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.
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.)
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?
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!
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.
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.