Tricky, Tricky, Part 3

The Story So Far…

Trick taking games are defined by the following criteria:

(A)  Each player has a hand of cards.

(B)  These cards are played in a series of rounds (tricks).

(C)  Each player in turn must play to the trick.

(D)  Each player plays to the trick exactly once.

Trick-taking games were in a slump but they’re coming back.  We’re looking at how to write one that stands out from the crowd.



People across the world play trick taking games.  As this game type spread, local variations appeared.  These variations give modern players a range of experiences, both broad and nuanced.  For the modern game designer, a cornucopia of elements ready at hand.  There are great opportunities to any designer who’s willing to explore the design space.

(E)  Team Play

Many trick taking games put players in teams.  The most common version of this features four players who sit across the table from one another and share a common point total.

In four handed Njet!, the start player chooses a partner with the other two players automatically forming the opposing partnership.  Each player in the partnership shares the points earned but the partnerships dissolves at the end of the hand, allowing for new partnerships in future hands.  This means that you may be seated across from your partner or you may be seated alongside him or her.

In three handed Njet!, the start player again makes a choice but this time, whether to play with a partner or alone.  The players in the partnership share the points earned just as in the four player game while the solo player scores double.  It’s a great variation on standard three handed scoring which I’ve admired for years.

 is particularly exciting with 5 players.  After an initial round of bidding, teams are divided asymmetrically. One partnership has three players, the other has two.


(F) Bidding

Many trick-taking games derive their score strictly from the cards collected through the hand.  Classic Hearts falls into this category, for example.

Many others bring additional depth by forcing the players to make a declaration before play begins.  Classic Spades includes a fairly straightforward–but critical–bidding mechanism.  Bidding in Bridge however is deep and rich.

From a design perspective, I like bidding elements quite a bit.

Asking your players to think through the play of their hands in advance pushes them to fully think about how your plays rather than simply playing cards more-or-less at random and hoping for the best.

Bidding gives you as the designer an opportunity to adjust for the luck of the deal.  When I was developing The Great Migration in 2006, we quickly discovered that one weak hand could leave a player significantly behind. Two weak hands in a row could eliminate you completely from contention.  The bidding system I introduced offered greater rewards to low bids.  Now, you could still be successful in the game, provided that you made your bid exactly.


(G)  Trump Suit

The vast majority of trick taking games include a trump suit–a suit which automatically beats the others.  Spades derives its name from its fixed trump suit.  The revealed card in Euchre declares trump for the hand.  Bidding in Bridge includes the assignment of trump. Opening play in Njet! involves selecting both trump and supertrump (which beats the all other trumps).

Games which dictate trump and games which allow the players to declare the trump can both be satisfying.  The major difference between them is the time players to spend on each hand.  There are exceptions but in general, player selection of trump leads to longer hands which requires that you have relatively fewer hands in the game and that the play of those hands be more straightforward.  Conversely, game assignment of trump leads to shorter hands which requires that you have a greater number of hands in the game or that the play of those hands be more elaborate.

When developing a trick taking game that includes trump, you will also need to carefully evaluate the fundamental questions of trump play.  Your response to each question will have a strong effect on the flavor of your game.

Are players allowed to lead the trump suit if that suit has not previously been played?

Are players required to follow the led suit (i.e. to play a card of that suit if any cards of that suit are in their hand)?

Are players required to play a trump if they cannot follow the led suit?

Sticheln is a perfect example of the impact of these decisions.  In Sticheln, there is no declaration of trump suit as such but each player begins the hand by declaring their penalty suit.  In Sticheln, there is no requirement to follow the suit which was led but every nonzero card played outside the led suit counts as a trump card. These simple design decisions make Sticheln one of the most interesting–and aggressive–trick taking games I’ve ever experienced.

(H)  Objective Inversion

A game which generally asks the player to win many tricks offers a boon to the player who takes none.  A game generally which asks the player to take few tricks offers a boon to the player who takes them all.  These are examples of play inversion.

