Botifarra

Botifarra is a trick-taking game for four players in partnerships. Unlike many trick-taking games, Botifarra includes a number of rules restricting which cards can be played when. As a result, players are able to deduce information about what their opponents may hold.

The game originates from the disputed region of Catalonia (currently a province in the northeast corner of Spain, but which declared its independence in October 2017). The game is popular enough that organized duplicate-style tournaments are played there.

In Catalonia, Botifarra is traditionally played counter-clockwise (all action proceeding to the right). The description below is written to follow the clockwise fashion most card games follow. If you wish to play it the traditional way, just reverse the directions.

Object of Botifarra

The object of Botifarra is to be the first partnership to reach 101 or more points. Points are scored by collecting face cards, aces and 9s in tricks.

Setup

Botifarra is typically played with a 48-card Spanish deck. To make an equivalent deck from the 52-card English deck, like a deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, just remove the 10s. You also need something to keep score with, such as paper and pencil.

Determine partnerships by whatever method is convenient, either randomly or by mutual agreement. (Players often choose to play three games per session, so that each player may play one game partnered with each of the other players.) As is typical, players should be seated across from their partner. This ensures that the turn of play alternates between partnerships as it proceeds around the table.

Shuffle and deal twelve cards to each player (dealing out the entire pack).

Card ranking

In Botifarra, the highest card is the 9. All other cards rank in their usual order. The full rank of cards, therefore, is (high) 9, A, K, Q, J, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 (low).

Game play

Determining trumps and doubling

Unlike in most other trick-taking games with trumps, there is no bidding or random trump selection in Botifarra. The dealer simply chooses a trump suit for the hand, or botifarra, which is to select no trumps. The dealer may also elect to pass the right to choose to their partner. (They cannot then pass the decision back to the dealer.)

After a trump suit has been chosen, the dealer’s opponents may choose to double, thereby doubling the points scored by the winner of the hand. If the hand is doubled, the dealer’s partnership may redouble, multiplying the value of the hand by four. The opponents can then reredouble, increasing the multiplier to eight. (This is the highest multiplier possible.) Players get the opportunity to speak in turn order from the last player to make a declaration.

A botifarra bid automatically doubles the value of the game, so

Play of the hand

The player to the dealer’s left leads any card they wish to the first trick. Each player in turn then plays one card to the trick. Once all four players have played a card, the highest trump played, or the highest card of the suit led if no trump was played, wins the trick.

Botifarra has a number of unique restrictions on which card you can play. First, of course, you must always follow suit if you can. Secondly, you must head the trick if you are able. The only exception to this is when the trick is currently being won by your partner. When this is the case, subject to suit-following rules, you may play any card worth points (9s, aces, or face cards). If you wish to play a card worth no points, it must be the lowest card you hold of the suit you’re playing in. (Because of this rule, your opponents are able to determine that any other cards that you hold of that suit must be higher.)

Once a player wins a trick, they place it face-down in a shared won-tricks pile located in front of either them or their partner. Tricks should be kept distinct from one another somehow, such as by putting them at right angles to the previous trick. Whichever player won the trick leads to the next one.

Scoring

Once all twelve tricks have been played, the players count up the value of their tricks captured, as follows:

  • Tricks taken: 1 point each
  • 9s: 5 points each
  • Aces: 4 points each
  • Kings: 3 points each
  • Queens: 2 point each
  • Jacks: 1 point each

The maximum trick score possible on one hand is 72 points. Whichever partnership scores more subtracts 36 from the value of their tricks to arrive at their score for the hand. This score is multiplied as decided before the hand and recorded on the scoresheet. (If the partnerships tie at 36 points each, neither team scores.)

Game play continues until one partnership exceeds 101 points. That partnership is the winner.

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Totit

Totit is an extremely simple fishing game from the Indonesian island of Java. It can be played by two to six people. In Totit, it’s all about making pairs—while pairs of the same rank can be captured, only pairs of identical copies of the same card score!

Object of Totit

The object of Totit is to capture the most cards from the board by pairing them with the corresponding cards from your hand.

Setup

Totit uses a special 60-card deck. To build such a deck, start with two standard 52-card decks of the same back design and color—we always use Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, naturally. From each deck, remove the aces through 10s of clubs. From the other three suits, remove the 10s and face cards. You’ll be left with two 30-card decks consisting of A–9♠, A–9♦, A–9♥, and J-Q-K♣. Shuffle these two 30-card decks together to form the full 60-card deck. (Note that this is the same deck used for Kowah, another Javanese card game.) You should also have something handy to keep score with.

Shuffle and deal eighteen cards face up to the table. Then, deal seven cards to each player, or eleven cards to each player in a two-player game. Set aside any unused cards; they will have no bearing on the game.

Game play

The player to the dealer’s left goes first. If they have any cards identical in rank and suit to any of the cards on the table, they may capture the table card by revealing the matching card in their hand. They then place both cards in a face-down captured-cards pile in front of them. A capture must always consist of one card from the hand and one from the table. Players can never capture a card with another one from the table. Players may only make one capture per turn. If a player cannot make a capture, they must trail one card of their choice face up to the table. The turn then passes to the left.

On the second and subsequent turns, a player may capture a card if they hold a card of the same rank as a card on the table, regardless of suit. All of the face cards and aces are considered to be equivalent to one another. The A♠ can be captured by the K♣ and vice versa, the J♣ and Q♣ can capture each other, and so on.

One special restriction occurs when two cards of the same rank and suit appear alongside one or more cards of that rank, but a different suit. In this case, any cards of the odd suit must be captured first. Only when the two identical cards are the only cards of that rank left on the table can one be captured.

