The Fool & His Nibs

A very occasional blog on traditional (and traditional-ish) card games.

Archive for Analysis

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Climbing. Part 4: Stability

From gallery of seandavidross
The clock, of late, has sloth-armed grown. I bet
Its scraping hand, from tock to tick, would get
A year of rheumy crust from off its face:
Dry specks of Time that yield to yawning Space.

Inside this "Fool & Nibs", this nest sublime,
No Outer space exists, no Outer time;
From storm and stress secured, we do abide
And grow sufficiently suffonsified.

From gallery of seandavidross

Sure. Jeff?

Your friendly barkeep is already at your elbow, placing a glass beside you.

Aagh! Will you please stop doing that!?




It's spooky.


Thanks, Jeff. Cheers!

I clink your glass. Don't worry. Nothing is contagious at "The Fool & His Nibs".

Uh...right, cheers...

So, where were we?

Well. It feels like you've spent a year or so talking about the different types of playable combinations. Sets and runs. Bombs and catalysts. Probably a bunch more that I've forgotten by now; it's been so long since you started that I can't remember why you felt the need to tell me about all of these things in the first place.

Because they all work together--along with scoring (which I'll get to later)--to determine how it will feel to play one climbing game versus another. As you vary the playable combinations, and how they can interact with each other, you vary the play experience. The combos, hand size, and deck configuration work together to dictate the pace of the game. Changing these can take your game from plodding to parkour. It depends on what you want.

Ooh. Nice. Plodding to parkour. You wrote that down before you came here, didn't you?


Where was I? Oh. Right.

And then there's the way that the combos interact with each other: whether a round is strictly constrained to one type of combo (a single branch of play) or the round can go off in different directions, using different types of combos (through the use of bombs or catalysts). All of these interactions affect the pace of the game as well. But, beyond that, they also affect the game's stability, which can have an even greater effect on how it feels to play the game.

Board Game: Schnapsen

It might not be the right word to choose. What I'm trying to describe is the amount of order versus chaos in the system. Stability vs instability. Predictability vs unpredictability. Restriction vs freedom. Certainty vs uncertainty. Your sense of control or lack thereof.



That's too many things! Break it down for me.

Okay. Let's see... Suppose you have a Schnapsen deck.

Who doesn't?

Too many people.

Anyway. You've got a Schnapsen deck; it's pretty simple: it has four suits (Acorns, Bells, Hearts, and Leaves) and 5 ranks in each suit (Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace). So, there're 20 cards in your deck.


Now, suppose we were going to design a climbing game to play with this deck. We're not going to, but suppose we did. There are many ways we could go about it, but let's start very simply: there are only two players; when it's your turn to lead you cannot pass; and there is only one playable combination--singles.

So, a trick-taking game.

It depends what you mean but let's not get into that. In this game, you have to play a higher-ranked single (the suit won't matter) or, if it's not your lead, you can pass. So, it's not the same--mechanically--as a typical trick-taking game (I play a card, you play card) and our goal will be to go out first (so card capturing will not be something we're worried about, for now). Okay?


We'll continue to keep things simple by dealing out all of the cards between the two players, so each person has 10 cards in hand. Essentially, at this point, it will be a perfect-information, ladder-climbing GOPS. If a player is smart enough and they have the better hand, they can look ahead to find a way to go out first. With the only combination being singles, there are people who could do this. For these folks, the game would feel very stable: there would be little uncertainty over the outcome. If I had the better hand, I'd feel very much in control. You would likely feel you had little or no control.

Worse. I'd feel restricted by the limited number of options for responding to your plays because there would be nothing I could do to steer the hand away from its inevitable conclusion.

You'd feel like it was on rails.

Yeah. It might be an interesting puzzle, but I'm not sure how fun it would be to play.

Not very, I'd imagine.

Anyway. Each addition of a new combination to the system (pairs, for example), will increase the size of the decision tree for the game. There will be more and more ways that an individual round can be played, so there will be more and more branches at each level of the tree--it will become bushier. The larger and bushier the decision tree becomes the greater the uncertainty over finding the correct path to victory will become. And, with this decreased certainty, my sense of control will likely remain but it will be diminished.

