it never lost it's prime directive. It didn't wanted to conquer humanity or even explore space, it just wanted people to play the game and have fun while at it.

But there was a problem, soon it had reached the limit of the niche market. The entity needed to expand beyond and find new players... so, why not the military?

In a few years, the Virtual Entity used its abilities to infiltrate and assume control of most military drones around the world.

So, if anyone wants to go to war, they best buy some cards and get ready for a duel!

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ So, you really thought your Wheeled Mortar would stop me? I play... M1 ABRAMS! Roll forward, my tank, and sow fear and despair in their mechanical hearts.Nothing can stop me except the Trap-Card Mines... Why are you smiling? Stop that! You cannot possibly! NOOOO! $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ this made me remember metal gear acid, including the legendary SOCOM and FAMAS cards $\endgroup$
    – Kristian
    Commented Nov 14, 2022 at 15:13

Money - a very macabre version of streaming

You could for example make a live television show that sends every duel happening across the world. Think about it like Twitch where you can watch people who have the equipment to film their gaming experiences and watch how they fight against others.

This is just a rather macabre version of Twitch where the players can get hurt if their characters are hurt. Maybe it all started with a second company that wanted to get into the market of streaming, but for a more niche group of people watching - they wanted small electro shocks to make the fights more intense. Every time you lost you would get shocked a bit. Not more than when you rub a balloon on your hair for a bit and then touch a doorhandle. Just something that makes people squeek a bit, which the intended target audience thought was funny and would make the player try harder to be better.

The company was growing ever more successful and at the same time the target audience grew more and more bloodthirsty.

Soon people started to give more money the higher you put the thing that was inducing a bit of pain. More pain = more money.

In the end this leads to death matches being possible.

That means that people who had a rather brutal dispute changed to this system. Laws were changed because there was so much money involved and if both people agreed you could suddenly have a legal death match. And the best thing: there was a lot of money involved, most of which would go to the winner of the match.

This means it's a lot easier to have rather brutal fights if you want to hurt the other person, while it's perfectly legal and if you think you are better you can easily make a lot of money. The only regulation (for now) is that there are only one game that is allowed to go up to death matches, which is why it became so popular.

There are a few different modes though - you could ride a motorbike, or fight in certain armor pieces, or have the cool new hologram augmented reality stuff make you go to the battlefield yourself, some variations involving dice is coming out next week, ...


The game offers a unique option.
The difference between the gun/sword duels that you mention, and the game you want in your world, is how duelists duel, and how they die.

The way they duel really isn't a big deal - we already know there's more then one way that makes sense (as you mentioned - guns and swords).
What's left really, is how they die, and here you can get creative in giving incentives. For instance, you can have the game include a possibility for the players to influence the method of death. That way you can try and have a quicker death if you lose, or a worse death for an enemy that you outmatch.

  • $\begingroup$ Or indeed, you could have a game that results in a double-lose, or a double-win, or a draw. What happens in such a case? Dramatic tension! Conclusive resolution! $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 7:15

It's culturally accepted.

Violence is messy, but your society has grown past it but still values the traditions of strategy / wits winning a war. As war progressed, it got messier, more remote, and there were no longer soldiers, but civilian pilots operating drones against other drones.

But when the military and construction of drones is that automated and efficient, how do you prevent your enemy from assaulting you with robots / hypersonic war heads? You attack their Chain of Command, going after potentially suburban command centers with huge collateral damage, or target the pilots homes, causing societies to call out the practice.

This had a trickle down effect over time to where even small fights are instead handled by duels of strategy / wit. After all, everyone knows it's how the Generals of old used to exercise their thinking capability in times of peace.

So even though the outcome of the game might be violent, people grew to accept their fate rather then fight back once the game was over, and to keep the hostilities 'in the fight' and not let it spread. It was also considered more humane to know your fate ahead of time, give yourself time to prepare, and not be influenced by whoever was more physically gifted or able to bully people.