Ending the hand

The hand ends when the players’ hands are depleted. Any cards remaining on the table are discarded. Each player scores one point for each pair of captured cards of the same rank and suit. (Note that they need not necessarily have been captured with each other. Both cards could have been on the table at the same time and captured one at a time by different cards, or the first one captured early on, and the second trailed by another player and then captured, for instance.)

The deal passes to the left, and game play continues. The game ends when every player has dealt once. Whichever player has the highest score at that point wins the game.

 

 

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Delphi

Delphi is a simplified version of Eleusis for three to seven players. As in Eleusis, the central premise of the game is discovering a secret rule created by the dealer. Accomplishing this goal is done by looking over the line of previously-played cards and attempting to spot a pattern. The main difference between Delphi and Eleusis is that in Delphi, each card played to the table is one randomly drawn from the deck, rather than intentionally placed by the players. Players are rewarded for correctly declaring which cards correctly fit the pattern and which do not.

Delphi is the creation of the American scientist and mathematician Martin David Kruskal. Dr. Kruskal published the game in 1962 while a professor of astronomy at Princeton University. Noted for his playfulness, Dr. Kruskal also devised the “Kruskal count”, a magic trick that could even stump other magicians because it was based on deep mathematical principals, rather than the usual sleight of hand.

Object of Delphi

The object of Delphi depends on whether you’re the dealer or just a player. For the players, the object is to figure out the dealer’s secret rule as quickly as possible. For the dealer, the object is to create a secret rule that’s neither too hard nor too easy to figure out (ideally, about half the players should be able to guess it).

Setup

For a game of Delphi, you’ll need one standard 52-card deck of playing cards. Of course, we very much recommend using a deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards. You also need pencil and paper (or something similar like a smartphone app) to keep score with, as well as some form of marker or token (like poker chips, beans or other counters) to keep track of the number of correct guesses a player has made on that hand. You should have around 25 tokens for each player (other than the dealer) in the game. If desired, you may also give a decision marker to each player, something that clearly indicates a yes or no response, such as a coin (heads being yes and tails being no) or simply an index card marked “YES” and “NO” on opposite sides.

Determine the first dealer, who is also referred to as the oracle. The oracle devises a secret rule and writes it down on a scrap of paper, keeping it concealed from the players. The rule dictates which cards will be considered “correct” throughout the play of the following hand. The rule must determine this based solely on the cards previously played, and not anything outside the game. (Further explanation and some example rules can be found in the Eleusis setup section.)

Give each player one token, keeping the rest as the oracle’s bank. Shuffle the deck and turn one card, face up, to serve as a starter. The rest of the deck becomes the stock.

Game play

The oracle turns one card face up from the stock, placing the card where it can be easily seen by all of the players and announcing its rank and suit. The players then decide whether this is a “correct” play according to the dealer’s secret rule. Obviously, on the first turn of play, this is likely little more than a 50/50 guess, but as the game goes on players will become more confident in their knowledge of the rule and thus be able to decide more accurately.

Once players have reached a decision, they set their decision counter, if playing with one, to reflect this, keeping it concealed with their hand from the other players. If not playing with a decision counter, each player just takes a token or other small object in their hand, shuffles it from hand to hand under the table, and places their closed fist above the table. If they have something concealed in their hand, it indicates a “yes”, and if their hand is empty, it indicates a “no”.

Once all players have reached a decision on the card, on a signal from the oracle, they all reveal their decision. The oracle then declares whether the card was “correct”. If so, the card is placed to the right of the last card played, forming a continuous line of correct cards across the table. If the card is incorrect, it is placed below the last correct card played. The oracle then pays out one token to each player who guessed correctly and collects one token from those who did not. (If a player does not have a token to collect, no penalty is assessed.)

The next card is then drawn, and the process repeats until all 52 cards have been placed on the table.

Scoring

After the hand ends, each player counts the number of tokens they have. Their hand score is the difference between their own token count and that of each player who collected fewer tokens, added together, minus the total count the difference between their count and that of each player who collected more tokens.

For example, consider a game where Player A collected 29 tokens, B collected 26, C collected 19, D collected 11, E collected 9, and F collected 6. Player C’s hand score would be the difference between their count of 19 and that of D, E, and F, minus the difference between their count and that of A and B. Thus, their score would be (8 + 10 + 13) – (10 + 7) = 31 – 17 = 14. Note that it is possible to get a negative hand score, as F’s score would be 0 – (23 + 20 + 13 + 5 + 3) = –64.

The oracle’s score for the hand is the total of each player’s difference between their count and that of each player who collected more tokens. (That is, everything that is subtracted when each player calculates their score.) In the example above, Player A’s total difference is 0, B’s is 3, C’s is 17, D’s is 25, E’s is 27, and D’s is 64, so the oracle would score 136 points.

All of the tokens are then returned to the bank, and the next player to the oracle’s left becomes the new oracle. Game play continues until each player has been the oracle once.

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Triple Draw Lowball

Triple Draw Lowball (often called just Triple Draw) is a form of lowball poker for two to six players. It’s a fairly simple game, especially if you’re familiar with Five-Card Draw or other Draw Poker variants. However, having four chances to bet instead of one makes Triple Draw an exciting, competitive game with large pots and lots of betting action. Triple Draw has become popular in Las Vegas casinos, being included in many high-limit mixed game rotations.

Object of Triple Draw Lowball

The object of Triple Draw Lowball is to form the lowest-ranking poker hand after drawing new cards up to three times.

Setup

Triple Draw uses the same standard 52-card deck as most other poker games. We suggest that you give Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards a try if you haven’t yet. You’ll also need something to bet with, probably poker chips. The game is typically played with fixed limits (see “Betting in poker“), so all players should agree to what the limits will be.

