By now, you've heard all about bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. Respectively, the biggest names in the cryptocurrency market have gained 1,600%, 11,200%, and 28,700% over the past year.

Those are impressive gains indeed, but this trio doesn't tell the whole story. In fact, many crypto-coins perform even bigger swings than the Big Three. Smaller and lesser-known, a lot of blockchain-based currencies and tokens behave like the wildest penny stocks you've ever seen.

Let's take a quick trip into that crazy world, shall we?

A silver chain swirling across a white field, with one link decked out in black-and-teal cryptographic keys.

Image source: Getty Images.

The winners

I'll look back over the past seven days, from the vantage point of 7:05 p.m. ET on Jan. 10. These numbers change often, and the differences can be huge. These lists of big winners and losers can be found at Coinmarketcap.com:

Winning Cryptocurrencies

7-Day Price Change

Daily Dollar Volume Traded

Cyder

3,917%

$170,000

LandCoin

1,129%

$110,000

RussiaCoin

1,097%

$2,189,000

To put the dollar volume figures into context, your average weekday sees more than $18 billion of bitcoin changing hands. Ethereum and Ripple aren't far behind at $9 billion and $5 billion, respectively. Those figures are in line with some of the largest and most popular stocks on Wall Street, but the most active coin in the list is more comparable to forgettable, thinly traded microcaps.

That minuscule trading volume magnifies whatever is happening to the coin prices, and it doesn't take much of an increase in bidding interest to drive prices right through the roof. The laws of supply and demand can have some intense effects when the equation is taken to extremes.

Note that none of these big winners aim to challenge bitcoin and friends as all-purpose payment systems, holders of long-term value, or essential pieces of next-generation contracts.

  • Cyder was launched as a sandbox for cryptocurrency developers and enthusiasts, where they can play around with various concepts in a digital playground of little actual value.
  • RussiaCoin is the closest thing to a serious currency here, based on the same technology as the popular Litecoin and Dogecoin currencies but with a much smaller user community and a logo featuring the Russian flag. Like Cyder, this currency is too small to challenge the big boys and should be ignored unless you're using it as a digital toy.
  • LandCoin appears to have launched roughly a year ago, with the idea of tracking land ownership and transactions. Its core audience hails from Vietnam. There might be a market for land trackers, but coming up with a blockchain model that can adapt to the legal systems and traditions of roughly 200 countries looks like a tough problem. And I wouldn't bet the farm on the Vietnamese land market, exactly.

The losers

Losing Cryptocurrencies

7-Day Price Change

Daily Dollar Volume Traded

TerraNova

(97.2%)

$123,000

SwapToken

(87.8%)

$166,000

Ignis

(63.9%)

$9,629,000

Again, we're dealing with a handful of exceedingly small asset bases that are better classified as playthings than as serious investments. And like the first list, the ideas behind these cryptocurrencies sound sketchy at best.

  • The SwapToken coin was explicitly created to mess around. The currency is linked to programs with interesting names like Ponzi, S.C.A.M., and Trollpayment. If you need any more clues than that, you must be new here. You don't call something a Ponzi scheme and expect to do real business.
  • TerraNova launched last summer at an astronomical opening price and with a large amount of coins created beforehand. As a result, it quickly became the fourth largest cryptocurrency in the world for a short while, measured by total market value. But that value quickly faded amid accusations of a money-making scam. The moves this week are nothing but the final death spasms of scandals past.
  • Ignis is part of a larger experiment where the Ardor platform is linked to several underlying blockchains. Ignis launched exactly at midnight on New Year's Eve, counting by the Greenwich universal time zone, and the initial price turned out to be a bit steep. Its twin currency, the Ardor coin, soared in December and has traded sideways while the new Ignis currency started carving out a niche for itself. This isn't a total joke, like TerraNova or SwapToken, but even a serious plan and larger trading volumes didn't protect Ignis from a massive plunge this week.

Be careful out there in the cryptocurrency market. The money-making springboards can be tough to tell apart from the cash-burning landmines.

Anders Bylund owns some bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple coins. He has no financial interest in any other cryptocurrency mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.