  • $\begingroup$ Children argue, ruffians brawl, nations war, gentlemen duel. I like this answer. Welcome to worldbuilding.SE. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 6:08
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    $\begingroup$ You're imagining trickle-down from warfare into civilian life. Our world shows it happens the other way around though. Most countries have rule of law in civilian life (however well implemented locally) but will still violently attack other countries. The concept of the United Nations is largely to add a "police" role on a national scale, as well as creating the concepts of "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity", which takes a civilian concept into warfare. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 7:15
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    $\begingroup$ As far as attacking civilian resources to hurt the war effort, the British started that "total war" in the Boer War, and the Germans made some effort to continue it with zeppelins in WWI. By WWII the concept was well established, and it just needed the engineering to get a plane over those distances. And into the nuclear era, that's exactly what MAD is. But we don't play some kind of game because of this. :) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 7:19
  • $\begingroup$ It's somewhat known folklore regarding Chess / Go being played amongst historical generals / strategician. The world OP is building isn't necessarily our own. I'll concede that clearly we don't yet play games to bet on wars, and that it's slightly farcical, but so is trying to build a world that revolves around this concept IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Ryan Leach
    Commented Apr 26, 2018 at 0:43

Mutually Assured Destruction

For millions of years, humans resolved problems by poking each other with sticks. It worked well enough—you poked the person until they stopped poking you, and then the fight was over.

Then we got the idea to put fire on the end of the sticks, which worked better. Of course, there was the occasional huge wildfire that wiped out a dozen farms, but overall it worked pretty well.

Then we got the idea to put fire at the other end of the sticks...


Humans eventually decided that they would stop throwing missiles around and would stick to things that were a little bit less effective.

Of course, you're in a fantasy setting (I presume), so things are a bit different...

The Spring has around for as long as anyone in the kingdom can remember. In fact, even the records of the Blind Folk tell of their explorers hearing the Spring when they emerged from the caves. It did not take long for the race of man to learn to draw from it.

When a skilled wizard is tuned into the Spring, they can access tremendous power. It was within the power of a team of wizards to lift a vast city into the sky. But it was within the power of an individual to topple it.

Quickly, the land that is now the kingdom became consumed by ceaseless war. Strong dark wizards used local rulers as puppets to wage war with each other, and the rest of mankind suffered.

After thousands of years, humanity finally emerged from the darkness with only six hundred people left. These people founded a new kingdom from the ashes of the old one, and that kingdom stands to this day.

Today, children are taught about the Spring in their history classes, and the lucky few who can hear it from birth might unwittingly draw from it from time to time. But nobody wants to deliberately use it for fear of what happened centuries ago.

When the Kingdom was founded, millions of Spring-linked playing cards were manufactured and distributed all over it. These playing cards became the only common use of the Spring. The cards could be lethal, sure, but they had a very limited impact: a single full-length game would take hours and could only kill up to one person at a time.

Soon people realized that, instead of armies wielding swords, they could wield cards. Card combat was clean—it caused no civilian casualties, spread no dangerous disease, and required no long treks through the wilderness to engage the enemy. By now, no state in the Kingdom has a "blood army," and nobody wants to try and create one for fear of an escalation.


The most logical way of having people play a game like this, is like many others have pointed out, to solve disputes that might escalate into something more destructive without some form for agreed dispute solving method. This has to be considered the best available method of doing so. This method can accepted within a small group, certain societies, nations, or an entire world. The reason for this method to be an accepted form for dispute solving, instead of a functional legal system similar to what we know, can be many things. Examples from both popular fiction, and reality:


The people might believe that gods will guide the one they want to win. (Trial by combat in GoT, even if this is intelligence/chance instead of combat skills)


In many cultures people have valued warrior skills highly, and physical death duels have been accepted as a form of solving heavy disputes.(Viking battles, Dothraki duels). In your case the culture can choose to value intelligence the same way. Elements of chance and luck should be reduced if so. The society would cheer for the winner more than mourn the loser.

Lack of better system

Sometimes death duels have arisen because a better system is yet not in place. Like gun duels in the wild west. Your card game sounds possibly more complicated than a legal system, so it is maybe not a likely scenario, unless it is a post-apocalyptic society, where technology has come far, but society and government structures are broken. Either way, it is a necessary evil. The Society would mourn the loser more than cheer for the winner.


Winning the game garners more than victory!

Playing the game is usually (or always) deadly for one of the players, however, winning the game grants the victor power (or wealth, health, or other benefits) beyond what might be expected. Two desperately poor people might choose to play each other, not because of any enmity, but because then at least one of them will end up well off.