Both Hearts and Spades include objective inversion in their play.  Point cards in Hearts are generally bad and to be avoided.  Unless the player takes them all in which case it is the other players who are made to suffer 26 penalty points each.  The player who declares “nil” in Spades has made a 100 point bet with the opposing team that she will win no tricks whatsoever.

Objective inversion is one of the strongest elements a designer can include in their game. It can also be one of the most difficult to implement.

Standard play of the game must be focused around a single objective.  Games which already offer many paths to victory do not lend themselves well to objective inversion.

Playing in the inverted way must be remarkably difficult, requiring a rare hand or high level of skill.  The reward for inverted play must then be proportionately large.  The 100 point reward for going nil in Spades is 20% of a standard game’s 500-point goal.  The 26 penalty points passed out are 26% of a Hearts game’s 100-point game end.  Although it is not a trick taking game, Tichu includes two slam plays, each of which pay 200 points which is 20% of Tichu’s 1000-point goal.  Following a 20-25% rule is probably a good starting point.

(I)  Card Passing

A last common variation is card passing.  In this, each player gives one or more cards out and in turn receives an equal number from the other players.

My first exposure to Spades included a two-card partner swap.  Hearts includes a three card pass whose target changes each hand.  Several games–including Tichu–feature multiplayer swaps.

Card passing allows players to short-suit, to pass spoiler cards to opponents, and otherwise mitigate the luck of the deal.


Closing Thoughts

That’s our overview of the many variations on design in trick taking games.  When writing one of your own, it’s wise to adopt a conservative stance.  There are so many variations for us to play with that we are often tempted to include all of them.  Resist that urge. Include only those variations with serve your design.  Careful balance and harmonious play are all that is needed to make your game stand out.

What do you like to see in a trick-taking game?  What makes them so special to you?  Which ones do you dislike?  Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.


Tricky, Tricky, Part 2

The Story So Far…

Trick taking games are defined by the following criteria:

(A)  Each player has a hand of cards.

(B)  These cards are played in a series of rounds (tricks).

(C)  Each player in turn must play to the trick.

(D)  Each player plays to the trick exactly once.

Trick-taking games were in a slump they’re coming back.  Let’s look at how to write one that stands out from the crowd.

Variations On The Basics

Even with the four criteria listed above, there’s a great deal of room for any designer who’s willing to explore the design space.  Each of these criteria carries assumptions with it.  Let’s set these assumptions aside and ask “which traditional rules am I willing to break?”

(A) Each Player Has a Hand of Cards

The vast majority of trick taking games deal the same number of cards to each player.  There’s no particular reason for this, however.

Each player in the traditional game Euchre receives a five-card hand.  Then a sixth card is offered to the dealer.  If any player accepts it, that card goes into the dealer’s hand and the dealer then discards one card.  While this still leaves the dealer holding five cards, these five are chosen from six.

What if we allowed the dealer in Euchre to keep all six cards, simply discarding the last card when all the other players have run out their five?  This would tend to make the dealer’s position stronger and reduce the need for hand-evaluation skills.  But what if your card game had a significant dealer disadvantage?  Then offering that player a larger pool of cards from which to play would go a long way toward addressing that weakness.

A recent prototype in my group similarly gives the dealer one extra card but then requires a discard.  In this case, the discard dictates trump but can never be played, thereby forcing the dealer to give up a trump card in order to promote its suit-mates.  In this case, the extra card forces the player to exercise her hand-evaluation skills even more carefully.

By offering significantly different hands of cards to different positions at the table, we can give our games a type of texture which same-hand card games traditionally lack.

A Sample Game With Different Hand Sizes

What if in addition to varying the hand size, we also made different positions receive their cards from different sources?  Here’s an outline for such a game.  Feel free to run with it as far as you wish:

Imagine a three-handed game.  This game uses four suits with cards numbered 1-9 in each suit.  Before dealing, these cards are divided into three decks.  Deck A contains the 1, 2, 3, 4 of each suit (16 cards).  Deck B contains the 5, 6, 7 of each suit (12 cards).  Deck C contains the 8, 9 of each suit (8 cards).

