The Fool & His Nibs

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

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Trick-Taking in the Time of Corona (Part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2

From gallery of seandavidross
After a quick trip to Timmies for a small black coffee (no Double-Double for me, thank you) and an apple fritter, I'm re-energized, slightly glazed, and back to hopefully finish talking about strawmen.

And, yes, this time there will be strawberries. Please, try not to get any on the furniture...

The Strawman Variations (cont'd)

After making Mr Canoehead, I took a bit of a break from the strawmen. I started to work on a version of Vira that I could introduce to new players; I wanted something that was less elaborate (less intimidating) but still able to provide a "Vira" experience. I think I have something that works, but I'll talk more about that game (Cowbell Vira) in another post.

What brought me back to the strawmen was a lingering sense that I'd not finished porting all of the games that I'd wanted to cover. So far, I'd made strawmen games based on Euchre, Doppelkopf, Swiss Jass, and then some mashups of those games. I wasn't planning to do strawmen for every game that would work with them (I'll hope to show you why that's not necessary by the end of this post--or possibly the next post) but I did want to make a version for Sheepshead (or, more specifically Schafkopf). And yet, before I started to work on that, I first took a short climbing detour along a different branch of the Schafkopf family tree, up into the realm of the Saskop (and the Tarocks that inspired this group of games in the first place).

Ducktail (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation VI began life with the name, "Duckhead".

I found it amusing to have a name that kept the [animal]-head convention but also sounded like cussing (f*ckhead or d*ckhead). I considered "Foxhead" but the German name (Fuchskopf) is perhaps a little too on-the-nose to be said in polite company.

The common trait among the Schafkopf-family of games is the promotion of full sets of face cards to top trumps: in Skat, it is all 4 jacks; in Sheepshead/Schafkopf, it's all 4 Jacks AND all 4 Queens. Saskop takes the next logical step and promotes all of the face cards (4 Jacks, 4 Queens, and 4 Kings).

In for a penny; in for a pound.

Ducktail adopts Saskops trump ranking (but I didn't bother to also promote the 6s to absolute boss-hood--because there's enough to learn without also needing to remember that). If Spades are trump, for example, then the full trump suit in Ducktail looks like this:

♣K, ♠K, ♥K, ♦K, ♣Q, ♠Q, ♥Q, ♦Q, ♣J, ♠J, ♥J, ♦J, ♠A, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7, ♠6

That's 18 trumps in a deck of 36 cards. This proportion of trump vs non-trump is very reminiscent of Tarock. The trick play, which uses "must trump" rules, is also like Tarock. The difference is in where the points are weighted within the trump suit: Tarock puts all of the big points at the top and at the bottom and almost no points in between; Saskop (and Ducktail) puts points at the top, slowly drops their value, and then piles the majority just above the bottom. This shift in distribution makes capturing card points more interesting.

Ducktail also borrows another aspect of Tarock games: Ultimos. These are feats where you attempt to win the last trick with a certain card. In this case, you are trying to win the last trick with a 9 (a duckling--or, if it's the trump 9, the Duck). The "must trump" rule provides the slight increase in control that helps make this feat possible (yet still somewhat challenging).

While I was adding feats, I also awarded points for capturing the Duck and Ducklings in any of the tricks (I enjoy catching Foxes in Doppelkopf, so I borrowed that and then doubled down on it); all of these Duck-related feats provide a fun challenge (in trying to complete them or in trying to keep your opponent from doing so) and put at least 6 game points up for grabs each hand (potentially as many 10 points, if you can capture all of the ducks and also win the last trick with the Duck).

So, on average, you'll expect to split the duck points between the players--giving each player about 3 points per hand. But Ducktail also has Schafkopf-like scoring for capturing the most point cards. It's not all about the ducks. If you don't think you will catch them, you can instead focus on this other half of the scoring system, which starts out at 3 points but can be increased at the player's discretion up to 6 points (possibly even more) by using Sheepshead's cracking/recracking.

But, of course, in Ducktail, you don't say "Crack!". You say, "Quack!". And you don't "Recrack!", you "Quack Quack!".

So thematic.

With this mash-up of elements from Saskop, Doppelkopf, Sheepshead, and Tarock, Ducktail is a bit more of an original game than Moosehead. It's certainly more than just an Admiral Saskop. Among the Strawman Variations I've made so far, this game and Vivaldi seem the most like new trick-taking experiences as opposed to variants of existing games.

By contrast, Strawman Variation VII, while very much in the same family as Ducktail, is much more of a straightforward variant of its parent games Schafkopf and Sheepshead. But, again, I made tweaks to their recipes so that the result would better suit my tastes...

Widderkopf (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

With Widderkopf (Ram's Head), I really just wanted to focus on one of the elements that I really enjoyed from Sheepshead.

The Cracking.

The deliberate doubling of the game value. And, what I really wanted to do was to create an excuse to break out the Doubling Cube from Backgammon.

That's about it really.

With Cracking, Recracking, Schneidering, and Schwartzing, the game value can progress from as low as a single measly point for an entire hand of play, or as much as 64(!) points for the same hand (if you both players are doubling fools). Of course, that's very unlikely--most hands will be worth 1 or 2 points (with the occasional 4-pointer upping the excitement)--but the possibility of 64 points is what stokes the fire of my imagination.

And there's not much else to this one; it's really the closest of my Strawmen to being a straight-up Admiral-version of the game I'm porting. In this case, it could just as easily be called Admiral Sheepshead or Admiral Schafkopf, but it's still not entirely the same as either of those (the deck is a little longer there's a card point for the last trick that makes it so you can't tie, and I let the trailing player pick the trump suit--no auction required). I went with Ram's Head on this one because of all the butting of heads caused by a 2P game that is about cracking/recracking.

The Strawberries

I'm going to gloss over Strawman Variations VIII & IX, Strawberry Whist & Strawberry Jam as those are still works-in-progress and I am uncertain about whether those experiments will result in games that are enjoyable enough that I'm willing to risk THE-HARSH-JUDGMENT-OF-OTHERS by sharing them... (which means, for the other variations, I'm pretty confident they will find an audience for which they are well-suited...these two I'm not as certain about).

These two games are attempts to use the strawmen-as-battery system that Mark Ball introduced to me from the 2P Rook game, "Over the Top".

I call the strawmen-as-battery system "strawberries" (straw'b'ery, see?) because I'm perverse and silly and I want to annoy people who just want to call them dummies (Hi Jonathan!) or a partially-exposed-double-dummy-system (Hi me!) --which, as it turns out, is exactly what they are. But doesn't strawberry sound more... appetizing?

In the strawberry system, unlike a strawman system, the piles of cards on the table are not an extension of your own hand; they are the partially exposed hand of your "partner's" cards. And they are played as such: you play one card from your hand, your opponent plays one from theirs, and then you each play a card from your strawberry patch (I am inventing terminology as I go, and it is either charming or maddening and I'm okay with it either way). If the trick is won by a strawberry, the first two cards of the next trick are played from the strawberries and then cards are played from the hand. It's as though the play of the hand switches direction from going clockwise to going counter-clockwise.

The benefit of this system is that it allows you to pull off 4P trick-taking maneuvers (like finesses and squeezes), something you can't quite do with only two cards per trick, and those plays can be quite satisfying. The downside is the game can start to feel deeply puzzly, dry, cold, and analytical. It's interesting, but I'm not truly sold on whether it's fun or not.

Strawberry Whist is what you might imagine it would be if you're familiar with Bid Whist (but it doesn't have bidding; again I let the trailing player choose trump and also whether the hand will be played Uptown or Downtown). Players will either score one point per trick taken or two points per trick if they take the majority.


