Skat is a three-handed trick-taking game, derived from another German game, Schafskopf. Skat originated in Altenberg, Germany around the year 1810. Skat then spread throughout the country, and is now described as the national card game of Germany.
Skat is universally acclaimed as one of the best card games for three players. Unusual among card games, it was specifically created to be played by three, rather than being an adaptation of a game created for two or four. Nevertheless, Skat can be played by four, though only three play at any given time; in the four-player game, each player sits out on their turn to deal.
Object of Skat
The object of Skat is to accurately judge the possibilities of one’s hand, select a game type that plays to its strengths, and then fulfill the resulting contract in order to score points. Depending on the game chosen, fulfilling the contract may mean taking 61 card points, taking the least number of tricks, or taking no tricks at all.
Skat is played with a 32-card pack common to many German games. Starting from a standard 52-card deck of Denexa 100% Plastic Playing Cards, remove the 2s through 6s, leaving 7s through aces in each of the four suits. You will also need pencil and paper to keep score with.
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 called the skat.
Skat uses a somewhat complex card ranking when there is a trump suit. The 10 ranks above the king and below the ace. Complicating matters, all four jacks are part of the trump suit, ranking above the ace, and they always rank in the same order regardless of which suit is trump. The complete ranking of the trump suit is (high) J♣, J♠, J♥, J♦, A, 10, K, Q, 9, 8, 7 (low). In the non-trump suits, the ranking is (high) A, 10, K, Q, 9, 8, 7 (low). It is important to note that jacks are not considered part of their native suits. For example, if diamonds are led, playing the J♦ would not be following suit unless diamonds are the trump suit.
In hands where there is no trump suit (those played as a null game, as described below), cards rank in their usual order, with ace high: (high) A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7 (low).
The player to the dealer’s left is the most senior player in the game and is called forehand. The player to forehand’s left is called middlehand, and the player to the middlehand’s left (who is the dealer in a three-player game and sitting to the right of the dealer in a four-player game) is called rearhand or endhand.
Skat uses an unusual bidding system where only two plays bid against each other at once. Bidding is opened by middlehand, who, rather than stating a trump suit or type of game that they wish to play, states a point value of at least eighteen. If they win the bidding, they must choose a game type that puts at least that point value at stake. The forehand then has the option to agree to play to these stakes by saying “yes” or pass. If forehand says “yes”, the middlehand must name a higher point value (traditionally the bid is raised by two each time). This continues until either the forehand or middlehand passes. The player that did not pass then completes the same procedure with rearhand, who must name a value higher than the last bid (if any) placed by middlehand or pass.
The player who successfully won the bidding becomes the declarer and must now select a game to play. The other two players become the defenders. If all players pass but the forehand, they may become the declarer with a bid of eighteen. If not, they may pass as well, and a Ramsch game is declared (see below).
Selecting a game
After a declarer has been determined, they must decide on which game to play. This is where the main opportunity for strategic play is to be found in Skat; an experienced player can mix and match a game type and multipliers to maximize the amount their hand can score.
There are two basic types of games: hand games and skat games. A hand game is played with just the cards in the declarer’s hand. In a skat game, the declarer picks up the two cards in the skat, then discards two cards from the hand. In both cases, the two cards in the skat count toward the declarer at the end of the hand, as if they had been captured in tricks.
The declarer must choose a game with a value that meets the amount that was bid. In most cases, this is fairly straightforward. Note, however, that the value of a game can change after it is declared, as described below. If the game’s value ends up falling below the bid made, then it is counted as a loss for the declarer, even if they manage to fulfill the contract.
In suit and grand games, the value of the game depends on how many matadors the declarer is with or against. A matador is each card in an unbroken sequence of the highest trumps. If the declarer holds the J♣, they are with one matador; if they hold J♣-J♠, they are with two matadors, and so on. Each card is counted until one of the trumps is missing (because it is found in one of the opponents’ hands).
If the declarer does not hold the J♣, they are against at least one matador. In this case, the number of missing trumps between the J♣ and the declarer’s highest trump is counted. For example, if the highest trump the declarer held was the J♥, they would be against two matadors (the J♣ and J♠).
Because the number of matadors a player has affects the value of the game, finding matadors in the skat (which will remain unknown until the end of a hand in a hand game) can radically change the value of a game. The number of matadors a player holds may also be affected by which suit is chosen as trump, of course.
In a suit game, the declarer chooses which suit they wish to become trumps. To make the contract, the declarer must take at least 61 card points in tricks.
The value of the game is determined by multiplying the base rate with the game level or multiplier. The base rate of the game depends on which suit is chosen as trump:
- Diamonds: nine points.
- Hearts: ten points.
- Spades: eleven points.
- Clubs: twelve points.