The two players to the left of the dealer post their blinds (see “Blinds and antes“). Shuffle and deal five cards to each player. The dealer retains the deck stub for later use.

Game play

Upon receiving their cards, players evaluate the strength of their hand. Triple Draw is most frequently played with deuce-to-seven lowball rules. In this version of lowball, straights and flushes are taken into consideration when ranking hands, and aces count high. That means the lowest possible hand is 2-3-4-5-7 (because 2-3-4-5-6 forms a straight). The first betting round then begins, with the player to the left of the big blind (the player under the gun) starting the betting. Betting follows the typical rules of betting in poker.

After the first round of betting is resolved, the first draw occurs, starting with the player to the left of the dealer (the small blind). This player discards any number of cards, from zero to five, face down in front of them. The dealer then deals them the appropriate number of replacement cards from the stub. This continues, clockwise, until all active players have had a chance to swap cards. The dealer then collects the discards and sets them aside.

When the first draw finishes, the second betting round begins, starting this time with the small blind player. This is followed by a second draw (conducted the same way as the first), then the third betting round, then the third draw, then the fourth and final betting round. Betting limits are typically doubled on the third and fourth betting rounds. If there are at least two active players left at the end of the fourth betting round, they reveal their hands. Whoever has the lowest-ranked poker hand wins the pot.

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Khanhoo

Khanhoo is a rummy game for two to four players. It was originally from China, though it experienced a period of popularity in England at the end of the nineteenth century. Khanhoo may be one of the earliest rummy games ever to be played. It seems likely that it at least influenced Conquian, considered to be the ancestor of most rummy games.

Object of Khanhoo

The object of Khanhoo is to be the first player to form their entire hand into combinations called melds.

Setup

A special 61-card deck is needed to play Khanhoo. To make one, take two decks of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards and remove all of the 10s. Then, take out the face cards in hearts, spades, and diamonds, and all of the remaining number cards from the clubs. Shuffle these two decks together, and add one joker, and you’ll have your Khanhoo deck. It will contain the joker, two each of the J-Q-K♣, and two each of aces through 9s in the other three suits. You’ll also need something to keep score with.

Shuffle and deal fifteen cards to each player. Then deal a sixteenth card to the player to the dealer’s left. Place the stub in the center of the table, forming the stock. (In a four-player game, the entire deck will be dealt out, so there will be no stock.)

Game play

Game play begins with the player to the dealer’s left choosing one card to discard. This starts a discard pile, usually placed to one side of the stock. The turn then passes to the left. This player draws one card, either from the stock or the discard pile, and then discards one card. Turns continue in this manner, with a draw and a discard by each player in turn.

If the stock runs out, its top card is set aside, the discards are flipped over, and then shuffled to form a new stock. The old top card then forms the new discard pile.

As the entire deck is used in the four-player game, there is no stock. Instead, each player simply draws the card that was discarded by the player to their left.

Melding

The players’ goal is to form their hands into melds. The valid melds, and their point values, are as follows:

  • Sequence (1 point): Three or more cards of the same suit in consecutive order, e.g. 6-7-8♥. Note that sequences will never include face cards or clubs, as the only “sequence” that can be formed using them is actually the more valuable royal assembly (see below). Aces are considered low in sequences (just below the 2). Note that the point value does not increase if more cards are added.
  • Aces (1 point): Three aces of any suit (duplicates are allowed).
  • Triplet (2 points): Three number cards of the same rank and of three different suits (no duplicates allowed).
  • Royal assembly (3 points): J-Q-K♣.
  • Court melds (4 points each): K♣-9♥-9♥, Q♣-8♠-8♠, or J♣-7♦-7♦.
  • Khanhoo (5 points): A♥-2♠-3♦.
  • Double aces (10 points): Six aces of any suit.
  • Double triplet (10 points): Two triplet melds of the same rank. That is, six number cards of the same rank, with each suit appearing exactly twice.
  • Double royal (10 points): J-J-Q-Q-K-K♣.
  • Double khanhoo (15 points): A-A♥-2-2♠-3-3♦.

As players form melds, they keep them in their hand (that is, they do not lay them out on the table). Thus, the players can rearrange and expand or split melds at will. The joker is wild, substituting for any other card in a meld without restriction.

Bumping

In a three- or four-player game, after a player discards, another player may intervene by claiming the discard before the next player can draw it. They may only do this, however, if they can immediately use the card in a meld other than a sequence. Taking the discard out of turn in this way is called bumping. When a player bumps, they must place the meld that the discard is part of face-up in front of them. They may then no longer alter the meld in any way (e.g. by making it from a khanhoo to a double khanhoo). They then discard as normal and play passes to the left, with the intervening players skipped.

If the player who would have normally had the right to the bumped discard (i.e. the player to the left of the player who discarded it) also wants the card, they may challenge the bump. Both players must then declare the type of meld they wish to use the discard for. If the player that wishes to bump can form a higher meld, they get the right to the discard. If the other player can make a meld of equal or higher value to the bumping player, then no bump happens, and play proceeds as normal.

Ending the hand

When a player has formed their entire hand into melds, they make one final discard and announce that they are out. Each player then reveals their hand, placing it on the table with each meld broken out. Each player then scores the value of their melds, with the player that went out also getting a five-point bonus.

The deal passes to the left, and a new hand is dealt. Game play begins until one or more players reaches a score of 50 points or more. Whichever player has the highest score at that point is the winner.

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Game design, mechanics, and game balance: What makes a good game?

With so many games out there to choose from, a prospective gamer might start thinking about what makes a game cross the line from just a way to pass the time to a truly great experience. What elements does a good game have? Or does that question have a different answer depending on who you ask? To find out, Scott Nazelrod of Denexa Games sat down with two gaming experts.