I may revisit that one and try it with just strawmen instead of strawberries; it doesn't actually need to have 4 cards per trick, so perhaps it will work better with only 2 per trick. We'll see...

Strawberry Jam is Klaverjassen (the game from the Netherlands, not Clobyosh) for 2P. That game is about capturing tricks that include runs of cards in the same suit or sets of cards of the same rank (something you can't do when only two cards are being played per trick; so, enter the strawberry). Again, the game is functional but I'm not truly sure it's fun.

I was going to call the latter one Strawberry Jass but when I saw "Strawberry Ja" it seemed natural to go with Jam instead. Also, the card-play is about trying to force your opponent into completing tricks that form high-scoring melds. In other words, you're trying to jam them.

I did make some other Strawberry games, a few versions of Tarocks, but I haven't listed them as part of my variations as I found them unsatisfying. I had high hopes for Ottocento Fragole but I think I need to go back to the drawing board for the 2P Tarocks.

Old MacDonald (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

The latest variation, Strawman Variation X or Old MacDonald, is near and dear to my heart as it's an Admiral-version of a Scottish pub-game called Phat. Phat is a variant of a game called Don, which is a member of the All Fours family (a group that includes Pitch and Pedro). In Britain, there still exist Cribbage & Don Leagues, where players gather at their local pubs to play cards and peg points over a pint of bitter. I would very much like to visit those pubs...

Like Widderkopf, Old MacDonald is a fairly faithful translation of its 4P inspiration to an Admiralized version. I stripped out the two bottom ranks from the deck, added a Joker that can win any trick and also cannot be forced out of your hand (it doesn't need to follow suit), and then put a single muck point on the Joker so that it's not possible to tie for Muck points at the end of the hand. I also leave 3 cards undealt (to avoid perfect information); I put the cards aside in "The Pen" and let the winner of the last trick score any muck points the Pen provides (which could be quite a lot of muck, but then the Muck only pegs 8 points so I'm not overly fussed about it).

The existing 2P variants for Don and Phat, called Blind Don or Blind Phat, deal out all of the cards to strawmen, with no undealt cards, and no hidden hand of cards. Some variants have hidden hands, but no undealt cards (eventually, you know exactly which cards the other player holds--it's inevitable and yet it could so easily be avoided...). None of them, that I'm aware of, add a Joker into the mix. And, as with most of my other variations, I'm letting the trailing player choose trump. That is definitely not in the traditional variants.

The game is quite simple to teach as it uses standard Ace-high card ranking and standard must follow trick-taking. It's nearly as vanilla as Whist, in that regard. But, what elevates the game is its distribution of card points among the ranks; in particular, trying to avoid giving up the high Phat points for capturing the middle- and low-ranking 9s or 5s makes for some interesting and sometimes quite tense decisions. Overall though, I find this game relaxing. It's enjoyable. A great game for playing at a pub or on a patio, with a pint and your favourite peg-board, dusted off and happy to be scoring something other than Cribbage for a change...

A nice way to while away an afternoon.

And that's it, for now. But, there will be Part 3. Sometime.

In that post, the plan is to point out some things to consider when trying to make Strawman Variations of your own (so that I don't have to keep making them!). I'll jot down some different ways you can consider for how to form your strawmen (they don't need to be just piles of two cards) and I'll note aspects of existing games that seem well suited for use in strawmen (and which aspects are not such a great fit) and then we'll turn things up to eleven by working through the Admiralization of yet another traditional card game. The result will be Strawman Variation XI (and, no, I haven't made it already).
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Wed Sep 1, 2021 9:42 pm
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Trick-Taking in the Time of Corona (Part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2

From gallery of seandavidross
It's been over a year since the lockdowns began. It's been a weird time; and time has been weird. It feels like so much longer than it's actually been. Kept away from friends and family; spending farFAR too much time on the internet; sleeping quite poorly. But making new friends online. Playing plenty of new games (and sooo many old ones) but also suddenly being bombarded with more ideas for card games than I've ever had before all of this wretched stuckinnedness began (Really. There was only ever the one idea; well, 1.5 ideas).

I've never thought of myself as a Designer (bear with me); I think of myself more as a Developer (I have helped develop quite a few published games over the last decade or so). Or, if not a Developer, then maybe a Synthesizer (that would be a combiner of ideas, not the musical instrument, you pedant). I'm pretty good at synthesis. At least. I think am? In any case, I've been doing a fair amount of the stuff while we've all been inside, waiting for the world to return. Some of the synthesis has worked (and some hasn't--or not well enough to share). Or, I think it has; I could be wrong. Still, other people seem to like what I've been doing, so I thought perhaps there might be other folks who'd like to hear about this stuff that has seemed to work. And perhaps to hear about some stuff that has yet to be tried (and that may or may not work). That's what this post is supposed to be about. I might ramble (perhaps we're already in the middle of one?). I might touch on the trick-takers I've played during this time (there've been so many) but I've covered those in other places and I'd rather not go over that ground again. Instead, I'll try to focus on the "new" trick-takers I've cobbled together. And, mostly, that will involve talking about the strawmen.

And maybe some strawberries. At the end. If you're good...

The Strawman Variations

A strawman is a pile of cards. It is most often used, alongside other strawmen, as an extension of a player's hand in a small number of two-player adaptations of typically three- or four-player trick-taking games. The most famous of these adaptations, if you can call it famous, is probably Officer's Skat. It's called Officer's, apparently, because the German army officers would not deign to play cards with the enlisted men, which often left them short the requisite 3rd player, and an adaptation was made so that the hoity-toity could still play something that approximated their favourite card game. The Officer's treatment was applied to Schafkopf as well, though that is a less hoity-toity member of the same family ([insert horrible black-sheepshead-of-the-family jokes here]).

The Officer's versions usually employ a number of two-card strawmen, with one card face-down and the second card face-up on top of the other one (you can have more or fewer cards, with different mixes of face-up/face-down ordering); only after the top card has been played is the card underneath revealed and made available to be played in subsequent tricks. In many of these variants, the players do not have a hidden hand of cards; all of the cards that will be played are dealt out to form the strawman piles. For versions that do include a hidden hand, their names sometimes receive a justly-deserved promotion in rank from that of lowly Officer (or Lieutenant) to the grand title of Admiral (as in Admiral Skat). I tend to prefer the Admiral variety, with its hidden information. So my Strawman Variations use that.

Note that a strawman is not quite a dummy. The distinction being that a dummy is played from as though it were another player, distinct from the human players; a strawman is part of the human player's hand (an extension), it is played from as an alternative to playing from its owner's hand (assuming the strawman system in use has a hidden hand--many do not, including Officer's Skat). We probably need another term for strawmen used in this way. As it stands, we use strawman to mean both the individual piles of cards and to mean the extension to the player's hand. That can get confusing. For instance, the dummy player in The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (and in its even better sequel), is made from strawmen, but it is not a strawman (it is not used as a strawman, it is used as a dummy). All of this might seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is different (mechanically and experientially).

That said, it was seeing the dummy in The Crew that set off over a year's worth of experiments with two-player card games that I've taken to calling my Strawman Variations. (Other people call it The "Can you move on to something original soon for Frick's sake?" Period)

That dummy reminded me of a 2P Euchre variant I had been taught back in the dark ages of ye olde 1980s: it used 5 two-card strawmen as an extension of the player's five-card-hand (for a total of 15 tricks) but it also used the 4-player Euchre scoring, which was not a good match. I remember not particularly enjoying that game; I wished there were better alternatives for 2P trick-taking. There are, of course, 2P trick-taking games--and a few are even good--but there are so very few that I actually like or that I would want to play on a regular basis. I figured someone else would make some. At some point. Eventually. So, I waited.

