The Fool & His Nibs

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

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Trick-Taking Quarterly: July through September 2020

From gallery of seandavidross
For most people who might read this blog, the following content will be a repeat. They will already have read what is about to be posted as one of the items on the Trick-Taking Quarterly geeklist posted by pkufahl. Since I tend to write a fair bit more than the other posters to the list, I try to contain my content by posting subsections as comments, rather than having one enormous geeklist entry that overwhelms the rest of the list. It just seemed like the polite thing to do. But it does break up the flow of the writing, and it makes it more difficult to find the bits about a particular game--as my posts become interspersed between the comments of other trick-taking aficionados. In future, I think I'll make a blog post when the Quarterly geeklist gets posted, and then my entry to the list will be a list of games played, with their ratings, followed by a link to this blog for commentary on the individual games. The commentary will look something like this...

 10  Bridge
 10  Doppelkopf
 10  Skat
 10  Tartli NEW!
 10  The Crew (2p)
 10  Tuo La Ji
 10  Vira
 9  American Bookshop
 9  Euchre (2P)
 9  Königrufen NEW!
 9  Voodoo Prince NEW!
 8  Cego
 8  Da Bai Fen NEW!
 8  Euchre (4P)
 8  Hungarian Tarokk NEW!
 8  Pitch
 8  Sjavs NEW!
 8  Slovenian Tarock
 8  Somnia (2p) NEW!
 8  Spades
 8  Texas Showdown NEW!
 8  Time Palatrix
 8  Ugly Christmas Sweaters NEW!
 8  Whist NEW!
 7  Baśka Kaszubska NEW!
 7  French Tarot
 7  Minchiate NEW!
 7  Tarot for Two (Prototype) NEW!
 6  Duck Soup NEW!
 6  Polish Tarock NEW!
 5  Lua Cheia NEW!
 4  Schwarz oder weiß NEW!

 10  Gan Deng Yan
 10  Guan Dan
 10  Haggis (6P)
 8  Mermaid Queen (Prototype) NEW!


The Tens


Like last quarter's posting, this is gonna be a long 'un... Get everybody and the stuff together.

Okay, three, two, one let's jam...

Rubber Bridge
I've been playing a decent amount of Rubber Bridge of late, using the Trickster Cards app. It's not the best Bridge app I've used--that honour would go to Funbridge--but it's free and I don't have to keep giving them money to buy new deals (which is, unfortunately, the model that Funbridge uses).

The trouble with the Trickster app, for me--beyond just being less attractive than the Funbridge app--is that its bidding system is not nearly as nuanced or well described as the one used by Funbridge. I don't think I'd be able to play Bridge in real-life; I just cannot memorize all of the meanings of the various bidding signals. I would need to have an extensive and thorough player-aid available, and a very patient partner (not to mention patient and lenient opponents). But, when I know that those signals are available, you have to know I want to use them. And I want to use them effectively. Funbridge makes it easier to steer yourself meaningfully through the bidding process and arrive almost always at the contract that is best suited to your hand. Sometimes, I might bid a little more aggressively than it recommends, but at least I know I'm stretching things beyond what might be expected. With the Trickster app, there are these howling gaps in the bidding where I want to find a way to move forward but there are no signals associated with any of the remaining available bids. Far too often I'm left, stood on a cliff-face, looking out into the darkness...

Or worse, I bid to keep us in the hand and the AI leaps ahead to a place where I DID.NOT.WANT.TO.GO. and leaves me no room to course-correct; we're just going to get lumped and we'll have to like it...

That said, it doesn't go astray all of the time, and when it works, it's still gives me the wonderful, rich experience of playing a hand of Bridge and maybe even occasionally playing it well. So, I try to accept it for what it is and let myself enjoy playing a few rubbers here and there. Which is also a different experience from playing on Funbridge...

With Funbridge, you are playing Duplicate Bridge. And, I must say, that as an app experience, I would much rather play Duplicate Bridge than play Rubber Bridge. Not by a startling amount: my 10 rating for Bridge is based off of playing Duplicate on the Funbridge app; my experience of Rubber Bridge, using the trickster app, makes me think I'd rate Rubber Bridge as a 9. But maybe still a 10--I really do need to try this game with people some day...