Each deck is shuffled. and dealt out.  The start player receives a fifteen-card hand–eleven cards from deck A and four cards from deck B.  The middle player receives a twelve-card hand–five cards from deck A, four cards from deck B, and three cards from deck C.  The dealer (last player) receives a nine-card hand–four cards from deck B and five cards from deck C.

These cards are then played over 12 tricks.  The dealer will play out his hand in the first nine tricks but has the best cards.  The middle player will play the entirety of her hand but has a medium-strength hand and three tricks in which the dealer does not loom over her.  The start player has the weakest hand but gets to choose three cards to leave unplayed.

(B)  Cards Are Played In a Series of Rounds (Tricks)

Most trick taking games start with the assumption that only one trick will be going on at a time.

Hattrick allows two tricks.  After the first player plays a card, any player who wishes may begin a second trick in a second suit.  Because of the possibility of this second trick, Hattrick is at its best when it is played by its full compliment of 6 players.  When 4 players participate, Hattrick is simply too forgiving.

Victory & Honor is a game for exactly four players and has exactly three tricks going on at all times–the left, the center, and the right.  None of these tricks are evaluated until all three have been completed.

(C)  Each Player In Turn Must Play To the Trick

In addition to its three simultaneous tricks, Victory & Honor also allows players some control over the order of play. If you play a card in your left area, your left-hand opponent must play next.  Similarly, play to your right area makes your left-hand opponent play next.  If you play a card in your center, your partner plays next.  This variable player order gives Victory & Honor a texture unlike any other card game I’ve seen.

Most trick taking games also assume that each player will play exactly one card in each trick.  What if your game allowed cards to be played in combinations?  In games of that type, there might not be any need at all to keep hand sizes even.

For example, your game might allow players to play sets and add their value.  Thus, when my opponent opens with the 8 of spades, I might respond with a pair of 5s–the 5 of spades and 5 of diamonds–and count this play as the 10 of spades  (the rank of my cards–5–multiplied by the number of cards in the set–2).

Alternately, you might allow your game might allow players to play runs.  When my opponent opens with the 8 of spades,  I might respond with a run of three cards–the 4, 5, 7 of spades–and count the play as 12 spades (the lowest card–the 4–multiplied by the number of cards in the run–3).

A Sample Game that Allows Multi-Card Plays

I particularly like set-playing in games which feature unevenly distributed ranks.  Here’s another game outline for you to run with:

Imagine a four-handed game.  Cards in this game are ranked 2 – 9 but high-ranked cards are rarer.  There are twelve 2s, eleven 3s, ten 4s, nine 5s, sis 6s, five 7s, four 8s, and three 9s.  A player may follow a trick by playing sets as described above–when your opponent opens with the 8 of triangles and the 8 of spirals, played as a pair, he declares the value to be 16 and must choose either triangles or spirals as the suit.

(D)  Each player plays to the trick exactly once.

If you were to ask most any card game player who takes their turn, they’d stare at you with the sort of look generally saved for the simple-minded.  Of course, I take my turn.  Who else could it be?

But Twilight/Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde threw this assumption right off a cliff.  This game features two decks–one white, one black–which are shuffled together and dealt out.  These colors correspond to the two teams in the game.  Because these decks have different card backs, it is clear to everyone who holds how many of which team’s cards.  When it is your turn to play, you may name any player holding cards belonging to your team to play for you.  This leads to some engaging decisions.  Can you force an opponent to take a trick for you?  Can you find opportunities to waste the opposition’s cards?

What variations do you like to see in a trick-taking game?  What makes them so special to you?  Which ones do you dislike?  Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Tricky, Tricky, Part 1

Trick-taking games have been in a slump lately but it looks as if they’re coming back.

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, trick-taking games were everywhere.  Friedemann Friese gave us Foppen. Klaus Palesch gave us Sticheln.  Alan R. Moon gave us Where’s Bob’s Hat.  James Miller gave us Control Nut.  Companies like Amigo Spiele and Adlung-Spiele–companies which already specialized in small games–generally included at least two trick taking games in each year’s catalog and sometimes went as high as five!