Nearly 35 years passed and nobody else had made one that I loved.

Some I liked; none I loved.

So, I figured I'd take a stab at it myself. And that intention led toStrawman Variation I.

Tuque (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

I started working on Tuque (Two Player Euchre => Two-chre => Tuque; Get it??) back in June of 2020. It's 14 months later and I'm still making tweaks. I think it's very good but I'm not completely satisfied that the scoring is where I want it to be.

At first, it was just a faithful write-up of the rules I had been taught oh-so-many-years ago. It seems likely that the version I played originated in Almonte, Ontario (about 35km from where I grew up)--they play a 6-handed Euchre that adds the 2, 3, and 4 of Spades as Super Trump (or Bennies). That game used a 35 card deck (7 to Ace in four suits, plus the 3 bennies): 5 two-card strawmen were dealt out to each player, along with a hand of 5 cards, and 5 cards were left in the kitty. I liked the 5-5-5 motif that was happening there. But, after doing some more strawman variations, I came back to this one and added the 6s to the deck (bringing the deck size up to 39 cards) and dealt out hands of 7 cards.

My experience has been that you want the hand size to be about 60-80% of the strawmen size (In this case, the hand size is 7 and the strawmen contain 10 cards, so 70%). I don't know why this range feels right; it seems to be a sweet spot. I've been aiming at this range with all of my variations so far. It's become part of a formula (which I will spell out at the end of this post).

The thing I hadn't liked about the variant I'd been taught was the scoring. There were 15 total tricks available to be played but the scoring was very broad: if the maker took 8 to 14 tricks, they scored 1 point; if they took 15, they scored 2; if the defender took 8 tricks, the hand ended with a Euchre and they scored 2 points. It just wasn't granular enough to be satisfying.

I looked and found Joe Chellman’s rules for Two-Handed Euchre. Joe used a different layout with all cards dealt out (4 down, 4 up, 4 in hand)--which I didn't like--but his scoring was 1 point per trick, 2 points per trick if there was a Euchre--which I did like (or, at least, I liked it better).

So I stole that bit.

It's very Euchre in that it is punishing for the maker to miss their target. I'm not sure how fair it is but Euchre isn't particularly fair either. In any case, I've been thinking I want to change that scoring to be less unbalanced (see the Elastic Tuque variant) but I'm not sure. One thing Joe's scoring system provides is High Drama™; the sense of relief when you manage to scrape past the rubicon, or the joy of the defender when you fail, is amplified by the unfairness of the scoring. Maybe it's better to be unfair sometimes? If it makes the overall experience better?

I'm still mulling this one over...

Moosehead (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation II, Moosehead, began as an attempt to make a 2P variant of Doublehead Kids to play with my son. Once I had that working, I decided to make the variant work for the full game of Doppelkopf, adding in its more varied options for trump. And then I decided to make tweaks to the rules of Doppelkopf (sacrilege!) so that, while extremely close to being an Admiral Doppelkopf, Moosehead is a slightly different (and I think better) member of the same family (you could backport my changes to the 4P game, and I would but who would I play it with?). Since what I'd made was not strictly Doppelkopf, I decided to give it a new name. One that was still in keeping with the animal-head convention of the Schafkopf family. I tried a couple of things; eventually, I settled on Moosehead. I thought it sounded good; plus it amused me to use the name of a Canadian beer brand.

The first tweak I made was to include the Foxes and Charlie Miller in all of the suit contracts; not just Diamonds. The Foxes and Charlie Miller are fun so why not have more of them? In Moosehead, for any game where the trump is a suit, the Aces of that suit are Foxes. Charlie Miller, of course, is still just Charlie Miller. No change required. Sadly, Charlie and the Foxes don't quite work in the other contracts (Queens, Jacks, and Vegetarian) but 4 out of 7 isn't shabby.

The other change I made was to allow for an unbidden game to be played (for a lower score). If neither player wanted to bid, then a default game of Diamonds is played and the winner scores 1 point (there is no declarer or defender, per se). If a bidden game is played, where one player chooses to name trump (it could be Diamonds), the game is worth 2 points if the declarer wins, or 3 points if the defender wins. I think it's nice to have an option for playing the hand even if both players are too afraid to name a suit (somebody is going to win, and that person will learn that they probably should have bid as they would have made more points for doing it).

After having made several more strawmen, I came back to this one and gave the first option to name trump to the player who was trailing in points (or to the non-dealer if the scores are tied). Previously, it had just always been non-dealer first (the turn to deal alternates); I've since decided that I might as well give an advantage to the player that is behind (if that's not your cup of tea, then by all means, just go with the earlier version).

The big difference when moving from Tuque to Moosehead was that Tuque was a plain trick-taking game while Moosehead was a point trick-taking game. In a 2P trick-taker, I think it's best to always have at least a little hidden information (otherwise the game degenerates into being a puzzle). With a plain trick-taker, you can just set aside a small number of unseen cards and then play with the rest of the cards--it doesn't matter which cards are out-of-play. With a point trick-taking game, which cards are out-of-play matters--and it matters increasingly depending on the number of cards that are out-of-play.

You almost always need all of the point cards to be capturable so that the scoring of the game you are adapting does not need to change. This means you want all of the point cards to be scored but you also want some cards to be out-of-play. You could set some cards aside, blindly, and then let the player that captures the last trick also win these set-aside cards, but the number of points in those set-aside cards can vary wildly: suppose you set aside 2 cards in an Ace-Ten game, those cards could be worth 0 points or they could be worth 22 points. That is quite a lottery (which can be fun in the right game but in a serious game, it's just too much luck swinging in someone's favour).

Instead of blindly setting cards aside, in my early variations of point trick games, I went with dealing out all of the cards; I then let each player put one card from their hand into their own capture pile. This gets two cards out of play (there is one unknown card for each player), the amount that goes into the capture pile is controlled by the players--not by random chance--AND the value of those hidden cards can never exceed 11 points for either player. Pretty good. Not bad. But a few months later I transitioned to what is now my current preference.

Instead of putting a card into your own capture pile, I now make players put a card into their opponent's capture pile.

This change means that most of the high-value point cards remain in play (to be captured by trick-play instead of being squirreled away without being fought over); it also means that, if you want to have more unseen cards in the game, you can have the players discard two or three cards, say, instead of just one and be reasonably certain that (out of protecting their self-interest) most if not all of the point cards will remain in play for the round.

Because I found the trick-play of Moosehead, with its focus on capturing point cards over just capturing tricks, to be more interesting than the trick-play in Tuque, I kept my attention turned to point trick games for Strawman Variation III (and for several variations afterward).

Strohmann Jass (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

I knew I wanted to have a 2P Jass game, at some point, but I wasn't entirely sure which Jass I wanted to port to this strawman structure. I knew that Differenzler was out (precision trick-takers of any kind are really not an option when nearly a third of your hand is unknown to you!) and I also didn't want any of the Jass games that used melds (I think it's okay to have games that capture melds--like Klaverjassen--but ones that display melds to trade information gain for bonus points are not a great fit for a game where you would be forming melds with cards from a hidden hand and cards from your strawmen, and once again you have a third of your hand unknown so more melds may exist that you cannot score simply because you are unaware of them--for now). I also don't think that games with bidding are a great fit for strawmen (unless the bidding is quite broad--as in "I will win more than you" rather than "I will win this many"). So, no La Belote Coinchée.