The multiplier is determined by taking the number of matadors into consideration, as well as any special circumstances or declarations that the player chooses to make. Note that the points are cumulative and will add all of the points above it as well; declaring schwarz also adds the points for undeclared schwarz, declared schneider, and so on. This is the possible multiplier list for a hand suit game:
- Matadors: +1 for each matador the declarer is with or against.
- Game: +1 for being the declarer.
- Hand: +1 for not using the skat. (Every hand game reaches at least this point in the list.)
- Schneider: +1 for either the declarers or the defenders scoring 30 or more points in tricks. (Note that if the defenders schneider the declarer, this multiplier will increase the amount of points the declarer loses.)
- Schneider announced: +1 for the declarer announcing before play begins that they will schneider the defenders.
- Schwarz: +1 for either the declarers or the defenders taking every trick. (As with schneider, if the defenders pull this off, they will increase the amount of points the defender loses.)
- Schwarz announced: +1 for the declarer announcing before play begins that they will schwarz the defenders.
- Open: The declarer plays with their hand exposed and must schwarz the defenders.
When the game is declared, the theoretical value of the game is typically announced at the time. For example, if the declarer is with three matadors, wishes to play a hand game of spades, and intends to schneider the defenders, it would be stated like this: “With three, game four, hand five, schneider six, schenider announced seven, times spades [eleven points] is 77”.
Again, since the player does not know the composition of the skat, the actual value of the game may change if there are further matadors in the skat. It may also be increased if the declarer schneiders or schwarzes the defenders without declaring it ahead of time.
For a skat suit game, fewer multipliers are possible:
- matadors (+1 for each)
In a grand game, the only trumps are the four jacks. Other than this, the game is played exactly the same as a suit game. The game value is calculated the same way, but with a base rate of 24.
In a null game, there are no trumps at all, and the declarer must lose every trick. If the declarer takes a trick at any point in the hand, play is stopped and it is scored as a loss for the declarer. A null skat game is always worth 23 points and a null hand game is worth 35 points.
There is also the option to play null ouvert. This is the same as a null game, but the declarer plays with their hand exposed. A null ouvert skat game is worth 46 points, and a null ouvert hand game is worth 59 points.
The point values for null games seem kind of weird, but they were specifically chosen to avoid duplicating the point values for other bids. The declarer does not have the option to choose a null game if the game would not meet the amount bid.
A declarer cannot choose Ramsch; it is only played when all players pass in bidding. In Ramsch, all players play alone, simply trying to collect the least number of points possible. The four jacks are the only trumps.
Play of the hand
Forehand leads to the first trick. Each player, proceeding clockwise, plays a card of the same suit, if possible, or any other card if they don’t hold a card of the suit led. The player who contributed the highest trump to the trick, or if nobody played any trumps, the highest card of the suit led, wins the trick. Remember: In suit and grand games, jacks belong to the trump suit, not the suit printed on the card! Playing the J♣ to a club trick is not following suit unless clubs are trumps! (In grand and Ramsch games, the four jacks form a suit unto themselves.)
Players do not add won tricks to their hand, but instead to a won-tricks pile in front of each player. (In suit and grand games, the defenders may share a common won-trick pile if desired.) The individual player who won the last trick leads to the next one.
After all ten tricks have been played, or the declarer takes a trick in a null game, the hand ends and is scored.
Scoring suit and grand games
The skat is turned up, noting any matadors included in it. The actual value of the game is then calculated, incorporating the revised number of matadors and any undeclared schneiders or schwarzes that occurred during the play of the hand. If the actual value of the game was less than what the declarer bid, it is determined what the lowest value of that game possible that would have exceeded the bid. The declarer loses twice that amount of points.
If the game exceeds the bid, the card points the declarer took in, plus the two cards in the skat, are totaled, using the following values:
- Jacks: two card points
- Aces: eleven card points
- 10s: ten card points
- Kings: four card points
- Queens: three card points
- 9s, 8s, 7s: no value
These card points are only used to determine whether the declarer made their contract or not. They do not affect the score in any way.
The declarer broke their contract if any of the following conditions are met:
- The actual value of the game was less than the bid
- They failed to collect 61 card points during the hand
- They did not schneider an opponent when schneider was announced
- They did not schwarz an opponent when schwarz was announced
If a player fulfills their contract, they score (to the game score) the value of the game they just played. If they broke contract, they lose twice the value of the game played.
Scoring null games
Scoring null games is fairly simple. If the declarer took no tricks, they score the value of the game. If they took a trick, they lose twice the value of the game.
Each player calculates the value of card points in their hand according to the values used when scoring suit and grand games. The player who collected the fewest card points scores ten game points. If they took no tricks during the hand, not even cards worth zero, they score 20 points.
If two players tie for least points collected, whichever one least recently took a trick wins the hand and scores the ten points. If all three players tie, forehand wins the hand. If one player takes all the tricks, that player scores –30 and the other two players score nothing.
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.