It was inevitable that a glut like that would lead to a market crash for these games.  Publishers quickly backed off from them and we went into the trick-taking drought of the late 2000s-early 2010s.

It seems that the market is starting to warm up to the idea of trick-taking games again.  With nearly a decade having passed, a new generation of gamers is discovering the sweet charms of a good trick-taker and publishers, happy to provide games to fill that appetite, have begun considering them again.

Although I am not currently developing any trick-taking games, I have developed a few (most prominently the self-published Great Migration), played hundreds, and would happily play any you fine designers out there happen to be working on.

Requirements for A Trick Taking Game

There is a bit of debate about what exactly constitutes a trick taking game.  For our purposes, we will define them by the following criteria:

(A)  Each player has a hand of cards.

(B)  These cards are played in a series of rounds (tricks)

(C)  Each player in turn must play to the trick.

(D)  Each player plays to the trick exactly once.

This definition thus includes Victory & Honor and Njet! but disallows The Great Dalmuti, and my beloved Tichu.

Variations On The Trick Taking Theme

Many trick taking games include other elements.  Some of these are so common as to be almost expected while others are quite rare.

(E)  Bidding

(F)  Trump Suit

(G)  Card-Passing

(H)  Objective-Inversion

(I)   Variable Hand Size

(G)  Variable Turn Order

In the coming columns, we look at each element in detail and consider variations on those elements.  See you Tuesday!

What are your favorite trick-taking games?  What makes them so special to you?  Which ones did you dislike?  Why?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

Penalties Over Rewards

A wonderfully lively discussion has arisen around the “Rewards, Not Penalties” column.  It’s been particularly difficult to remain quiet while knowing that today’s column was coming.

You see, Luther read my last article before I posted it.  Two days later, he sent a rebuttal.  The italicized paragraphs which follow are entirely in his words.  This rebuttal is a testimonial to the nuances of in game design.  The post was written to share his “rewards over penalties” philosophy with the world. Luther stepped in to remind me that there are absolutely no absolutes.

Penalties Over Rewards

I wanted to expand some on the idea of “bonuses are better than penalties.” Reading your writing about it had it back on my mind, and I was reevaluating my thoughts about it. I still agree with the general idea that bonuses are more emotionally pleasing than penalties, but I wanted to think about “okay, when are appropriate times to use penalties?” I came up with three major categories.

1) Clarity

Sometimes it’s way easier to express a mechanic as a penalty than as a bonus. If you have a game where you move slower for each wound you’ve taken, it’s much easier to express that as a penalty than trying to say you get a speed bonus for every wound you haven’t taken. Other times it’s more about frequency; if you need an attack that does less damage to blue monsters, it’s awkward to say “bonus to non-blue monsters”.

2) Using bonuses with penalties

Using a bonus along with a penalty takes a lot of the sting out of the penalty. If your sword is +2 against fire but -2 against water, or your shotgun is minus accuracy but plus damage, that can use penalties to massage a mechanic without just “feeling bad”, because hey, check out that upside right there.

3) Evoking emotion

This is the big one, I think. The major issue with using a penalty instead of a bonus is that it evokes negative emotions instead of positive. If you’re a mighty superhero, you want that player to feel powerful and strong. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to try and evoke a different feeling in the game mechanics. In a gritty zombie survival game, where you’re accruing penalties left and right, it’s going to feel tough. You’re going to feel like it’s harsh. And that’s the way the game wants you to feel.

So yeah. Generally I still feel like if a penalty can be rewritten as a bonus, that bonus should be the default. But there’s certainly appropriate times to use penalties too. They’re all tools in the toolbox, and there’s no shame in being an Allen wrench instead of a screwdriver.

How do you employ rewards and penalties in your games?  Which do you employ more?  Which do you prefer?  Share with your fellow readers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, create an account with WordPress and follow this blog.  If you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.