Coiffeur-Jass seemed like the best fit (though there are several other Jass games that would function nicely using this same configuration of hand size and strawmen--I leave this as an exercise for the reader...). For my version, I decided to keep the scoring relatively simple (no potatoes!)--you just score the number of card points you capture. There are no multipliers for the different types of contracts. I also don't force you to play through all of the different types of contracts; instead, you decide how many different contracts you want to play (I recommend 3 to 6 per player--or 6 to 12 deals); that's how many you play.

Of course, there's nothing stopping people from using this structure to play a complete game of Coiffeur-Jass, with 10 different contracts and different multipliers for certain groupings of contract. You can potato to your heart's content (or 20 deals have been played, whichever comes first). You also don't need to restrict yourself to the contract types I've chosen: if you just loves you some Gustav or Slalom then, by all means, add them. Strohmann Jass is a pretty flexible system for playing a variety of Jass games; adapt it to suit your tastes.

The lesson I learned from Strohmann Jass was that "may trump" trick-taking rules (you must follow suit BUT you may always trump) seems extremely well suited to strawmen when applied to a point trick-taking game (I can't see much advantage to using it in a plain trick-taker). I don't think you'd ever want to loosen the trick-taking restrictions as far as "may follow" (so no Briscola Paglierino is on the horizon) but "may trump", "must follow", and even "must trump" seem to work fine; I haven't tried a game that has "must win" restrictions...yet.

The other thing I particularly like in Strohmann Jass was the Undenufe contract, where the ranks of the cards go from top-down to bottom-up, the eights become worth 8 points and the largest scoring cards (the Aces, worth 11 points each) are also the lowest-ranked cards (some versions of Jass switch the 11 points up to the Sixes, but I don't care for that). This shift in where the weight of the points is located among the card ranks creates a lot of tension and fun card play. I enjoyed this change so much that I paused in my adaptations of existing traditional card games to make an entirely new game that is all about this single aspect of Strohmann Jass.

Always follow the fun.

Vidrasso (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation IV, Vidrasso, is a mash-up. It takes the "may trump" trick-taking and Undenufe-like card ordering (where the most valuable cards are the lowest in rank and the least valuable cards are the highest in rank) from Swiss Jass, combines that with the simple card point system from Vivaldi (the card is worth the number printed on it), and then makes the game a race to a cumulative scoring threshold (a thing in a few traditional games, but I was thinking about Madrasso at this time). After a play-testing session with Fukutarou, I also added trump ranks that function something like the highest trump in Mighty (the trump ranks belong to their original suit, they do not become an extension of the trump suit). So, Vidrassomite?

For a point trick-taking game, Vidrasso is very easy to teach. You don't need to remember which card is worth how many points (the value of the card is its printed rank). The scoring is simple: you just add up the numbers on the cards you capture, keep a cumulative total, and race to reach the target score. The trick play is highly tactical but there's enough control that you feel like you can steer the hand (or your opponent) in the direction you want. The decisions around when to trump and what to trump and how to trump (trump suit or trump rank?), what to lead, when to trade points for information (by revealing the bottom card of a strawman)--these decisions all ride the cusp between certainty and uncertainty. The player that best navigates the maelstrom wins.

I've enjoyed Vidrasso at 2P. And, so far, this had been the first game that I'd worked on that didn't start from an already existing game with a higher player count. And, of course, I've been thinking about how to extend the player range beyond 2P. So far, I've only tried the game at 3P, once, and I was not particularly keen on the result. I'd still like to try it again to see if I can make it work (it just feels like it should); it also seems like a 4P partnership version would be possible but I haven't tried to make that yet and I'm not sure how the partners could communicate effectively to decide on a trump suit or on a trump rank that best fit both of their hands.

While there's nothing really "new" in Vidrasso--as I say, it's a mash-up of ideas from several games--nevertheless, I think the resulting synthesis has formed an original-enough game where none quite like it has existed before and it's one that I think occupies a niche some folks may have been wanting to fill but could not quite articulate what had been missing.

I'm not sure the same can be said about Strawman Variation V.

Mr Canoehead (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

This game is partly an attempt at synthesis between Euchre and Doppelkopf (or, to be more precise, Tuque and Moosehead); however, it is mostly a very much inside joke made to amuse a circle of one. Me.

To understand the joke, you need to be 1. Canadian, and 2. Old enough to remember a very niche Canadian comedy show from the terrible days before cable existed and there were something like 5 channels being picked up by enormous metal contraptions strapped to the sides of people's homes (these contraptions were known as "TV antennas", children). This show was called "Four on the Floor". It featured a troupe called "The Frantics" doing sketch comedy that was only very occasionally amusing (but there wasn't much else on so might as well watch it...).

A recurring skit featured a Canadian super-hero, Mr Canoehead; he had a canoe permanently welded to his noggin during an unfortunate portage incident. His super-power was to thwart evil-doers by turning around (swinging the canoe which would then knock the baddies out cold, by accident). Oops! Sorry!

You have Sheepshead. Doublehead (Doppelkopf). Now Moosehead. Why not Mr Canoehead? Eh?

I went with it.

But it wasn't quite Canadian enough. So I made the game about a trip where the players are "oout" and "aboout"; they take the religiously required detour through a Tim Horton's drive-thru for some essentials (coffee and donuts).

And then I added references to the only other remotely amusing bit I remembered from Four on the Floor (and even that is questionable).

Of course, I kept a spot open for adding in a reference to the Littlest Hobo. If you know what that is, you know why this inclusion is necessary.

Well, really, none of that needs to be included, but once I got going down the wrong path I didn't feel like turning back. If you put the Canadiana aside, the game is an attempt to bolt the scoring from Moosehead onto the plain trick play of Tuque. I liked that Moosehead had an option to play the hand if neither player wanted to bid, and I wasn't sold on the stick-the-dealer rule being used in Tuque, nor was I 100% on the high penalty scoring for being Euchred in that game, so I thought, why not take the scoring from Moosehead (which I liked) and replace the scoring of Tuque (which I was less certain of) to make something that Euchre players (the people who live around me) might like? And that's what I did.

I've only played it once, and it works. It's fine. It's not bad. But it's also not compelling. Maybe give it a try? Maybe don't? I'm not sure what else to say about that one...

And, at this point, I've run out of gas. Hopefully, I'll get the second part done sooner than a year from now. A trip to Timmies might be in order...

Where are the strawberries, Sean? We were promised strawberries! (I said, if you were good)
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Tue Aug 24, 2021 5:37 pm
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Iron Spades? Kitchen Sink.

From gallery of seandavidross
It's been nearly two weeks since I went on a ramble about designing a trick-taking game for Roxley's Iron Spades deck. I spent a bit of time going over the type of game I might want it to be (a synthesis of Slovenian Tarock, Doppelkopf, and Tractor), then quite a lot more time going over what the deck configuration might look like and why. Later on, in the comments beneath the post, I touched on some ideas for assigning card point values and mentioned that the trick-play would be either like Tarock (f,t,r) or French Tarot (f,T,t,r). At this point, I'm pretty certain it will be like Tarock. And that's about where my certainty ends.

Since that last post, I've been ruminating. A lot. More than you might imagine.

I've been chewing over variations on the deck configuration, variations on the point card values, variations on whether the game should have fixed or variable partnerships (and, if the latter, should the partnerships be known or unknown), and variations on bidding. And the only conclusion I've come to is this: I probably need to make more than one game.