The biggest difference is that you are more at the mercy of luck in Rubber Bridge. Duplicate is about measuring yourself against the play of others over the same hand--it doesn't matter if your hand is bad, it only matters if you are bad. Rubber Bridge is more social. It's a race to two games-worth of points. This sense of racing, and the connection of the scores from hand to hand, gives the game experience an arc. If you have bad cards, it doesn't matter how good you are, you can still lose. But, unlike Duplicate--where you are trying to fit the perfect bid to your hand--it can sometimes be advantageous to deliberately overbid a hand, knowing that you will lose, so that your opponents' score goes above the line (which does not move the game closer to ending) instead of below the line (which would). You don't want to do it too often, otherwise, even if you're the first to win two games, the total scores will still have you losing the Rubber. Losing will happen and you won't be able to prevent it, entirely. But, then you just shuffle up the cards and have another go. Just like almost every other card game in existence...

Playing against apps and not against people warps the experience of each game quite a bit. For instance, I know--I absolutely know--that I would not enjoy playing tournament Duplicate Bridge in real-life, and that I would enjoy playing Rubber Bridge more. But, with an app, it's the opposite. Why is that?

Well, yesterday, for instance, I was watching some Youtube videos of some hands being played at a Duplicate Bridge tournament. If you're not familiar with this, it is a sobering experience to witness. For fear of illegal signals being passed between partners, there is a freaking wall, with a wee swinging door at the base, through which you slide a bidding tray to communicate your bids via impersonal cards. Your hands are given to you, pre-assembled and tucked into a hard plastic gizmo of some sort, so there's none of the shuffling or cutting or warm ceremony of playing cards with your friends--it's all very cold and clinical and just NOT my bag at all. If I am playing cards with humans, then I want the experience to be warm and rich and about more than just the cards and who wins. Tournament Duplicate is not what I want to play with friends. But I love it as an app. And I would probably enjoy Duplicate if it was played casually, without the walls.

It's a wonderful puzzle to play through a hand and then discover how well you managed to solve the problem in comparison to hundreds of other people who've tried to solve the same problem. Most of the time I might be in the upper-middle portion of the group, and sometimes--more than I like to admit--I'll end up at the very bottom of the curve (which is embarrassing). But every now and then...Nirvana! You bid a hand and play a hand like nobody else had done and manage to get the very best result. And you're just chuffed. It feels really good.

Perhaps it's like golf. You can hit a hundred errant balls that slice into the trees or hook into the sand, but if you ever hit that one long drive that flies straight and true and lands softly on the green. Well. You'll chase that feeling again and again to relive the joy that leaps from the despair of that terrible, terrible game... Bridge is kind of like that for me...

Board Game: Doppelkopf

Credit: @loopoocat

I have a confession. I'm sure I have several but we'll start with just one: I sometimes rate games based on how I would like to play them rather than on how they are actually meant to be played...


I wish that Doppelkopf was a fixed-partnership game. Other people seem to enjoy the mystery of hidden partnerships that the game offers. That might even be their favourite part. Not me. I prefer knowing who my partner is. Until you know who your partner is, you can only play sub-optimally by not smearing tricks won by your hidden partner for the simple reason that you don't know they're your partner. Otherwise, you'd have an extra 10 or 11 points that you might really need by the end of the hand...

No. What I like about Doppelkopf is the oh-so-long trump suit; the tactical play of the hand; the relatively loose trick-taking rules for a game with so long a trump suit (compared to Tarock and its like); the option to suit the game to your hand by trimming the trump down to just the Queens, just the Jacks, or even to just no trump whatsoever; the capture of Aces (especially foxes) and Tens, the occasional Doppelkopf (40+ points in one trick) getting thrown into the mix, and the opportunities to increase your reward for the hand by calling Re or Kontra, and more. You know. Everything else but that one part that other people just rave about. That's the part I don't like.

But I love the other part so much that I play it as it is anyway. If I want to play the other way, I suppose I'll just have to make my own game... (Sigh. Not again...).

Anyway. I mostly play Doppelkopf against an app but I did have the opportunity to play the game, with real people, twice this quarter: once with Ray (rayzg), Peter (pwinckles), and Peter's wife; and once with Ray, Peter, and Jim Wickson. Ray's cards, with the trump ranks written-out for all to see, were a great help when introducing the game to new players. While it is certainly good to steep yourself in the culture of card gaming by learning whatever arcane, tortuous twists of the deck were made in this region of the world for their flavour of card games, you also don't want to scald people with an overload of information so that they would rather leap away from the table.

You know. Like boiling a frog.