Jack Claxton and DC Bueller are two of the five founders of Loot & XP, a board game café established in 2015 here in Norman, Oklahoma. Loot & XP is home to a massive library of games, about 750 titles at last count, and always growing. Part of the staff’s responsibility at the café is to teach games to their customers and answer any questions that they may have, from what kind of game they might want to try, all the way to answering queries about some of the games’ more obscure and arcane rules. To arm themselves with that knowledge, they’ve played a lot of games. If there’s anyone to ask about games, it’s these guys.

Read on for some insight into the world of games—card games, board games, even video games—and all of the ingredients that go into an enjoyable gaming session.

SCOTT
So, I guess what we should start off with is, since you guys focus mostly on board games, and we focus more on card games at Denexa—what do you think they have in common? Does a good card game and a good board game have a lot of things in common? Or do you think there’s a little bit of a difference between those?
JACK
Obviously, I think there’s a difference in style. But I think, kind of as an answer to both of those questions, as to what makes a good game for either of them, and to what they have in common…is interesting decisions. If there are decisions that matter, and that can be taken in a number of different ways, and are entertaining—you know, it is fulfilling to have some sort of options in front of you, and have it really matter what you go with. So, if you like more strategic games, and I think most card games fall into that, that’s very much something they share in common. You’ll also find, that DC and I have very different tastes in games—
DC
[laughter]
JACK
—and I think that will be very helpful, since we’re coming from almost both sides of the spectrum here.
DC
I like randomness. And I think cards help that, because you always have to shuffle and make random things happen. I also feel like, as long as a game is enjoyable and can create a memorable experience—I think that’s the most important part. Just like, thinking back to when we played XYZ game, like—for example, today on Facebook, [fellow Loot & XP founder] Rachelle shared a memory from two years ago of a Codenames game we played. I was absolutely awful. We totally lost. And everything was just horrible. She did not like me giving the clues. But, the thing is, everyone remembers that game. Everyone remembers that session of Codenames, because it was just so…entertainingly horrible.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
So I think that’s the main thing. Yeah, you can have options, but I think, the mix of people, and the mix of ideas and personalities, can also help make a game that would normally be kind of like “ehh, you know, I could do this or this” into “oh my gosh, what are you doing?”
SCOTT
So what you’re saying is, you can have fun with an absolutely horrible game, if you have the right people involved!
DC
You can! I still think it would be more of a one-off experience, instead of, like, coming back to the game again and again.
SCOTT
“We don’t want to play that horrible thing again! Although it was fun the one time.”
DC
For example, CrossTalk. Some people have more fun with it than others—
JACK
I still think it’s good…
DC
I liked it! Some people think it’s the worst thing ever.
SCOTT
And I know you guys have opinions on Monopoly that aren’t necessarily shared by a lot of the populace…
JACK
I would hope they’re shared by a lot of the populace! But apparently not. I don’t know, I think a lot of people dislike Monopoly, but I would almost say for the wrong reasons. But I want to touch real fast on game versus people you’re playing with. I would agree, if I had to choose between a good game, and a good group of people, I would choose a good group of people. You really can have a lot of fun with bad games. Now, it works together if you have a good game and good people. But it’s very much true, at least in most of the games we’re used to playing, but I think in a lot of card games too. If you’re very serious about playing poker or playing for money and everything, it’s a very individual experience, and it’s very strategy-based. But I think for most people playing almost any type of game, it’s to enjoy it and have fun, and people are pretty integral to that.
SCOTT
And definitely, with poker in particular, it’s a very different game when you’re playing with people who are very good at it, versus people who are just there to enjoy the experience, and maybe not care so much about how well they do.
JACK
Yeah. That’s a funny point, too, because a lot of poker players get their reads on people, and they assume that the other players also have certain assumptions. And they’re strategizing in certain ways. But if someone doesn’t care they can really mess up a skilled poker player, because they expect them to act in certain ways!
SCOTT
Right, you can’t expect them to act rationally! And if you’re assuming your opponent is going to be acting rationally and they’re not, that can really throw a wrench in your strategies.
JACK
Definitely.
SCOTT
So, do you think—keeping in mind, everyone has different preferences on games—is there anything you can universally point to and say, “That makes a good game”? Or is it just kind of hopelessly attached to your personal preferences?
JACK
I think there’s a few things I could say, but I do think it’s attached to personal preference. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have such a variety of games that are enjoyed by people. Like I said before, I do enjoy things that have interesting decisions. But that’s not all I like. I like games with good social dynamics, or interesting and novel mechanics you don’t find in other games. I’m sure there are things that more people like than don’t, but I don’t think you can just pin it down.
DC
I think 100% personal preference, because the #1 game on BoardGameGeek, Pandemic Legacy—I hate that kind of game.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
I hate it with a passion, and I was actually talking with our distributor, and they’re saying, “Yeah, we want to make this game—we want to make the new Season 2 topple Season 1!” And I’m like, “That’s great! That’s wonderful!… That’s…cool…” And he was like, “What did you think when you played it?” And I was like, “Yeah! Good!”
JACK
“It caused me physical pain!”
SCOTT
Why do you hate it so much?
DC
Because I believe, in essence, that a game should be able to be played over and over and over. Just as many times as you want.
SCOTT
Replay value.
DC
Yeah. And whenever you play a Legacy game, the replay value is going to end at the end of your campaign. Whereas, with say, roleplaying games and things like that, I mean, yeah, there’s going to be an end; there’s going to be a physical and permanent end—
SCOTT
But once you buy a Dungeons & Dragons book, you can just reuse it for however many campaigns.
DC
Yeah. Exactly. With a Legacy game, you’re manipulating it and shaping it into a specific way where—and I think maybe the appeal is making those permanent changes, and then it becomes your own personal copy, that no one else is going to have. It’s a game that you and your group made together. And that’s kind of a bonding experience that those kind of people like, and I am not those kind of people.
JACK
I do like Legacy games. But that said, I wouldn’t like every game to be like that. Mostly, I’m on the same page as DC. I think it should be replayable, and that’s one of the strengths of tabletop games, no matter what the type, is each playthrough is going to be different, because of all of the variables. Having a game you can only go through once is bizarre and strange.
SCOTT
[laughter]
JACK
So I like it for the novelty, but I’m glad that it’s a minority kind of niche in the hobby.
SCOTT
And, of course, for replay value, nothing really beats a deck of cards, because you can play any number of games with the same deck.
JACK
Absolutely.
SCOTT
Of course, the downside to that is that a deck of cards doesn’t really have a theme to it, whereas a lot of board games do. Do you think that, for most people, a good theme on a game can save what would be an otherwise bad game? Or, turning it around, do you think that a really good game can save a horribly ugly theme?
JACK
I think a lot of people play games for themes. Myself included. And yeah, they can very much help an otherwise-weaker game. There’s a number of games that I like because of the presentation, and the general narrative, even if it doesn’t factor in a whole lot. But I think if the game is strong enough, and you can get people to sit down and play it, and it’s really fun, the theme does not matter. If playing the game itself is very fun, then that can stand up by itself.