I'm going to go on a little tangent here to give some context to the discussion that follows. Please bear with me. We'll get back to Iron Spades in a moment. If you want to skip this part, jump ahead to the regular-sized text.

From gallery of seandavidross
So. I went nearly a decade, after designing Haggis, without trying to design a game. I had some notions percolating on how to make Haggis work with more players but it wasn't something I spent any focus on. I made Haggis because I wanted to play a climbing game with two people (3P only happened because the modelling I did showed that it would work too). The game I wanted to play didn't exist in the form that I wanted, so I made it. And I was content with that. I didn't see any reason to compete with Tichu (why fight a losing battle?) so I never really gave 4P Haggis much thought after that.

Then, about 2 years ago, I was doing something with my Latin-suited card decks (I can't recall what) when I thought: "What would it have been like if someone had invented a climbing game to play with one of these decks three or four hundred years ago?" Curiousity got the better of me and I spent a few months designing a game I called Rooster. I wasn't trying to make a competitor for Tichu, I was just trying to see what this creature might look like that was occupying my mind. And that let me feel free to start thinking more about adding players to Haggis. I did spend some time working on that but adding players to Haggis was not as clean as I would have liked because a few of my legacy-decisions for the original version limited where I felt I could take the game. So, then I started looking a sort-of double-deck Haggis/Rooster hybrid with 18 card hands and two sets of wild cards per player (which, at the moment, I just refer to as "Double Decker"). And, then, recently I got thinking about what it would be like to make a climbing game geared towards a German deck. That last one needs a lot of work.

Anyway. the point of this tangent is to say that I've got quite a few little ideas I want to explore in the genre that I love: climbing games. And, now, suddenly, I have more ideas I want to explore in a genre that I also love, trick-taking, but that I don't love as much as climbing games. Unfortunately, I have very, very few opportunities to play-test anything. I'd like to get these things done--and done properly--but it's going to take a lot of time under the best of circumstances. Now (with the pandemic happening) is not the best time to be wanting to playtest new designs. So I should prioritize where I focus my attention. Of course, I should. But that's not going to happen until I get these trick-taking ideas out of my head. Hence, blog post. It will be therapeutic for me; hopefully, it will be somewhat of interest for you. Back to Iron Spades.

Just the Cards

By the end of my previous ramble, I was leaning towards a double pack of cards like this:

Deck A (Identical Jokers)
Trumps: F, ♠A, ♠K, ♠Q, ♠J, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7, ♠6, ♠5, ♠4, ♠3, ♠2 (28 cards)
Clubs: ♣A, ♣K, ♣Q, ♣J, ♣10 (10 cards)
Hearts: ♥A, ♥K, ♥Q, ♥J, ♥10 (10 cards)
Diamonds: ♦A, ♦K, ♦Q, ♦J, ♦10 (10 cards)

It seemed alright. With 58 cards in the deck, it would let me have a 6 card talon for Tarock-like bidding, and a hand size of 13 cards for a 4 player game. All good. Seemed fine.

For point values, I was thinking something very close to traditional Tarock values:

Scoring A1 (Tarock-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 8 2 16 10.0% 5.0%
A 5 8 40 25.0% 3.1%
K 4 8 32 20.0% 2.5%
Q 3 8 24 15.0% 1.9%
J 2 8 16 10.0% 1.3%
T 1 8 8 5.0% 0.6%
9 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
8 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
7 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
6 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
5 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
4 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
3 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
2 5 2 10 6.3% 3.1%

To be traditional, the value for the F would rightly be 5 points, but I'd prefer to have a total card point value that's divisible by 10, so I made the card worth 8 points. I refuse to do any of the Tarot-type grouped-card-counting of points that artificially fits the total card point value of many games at 70. I always find that stuff unnecessarily awkward--I mean, if you want the total to be 70, maybe have different values for the cards?

Anyway. This is where I was. I briefly considered Ace-Ten card point values, but then I felt, if I did this, I should also re-rank the cards accordingly. I didn't really want to have non-standard card ordering, by default, in the game so I set that option aside for the time being. Still, for those that might be curious, it works nicely enough if you're willing to have a lot of cards worth zero points:

Scoring A2 (Ace-Ten-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 20 2 40 13.3% 6.7%
A 11 8 88 29.3% 3.7%
T 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
K 4 8 32 10.7% 1.3%
Q 3 8 24 8.0% 1.0%
J 2 8 16 5.3% 0.7%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%

For a much shorter time, I entertained the idea of using All-Fours scoring. The conceit being: If the game was something that might have been invented and played by railway workers during the late 19th century in the UK (read the previous article), then maybe the card points should be more like other card games from the same region and time period. Which gives you something along these lines:

Board Game: Pitch
Scoring A3 (All-Fours-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 2 10 5.6% 2.8%
A 4 8 32 17.8% 2.2%
K 3 8 24 13.3% 1.7%
Q 2 8 16 8.9% 1.1%
J 1 8 8 4.4% 0.6%
T 10 8 80 44.4% 5.6%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 5 2 10 5.6% 2.8%

To be more authentic, the Joker would only be worth 1 point, it would rank between the Jack and the Ten, and the 2 would be worth 0 points. But I had different needs for those ranks, so I set both at 5 points apiece.

Somewhere amongst all of this, I considered scoring the card points with poker chips (Iron Clays for the Iron Spades, you know).

Scoring A4 (Poker Chips)
Rank Chip Qty Total % Ind. %
F 20 2 40 13.3% 6.7%
A 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
K 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
Q 5 8 40 13.3% 1.7%
J 5 8 40 13.3% 1.7%
T 0 8 0 0.0% 0.0%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%

Unfortunately, you'd need to buy at least the 200-chip Iron Clay set to use this, and the 400-chip set would be better. But my cheap-o set of 500 chips (with 100 chips in 5 colours) is better suited to the job.

I do like keeping score with poker chips...

Nevertheless--after all of that--in the end, I kept coming back to the Tarock-like scoring (A1) as being the one I wanted to keep. Each of the other scoring systems might produce a decent game in their own right, but they weren't the ones I wanted most to explore at the moment. So, I started re-reading the rules for Tarock games and when I got back to Slovenian Tarock, I noted how cleanly the game scaled from 4 players down to 3 players. Damn.

The Beauty of Dozens

With 54 cards in the deck and a talon of 6 cards, 48 cards are dealt between the players. In 4 player, this gives you a 12 card hand; in 3 players, it gives you a 16 card hand. The main takeaway here is that the talon is the same size in both instances. This means, for one thing, you don't need to handle exceptions around having a different size talon at each player count. My Deck A, with identical jokers, has 58 cards. That works fine for 4 players but it gets ugly trying to make it work for 3 players.

With 58 cards, if the talon is 6 cards, then there are 52 cards to deal evenly between 3 players--but you can't deal them evenly so you either change the size of the talon (which adds exceptions to the rules for dealing the cards, the rules for bidding over the talon, and the rules for exchanging with the talon) or you strip out cards (which gets ugly and also adds exceptions) or you add cards. All of these options are distasteful to me.

Why not just take 4 cards out of the deck to get it down to 54 cards? Well, it's awkward. You could remove two ranks from the Trumps, but what does that do? One nice thing about the current deck is that it uses the entire Spades suit, no ranks are removed, it doesn't seem awkward. Lopping the suit off below the 4 just seems ugly to me, never mind that it would mean different rules for what it means to capture the top two trump along with the lowest trump (Trull capture, from Tarock). Removing the Jokers and the 2s is also ugly, plus I want that Joker there to give me a rank that can catch ♠A. I wouldn't entertain removing any of the inner ranks, so that would leave removing one copy from 4 of the ranks, but which ones? I might consider stripping an F, ♠A, and ♠2, but I can't think of removing any of the other ranks without feeling nauseated.

