I just discovered a new trick-taking card game, which I’ll tell you about in a moment. First, some words about trick-taking games in general.
A trick-taking game is one in which each player plays (usually only a single) card in sequence. After all players have made their play, a rule determines which player wins the trick, or group of cards. Sometimes you want to win the trick, sometimes you don’t. Once all the cards in the players’ hands have been played, some kind of scoring is done depending on who got what in their tricks.
The first game of this sort most people learn is Hearts. In that game you want to avoid taking tricks that include hearts, as those are worth points, and points are bad. The Queen of Spades is also to be avoided. However, if you can manage to win ALL the hearts and the Queen of Spades, you give points to the other players. Like most people, I learned and played a lot of this in college. Pal Jeff was a demon at this game, able to make sure that whoever he wanted to get the Queen would get her, even if he didn’t have her in his hand to give.
The next step up is usually Spades. Spades differs in that you play as partners. Also, in Spades, spades are always “trump”. That is, if a player can’t play a card of the led suit, she can play a spade, and the highest spade will win the trick instead of highest led suit. The players look at their dealt hands and then bid the number of tricks they think they can take. After the bids, play goes as usual, and points are awarded for making your bid and lost for not making it. You can also bid “nil” (zero tricks) and get extra points, since not taking tricks is hard.
This was another college game, and Kurt was the man to beat here. He had a reputation for being able to successfully go nil even if he was holding the God-Emperor of Spades (a mythical card that wins all tricks every time.) I remember one night him bidding nil and his partner saying, “You can’t go nil! I can’t cover that!” (This kind of table talk is unorthodox, but it happened sometimes.) Kurt looked at his cards again and then goes, “In that case…six.” So he had either HALF of the tricks or NONE of them.
Kurt also taught me Euchre, which is a sort of “speed” trick-taking game, that I only barely remember.
After college Chris and Christine tried to teach us the granddaddy of all trick-taking card games, Bridge. It did not go well. It seemed to me that Bridge was very much like Spades — bidding with a partner about how many tricks you’ll take — only all the bidding was in a secret code. Which everyone knew. I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. I’ll take everyone’s word that it’s a great game.
For a long time I didn’t play many trick-taking games. I got bored with Hearts and Spades and got into other games like Cribbage and Canasta. But with my interest in hobby boardgames came an interest in more esoteric card games, and eventually that road led back to trick-taking.
One of the most popular card games among the BGG crowd is Tichu which, as it turns out, is not really a trick-taking game at all. Instead it’s what’s known as a “climbing” or “shedding” game, where you’re trying to get rid of the cards in your hand first. Tichu and another card game, Gang of Four, are both variants on a traditional card game called Big 2, which is popular in Asia. Tichu DOES have tricks that score the winner points, but it’s otherwise not much of a trick-taking game, so let’s move on.
Bottle Imp (a/k/a Flaschenteufel) is one of the most oddball trick-taking games out there. There are 37 cards in three different colors. The bottle (a little wooden bottle) sits on the 19 card, which is the cost of the bottle. Each player discards a single card from their hand to a pool, and then the usual stuff begins, except the rules for winning tricks are weird. If all the cards played are above the price of the bottle, high card wins the trick. If any of the cards are below the price of the bottle, highest card underneath the price wins the trick and the bottle, and that becomes the new cost of the bottle. So wining the bottle can often let you get a big fat trick with a low card. However, if you have the bottle at the end of the hand, you get no points. Instead you LOSE points equal to the cards that were put aside at the beginning. It’s hard to wrap your head around it, and I’m still not sure I completely get it all, but it’s devilishly fun, especially with three players.
Another popular one is Wizard, which is very similar to a traditional game called Oh Hell. Like Spades, it’s a game in which you’re bidding on how many tricks you’ll take, and rewarded or penalized based on whether or not you make that bid. Unlike Spades, though, you’re not playing in a partnership and the trump changes for each hand. In addition, the number of cards dealt to each player increases each round, starting with one card, then two, and so on. Finally, there are super-trump cards — Wizards — which beat all trump and there are Jesters which never win a trick. It’s a light, fun, raucous game, and until this final one was probably my favorite (though Bottle Imp is right up there.)
This weekend we played one of the games I got in the math trade at Unity Games, Sticheln. I had often heard that people prefer this trick-taking game to others, but didn’t know much about it. After one play, I’m hooked. With five players, there are five suits consisting of cards numbered 0-14. (Different numbers of players require a different group of cards.) All the cards are dealt out and everyone looks at their hands to select one card to represent their “pain color”. These are selected secretly and then revealed simultaneously. For the rest of that hand, each player is trying to avoid cards of their pain color, as those will be worth negative points; all others are positive points. Therefore, every trick is worth different amounts to different players. Also, you don’t have to follow suit (color) in Sticheln; you’re free to play any color you want. If all players follow the lead color (this is rare), highest card takes the trick. However, every color other than the lead is trump, so highest non-led color takes most tricks (except for zeros, which never take anything). After all the cards have been played, each player scores
positive face value 1 for each of their taken cards except their pain cards (which include the one they picked at the start), which score negative face value. Five rounds are played. So the thing with Sticheln is, it’s usually easy as pie to take a trick, but you don’t necessarily want them. And if it’s clear one is coming your way, other players can cheerfully dump high pain cards on it for you. It’s a devious, nasty game, and I love it.
So that’s my look at trick-taking card games. I think all of them have something to offer, depending on who’s playing and how many are playing. I know I’ve overlooked a bunch, so by all means, point me towards a favorite that I’ve omitted. And you can try to convince me that Bridge is awesome, but I assure you I’m just nodding politely and thinking of donuts.
(EDIT: looks like we were playing Sticheln wrong! Oopsie!)