DC
I think a lot of Euro games are like that, where they have some mechanics, and the game play is very solid, but the theme is, like, “Oh, we should make a theme for this mechanic we just did.” I do feel like I have played many games where the game play was like, uggggh, but the theme made me want to play it again and again and again.
JACK
Like, Terrene Odyssey was a game that we both were a little excited about, because it touched on things we liked. And some of it was theme-wise, and some of it was mechanics-wise. But it kind of looks to things that we’re a fan of. And I think DC tried it a bit more than I did, and it just didn’t stand up as much. Now, that’s an example where we gave it more of an opportunity, but we still kind of gave up on it a little bit. You know, it’s like any other media. You’ll watch trash TV shows or movies that you enjoy, for whatever reason, even if you kind of know deep down it’s not very good.
DC
Yeah, like Star Trek.
SCOTT
[laughter]
DC
I JK! But I’ll say this. Scott Pilgrim. That is a really awesome theme. And I will still play it, but I think the mechanics are wonky.
JACK
They are a little. That’s the thing, that particular game—it’s not a bad game, I think. It’s a little strange, but it’s not a great game either. So, at the very least, the theme helps, a lot, an otherwise weak game. And you’re right, with standard card games, unless you are very much trying to put a theme in there, it’s a little difficult to do that with a standard deck.
SCOTT
So a standard-deck card game tends to rely a lot more heavily on the mechanics than, like, a proprietary card game or a board game would. Going into mechanics a little bit more—you hear the term “game balance” a lot. What exactly do you feel like game balance is?
JACK
At its core, it’s when everyone has the same opportunities in a given game. Now, if everyone has the same opportunity to get, you know, the best hand, and that’s a one in one thousand shot, and there’s not that much else but just the luck of the draw, then that’s probably not an appealing game for most people, because, while it’s fair, it’s also extremely random. Now, you heard DC say earlier he really likes random games, but I think part of game balance too is giving people the same agency. So, they have access to the same resources and powers, and they also have the same abilities and decisions that they can make. So if something doesn’t go your way, a lot of times it is your fault. You might have not foreseen something, or you took a risk and it didn’t pan out the way you thought. But I feel like most people like a balance between purely strategy games—something along the lines of chess—and purely random games—something like roulette.
DC
[laughter]
SCOTT
And obviously roulette makes a ton of money every year.
JACK
Indeed. So obviously people do enjoy that. But I think it may be different types. Or at least, scratching a different itch. But so long as there’s a little bit of luck, and a little bit of strategy, that seems to be a happy medium for most. And I think game balance is intrinsically tied into that concept.
DC
I would say two games I feel deal with that fairly well: Valeria: Card Kingdoms and Lords of Waterdeep. Because, with Valeria: Card Kingdoms, you have the dice that get rolled so people are going to get different resources. You don’t get as resource-screwed as you would be in Catan because you take the numbers on each of the dice and the sum. And in Lords of Waterdeep, it’s much more strategic based, but it’s also a little bit of luck with what quests might get drawn, or what lord you get in the beginning, or the Intrigue cards you might get, or things like that. To me, though, I will play a game that’s unbalanced—more heavily toward luck than strategy, because with luck, anyone can win. With strategy, only Jack wins.
JACK
[laughter] Dirty lies! Well, here’s an important part of that too—I do like being competitive, or forming strategies. But if I play almost a completely luck-based game, and that’s just kind of obvious right there—it takes that load off. And sometimes I want something different, and I want to just, like, “Let’s just see what happens”. And I can lose, and it’s no fault of my own, and that’s a lot nicer—
SCOTT
It’s very freeing!
JACK
Yeah, instead of like, “three turns ago, if I would have done that, I would have absolutely won, but now I’m in last place”—that hurts a little bit more! So I think there’s absolutely room for both, both random and not, as well as balanced and not. Though I definitely, for the most part, when I do play traditional card games, I think I do prefer a little more balance and strategy in that style. Because it is, once again, more mechanics-heavy.
SCOTT
One last thing: what sort of advice would you have to offer for someone who is trying to make a new game, whether it be a board game or a card game?
JACK
That is a difficult question. Because ten or fifteen years ago, the market was incredibly smaller than it is now. Don’t go in expecting to get rich, because you could make an absolutely wonderful game, but sadly, a huge part of it is making yourself visible, and marketing yourself, and that’s just honestly what it is. There’s too many games in the market. Now, that said, make a game that you enjoy. You know, everyone has their own personal tastes. And if you do that, and it’s honestly good, and everyone around you likes it, you’d have a much higher chance, I’d argue, of breaking through and maybe making a livelihood out of it, or at least distributing it.
DC
Basically, there’s not that many games that have that long-term shelf visibility. Like, basically, it’s out for a season, it’s the hotness of the month or two, and unless you’re like a Catan or a Lords of Waterdeep, or at the very, very least a Lanterns, you’re just forgotten. And Lanterns is kind of a “ehhh” sort of thing. You just forget it, because there is just a huge flood of games. But there is something to be said about making a game that you like. But if you want to make a game that you want to have sell, that you want to have make you money, then look at things like Scythe or look at things like Exploding Kittens. Part of it is, yeah, the mechanics—say, for Scythe, the mechanics are very solid, and it had a lot of replayability, because of the different mats and strategies that each faction would have based on the play method they got. But also, say, for Exploding Kittens, that’s all about marketing. So you can either market your game to heck, and just make it off the marketing strategy, or come up with something that is really, really solid. But, of course, [Scythe author Jamey] Stegmaier, he’s had a long list of games before that that were very successful, but I think that Scythe was the break out, a little bit.
SCOTT
And I think that kind of underscores, maybe, one of the differences between a traditional card game and a board game, because with board games you obviously have to get a lot more into the business side of things, and worry about things like marketing and that sort of thing, whereas with a traditional card game, it’s all memetic. You just have to make something that’s good enough that other people want to start playing it.
JACK
Yeah. And if you were to make a new card game—and this is run into a whole lot with non-traditional card games and board games as well—it’s a lot easier to sell something that’s a lot lighter. Like a party game, and something that’s very social. And so, if it’s the sort of game that everyone can approach, and you can bring it out at a party, just, by that nature, it will spread a lot easier. Now, that doesn’t make it a better game, but it’s a harder sell, regardless of the game type, if it’s a little bit heavier. If you’ve got to explain the rules for 20 or 30 minutes, then it could be the best game, but it’s hard to put legs on it.
SCOTT
Which, with traditional card games, you do run into that. There’s games like Skat, which are considered to the best games ever created, but the rules for them fill up six pages. And you can spend your whole lifetime mastering that one game.
JACK
Yeah, it’s kind of a shame, but that’s something you have to be aware of if you’re making any type of game, I feel.
SCOTT
Well, thank you guys for sharing your opinions!
DC
You’re very welcome!
JACK
Thank you!
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Solo