Another option would be to add two more Jokers and remove the Tens from the off-suits. This would work. Unfortunately, this deck is for packs of cards with identical Jokers. I don't want to mark up the deck to make this work, so having 4 identical Jokers would mean having 4 cards all at the highest rank, above the ♠A. All other trumps only have two of each rank; I don't like the idea of having one trump rank quadrupled when all of the others are not. It could work, maybe, but it wouldn't be quite what I'd want.

In the end, it's all just yuck.

As far as I'm concerned, Deck A might be fine for a strictly 4 player game but there are better options if you want to handle 3 and 4.

For example, the other deck I'd been considering in the previous article was similar to the one above, but it has distinct Jokers. The trouble with distinct Jokers was that the Iron Spades decks that inspired this enterprise didn't have those, and I wanted to make the game work with that deck. If I put the Iron Spades aside and just focus on making a deck that works for a Tarock-like game for French-suited cards, the following deck is a better fit:

Deck B (Distinct Jokers)
Trumps: F, ♠A, ♠K, ♠Q, ♠J, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7, ♠6, ♠5, ♠4, ♠3, ♠2, F (30 cards)
Clubs: ♣A, ♣K, ♣Q, ♣J (8 cards)
Hearts: ♥A, ♥K, ♥Q, ♥J (8 cards)
Diamonds: ♦A, ♦K, ♦Q, ♦J (8 cards)

Board Game: Traditional Card Games

Trull, or Honours

This deck, with 54 cards, is a much better starting point for making our game work cleanly for 3 or 4 players. It has more trump than either a Tarock game or Doppelkopf, but that could be interesting. The short-coming with this deck is I also had the idea of promoting ranks as Major and Minor trump (ala Watten and Mu). With only 4 ranks in the off-suits, if we raise two of them there are only two left. Still, the deck should work fine for a game where we just leave the trump suit unaltered. We'll need another deck for the rank promotion game...

But back to Deck B. Coming from Deck A to B, there are only minor changes to the point card values, and they work in favour of returning the game to its Tarock inspiration.

Scoring B1 (Tarock-like, distinct jokers)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 2 10 6.7% 3.3%
A 5 8 40 26.7% 3.3%
K 4 8 32 21.3% 2.7%
Q 3 8 24 16.0% 2.0%
J 2 8 16 10.7% 1.3%
T 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
9 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
8 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
7 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
6 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
5 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
4 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
3 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
2 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
F 5 2 10 6.7% 3.3%

The Joker at the top of rankings, representing the Fool, gets the traditional 5 point value. The other type of Joker replaces the ♠2 as Pagat. All Jokers and all Aces are worth 5 points. It's a nice clean system with some symmetry. It's probably the one I'll move forward with for my port of Tarock to the standard deck. But there are other decks I've considered. For instance:

Deck C (Trump Ranks Are High, Non-trump Are Low)
Trumps: F, ♠A, ♠K, ♠Q, ♠J, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7 (18 cards)
Clubs: ♣6, ♣5, ♣4, ♣3, ♣2 (10 cards)
Hearts: ♥6, ♥5, ♥4, ♥3, ♥2 (10 cards)
Diamonds: ♦6, ♦5, ♦4, ♦3, ♦2 (10 cards)

This deck interests me. It doesn't have quite enough trump to make a Tarock game, and it would need another off-suit rank to have enough cards to make a 6-card talon. But adding that other rank would cause the trump ranks and the off-suit ranks to overlap, and that would defeat the purpose of a deck like this.

This would probably be a good deck for an introductory trick taker as the trump suit has a distinct set of ranks from all of the off-suits making it crystal clear that this suit is different from the others. On top of that, the ranks in the trump suit start at one higher than the highest rank in the offsuits and continue up from there. It's easy to see that a trump card beats an offsuit card because any trump card's natural rank will always--and obviously--be greater than any offsuit card's rank.

But it might also be good for a more advanced game that involves rank promotion. You would probably only promote from ranks 2 to 6 (but maybe not), and they would go above the ♠A. If you promote two ranks, you still have 3 ranks (6 cards) in each offsuit (for a total of 18 non-trumps) and the trumps would have 12 new cards (for a total of 30 trumps). All of this messing around with ranks kind of defeats this decks ability to showcase the natural rank hierarchy in a trick-taking game with trumps but, once you get passed the intro game, it would be something to grow into.

The point values for this deck, if you were going to use it for a point-trick-taking game, might be something like this:

Scoring C1 (Pip Value)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 15 2 30 10.0% 5.0%
A 11 2 22 7.3% 3.7%
K 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
Q 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
J 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
T 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
9 9 2 18 6.0% 3.0%
8 8 2 16 5.3% 2.7%
7 7 2 14 4.7% 2.3%
6 6 6 36 12.0% 2.0%
5 5 6 30 10.0% 1.7%
4 4 6 24 8.0% 1.3%
3 3 6 18 6.0% 1.0%
2 2 6 12 4.0% 0.7%

Every card has either it's rank as its card point value, or a pretty universally understood value for the court cards; only the Joker has card point value you might have to learn, and even then it's kind of natural. It's pretty slick. And then, on top of that, the total point value is a nice round number as well (300). Plus, look how much closer the values are in that percentage column with this deck; pretty much every card matters, there are very few throw-away tricks to be had.

This deck could make a few good trick-taking games for 3 or 4 players. With 48 cards, it will deal evenly at each player count. There won't be a talon, but every game doesn't need to have one. Yet another system to explore. And I'm not done.

I know.

It's a lot.

Just one more, and then I'll move on to another topic.

Board Game: Hungarian Tarokk

The Trouble with Doubles

One of the games I was looking to for inspiration was Royal Tarokk. It's a version of Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk that does not use card points but instead focuses entirely on accomplishing feats (capturing certain cards with certain other cards at certain tricks). That game uses a 40 card deck, there's no talon, and each player gets 10 cards. A deck that has doubled suits seems ill-suited to accomplishing most of the feats this game outlines for you to attempt (there are 60 or more of them). If I want to bring a game that does some of what Royal Tarokk does to the French deck, I'd probably do well to move to a single deck. I think I'd use this one:

Deck D (Single Deck)
Trumps: F, ♠A, ♠K, ♠Q, ♠J, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7, ♠6, ♠5, ♠4, ♠3, ♠2 (14 cards)
Clubs: ♣A, ♣K, ♣Q, ♣J, ♣10, ♣9 (6 cards)
Hearts: ♥A, ♥K, ♥Q, ♥J, ♥10, ♥9 (6 cards)
Diamonds: ♦A, ♦K, ♦Q, ♦J, ♦10, ♦9 (6 cards)

This deck has 32 cards. About 44% are trump. If we let the Driver (Declarer) promote one of the offsuit ranks, we can get that trump percentage to 53% (Royal Tarokk is at 55%). The offsuit ranks for this deck will be familiar to most people who've played games with shortened packs. The hand size with 4 players (Royal Tarokk only plays with 4) will be 8 cards each--two fewer than Royal Tarokk. We could get to 36 cards and a hand size of 9 by adding a distinct Joker below the ♠2 and an 8 to all of the offsuits, promoting one rank would get us to 50% trump and it would allow us to explore some form of 3 player variant with a hand size of 12 cards. I can't think of a game that has suits with A K Q J T 9 8, so that will be a little unfamiliar, but nothing terrible.