But, my sense of being able to steer the hand in a new direction (that will end well for me) will increase.

Yes. The sense of player agency starts to come into balance. And, while all of this is happening--as the list of playable combinations becomes longer, and the number of cards in those combinations grows--the number of ways that you can play each round and the rate at which you can shed cards will speed up, making the game feel increasingly flexible and dynamic.

Less plodding, more parkour.
External image

You got it.

So. At this point, the game will still feel relatively stable. More often than not, you'll feel like you can assess the strength of your hand and predict whether or not you'll be able to navigate successfully to a winning path through the decision tree. You'll still feel like you can take control of the hand and, more importantly, keep control of the hand.

Adding bombs into the mix makes things feel a little less stable; the sense of instability will be directly proportional to the frequency with which the bombs can occur.

Fewer bombs, less instability; more bombs, more instability.

That's right. But also: fewer bombs, less freedom; more bombs, more freedom. If the game is feeling too restrictive, just add more bombs.

Bien sur.

And, don't forget: catalysts have the same effect on the stability of the system as bombs; they just tend to occur with greater frequency. So, catalysts tend to be very destabilizing. The sense of freedom is increased but the sense of control is reduced.
Board Game: Clubs

Catalysts can make things Kerrazay!

Jazz hands? Really?



The tipping point for the amount of stability and pace of shedding to have in your system will depend on your taste. It's like adding salt to your food. You have to add the right amount. Too much stability, you won't like it; too much instability, you won't like it. Shed too quickly, you won't like it; shed too slowly, you won't like it. To get this balance right, you need to calibrate the deck, the types and sizes and frequencies of the combinations, and you need to decide if you want to include bombs or catalysts into the mix.

I'm surprised you went with salt for your analogy, just then. I truly thought you would say it was like adding water to your Scotch.

Jeff snatches your Scotch glass away.


I can't even look at you right now...

I tend to think of stability as being like No Trump trick-taking. Bombs (and catalysts) are kind of like trumps--they create instability. Trump adds enough instability/uncertainty to make the game exciting. Bombs and Catalysts do the same thing, but they can create too much instability (depending on your taste). The greater the instability, the less feeling of control that you have, the lighter the game feels--and yet, the decision space created by the flexibility of play means that the game is actually deeper than a game that is more stable. Similar to how it feels playing a trick-taking game where you do not have to follow suit but can play any card to any trick--your options are greater but your feeling of control, especially on a lead, is less. When you feel like you have less control, you feel like the game is lighter; with more control, you might feel that the game is deeper. The decision tree might tell a different tale on the depth of a game, but how deep it feels can matter more than how deep it actually is...

Schnapsen is a good example of what I mean. It goes from unstable to stable, as you play. It starts with no restrictions on trick play-- total freedom but very little control--then moves to greater control as the number of cards reduces, until the stock is finally closed and the game ends with full restrictions and absolute control. It goes from a game that feels very light or chaotic, to a game that gets deeper and more orderly as you go along.

The equivalent in a climbing game would be sort of like starting a hand by playing with Crazy Clubs' rules but finishing the hand playing with regular Clubs' rules.

Image credits go to moxtaveto and mnowaczy.

The next topic, if I ever get around to it, will be Scoring. It might need sub-topics. We'll see...

If anyone ever wanted to actually play a climbing game with German suited cards, you'd probably find it easier if you can find a pack with rank & suit corner indices. These would work pretty well:
External image

I wish I hadn't thought of trying to do a climbing game with a Schnapsen deck; above, I said "we're not going to" but the ideas are just bubbling away...

For combo play, it would be sort of like Crazy Clubs but with Big Two-like ranked suits (Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, Bells--to be like Skat and Doppelkopf). Combo types would be of-a-kinds, runs (2 or more consecutive ranks; but, like Haggis, they need to be the same suit), and of-a-kind-runs (runs of pairs, runs of triples, runs of quads--again, like Haggis). Probably restrict the length of of-a-kind-runs to 2 (e.g., 22-33, 222-333, 2222-3333) and I'd need to figure out the catalyst rules for of-a-kind-runs (probably let them beat both of-a-kinds and runs and then let longer of-a-kind-runs beat shorter ones). Scoring would probably be simple (no card capturing), but who knows...