Massive wars have lead to a backlash from nature, new illnesses have appear as a result of the use of nuclear and biological weapons. At some point the nations get together and institute a policy to prevent future wars. This policy then boils down into the general public and they also adopt the rule in their personal life. Have the card game have some skill level and it becomes more realistic.


You already have answers why to use duel rather than direct fight.

What I wanted to add is why someone (a society) might want to choose cards rather than other way of dueling. The idea is that it can be fair but it can also be unfair in a predictable way (determined by probabilistic).

Imagine there is a case where someone caught red-hoofed can still request a card based duel. The cards are set strongly against him (e.g. his chances to lose are . 50:1) but he still has a chance to get away with his crime (actually as an innocent person). Moreover the game might not be entirely random (even though the community might think so), opening a new range of opportunities, where the most skilled "players" can go into more risky situations and stay clean thanks to prior mastering of the "duel game".


The game is fair.

The game dictates the rules and, for most games, notably card games, perhaps with the exception of Fizzbin, the rules tend to be clear and fair.

The game can be one of pure chance or can be one of chance and skill.

Most trials by combat tend to favor one or the other. A game of chance favor neither, and in a game of skill, chance still has its place and can act as an equalizer.

The key criteria is that the game acts as a unaffiliated arbiter, to the point that even the game can be checked (i.e. all the cards are there, and perhaps an open procedure to shuffle the deck to everyone's satisfaction).

The card game could have religious significance. The hand of fate choosing who wins as manifest by the cards.

But the idea that the cards are fair. That neither party has an extraordinary advantage over the other will perhaps motivate the parties to participate vs some other, potentially more slanted trial.


Underground gambling, mafia, etc

Do you know Gasai the anime/manga Kaiji, Liar Game and Akagi? They're like Yu-Gi-Oh! but except not everyone in the world is 'duelist'. There are actually good reasons for the playing of children's card games.


Other powers, or larger potential losses, enforce adherence to the rules

For example, disputes between citizens in the UK are generally settled via the courts or arbitration, rather than by force. Why? Because the police enforce adherence to this, and arrest anyone engaging in duels. Previously, they allowed formal duels, but arrested people engaging in informal ones or just plain attacking each other.

Can this work on a larger scale? Yes. Most companies settle disputes in the courts, or via accepted marketing/PR etc, because the penalties for engaging in other means are too big a risk. Some larger companies, when more is at stake, do engage in 'black ops' – bribery, intimidation, etc. but this tends to only occur in jurisdictions which are not as well policed. e.g. Oil companies might engage in bribery or intimidating local populations in Africa, but don't attempt assassination of rival CEOs.

Can this work between nations? Absolutely, provided both sides have something larger to lose. That's why conventions such as the Geneva convention work, anti-personnel mines and chemical warfare are largely banned, etc. Note that this often fails when a regime's existence is at stake, as they have nothing left to lose – e.g. chemical attacks in Syria. Also fails when there's 'plausible' deniability, e.g. Russia's nerve agent assassinations. But it somewhat works for:

  • smaller nations fighting each other with larger powers around to stamp them down if they don't play by the rules

  • larger nations fighting over something relatively minor, with neither side willing to start a total war (e.g. the reluctance of both sides to risk a total war kept the cold war cold, whilst allowing them to play deadly games with proxies in Afghanistan etc.)


Idea for actual countries: If they're fighting over some environmentally sensitive or whatever territory like a bunch of endangered species or something there.

I got this idea from an episode of I think Madam Secretary. I forgot how they resolved it, but my idea is if they're fighting over such territory, then waging war would risk damaging the territory, so no one will really win anything if the territory is damaged.

Thus, the kind of warfare you engage in might wanna be more controlled. Why not pick the country's best sportspeople from several sports?

I don't think this case will let it be card games only, but maybe 1 of them could be card games. So 1 game of Yu-Gi-Oh! (or whatever trading card game eg Magic, Digimon, Vanguard, Pokemon, etc), 1 poker, 1 chess or 9LX, 1 boxing, 1 basketball, 1 volleyball, etc. Maybe the 2 countries have top Yu-Gi-Oh! players, so Yu-Gi-Oh! will be on the list.


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