SCORING D1 (Tarock-like, for one deck)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 1 5 6.3% 6.3%
A 5 4 20 25.0% 6.3%
K 4 4 16 20.0% 5.0%
Q 3 4 12 15.0% 3.8%
J 2 4 8 10.0% 2.5%
T 1 4 4 5.0% 1.3%
9 1 4 4 5.0% 1.3%
8 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
7 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
6 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
5 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
4 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
3 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
2 5 1 5 6.3% 6.3%

Not bad. Standard Tarot card points, nice round total at 80. It works.

It also makes me think of Schafkopf. So. That's yet another option and yet another game to explore. Damn it.

And I haven't gotten to the difficult parts yet...

And I think I'll break this off here for now. I still have quite a bit to talk about. Partnerships and contracts being the big ones. I'll be looking to do those next.

I figure people who have read this far might be interested to know that there's a custom deck available for teaching Doppelkopf to your kids (and your not kids, really). There will be a Kickstarter happening on 12 May 2020.

Doublehead Kids

Board Game: Doublehead Kids

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Sun May 10, 2020 7:07 am
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Interlude. Iron Spades.

From gallery of seandavidross
I'm going to take a quick break from talking about climbing games so that I can ramble about an idea that is forming and wants to take shape. I don't have anyone around my home with whom I can really talk about this sort of thing but I thought there might be a few people who read this blog (there might be 3 or 4 of you, huzzah!) that might find my reasoning about pre-alpha card game design interesting. Plus, I just need to get this out there. So, here you go...

About a week ago, Roxley posted an image of their Iron Spades deck on Facebook. This is a USPCC printed deck that they had custom made, about a year ago, to sell alongside their Iron Clays poker chips. Yesterday, when the image popped up on my feed (which is natural as I'm friends with several of the Game Artisans of Canada members that work there), I thought: "There really should be a trick-taking game called Iron Spades. But it shouldn't just be a Spades-clone. That path has already been trodden. Although, what if it was more like Differenzler?"

And then, because I had been playing a lot of Tarock and Doppelkopf and Tractor on my iPhone of late, I thought: "What if it was something like a Type III tarot game, ala Illustrated Hungarian Tarokk or Cego but with Spades as the fixed trump suit, instead of Tarokks, the way that all of the Queens, Jacks, and Diamonds (plus 10s of Hearts) can all be trumps in Doppelkopf? It would be much less confusing if the trumps were all in the same suit... And what if you could play pairs of identical cards (JJ♠), and sequences of those pairs (JJQQ♠), as you can in Tractor? How should this thing be scored? Can we perform announced feats like taking the last trick with the lowest trump? Is it fixed or variable partnerships? What sorts of bidding are possible with a fixed trump suit? Can we score this thing with poker chips? Can you have a dummy as you do in Bridge? How heavy do I want this thing to be? It does have 'Iron' in the name, so pretty heavy I guess..."

Oh, look: it's me...
From gallery of seandavidross
And then I got out my two French Tarot decks, started stripping out cards, and cobbled together a deck that should work quite well. Once I've actually designed the game that you would play with such a deck. Ah well, deck first, game second. Right?

The first constraint I set for myself was that the number of trumps versus colours (non-trump) in the game should be similar to games like Hungarian Tarokk which have 22 trumps (tarokks) vs 20 colours (4 suits with 5 ranks in each suit). Doppelkopf has (in its basic form) 26 trumps vs 22 colours. So, I wanted something similar. I had two ways I was willing to go and it depended on whether or not the deck I was using had distinct Jokers or not.

It seems that Roxley's Iron Spades decks do not have distinct Jokers, which is a bit of a missed opportunity (I feel) but you work with what you have. Though I'm not really making the game for Roxley, so I'm not limited to what their deck provides; I just thought it would be nice if what I made actually worked with the source of its inspiration. Anyway, I came up with one deck for when you do have distinct Jokers (which I think I prefer) and another for when you don't.

Either way, all of the Spades go together to form the bulk of the trumps. You have two copies of each card, with the cards ranked from high to low: A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠. So, 13 ranks, doubled, for a total of 26 trumps. So far. We now add either 2 or 4 Jokers to get to 28 or 30 trumps in the game.

If you have distinct Jokers, we'll be adding 4 trumps to the game for a total of 30 (pretty big but there are games with more than this... Minchiate, for example, has 40 plus the Fool). There are several ways you can use them, but I had two that I was considering: either the two types of Jokers ranked one above the other at the top of the trumps, or one type of Joker ranked at the top of the trumps and the other ranked at the bottom of the trumps. To discuss these, I'll use F for the Joker (or Fool) instead of J so that it's not confused with the Jack (and I don't have to use something like Jk, Joker, or X).

From gallery of seandavidross
If we put the Jokers at the top of the trumps, I need to decide which order they go in: Does the F★ outrank the F★, or the other way around? Is it

F★ F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠


F★ F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠?

I don't know. The trump suit is black so it seems like the black Joker should be the top trump, but then the red Joker seems special by not being black--it stands out as being different--so maybe it makes more sense to put it on top? Tractor, and many Chinese card games, put the red Joker as the higher card, so maybe tradition can help steer my choice? I really don't know. Probably red on top.

One thing I like about putting both Fools at the top of the trumps is that they act as a simpler, less confusing version of the rank promotion that happens in games like Euchre (left and right bower) or Jass (trump Jack and nine). In this case, the two best cards are fixed and there are no other cards that look like them yet behave in a different way. That's a little bit easier to learn.

And yet, all that being said, I don't think I'd put both Jokers at the top of the trumps anyway. I did tell you this would be a ramble...

I kind of prefer F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠ F★.

Of course, there's also F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠ F★, but I do have a strong preference for having the black Joker reign supreme in this configuration. I'll explain why shortly.

One of the ideas I wanted to incorporate (In other words, steal; I don't really design games, I synthesize them) from Tarokk was capturing Honours: The Škis (or F★) and the Mond (XXI), the top two trump (in Type III tarot); and the Pagat (I), the bottom trump. With the deck I'm considering, the F★ would be the equivalent of a Škis (though there would be two of them) and the A♠ would be the equivalent of the Mond (but, again, there would be two of them). And, finally, the F★ would be the equivalent of the Pagat (and, yes, there would be two of them).

If I went with both Jokers at the top of the trumps, one type of Joker would be the Škis, the other would be the Mond, and the 2♠ would be the Pagat. I kind of prefer that the special cards look special, so having the 2♠ as Pagat doesn't appeal to me as much. Also, there's Ace hunting to consider.

From gallery of seandavidross
In some games, you are rewarded with points for capturing the second-highest card with the first-highest card. In Hungarian Tarokk, the person whose Mond is captured by the Škis is also forced to wear a ridiculous hat for the shame of having allowed such a travesty to occur. In Doppelkopf, you have Catching the Fox, which is a bonus for winning a trick which contains an opponent's A♦. In Iron Spades, I would probably combine the two concepts. You would get a bonus for capturing an A♠ with one of the F★--the Škis captures the Mond--and you would get a semi-symmetrical, but lower bonus, for catching any of the colour Aces (A♥ A♦ A♣) with one of the F★--the Pagat, in this case--catching foxes. I like that in both cases its a Fool capturing an Ace, just a different type of Fool for a different type of Ace (trump vs non-trump).

So. I've got my preferred trump when we have distinct Jokers: F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠ F★. Again, those are each doubled, so we have 30 trumps. If we do not have distinct Jokers, I'd go with F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠...3♠ 2♠, which gives us 28 trumps.