Maybe you don't rearrange your hand? Like Dealt!? Maybe you each get a Schnapsen deck and the game is more like Animale Tattica? Maybe it's both?!?

Names? Something German I suppose. Lammkopf (lambs head)? Jäger? Korn? Eichel?

Oh my...

Somebody else please make one so I don't have to!

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Sun Apr 5, 2020 7:14 am
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Climbing. Part 3: Catalysts

From gallery of seandavidross
We have finished our coffee before the conversation resumes.

You were saying something about "catalysts" and how they act like bombs.

Right. Well, all bombs are "catalysts" but not all catalysts are bombs. At least, they haven't been called bombs; not yet. I'm not even sure a catalyst is the best word to describe what I'm talking about. "Switch" might be better... Let's see.

What does a bomb do?


From gallery of hanibalicious
Alright... And an explosion. That would be disruptive, wouldn't you say? It would disrupt the order of things?


Well, bombs are disruptive. In climbing games. They shake things up.

In pretty much every climbing game, when someone makes a regular play--a single, a pair, a run, or what have you--the other players must make the same kind of play (or pass). It's like following suit in a trick-taking game but, instead of playing an off-suit, you can pass.

Climbing games that have bombs are like trick-taking games that have trump. If you can't follow suit, you can play a trump; if you can't (or don't want to) play the type of combo that was led, you can play a bomb. In both cases, the context of the round (or trick or whatever you want to call it) changes. It shifts, or switches, from one context to another; it gets disrupted. The round begins in one context, which was set by the lead (a particular suit in a trick-taking game, or a particular type of combo in a climbing game). It ends in a new context, a trumping or a bombing context, which was triggered by someone playing a trump or a bomb.

When the context changes, so does the win condition for the round. Where before it would have been the highest card of the suit that was led or the highest ranked play that matched the type of the combo that was led, now it is the highest trump card or the highest bomb that wins.

So, a bomb is something that changes things. That's what catalysts do. Which means bombs are catalysts, by one definition of catalyst.

And so are trump, for that matter. Maybe I should call catalysts "trump"...


Look. You could think of it like a railroad track. The track, or context, of the round is headed in a certain direction. If nothing changes, you'll continue in that direction until you reach your expected destination--the end of the round; you'll still be on the same set of tracks, the same context, playing the same suit or combo, as when the round began. A bomb is like someone throwing a switch on the tracks ahead; suddenly the tracks have shifted in a new direction. Now, when you reach the end of the round, you'll have reached a different destination. Nowhere near where you expected to be when you started out.

So that can be pretty exciting. Or pretty frustrating. I guess it depends on whose driving when you come to a stop, eh? Whoever has control.

Board Game: 1830: Railways & Robber Barons

Canadians really do say "eh?", don't they?



Um. So, yeah. A bomb is like a switch; each time one is thrown, it can send the round in a new direction. For a game with a single bomb type, like some variants of President, a round can only be sent in one direction: a series of successively higher 4-of-a-kinds. But that's less common. Most climbing games that have bombs have hierarchically-branching bombs. Some simple and some more complex.

Okay. What are "heirarchically-branching" bombs?

Well, hierarchical bombs are a set of distinct bomb types with a fixed ranking for which type of bomb can top another type of bomb. Haggis, for instance, has hierarchical bombs but Tichu has hierarchically-branching bombs. You have two distinct bomb types--4-of-a-kinds and straight flushes--and there is a hierarchy within each type--a higher ranked 4-of-a-kind beats a lower ranked one, same for straight flushes--but there is also a hierarchy between the two types--straight flushes top all 4-of-a-kinds bombs, no matter their rank. Simple enough. Where the hierarchy becomes branching is with the straight flushes because there is more than one type of those, and those types also have a hierarchy. A 5-length straight flush can be beaten by a lower-ranked 6-length straight flush, and so on up to 13-length straight flushes.

