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.


2 thoughts on “Tricky, Tricky, Part 3

  1. playnoevil says:

    Check out the tarot deck traditional games Konigsrufen and Tarock.

    In Konigsrufen, one of the bids is to “call a king” and whoever has that king, if it is in play, is your partner, this is not disclosed until scoring at the end of the hand or the king is played. Also, there are a couple of “Overt” bids where you play with your hand visible once you play your first card. Finally, there is a bid to take exactly one trick. You can also bid to take the last card with the 1 of trumps, the second to the last with the 2 of trumps, and/or the third to the last with the 3 of trumps.

    Fun, but hard to assess your hand given the range of bid types.

  2. Johnny Opie says:

    With the recent uptick in popularity; particularly Mike Fitzgerald’s Diamonds by Stronghold Games, it seems that everyone is talking about trick-taking games – or at least what they are calling,often erroneously, trick-taking games. Thanks for sorting it out.
    Having grown up in an avid card-playing family, we played a lot of trick-taking games and I still love them. We would also take a basic game and vary the rules to suit the players, particularly in bidding and scoring. You touched on one of the main scoring elements; Objective Inversion. This element seems to be a central part of any game that uses it. To mess with it, completely changes the game. Here are a few other variants in bidding and scoring that are more subtle, but worthy of mention:
    Bidding: The total tricks bid cannot equal the number of hands. This limits the last bidder’s (presumably the dealer) choices.
    Scoring: There are many ways to score tricks and even for the basic variants there are several variables:
    1) Points per trick.
    2) Points for making the bid.
    3) Penalty for not making the bid.
    4) Points for taking more tricks than bid.
    Another element is the number of hands. Many games are based on a threshold score that initiates the end game. Some have a predetermined number of hands (“20 Hands”). A clever designer may come up with a different end game trigger altogether.
    As you have said, there is a vast array of elements to work with. I have been cogitating on some ideas; one in particular that I have never seen (probably because it doesn’t work rather than it being an original idea). I will probably start working on one in earnest when I am done doing a makeover on the set collection game “Nines.”
    A good read as always. Thanks.

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