Like Doppelkopf, I mostly play Skat on an app. In fact, I've only ever played the game against people once and that was about 15 years ago. It's not something I would relish trying to introduce to new players. I initially found this game quite complicated and had no idea how to bid or play well. But I had a realization, recently. After having playing the game on an app for so long, I find that I now reach for it as a casual alternative to my plays of Bridge or Doppelkopf. Familiarity and comfort combine...

This is not to say that I play well... No! But certainly better than when I began...I hope...

From gallery of seandavidross

Next confession: Sometimes my ratings for games get inflated by infatuation.


At the moment, The Crew is my favourite 2P trick-taking game. I don't think Tartli will be able to supplant it, but I can at least say that Tartli is currently my favourite trick-and-draw game (or trick-and-meld, as Raymond calls it).

Tartli is a 2P Hungarian/Austrian member of the Jass group. It has a key distinguishing feature from other Jass games in that the Over Knave (Queen) is raised to top trump rather than the Under Knave (Jack). The game is essentially a race to 501 points. You score points by declaring melds and capturing point cards in tricks. The melds include sequences of 3 or more cards in the same suit, 4-of-a-kinds for every rank other than 7 or 8, and a trump marriage (or Bela). You can score a sequence multiple times, if you time it right, by declaring 3 cards, then 4, and so on. You do not need to win a trick to meld, so the melding is frequent and gives your opponent a lot of information about your hand. You have to manage that hand to remain open to collecting more melds, while also fashioning your hand to take at least one trick in the phase that begins once the talon has been exhausted.

Until the talon is exhausted, trick-taking is may-follow (ftr). Once the talon is exhausted, the rules switch to forced-trump (f,t,r). You must be able to win at least one of the final 9 tricks. There are 161 trick-taking points available each hand, including 10 points for winning the last trick. If you fail to take a trick during the final 9, you keep any meld scoring you may have done, but you lose all of your captured point cards: those go to your opponent, who scores the full 161 points for themselves!

If you reach 501 points before your opponent, you score 1 VP. If you get there before your opponent collects 251 points, you score 2 VP. The game is to 5 or 10 VP.

You need to keep track of what cards have been played and what cards have been declared in order to be prepared for those final 9 tricks where the trick-taking ramps up to do-or-die intensity. If you can track all of the information given to you through the first part of the play, you should know exactly which cards your opponent is holding.

And this is where I have my one issue with the game. When covering Tartli, Raymond talked about finding it hard to keep track of this information. I, on the other hand, am able to track the information and--for me--that makes those final 9 tricks a tiny bit of a letdown because I know exactly how it will play out.

And so we come back to my earlier confession with Doppelkopf: that I sometimes rate games on how I would want to play them, rather than strictly on how they were meant to be played.

In this case, my solution is to deal 10 (or 11) cards at the beginning of play, rather than 9, and then have each player discard 1 (or 2) cards into their own capture pile before play begins. This way, when you get to those final 9 tricks, there is at least 1 unknown card (or 2, if you want more mystery). That small change is enough to make the end of the hand a bit more exciting for me.

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

Credit: @henk.rolleman

The Crew
As I've mentioned before, The Crew is currently my favourite 2P trick-taking game. There are a couple of reasons why.

First, the game manages to do something that--I believe--no other 2P trick-taking game had ever done, before the recent spate of co-operative trick-takers (and of those, it does it the best): The Crew lets you have the experience of playing with a partner when there are only 2 of you.

One thing that elevates 4P (and sometimes 6P) trick-taking, for me, above pretty much any other genre (except climbing games!), is the ability to play the game in fixed partnerships. The comradery, being on the same side, working together to pull off amazing victories. It's glorious. Or, it can be.

The Crew, even with two, lets you do this. And that is no small accomplishment.

Second, The Crew introduces a new audience to a trick-taking feature that is usually only seen in the most skilful versions of Tarock games, games like Illustrated Hungarian or Royal Tarokk. The Crew introduces the concept of feats (or stunts).

The only other trick-taking game that I know of that focuses solely on the play of the hand in order to accomplish feats, is Royal Tarokk. It is a tournament-level, partnership tarock game that demands more skill than any other card game I've ever read about. Yes, more than Bridge.

Royal, and The Crew, are games that are all about called shots. You say what you are going to do, and often when you are going to do it, and then you do it (or don't) to reap the reward (or the whirlwind).