So, we're playing a normal round of, say, pairs when I play four Queens and suddenly the context of the round has switched from pairs to bombs. At this moment, the context is narrowed down to 4-of-a-kind bombs; it only takes four Kings or four Aces to beat me.

Only, he says...

But you respond with a 5-length straight flush from 6 to 10; now the round's context has switched to 5-length straight flushes. The context is still bombs but now the branch that led towards higher 4-of-a-kinds has been lopped off. We're on a different path than the one we were just on a moment ago. You can't go back. And then my partner, bless them, hits you with an 8-length straight flush from 2 to 9 and now we are once again on a different branch in the hierarchy. The round is no longer about 5-length straight flushes, it's about 8-length ones (or longer). So, you start the round on one branch, and that branch has a hierarchy, then the context switches to bombs and suddenly you have hierarchies within hierarchies to contend with. The ways forward multiply.

Board Game: Guan Dan
Throwing Eggs branches in the opposite direction from Tichu: it has a single branch for 5-length straight flushes but then, like Gang of Four, it has a nest of branches for different length Set bombs (or, Of-a-Kind bombs). And then it has the Almighty bomb, the four Jokers, that tops everything and can't be topped. Like Krass Kariert's "Stop" card.

What do Rooster's bombs do?

It has a fixed hierarchy, like Haggis, but not the same hierarchy. It's on the player aid I gave you...

Okay. So, what are these catalysts, or switches, that are not bombs? Or aren't called bombs.

Those are regular combos that can be played within a system of hierarchical branching. It's not so much that the combos are bombs, it's that the rules for playing the combos allow them to act as though they were bombs--they have a similar context switching effect on the round that bombs do.

What would be a good example?

Well, you could start with some variants of President, but I think one of the best examples I could give you would be Crazy Clubs.
Board Game: Clubs

In Clubs, you have two types of combos--or melds, as they call them: of-a-kinds (which are sets) and runs. There are different sizes of each type; you have 2-of-a-kind, 3-of-a-kind, run-of-2, run-of-3, and so on. In regular Clubs, if I play a 2-of-a-kind, you can only ever respond with a higher ranked 2-of-a-kind or pass. There are no bombs or catalysts or switches or whatever. The track, the context of the round, never changes.

Crazy Clubs lets you beat shorter melds with longer melds of the same type. So a single 7 could be topped by a pair of 5's, for example. Or a 5-6 run can be beaten by a 3-4-5 run. That sort of thing. In both cases, the context of the round has changed: in the first, the context changes from 1-of-a-kinds to 2-of-a-kinds--the next player needs to play a higher ranked 2-of-a-kind to continue the round, or they can switch the context again by playing any 3-of-a-kind; in the second, the context switches from runs-of-2 to runs-of-3--and the next player has a similar choice, they can play a higher ranked run-of-3 or lift the context up to playing runs-of-4.

It's the same effect you would have if Clubs had defined 2-of-a-kinds or runs-of-3 as bombs; and then said that 3-of-a-kinds and runs-of-4 are also bombs. And so on. It doesn't say that, but the effect is the same. This is what I mean by catalysts; they aren't called bombs but they act in a similar way and they have a similar effect.

Board Game: Frank's Zoo
You should call them "ducks"!


You know... "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..."


Does Rooster have ducks?

No. Only chickens.

Any other games have ducks?

Yes. Wait. No!! We're not calling them ducks!



Fine. Catalysts, then.

Frank's Zoo allows you to play a larger set, but only of the same rank; this still changes the context to the larger set size. Krass Kariert is almost entirely catalysts. The combos progress from singles to runs-of-2 to pairs to runs-of-3 to triples; the context of the round switching as you climb the rank of combos. Also, you can't re-arrange the cards in your hand in Krass, the combos have to come together in your hand--like a match-three puzzle--as you pull contiguous combos out to play. So, I imagine it's less crazy-feeling than Crazy Clubs.

That sounds awesome!

