What's a good way to shuffle small decks of cards?

In the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, there are a lot of small deck of cards to shuffle: 1 to 6 15-cards character decks and 3 to 8 10-card location decks, depending on the number of players. Due to the way these decks are prepared or reset, cards usually end up in clumps of the same type.

With such a small deck, it's hard to riffle shuffle the cards and overhand shuffles don't separate the clumps too well. What's a good way to shuffle my cards?

• So the deck just has a small number of cards rather than cards which are small? Jan 9 '14 at 23:15
• @JonathanHobbs: Yes. The cards are of normal size; exactly the same size as a Magic the Gathering card. It's the deck size that's problematic Jan 10 '14 at 0:25
• Do you trust the person doing the shuffle? A lot of methods for shuffling small decks have the issue of being too controllable -- with a bit of skill and math, you can predict or even choose where each card ends up if you do them just right. Jan 10 '14 at 9:11
• @IlmariKaronen: PACG is purely cooperative, so in this particular case, being perfectly random isn't absolutely necessary Jan 10 '14 at 20:56
• @Ilmari Karonen - You are right that with a very small number of cards, its trivial to control the order. However in a competitive environment, its important to remember that almost any method of shuffling with any number of cards is controllable. In fact, most of the common in-the-hands or on-the-table methods of shuffling can be done entirely false without altering the order at all. Jan 10 '14 at 22:33

The pile shuffle recommended by Jonathan Hobbs works OK, although I'd strongly recommend randomly varying the order in which you deal out the cards to make it more random.

The main issue with it is that the randomness comes almost entirely from the shuffler's choices, rather than from uncontrollable physical randomness as in a riffle or mash shuffle (not that those can't be done "perfectly" too, but it takes a lot more skill).

A variant that you can do in your hand is the Mongean shuffle, where you hold the source deck in one hand and pick cards from it alternately to the top and bottom of the target deck held in the other hand. With a bit of practice, you can do this really quickly and efficiently.

Like the pile shuffle, the Mongean shuffle doesn't actually introduce any randomness if you do it perfectly in consistent order. However, you can break up the order by sometimes dealing more than one card in a row to the same end of the deck; if you do this perfectly randomly (i.e. switching ends with 50% probability after each card), the Mongean shuffle actually becomes about as good as the theoretical random riffle shuffle. Of course, again, the source of the randomness is under the shuffler's control, so a skilled shuffler could, in principle, use this to stack the deck.

A nice feature of both the pile and the Mongean shuffles is that, even if done non-randomly, they still serve to spread out clumps of cards; indeed, a "perfect" Mongean or pile shuffle breaks up clumps more efficiently than one would expect by random chance. For some purposes, this may be sufficient.

Finally, if you want to shuffle a small number of cards really randomly, one of the most efficient methods may be the simplest: the wash shuffle, where you simply spread the cards on the table face down and push them around randomly before gathering them up again. It's simple, it's crude, but it does the job.

• A nice variant of the wash shuffle for board games: throw the cards in the box lid and shake around. Jan 10 '14 at 15:56
• The wash shuffle works particularly well when the shuffle is followed by each player taking cards. No need to reassemble into a deck first; just spread the cards out, move them around until well-mixed, and have players draw. This is what we do with the destination cards in Trans America at the start of each round. Jan 10 '14 at 17:58
• @Ilmari Karonen - Never heard of the mongean shuffle. Thats a nice suggestion. Disagree with the pile shuffle, but otherwise I agree with everything you said. Jan 10 '14 at 18:11
• Thought about this some more...it seems to me the mongean shuffle will have a lot of the benefits that the faro shuffle has, without the drawbacks of the pile shuffle. Faro shuffles are faster to execute, but harder to learn. Thats the trade-off. Jan 10 '14 at 18:19

I am a card magician and a programmer who has written deck shuffling simulation software. This gives me a unique (but by no means authoritative) perspective on this question.

Overhand and Hindu Shuffles

The overhand shuffle really should be adequate for anything less than 10 cards. If this method doesn't feel comfortable in your hands or if you don't feel the cards are being mixed enough, try out the hindu shuffle. Most people naturally gravitate to one or the other.

Wash Shuffle

@Ilmari Karonen pointed out that the wash shuffle is great for small numbers of cards, and I agree with him. The main drawbacks are that it requires a lot of table space, and it can be difficult to gather the cards if you are working on a hard, smooth surface.

Table Riffle Shuffle

For more than 10 cards, a table riffle shuffle really is the best technique for two reasons:

• Its the most effective way to mix the cards, bar none. In my opinion, even the wash shuffle is inferior to a handful of good riffle shuffles.
• It puts minimal wear on the cards when shuffled from the corners without putting a lot of flex on the cards. This is particularly important for board games, which have much more expensive replacements than normal playing cards.

Faro Shuffle

There is one other shuffle I occassionally use for board games, and thats an imperfect faro shuffle. I wouldn't use this for a very small number of cards, but is possible for maybe 10 cards or more. If you are worried about cards clumping during your overhand shuffles, sprinkling in a few faros will definitely solve that problem. However the faro shuffle has three drawbacks:

• It is difficult to learn
• It can damage the edges and corners of the cards (particularly for beginners)
• If you are good enough to do a series of "perfect" faros it isn't random

All of these drawbacks are mitigated if you use card sleeves. Sleeved cards are much easier to faro, and do not get damaged. It even solves the randomness problem because anyone good enough to do perfect faros will have mostly been practicing with unsleeved cards.

If you want to spend hundreds of hours practicing, you can learn the fancy one handed faro or tabled faro to impress your friends (not recommended).

Pile Shuffle

I personally would not use a pile shuffle.

It does not mix the cards as well as you would think. Even if you haphazardly alternate the order, the cards will feel as though they are being randomized much more thoroughly than they actually are. Its hard to go into more detail about why this is true without exposing some principles which magicians use in their tricks.

Related:

Roll a dice for small piles if it asks for a random card. Figure out a bottom to top or top to bottom numbering and stick to it. Hand/stack shuffle them and then roll. This still doesn't solve the issue of placing the villain if you're playing with only a couple locations, but doing a box lid shuffle or something like it can fix that.

I've found that doing this removes any certain knowledge when playing solo and also helps combat any control when playing coop. I've yet to run into any major conflict with the rules while doing this. The only concern I've had centers around when you told to take the top two or top three cards. But I'm rarely dealing with a back to back shuffle in which I have information and a need to take a specific number of cards off the top.

But it's still overall a useful tool in randomizing small decks when needed. Be creative.