Now we need to choose our colours. Our non-trump cards.

If we have distinct Jokers, I'm thinking:
A♥ K♥ Q♥ J♥ T♥
A♦ K♦ Q♦ J♦ T♦
A♣ K♣ Q♣ J♣ T♣

We have duplicates of each of these 15 cards, which would give 30 trump cards vs 30 trump cards and total deck size of 60. We can deal 15 cards each to 4 players.

If we don't have distinct Jokers, I'd maybe drop the tens:
A♥ K♥ Q♥ J♥
A♦ K♦ Q♦ J♦
A♣ K♣ Q♣ J♣

With duplicates, this gives us 24 non-trumps vs 28 trumps. Or 52 cards total. So, hand size would be 13 cards.

Alternatively, we keep the tens, have 30 non-trumps and maybe have a talon of 6 undealt cards to bid over (as is done in various Tarock games). Something to consider. Also, I might want the tens if I decide the ranking should be, for example:
A♣ T♣ K♣ Q♣ J♣

With card points of 11, 10, 4, 3, and 2, respectively. Did I mention there'd be card points? I think there will be card points. This will most likely be a point-trick-taking game. Just need to figure out how I want to distribute the points among the ranks. The Jokers will need to have some value, maybe as high as 20 for one of the types. I'm not sure.

Anyway, the other reason we might want to keep the tens in the identical Jokers game, besides the card points and the talon, is there's a chance we might consider adding super-trump to the game.

From gallery of seandavidross

Let's compare what we have now, for the identical Jokers game versus Doppelkopf.

A Doppelkopf deck, in a basic game, works like this (all ranks are doubled):
Trumps: T♥ Q♣ Q♠ Q♥ Q♦ J♣ J♠ J♥ J♦ A♦ T♦ K♦ 9♦ (26 cards)
Clubs: A♣ T♣ K♣ 9♣
Spades: A♠ T♠ K♠ 9♠
Hearts: A♥ K♥ 9♥

Iron Spades is looking like this:
Trumps: F★ A♠ K♠ Q♠ J♠ T♠ 9♠ 8♠ 7♠ 6♠ 5♠ 4♠ 3♠ 2♠ (28 cards)
Clubs: A♣ K♣ Q♣ J♣ T♣
Hearts: A♥ K♥ Q♥ J♥ T♥
Diamonds: A♦ K♦ Q♦ J♦ T♦

These decks are nearly identical in function (they're even closer if you drop the Ts from the off-suits), but I think you can see that the latter is easier to understand and remember. For instance, you don't have any weird re-ranking of Qs and Js and just two of the Ts; you don't have to remember that, among the Qs and Js, ♣ beats ♠ beats beats . In Iron Spades, all of the trumps (except F★) are ♠ and they rank in their natural order. In the non-trump suits, there are no gaps in the ranks where promoted ranks have been pulled up to trump. And all of the non-trump suits are the same length.

What Doppelkopf has over Iron Spades, is flexibility in declaring Trumps to improve the power of your hand. For instance, in Doppelkopf you can change the trump suit from to any of the other 3 suits; you can make it so only the Qs are trump or only the Js, or that there is no trump at all. You can't do that with Iron Spades (or any of the Tarot games, for that matter). What you could do, to get some of this flexibility (but at the cost of extra complexity), is allow declarer to promote a rank to super trump status. As happens in or Watten.

So, if you have a lot of Qs (there will be 8 in the game) you could designate Qs as a super trump and the cards would rank like this:

Trumps: F★ Q♠ (Q♣ Q♥ Q♦) A♠ K♠ J♠ T♠ 9♠ 8♠ 7♠ 6♠ 5♠ 4♠ 3♠ 2♠ (34 cards)
Clubs: A♣ K♣ J♣ T♣
Hearts: A♥ K♥ J♥ T♥
Diamonds: A♦ K♦ J♦ T♦

Where (Q♣ Q♥ Q♦) are the same rank below the Q♠ but above the A♠. I would allow this rank promotion for any of the ranks in the non-trump suits. So, you could promote not just Q but instead A or K or J or even T.

Allowing for something like this is why I consider leaving the Ts in for a game with identical Jokers. By leaving them in, we still have 24 non-trumps vs 34 trumps; if we take them out, we have 18 non-trumps vs 34 trumps. That might be fine but it seems like it would be better to have some more play in the off-suits.

Additionally, you might tie which rank gets promoted (or no rank being promoted) as part of a bidding schedule. For example, you might be declarer if you bid to play a game with Ts promoted (making weak cards strong), and I can beat you in the bidding by promoting Js, or cue bid by jumping to Qs. Aces would be the second strongest bid behind no rank promotion.

And so on...

Board Game: Tuo La Ji
At this point I have the decks sorted, though I've two ways to go with it; I've got some idea of the type of scoring I want in the game, but not the actual values; I know I want to score announced feats (e.g., I will win the final trick with F★); I still have to decide what the trick-taking rules are (lots of options, could be like Tarot, could be like Bridge, could be like something else); I need to decide if there's a Talon or not; do I or don't I include rank promotion; do I want fixed partnerships or variable; and on and on.

I'm back and forth on allowing Tractor-like play of identical pairs and sequences of identical pairs ("Tractors"). What they allow is for an otherwise poor hand to be slightly better as, when you play a pair, everyone else has to play a pair in the same suit (or in trump) to beat your play; if they don't have a pair, they can't beat you but still have to play the same number of cards and match the suit as much as they can. This can add scoring cards to the trick, or drain trump, or both. But it does so at the cost of additional complexity. Sequences of identical pairs would happen pretty infrequently, so having a rule that allows their play might be extra overhead for little practical gain. Identical pairs on their own, however, occur with enough frequency that I'm very much considering letting them be part of the game.

One reason I like the idea of including Tractors in the game is that there is some association between Roxley's Iron Spades decks and their Iron Clays poker chips, and those are associated with Roxley's versions of Brass. I thought it would be interesting to look at tying the Iron Spades game into the world of Brass, as though the railyard workers were regular players of this game, by using train-related lingo or slang for naming things. For instance: identical pairs would be a spike, a trolley, a boxcar, or maybe a kettle (small engine); two pairs might be a rail, a train, a locomotive, or a hog; three pairs could be a diesel or a battleship (large engine); and so on. The F★ could be Brass Hats or The Brass (President or Boss of the railroad line), the A♠ could be The Boss (conductor), the other Aces could be Cushion Riders (Conductor of a Passenger Train) or Gaffers (section boss) or Straw bosses or Skippers, the rest of the non-trump cards would be Deadheads (passengers), or whatever.

Perhaps the promoted ranks would be the Board and the ♠ of that Rank would be the Chair and the rest would be Directors. Or, maybe they're the Brass, and you get rewarded for catching them with the F★. Double if you catch the ♠ (Brass Hat or Top Brass). In this case, the F★ are Bulls (police). Catching embezzlers? Catching Brass? Bulls beat Brass? Too much?

I think it'd be more confusing than helpful to use those terms, but a lot of traditional card games pick up names for various cards over the years, it seems like maybe I could get a head start on this one...

Anyway. Thanks for letting me ramble. That was a whole lot of words to say I've been thinking of maybe making a standard deck trick-taking game. Don't know exactly where it will end up, but I think this deck is a promising start.

Board Game Accessory: Iron Clays

From gallery of seandavidross

BTW. In case it wasn't somehow obvious, this is not some sly promotion for Roxley's products. They don't need me to promote them; their products promote themselves.

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Tue Apr 28, 2020 12:59 am
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