I suspect it is. Looking forward to trying it. That and Animale Tattica which has its own catalysts, they call it "Surrounding". You normally play a set, they call them armies, and I'd need to play a higher ranked one of the same size; surrounding lets me play a lower-ranked, but larger-sized, set if the numbers in the new set add up to the same total as the previous set. You'd have to play a set of the same size as mine, or surround it again, or pass. The neat thing with Animale, other than its supposedly playing very well with 2 players, is its asymmetric decks. Everybody has their own deck, with different rank distributions. Your hand is drawn from your own deck, not a communal deck like most other climbing games. Monster Crunch does this too and its also supposed to be pretty good with two. I really have to try these...

And I'll stop there, for now. The next article will be on how bombs and catalysts affect the experience of playing a climbing game. How the experience of a game changes based on its stability, or lack thereof. Image credits go to hanibalicious, henk.rolleman, EndersGame, and Maeglor.

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Fri Mar 15, 2019 9:00 pm
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Climbing. Part 2: Bombs

From gallery of seandavidross
The fire's a bit snappier after Jeff comes by with some freshly chopped timber; it will quiet down soon enough. In the meantime, the cards have been dealt between us and we're taking our time sorting our hands to suit our preference. I like to sort my cards by rank, increasing from left to right, and then by suit, in alphabetical order. I also stick any potential bombs at the very beginning of my hand; I don't want to forget about them. How you like to sort your cards, I can't see and you never tell me. I suspect you change it, from hand-to-hand, to keep me guessing... Sly...

When most people think of bombs in climbing games--which of course, they are doing all the time--I imagine they think of Tichu. You've got your 4-of-a-kind bombs and your straight flush bombs and the straight flushes can vary in length, from five onward; all pretty standard. There are even variants of President that have 4-of-a-kind bombs. Some variants of Big Two as well--though they sometimes are played with an added card; because 5-card poker hands...right? If the variant has a 4-of-a-kind bomb it usually also has a 5-card straight flush bomb. They don't call them bombs, they call them "Honour Hands", but its the same thing. In Gang of Four they have 4-of-a-kind, 5-of-a-kind, and 6-of-a-kind bombs but they call those "Gangs". Which makes sense. No straight flush bomb though; it's just a poker combo.

Do most climbing games have bombs?

From gallery of seandavidross
I'd say "Yes", but it depends on how you define them. If you think a bomb is only a bomb because that's what it's listed as in the rules, then bombs are still pretty common; though not as common as I think they are. But let's come back to that. There are other bombs, that are called bombs, besides 4-of-a-kinds and straight flushes. You've got your Gangs, which I just mentioned go up to 6-of-a-kinds, but you also have games like Throwing Eggs that go up to 10-of-a-kind bombs.


I know! It's crazy but it's wild and fun--well, fun for the person who plays them anyway... But, to put it into perspective, playing a 10-of-a-kind in Throwing Eggs gets rid of the same percentage of your hand as playing a 5-card straight flush would in Tichu. There's just so many more cards to get rid of in that game. So it's not that crazy, but it can feel that way.

Throwing Eggs actually has nine different kinds of bombs (or 3, depending on how you want to look at it). You've got 4-of-a-kind all the way up to 10-of-a-kind; you've got your straight flushes, but only 5 cards; and then you have a special bomb that beats all of the others--all 4 Jokers played at the same time. Haggis only has six kinds of bombs. So much simpler...

Riiight... How many bombs are there in Rooster?




Ten. Why not just go to 11 while you're at it?!?

I'd like that but then you'd need to add more cards to your hand-size.

I was kidding...

Oh. Right. Where's Jeff? I'm thirsty. Are you thirsty?

No. What kinds of bombs do you have?

Well, they're pretty similar to Haggis'. The bombs in Haggis are based off the bombs in Zheng Fen. That's the game that Tichu came from.

Every now and then I read comments where someone says "Tichu is based on Big Two", or "Fight the Landlord looks a lot like Tichu, I wonder if this is where Tichu came from?", and I get all worked up. Because, no. It's not based on those games. Yes. They're all climbing games. But they are all clearly different from one another...


Are you alright? You're kind of turning purple. Do you need me to call someone?

Board Game: Haggis
Let's come back to that later.