For anyone who loves The Crew, the next step is to explore Royal Tarock. It would be like playing the Crew and trying to accomplish your missions while playing against a team of spoilers who are bent on seeing that your missions fail. It sounds so good!

External image

I covered Vira pretty well in my post for last quarter's geeklist, so I'll just say that I've continued to enjoy playing the game this quarter. I do, however, have more to say about Tractor this time...

And we're back to my confession for Doppelkopf...

Tuo La Ji/Tractor

It's easily the most fun and interesting trick-taking game I've played so far. It's dynamic and varied in its card play. It has the feel of a climbing game despite decidedly not being so (and for me, unlike for Raymond, that is a definite plus). The inclusion of multi-card or combo tricks for pairs and sequences of pairs gives you additional tools for digging out higher ranking cards or trump from your opponent's hands. They also make it so that very low ranking cards can suddenly become unbeatable by higher ranking cards (or even trumps) simply because your opponents are unable to respond with a higher combo of the same type. So a pair of 2's in a non-trump suit can defeat even an A-K in the same or in the trump suit (you'd need to play A-A to win the trick). Powerful. Flexible. A favourite.


Having now played Tractor against non-AI opponents (you know... People), I do still love the play of the hand, but the rest of the game (the scoring, trump setting, exchange, top cards play) needs a lot of development. I cannot whole-heartedly recommend this game to anyone--as it is. There are just too many things that argue against it. But the play of the hand, in isolation--if you just play the hand and forget about everything else--is wonderful.

When you play the game as an app, a lot of the other elements just don't matter as much, you just jump from hand to hand and enjoy the card play for what it is. When you play with other players, the scoring matters, the trump setting matters, who gets to exchange matters, the fact that the top card play can be hard to understand and hard to play correctly matters. All of these things get in the way of experiencing the part of the game that I most enjoy.

Essentially, what I'm saying is: I need to develop a version of this game that doesn't have the issues that I see happening in the traditional version--and it is that theoretical version of the game that I truly love.

Or, I could just play the app and be happy with that...

The Nines

I've only reached the 9s.


I don't have much to add over anything I--or everyone else--have already said about American Bookshop. Other than, perhaps, to say I've raised its rating from an 8 to a 9. If you haven't played it yet, there's a implementation waiting for you...

From gallery of seandavidross

Euchre For Two

My comments from last quarter wrote:
If there were a distinct entry for the version of 2p Euchre that I play, I would give that a 9. Linked as it is with 4P Euchre, I feel like I have to keep the rating at an 8 as I'm not as inclined as I once was to play Euchre at that player count.

I didn't use to like this 2P version when it was first taught to me about 35 years ago, but that was mostly due to the scoring which short-circuited the gameplay to end after one player took 8 tricks (1 for maker, 2 for defender). I would have rated that version a 6.

I recently spent some time looking into alternative scoring. I tried a few, even venturing into Bid Euchre territory, but pulled back in the end to something fairly simple that I think works very well and provides a satisfying trick-taking experience for 2P while still feeling somewhat like Euchre. I was hoping that the Bid Euchre system would work out but it didn't feel right bidding at higher trick thresholds when you could only see 10 of your own 15 cards; I felt the system wasn't suited to bidding beyond saying "I think I can take more tricks than you if this is trump". That's what it was before and that's where I left it.
I don't take credit for this version of the game. Somebody else--lost to history--came up with the deck, added the 3 jokers, and came up with the idea of using 5 strawmen. The only thing I did was change the scoring--and my change was based on a system devised by someone else as well. I just steepened the penalty for being Euchred.

But I would like to point out some niceties from this design, and why I like it so much.

Euchre is a 5-card trick-taking game, so I like the repetitions of 5 in this approach: There are 5 cards down, for each player, plus 5 cards up, plus 5 cards in hand, plus 5 cards in the Kitty. So many fives. It just seems right.

I like the lottery/gift/curse of finding out whether you have the card you need in the face-down cards. It's joyous when it goes in your favour and something you can blame when it doesn't ?

If you think about a 4P partnership trick-taking game, in most of those games you will know where 25% (or less if some are undealt) of the cards are (since you will know your own cards). And, while you know 100% of your own cards, you only know 50% of your team's cards (unless you're Declarer in Bridge, then you'll eventually know where 100% of your team's cards are--before the play of the hand). In 4P Euchre, you make a contract knowing where 25% of all of the cards are (your 5 plus the up-card) and 50% of your team's cards.