Solo is a trick-taking game for four players.  Rather than higher bids simply increasing the number of tricks to be taken, as is common in trick-taking games, in Solo, the bids also affect whether or not a player will have a partner for that hand.

Solo is an offshoot of the French game Manille. It is sometimes referred to as Spanish Solo due to its former popularity in Spain and Latin America. This also helps distinguish it from the similarly-named Solo Whist and Six-Bid Solo, the latter of which is more similar to Skat.

Object of Solo

The object of Solo is to accurately judge the strength of your hand, and use this information to secure a contract which you can then fulfill.

Setup

Solo is played with a 32-card deck. To create such a thing, set aside all the 2s through 6s from a deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards. You’ll be left with 7s through aces in each of the four suits. You’ll also want something to keep score with, such as pencil and paper.

Prior to the first hand, everyone should mutually agree on one suit that serves as the color. This suit is usually clubs, but it is essentially arbitrary, and it makes no real difference which suit is color. Bids made committing to make this suit trump will be ranked higher than an equivalent bid in one of the other suits.

Shuffle and deal out the entire pack. Each player will receive eight cards.

Card ranking

Solo uses a somewhat idiosyncratic card ranking for the trump suit. First, the two black queens are always trumps, regardless of what the actual trump suit is. The Q♣ is the highest trump, and the Q♠ the third-highest trump. Wedged between the two queens is the 7 of trumps. The rest of the cards rank in their usual order, with the ace just below the Q♠. Therefore, the full ranking of a red trump suit is (high) Q♣, 7, Q♠, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8 (low). A black trump suit ranks exactly the same, although since its queen is elevated above its usual position, there is no queen that ranks between the king and jack.

Non-trump suits rank in their usual order, including the 7 in its typical position as the lowest-ranking card of the suit. For a red non-trump suit, the full ranking is (high) A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7 (low). In a black non-trump suit, the queen is missing (having been moved instead to the trump suit), and thus ranks as (high) A, K, J, 10, 9, 8, 7 (low).

Game play

Types of games

Before a hand can be played, the players must decide which type of game to play. This is done through a bidding process, with the winner becoming the declarer and selecting which type of game is to be played. The types of games that are available, ranked from lowest to highest, are:

  1. Simple game in suit (2 points): The declarer names one of the three suits that are not in color as the trump suit. They then name any one of the four aces. Whoever holds that ace becomes the declarer’s partner for that hand. (Note that the partner does not immediately reveal themselves; they do so by simply playing the ace at an appropriate time during the hand.) The partners commit to capturing at least five tricks between the two of them.
  2. Simple game in color (4 points): The same as a simple game in suit, except the trump suit is the suit that is in color.
  3. Solo in suit (4 points): The same as a simple game in suit, except there is no partner. The declarer must collect five or more tricks all by themselves.
  4. Solo in color (8 points): The same as a solo in suit, but with the suit in color as trump.
  5. Tout in suit (16 points): The declarer names as trump one of the three suits not in color. They must collect all eight tricks without the assistance of a partner.
  6. Tout in color (32 points): The same as a tout in suit, but the suit in color is trump.