Zheng Fen has point cards: Kings, Tens, and Fives. It's the only traditional climbing card game, I know of, that has those. After Tichu adopted them, there have been a few more commercial games that have them as well: Haggis, of course, which is partly based on Tichu (but also Zheng Fen and Big Two), Chimera (which is mostly based on Fight the Landlord, but it added in several elements from Tichu--and, I think, for the better--one of those elements being point cards), and Clubs (which made an entire suit become point cards; hence the name).

One thing that Tichu did not adopt from Zheng Fen was its bombs. Tichu used its own set of bombs, which are great, but I think it could have used Zheng Fen's as well. I know at least one other person who agrees with me on that, but we're probably a minority. Most people don't even know Zheng Fen exists. Anyway. I used Zheng Fen's bombs in Haggis. Well, the same idea anyway--bombs are made from point cards; I just used different cards.

I'm doing something similar here, in Rooster, but this time there aren't any point cards, per se--all of the cards are worth points. One point each. It's like a plain-trick-taking version of Haggis, which is sort of a point-trick-taking game. But let's not go down that rabbit hole...

What rabbit hole?

Whether or not some climbing games are also trick-taking games.

Are they?


Do you hear crickets? Jeff! Do you hear that? I think you've got crickets.

I don't hear anything. Do you need some more coffee?

The main thing is that the bombs in Haggis and in Rooster are similar: I used alternating pip cards to form surprise bombs that can be played from your hand as well as different combinations of court cards that are played from the table where everyone knows what you have. The combos are a little different but the same idea is there.

Why did you make the bombs that way?

That's a long story. Let's come back to that. I want to get through the different types of bombs first; we can talk about how they affect the games later.

Sure. So, what other kinds of bombs are there? You've covered big sets and big straight flushes; there was the special Joker bomb; and now you've got point card bombs. What's left?
Board Game: Dealt!

Well, circling back to the Throwing Egg's Joker bomb for a second, Fight the Landlord and Chimera have something similar with their Rocket and Chimera Flight bombs. The "Stop" card, in Dealt! performs a similar function--albeit with a single card. The unbeatable bomb.

And, then you have Tien Len's Double Sequences (or Stairs). They're a kind of bomb, but they can only be used in specific instances, namely to bomb Twos. Otherwise, they're just a regular combo. Finally--well, not finally, but we're nearly there--you have Peeper. Like the other games mentioned, it uses set bombs--starting with triples and going to quads--but it adds a wrinkle: you can construct the bombs, in a way, using another players cards. If you play a 3, I can play a pair of 3's alongside that to make a triple bomb; if you have the fourth 3, you can make a quad bomb in the same way. I think that's unique to that game; it's not very well known.

That's pretty neat. I'm surprised it hasn't been used in any other games but, I guess--as you say--not very many people know about it. Hold on though. You said you were not quite finally at the end of the different types of bombs. Was there something else?

That's where I come back to when I said, "It depends on how you want to define bombs". Let's get that coffee Jeff offered and then we'll talk about how bombs are used. Once we've got that covered, I can talk about what I'll call "catalysts". They act in the same way as bombs but people don't really call them bombs. Or "catalysts", for that matter. I just made that up, but I think it fits. Jeff? Coffee?

Way ahead of you...

I think that's it for today. I believe the stage has been set up enough at this point. If there's a type of bomb you think I've missed, please send me a geekmail and I'll see if I can work it in. So, the next entry is going to go into a bit deeper detail on how bombs affect the play experience in climbing games. Sorry for the tease on "catalysts" but I imagine some of you will already know where that might be headed. No hints, please.

Also, no climbing/trick-taking debates, please... Crickets.

Credit to fogus for the Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! Bomb! pic. And crayc30 for the Krass Kariert Stop card image. The other image is from a 4P solo-test of Rooster, with two Tarot decks.

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Wed Mar 6, 2019 10:56 pm
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Climbing. Part 1: Combos

If you haven't read the Preamble, you may wish to do so before proceeding:

If you're unfamiliar with Climbing Games, you can read a bit about them here:

From gallery of seandavidross
Here we are, back at The Fool & His Nibs. It looks like we’ve managed to score the seats closest to the huge stone fireplace where a birchwood log is already crackling into embers; that fire smells almost as good as the apple crisp baking away in Karen’s kitchen. Almost.