But even in Bridge, after the Dummy is down (but not taking into account your deductions from the opponent's bidding), you only know where 50% of all of the cards are.

The way this variant works, you start out knowing where 16 of the 35 cards are. That's 46% compared to the typical 25% (but still less than Bridge's 50%). Sure, you can only see 67% of your own hand, but I like to think of it more as I can see 67% of my team's hand because, if this was 4P (and not Bridge), I could only see 50% of my team's hand, which would make this a step up... By not knowing all of the cards in your own hand from the outset, you get a tiny bit of that sense of the uncertainty you have surrounding which cards will be played by your partner. And when the highest trump suddenly turns up from the face-down cards to win the trick you need to avoid getting Euchred, it's like that moment when your partner saves your contract by taking that one uncertain trick you were worried about from the beginning of the hand. In other words, it feels great.

There's still plenty of luck in this variant but, as you can see from the percentages, just because you have some face-down cards that you don't know about, that doesn't mean you don't have a lot of information to work with. It's just a matter of changing how you think about those face-down cards. I think of them as my partner helping me out--I only rely on them taking one trick at most. If they take more its a bonus. If they take none, well, there's always the next hand...

Some points about the scoring system.

In 4P Euchre, the worst-case longest game is about 20 hands (you go back and forth taking 1 point up to 10 or 11 points). This system plays to 61 in at most 9 hands--though typically it will take 5 to 7. If you want to play the longer game to 121, as part of a rubber, it will take 17 hands in the worst case, but usually about 10 to 14 hands. So, a nice way to while away a bit of time. As a bonus, you could use Skunking rules from Cribbage for your rubber (if your opponent takes fewer than 90 points, that game is worth double). Fun!

If you only want to play a very short game, playing to 31 works okay, but you'll have less time to balance out good and bad hands...

You don't need a deck with 3 jokers to play this. The game I was taught used the 2, 3, and 4 of spades. But if you would like to use a deck that has 3 jokers, this one is very nice and it's the one I use:

From gallery of seandavidross


So far, in my recent journey into Tarot/Tarock games, this has been my favourite of the bunch. It helped that Raymond made a very nice implementation of the game for that included a player aid for all of the many bidding options. It seems there are so many games now that I like that I could never use as pick-up games--where you're with some friends, you grab a deck of cards, and you just start playing. A lot of my favourites really need player-aids. Some might even do well to have a board (I'm thinking of Vira and Minchiate, here) or custom decks of cards (anything with wonky ranking and point values). Being able to play the game, where all of the niggling (but sometimes vital) details are still there but they are smoothed out by simply not needing to remember all of them--you can remind yourself by reading the aid or board and then get back into the game--makes a big difference in how it feels to try to play some of these older card games. I highly recommend getting into the practice of providing player aids for traditional card games whenever you think they will help the experience. That would be most of the time...

The other good thing about what Raymond did--he did a lot of work, for which I thank him--is he scoured the rule sets and put together a set of bids that seemed to work well. He's correct that it seems like the game would be better if there were more bids that resulted in team play. I would certainly like that even more. But the main thing these bidding options added, that haven't been as present in the other Tarot games we've played, is the addition of negative contracts (where you try to lose every trick, or only win one, and so on). Those really help you feel like you can take part in the game even when you might not have the strongest hand (especially then!). It's one of the features I love about Vira and I enjoyed seeing it used here.

Voodoo Prince
Board Game: Voodoo Prince

Credit: @davidallves

One play, five players. This immediately entered my Top 25. Doesn't matter if I never play it at a different player count. This fills a niche and fills it superbly.

As did--skipping ahead a bit in my list--Texas Showdown, which entered my Top 50 based on a single play at 6 players.

I have to play some more, but (much as I like them) I don't think either of these games are ones I'd want to play for an extended period of time--back-to-back. They're not whole evening (or whole day) games. Those types of games are closer to my Top 10. But these two are games that fill a role--short, light game at a specific player count--and that is enough for me.

I wonder how many back-to-back games of American Bookshop I'd be willing to play...? Not a whole a day, I think. But an evening? Maybe...

The Eights

This is exhausting. For me. For you too?

Time to gloss over some games.

I don't have much to add to Raymond's thoughts on Cego. This is the first time I'd played the game against humans; I'd only played the bots at It's more fun with humans. Slovenian Tarock? Same.

See? Gloss.

Now we're cooking...

