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.


3 thoughts on “Tricky, Tricky, Part 2

  1. One of my biggest complaints with most trick-taking games is that too many of the cards in the deck have little or no value. In Euchre, for example, 9s and 10s and queens are usually worthless: even if they are trump they often get pulled from your hand before you can use them. What are some ways to address this? I recall that Sticheln had some interesting rules that made lower-value cards worthwhile, but it’s been a long time since I played it.

  2. Loot by Reiner Knizia is, I think, an interesting one to look into. I would describe it to players of traditional card games as a trick-taking game where there may be multiple tricks being played simultaneously, you can play to a trick more than once, and each player in a trick has to use a different suit. This, plus the fact that someone has to play a card as a “prize” to start each “trick” off, and you can either play or draw a card on your turn, never both, leads to some very interesting dynamics.

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