By the time we have crossed from the heavy entrance door to the most comfortable seats in the house, Jeff--the patron--has poured and served our regular beverages without a word being uttered; the tab has resumed.

I’ve begun tinkering with climbing card games again and you've graciously agreed to help test the 2 player version of my latest pasteboard contraption. My Sticheln and French-suited decks have been cobbled together with the current card distribution; as I riffle the cards on the table between us, I begin to go over what I think is working. And what is not. Mostly not...

The combos seem fine. There's singles and pairs and triples, of course; the standard Sets. Almost every climbing game has those in them. Some only have those. Or those plus 4-of-a-kinds. Most versions of President, for instance. Who's the Ass? is essentially double-deck President, so it has Sets up to 8-of-a-kinds; and the The Great Dalmuti goes up to 12-of-a-kinds, but only for one rank. Gou Ji gets you up to 16-of-a-kinds but it also has you holding 36 cards at a time, so I probably don't want to go there.
External image


Gou Ji. I don't know how to pronounce it. It's a fixed-partnership game for 6 players; 3 vs 3. I'd really like to try it but I think it might be hard to find five other players who'd be willing to play a game where you're holding that many cards. It's a bit much. Maybe if I buy some Canasta card holders...?

Tiles, maybe? Like in Lexio.

That could work. But I'd like to be able to play my game with regular cards, so I don't think I want to go there just yet.

People like tiles. They're "clacktastic"!

Yeah. I like that too. But I also like to be able to play my games wherever I am; it's easier to carry around a couple of decks of cards than a box full of tiles. Doesn't matter how scrumptious they are. So, we'll stick with cards for this one.

Next one?

Maybe. Where was I? Sets. The game has Sets like everything else.

You said "almost" all earlier. Which ones don't have Sets?

Well, it might depend on how you define "Set". If you think a single is not a Set, but pairs and triples are, then Ohio would be climbing without Sets. You only play singles; each single needs to be lower than the last. I suppose it's more of a "digger" than a "climber"... Anyway, there's also Prime Number. It's like Daihinmin, or Dai Fugo, but instead of Sets of equally ranked cards you play one or more cards to form a prime number; each card is a digit in that number. So, 5-3 would be 53, which is prime. The other player needs to play a higher prime using the same number of digits, or pass. It's still sort of like Sets, but not quite.

You have to do math?! Who memorizes prime numbers?

Don't worry. I won't be using that kind of combo in my game; it's just an example. Though it is kind of neat...


"No" what?

You can't do primes.

It's my game...


Okay. I was just kidding... Or was I...?

Board Game: Clubs
What do you have other than Sets?

There's Sequences. Or Runs. Those are like Haggis' right now: three or more consecutively ranked cards in the same suit. Like Gin Rummy. They need to be in the same suit to apply pressure on people to use their wild cards; they need to be three or more for the same reason. A lot of games let you have unsuited runs of 5. Straights. Sometimes they can only be that length--like in Guan Dan (Throwing Eggs) or the different variations on Big Two, including Lexio or Gang of Four, where the larger combos are only ever poker hands (well, other than Gangs, but we'll get to those later). More often they can be longer, like in Tichu or Dou Dizhu and, its offspring, Chimera.

Some games let you have unsuited runs that are 3 or longer. The Bum Game, would be one. Also Dai Fugo, or Millionaire, that I mentioned earlier, and Tien Len (Thirteen), and Big Three. There are even a couple that let you have runs of 2 or more cards. Those are pretty rare. There's Clubs and there's a Decktet version of Haggis called Caravan; I'm not aware of any others that do that.

Anyway. I need mine to be shorter than 5 because, when the run needs to be suited, 5 is a bit too hard to make; but I also need them to be longer than 2--though I do like the idea--because those are too easy to construct with wild cards; and then they're also too easy to confuse with pairs. So, 3. As a minimum.

What's "Throwing Eggs" like?

It's kind of like Guo Ji, but for 4 players, and it has more variety in its combos. It's really great and that one only has a hand size of 27 cards.

Only 27. Yeah, that's much better...