Bidding

Solo uses a similar one-on-one bidding style to that of Skat. Bidding begins with the player to the dealer’s left. If they do not wish to bid, they may pass. If they have a bid they want to make, they say “I ask.” The player to their left can then “bid” against them by inquiring as to the first player’s bid. As the lowest bid is a simple game in suit, the player is assumed to have bid at least this high, so the second player asks “Is it in color?” If the first player responds that it is, the second may then ask “Is it a solo?” If the first player responds in the affirmative, they continue with “Is it a solo in color?” and so on.

When the first player does not want to keep bidding higher, or should it become evident that they are willing to bid higher than the second player is comfortable with going, either player may pass. If the second player passed, then the third player may continue the questioning where the second left off. If the first player passes, the second player is committed to making a bid of at least the same rank that the first player passed on, and they are questioned about it by the third player. Bidding concludes with the surviving player bidding against the dealer. Whichever player emerges from this bid victorious becomes the declarer. They may name any game and trump they like, so long as it ranked at least as high as their winning bid (i.e. they may name a higher game than they bid).

Additional rules on bidding

If all four players pass, the player holding the Q♣ must reveal it, and immediately becomes the declarer in a simple game. They must then choose a trump suit (with the suit they choose of course deciding whether the game is in color or not).

A player holding both black queens can never pass. Instead, they must always make a bid of at least solo in suit.

Play of the hand

The player to the dealer’s left leads to the first trick. Each player, proceeding clockwise, contributes one card to the trick. Players must follow suit if able; if they cannot, they may play any card, including a trump. Whoever plays the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led if no trump was played, wins the trick. That player then leads to the next trick.

It should be noted that the black queens are part of the trump suit and not part of the suit printed on the card. That means that if diamonds are trump, someone leads clubs, and you have the Q♣ in addition to some other clubs, you cannot play the queen! Instead, you have to play one of your other clubs. Playing the Q♣ would be playing a trump card, the same as playing a diamond. That can only be done if you hold no other cards of the suit led.

Once all eight tricks are played, the hand is scored. If the declarer successfully won the required number of tricks required, they score the point value of the game. If they did not, the point value of the game is deducted from their score. In a simple game, the declarer’s partner scores the same amount that the declarer does.

Game play continues until a previously-agreed-to number of hands is played, or one or more players exceeds a certain point threshold. Whoever has the highest score at that point is the winner.

See also

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Schafkopf

Schafkopf is a trick-taking game for three players. Sometimes called the national game of Bavaria, it has been played throughout southern Germany for at least 200 years. Schafkopf is one of the ancestors of Skat, and the two share quite a lot in common.

There are two theories for why the game is named Schafkopf, which translates to “sheep’s head”. One is that originally the score was kept by making tally marks on a sheet of paper in such a way that, when the game was finished, the marks made the outline of a sheep’s head. Another is that the name is really a corruption of Schaffkopf, meaning the top of a barrel. A barrel often made a convenient card table in the early days of the game.

Because Schafkopf has been in play for such a long time, dozens of variations of it have been developed over time. Many of these rival Skat in complexity and capacity for skillful play. We’ve chosen one of the simpler variants to describe here.

Object of Schafkopf

The object of Schafkopf for the declarer is to collect at least 61 points in tricks. For the defenders, the object is to stop the declarer from doing so.

Setup

Schafkopf uses the 32-card deck common to German card games. To make an equivalent deck from the international standard 52-card deck, start with a deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards and remove all of the 2s through 6s. What will remain is a deck with aces through 7s in each of the four suits. You’ll also need something to keep score with, like the venerable pencil and paper.

Shuffle and deal out the whole pack according to the following order: a set of three cards to each player, two face down to the center of the table, a set of four cards to each player, then a set of three cards to each player. Each player will have ten cards, with the two-face down cards forming a widow. (This is the same dealing procedure used in Skat, by the way.)

Card ranking

Schafkopf uses a highly unorthodox card ranking. First off, 10s are ranked above the king, just below the ace. Secondly, all queens and jacks are not considered to be part of their own suit, but are considered trumps! Queens and jacks rank in the following order: (high) clubs, spades, hearts, diamonds (low). Lastly, all of the diamonds are considered trumps, too, ranking in order just below the J♦.

Taken altogether, that means that the rank of cards in spades, hearts, and clubs is (high) A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7 (low). The full rank of the trump suit is (high) Q♣, Q♠, Q♥, Q♦, J♣, J♠, J♥, J♦, A♦, 10♦, K♦, 9♦, 8♦, 7♦ (low). Got all that?

Game play

Picking up the widow

The first order of business is determining who will take the widow. The player to the dealer’s left has the first opportunity to do so, or they may pass. If the first player passes, the next player to the left can choose to pick it up. If they, too, refuse, the dealer gets the last chance at picking up the widow. Should the dealer decline to take the widow, the hand is played “least“, as described in “Playing least” below.

If a player does decide to take the widow, they become the declarer, and their two opponents become the defenders. The declarer adds the two cards from the widow to their hand, then discards two cards, face down. This restores their hand to ten cards.

Play of the hand

The player to the dealer’s left leads to the first trick. Each player in turn plays a card to the trick, until all three have played. Players follow suit if they are able; otherwise, they may play any card, including a trump. Whichever player played the highest trump, or the highest card of the suit led if no trump was played, wins the trick. They collect the cards from the trick, placing them in a won-tricks pile in front of them. They then lead to the next trick.

It is important to remember that the queens and jacks are trumps and not part of the suit printed on the card. For example, if a spade is led, playing the Q♠ is not following suit, it is trumping!

Scoring

After all ten tricks have been played, the declarer totals up the value of the cards they took in tricks, as follows:

  • Aces: eleven points each
  • 10s: ten points each
  • Kings: four points each
  • Queens: three points each
  • Jacks: two points each

None of the other cards have any value.