The Trickster app I mentioned earlier, for playing Bridge, also plays several other trick-taking games. Among those, Euchre, Spades, and Pitch have seen the most plays. Playing 4P Euchre on the app has shown me how much my rating of the game is based on nostalgia and the people I played with over the substance of the game itself. It's quite a step down from Bridge. But that's fine, sometimes you need something simpler. But then I also find I'd rather be playing the 2P version which has a bit more depth to it...

Pitch I find adds some needed variety to my trick-taking habits, it exercises some underused muscles--the ones you only know you have because the day after your workout the pain has made you fully aware of them. I should very much like to play the related games of Don or Phat.

Spades, I have no complaints about Spades. It's there when I need it. It's my Goldilocks trick-taker, I suppose. Not too light, not too heavy, but also not as exciting (it has its moments, but they are not the highest highs or lowest lows for me). It's often my taking a breather game. Though Skat has started to step on its toes there...

I almost played Pinochle on the app but I got lost in the variations trying to decide what form was best and then decided not to bother. Someday...

Oh, and I had forgotten. I also played Whist on the app. First time. I found the Uptown and Downtown bidding very interesting. Need to explore this family more...

Was that gloss? It feels like it's still taking far too long...

Da Bai Fen. It's single deck Tuo La Ji. It's fine. It's easier, I suppose. I'd rather ride the Tractor.

There! Back on track.

Hungarian Tarokk is a game that is in serious need of a developer. There is a great game hiding under a bunch of crusty old edge-cases--traditional card game rules sometimes accumulate exceptions like barnacles. People think this gives them character. Really it just makes you not want to touch them...lest ye bleed...

Sjavs was only the very briefest exploration of the 2P game and it left me wanting to explore this branch of the Shafkopf family all the more. The novel bidding system is so simple and makes so much sense when you hear of it, you wonder why you've never seen it used before: The player with the longest trump is the declarer. It gets right to the point and into the game without a lot of fuss. Very much want to play again and at different player counts.

Board Game: Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Credit: @kalchio

Ugly Christmas Sweaters

I think I became aware of this game when I was doing one of my semi-frequent advanced BGG searches for 2P card games. It may have been for trick-taking. It may have been for both. I don't know; the point is I found it. Moving on.

It was a trick-taking game that supposedly worked well for two players. I was hooked; I still consider those to be rare. Certainly, by comparison to 4P trick-taking games, they are. And then there was the charming Christmas theme. That also held my attention; I had to know what it was like to play. So I watched Rahdo's run-through for the game and then I watched two more playthrough videos made by Hunter and his wife, Kymberlie. Sold. Take my money. How do I get you to take my money? I asked in the forums; Hunter was nice enough to take my money. Well, first he asked me to trade him for a copy of Haggis--which was kind--but I didn't have one to spare. So, money.

Now I just had to wait patiently for the game to arrive.

Um. Forget that.

I had already made a few games for at this point, so I contacted Hunter again to ask if he would be interested in having his game ported to that platform? It would allow people to try it; it would get them talking about it; and, it might lead to a few more sales. They were interested, yes. I got access to the files and spent a few hours putting the game together on Then I had the two of them play the game to see if it worked well. Shortly thereafter, Hunter posted the game to the geeklist of games for that platform. I felt it would look more official that it was okay to play his game there. Nothing was being used without permission. That sort of thing.

And, so, I got to play his game before I got his game. None of that silly waiting guff. Insta-win.

I arranged a 2P session with Peter (pwinckles) that week and quickly followed that with another 2P session, this time with Raymond (rayzg). I enjoyed it. Both times. I found it charming and fairly relaxing.

In the 2P game, each player plays two cards to the trick, and the cards they play are used to determine a draft order for selecting the parts of the sweaters you are hoping to build from a central pool. And then, the cards you played to this trick goes into the pool; and the next trick is about drafting from those cards. This continues until one player completes their 3rd sweater to trigger the end of the round.

The thing with this game, at 2P, is that it doesn't quite feel like trick-taking when you play it. It is trick-taking; don't get me wrong. But it kind of feels more like an auction. Remember Palazzo, from Reiner Knizia? You bid with money to draft parts of buildings, but there are 3 denominations of money and you can only bid with one denomination at a time? It's not exactly like that, but its the closest analogy I could think of to express what it feels like when you are playing the tricks. It feels like you are spending the cards to win other cards in an auction that limits which cards you can use by a familiar set of rules. Must-follow trick-taking.