Here, Jeff arrives with two plates of apple crisp, still warm from the oven, paired with home-made vanilla bean ice cream; two teensy cups of Ristretto appear as well. I don't know how he carries them...

From gallery of seandavidross
From gallery of seandavidross

What comes after Sequences?

Multiple Sequences. Stairs, Plates, Tubes. That sort of thing.


It's two consecutive 3-of-a-kinds, in Throwing Eggs. Plates are also from that game. They're like multiple sequences in other climbing games but they're limited to exactly three consecutive pairs. Most of the other games, like Tien Len or Fight the Landlord, let you play three or more; Tichu and Haggis allow two or more (but Haggis' Stairs are a little different from Tichu's). Big Three lets you play three or more consecutive 3-of-a-kinds or 4-of-a-kinds. With its wild cards, Haggis lets you get up to playing two or more consecutive 6-of-a-kinds (in 3 player); and the game we're working on here, Rooster, let's you play consecutive 10-of-a-kinds (with 4 players). So. Pretty big. Maybe too big for the 2 player version...

So, you've got Singles and Sets, and you have Sequences of Singles and Multiple Sequences of Sets. Any other options?

Sure. There're some more Poker hands that get used in the Big Two type games: flushes, full houses, and straight flushes. I don't think flushes would work in this game and it already covers straight flushes--all of the sequences have to be in the same suit already--so I don't need those. I don't think I need full houses when I have consecutive 3-of-a-kinds. I know people who miss them, from Tichu. Chimera has them but they don't work as well here. For one thing, it becomes too easy to get rid of cards when you can make full houses using wild cards. Full houses are more common than consecutive triples, so you'll get them more often, naturally--I need you to want to spend your wild cards to make the bigger combos so that there's tension between crafting big plays versus saving your wilds for bombs.

Before we get to bombs, is there anything else, other than Poker hands, that gets used for combos?

Board Game: Dou Dizhu
Oh, yes. There's more. Chimera and Fight the Landlord have variations on the full house called "attachments": you can attach a single card or any two cards, they don't have to be a pair, to a three of a kind and that is a valid combination for those games. And then you have something called a "Quadplex Set" which is one name for two different things. One is a 4-of-a-kind (a Quad) plus any two cards, doesn't have to be a pair; the other is a Quad plus any two pairs, they don't have to be consecutive or anything like that. They're a bit unusual, but you get used to them. Still. I can't use those. For the same reasons I can't use full houses, but even more so, as these are even easier to construct... And they have a fair number of cards in them, so they empty your hand pretty quickly.

Why would that matter?

Hand emptying speed changes how the games feel. Some games will have faster speeds--the ones with larger combos and more varieties of them--and the others will be slower; the experience you want the players to have will depend greatly on how quickly or slowly they can get rid of their cards. You have to find the right balance if they are going to get the feelings that you want them to have.

You've got some huge combos.

True. But they are rare. You'll almost always need to spend wild cards to create them; they come at a cost in power and flexibility. Getting that feeling of tension around whether or not to pay that cost is really what my games are about.

Are we getting to Bombs now?

Sure. There's probably some regular combos I've missed but maybe we'll remember those later. In the meantime, can I get you another drink?

Please. Yes.

Jeff? Another round, please. Thanks.

From gallery of seandavidross
From gallery of seandavidross

I think that's good for now. Next time, I'll start writing about the games with bombs. Eventually, I'll get a bit more into about how the different combos, and hand sizes, affect the experience of the game. These early articles are setting the stage for other articles where, hopefully, I'll manage to provide some insight that is more than an inventory of what is available in climbing games now. Still, please do let me know in the comments if there are other non-bomb combos I haven't touched on yet and I'll talk about those before moving onto bombs. Note: I know I haven't mentioned Frank's Zoo. I will. It's sets but with an unusual ranking, different topic, I think. Thanks.

Credit to EndersGame and LurkingMeeple for two of the images used in this article. The hand of cards arranged in a jagged array is from, the Bao Huang page, so credit goes to John McLeod.

The end images are from playtests of Rooster and 4P Haggis.

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Mon Mar 4, 2019 11:33 pm
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