If the declarer successfully captured at least 61 points in tricks, they win the hand, and score two victory points. Should the declarer have collected 91 or more points, this is called a schneider, and they score four victory points. If they successfully captured all 120 points available, i.e. they captured every trick, it is called a schwarz, and they score six victory points.

Likewise, if the declarer collects 60 points or less, they lose two victory points. If they are schneidered (capture 30 points or less), they lose four victory points, and if they are schwarzed (capture 0 points), they lose six victory points.

Playing least

If all three players pass on taking the widow, the hand is played least. All three players play alone, with a goal of taking the fewest points possible. Whichever player takes the fewest points scores two victory points. If they captured 0 points, they score four victory points.

If two players tie, whichever one less recently took a trick wins and gets the two points. In a three-way tie, the dealer wins. In the event that one player takes all 120 points (meaning the other two tie at 0), that player loses four victory points and the other players do not score.

Ending the game

The game ends when a pre-specified number of deals take place. (For the sake of fairness, every player should have dealt an equal number of times.) Whoever has the highest score at this point is the winner.

See also

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East–West

East-West card game layoutEast–West is a poker game for two players. Much like Pai Gow Poker or Chinese Poker, the challenge in the game is placing cards you receive into one of three hands. East–West has two major differences with those games, though. First, there is one community card that you share with your opponent. Second, there is no gambling in this game at all!

East–West was created by German author Reiner Knizia. It was first published in German, in his 1995 Wild West-themed compendium of family-oriented poker games, Kartenspiele im Wilden Westen. The book was translated to English and published in 2007 as Blazing Aces! A Fistful of Family Card Games.

Object of East–West

The object of East–West is to strategically place cards drawn from the stock into one of three poker hands. The ultimate goal is to win two out of the three hands.

Setup

East–West was created to be played with a German deck of cards. To make an equivalent pack from an English-style 52-card deck like Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, just remove the 6s through 2s. You’ll be left with a deck containing aces through 7s in each of the four suits, for 32 cards in all.

Both players should sit on the same side of the table. One player will play the left or “West” side of the board, while the other will play the right or “East” side.

Shuffle and deal three cards, face up, in a vertical line. These three cards are the board cards. Place the deck stub above the uppermost board card, forming the stock.

Game play

The nondealer goes first. They draw a card from the stock and place it next to any one of the three board cards, on their designated side. The dealer goes next, doing the same thing, placing their card on the opposite side. Players continue alternating in this way, drawing cards and placing them.

Each player thus builds three poker hands. Each hand consists of one of the board cards and the other cards on that row on their side. A player may only place cards on their side, not on their opponent’s. Once a player has placed four cards on a row, the hand is complete (making a five-card hand, including the board card) and no more cards may be added to it.

After both players have completed all three hands, players compare each hand with their opponent’s on the same row. Whichever player wins two out of the three hands wins the game.

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Tëtka

Tëtka (Russian for “auntie”) is a simple trick-taking game for four players. It falls in the same general category of “nullo games” that includes Hearts and Reversis. In all games of this group, the goal is to avoid taking certain cards. What makes Tëtka unique, though, is that those cards change from hand to hand. The last card dealt determines many of the cards that you want to dodge!

Object of Tëtka

The object of Tëtka is to avoid scoring points by avoiding taking certain cards in tricks.

Setup

Tëtka is played with one standard 52-card deck of playing cards, preferably Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards. (If you haven’t got yours yet, what’s the holdup?) You’ll also need something to keep score with, like pencil and paper, or a smartphone app designed for the purpose.

Shuffle and deal out the whole deck, thirteen cards to each player. The last card to be dealt, which goes to the dealer, is revealed to all of the players. Make note of its rank and suit—this card, the bum card, will determine many of the cards that are to be avoided!

Game play

The player to the dealer’s left goes first, playing any card they wish to start the first trick. Each other player, in turn going clockwise, then contributes one card to the trick. Players must follow suit if possible; otherwise, they may play any card. Whoever played the highest card of the suit led wins the trick. (Cards rank in their usual order, with aces high.) They collect all of the cards played to the trick and place them face-down into a won-tricks pile. (Each successive trick won should be placed at right angles to the previous one, to allow the number of tricks to be easily counted.) They then lead to the next trick.

This continues until thirteen tricks have been played, at which point the hand is over.

Penalties

Upon winning a trick, a player may score points if any of the following applies:

  • It contains the bum card. Capturing the bum card scores the player one point.
  • It contains Tëtka, the queen of the same suit as the bum card. (For example, if the bum card were a club, Tëtka would be the Q♣.) Taking Tëtka in a trick scores the player two points.
  • It contains any other queen besides Tëtka. This scores the player one point for each queen captured.
  • It is the trick corresponding to the rank of the bum card. That is, if the bum card is an ace, the first trick, if it is a 2, the second trick, and so on. Jacks correspond to the eleventh trick, queens to the twelfth, and kings to the thirteenth and final trick. Whichever player wins this trick scores one point.
  • It is the thirteenth and final trick. Doing so scores that player one point. (Note that if the bum card is a king, the last trick is worth two points—once for being the last trick, and once for being the trick corresponding to the king.)
  • At the end of the hand, the player won the largest number of tricks. This, too, scores the player one point. If there is a tie, the point is scored by whoever captured the largest number of cards of the same suit as the bum card. If there is still a tie, whichever player captured the highest card of that suit gets the point.

Multiple points can be scored on the same trick by an unlucky player!

Ending the game

Whichever player has the lowest number of points at the end of four hands (each player having had a chance to deal) wins the game. If a longer game is desired, establish a number of orbits (times the deal rotates around the table) after which the game will conclude.

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