I don't know how else to express it. You are definitely following trick-taking rules, albeit with two different suits you can follow. And you are winning or losing the auction for draft order based on trick-taking resolution rules. But you aren't capturing the cards that are played to the trick; you're capturing other cards that you paid for with this trick. And I thought that might be what made it feel not quite like a trick-taking game. You don't actually take the trick. There's a disconnect from what I'm used to, so it felt different. Not bad different--it's actually very clever and enjoyable to play--just different. But later, I played the game 4P on Tabletop Simulator. And that felt like trick-taking. Weird.

Back in the Spring, Dave Peters (rynelf) had been kind enough to help me out with some playtesting of a 4P and 6P version of Haggis. We played those games at because that was the platform I chose. He offered to implement the game for me on TTS, which he prefers, and then he did. And he also implemented a steadily increasing number of other games for that platform. It's impressive. So, when Hunter later contacted me to see if I might be interested in porting UCS to TTS (yay, acronyms!), I said I knew someone who already knew how to do it and that they might be willing to give it a try. Fast forward a little--gloss!--and we're testing the game for 4P on Dave's TTS implementation. Which, BTW, is very slick.

I didn't think 4P would make that much of a difference. In 4P, you only play one card to each trick; four cards get played to the trick, same as in 2P, but you only get to contribute one of those four. And you also only get to win one of the four cards in the pool. That difference was enough to change how the game felt; it felt more tactical. Which, to me, is how trick-taking games usually feel. The 2P game, on the other hand, feels more strategic. It feels like you can plan more and have more control over your plans working out. I like it both ways but it is a different experience going from 2P to 4P. I still haven't tried 3P, so I can't comment on how that feels. But, my physical copy of the game did arrive in the mail not too long ago. So, perhaps, I'll get to see what 3P is like using the actual cards for a change.

I think Ugly Christmas Sweaters is an excellent game. It appears to scale well, but with a slightly different experience at each player count--which is fine. It uses its theme very well, and it gives me a game that I can bring out during the holidays (but, no, not only then) and enjoy with my family. Definitely recommend trying out.

Sorry for the wait, Hunter. Thanks for letting me play your game. Early.

Board Game: Baśka Kaszubska

Credit: @fogus

The Sevens

Baśka Kaszubska

I agree 100% with Raymond's assessment. My comment for the game:

A ridiculous pub game with very little control. It's a wild, silly ride that you can enjoy if you don't take it seriously. I would never, never play this for money.
But I would play it. And I would double. But never if real money was on the line.

French Tarot
I play this occasionally, on an app. I think it's to remind myself that I don't actually like it all that much. I still rate it a 7 but I'm not sure if I should. I seem to not care for Type II tarot games (the fool is used as an excuse and the games assign the usual card values). So far I've played French Tarot, Droggn, and Danish Tarok and haven't loved any of them. Perhaps I need to try the game at a player count other than 4?

The two-player Tarot that I played is one that Raymond discussed in his geeklist post, linked to earlier. It was a trick-and-draw tarot when I played it but I suggested Michael might want to explore a Piquet exchange instead. It sounds like that may have been an improvement? I'll have to try it again to see.

External image


This is a game that gets in its own way. It's another example of a traditional card game that could use some development. Or maybe it just needed further evolution? We'll see when we get to try its descendant, Ottocento.

[Edit: Tried Ottocento. Evolution chose the wrong path. Development is needed]

I'm not sure what this would have been like to play in person with real cards and if we did not have the board we used to track which team had captured which trump. The multiple robbing the pack mechanisms are ridiculous. Seriously. Oh, I know why they did them--to help people discover more of the far-too-many unknown cards in the deck, but it's a whole lot of awkward fumbling that would have been better served by the simple expedient of reducing the size of the pack.

But, once you get past that ugliness, there is a very clever team-based, set collection, trick-taking game to play. It would do quite well as a board game if an appropriate theme were applied (and even without). The best part of the game is about trying to capture certain trumps that form sets or sequences, while also trying to capture certain other trump to block your opponents from doing the same. The blocking part is great fun. And any redevelopment of this game needs to "focus on the fun"[1].

The Rest

Playing Polish Tarock was not a memorable experience. I mean, I can barely remember playing it. It was like the Milquetoast of Tarock. There's a fine mantle to own. Not great.

Board Game: Duck Soup
Duck Soup is several clever ideas mashed together and then pushed out the door. The multiplication-scoring is very clever but also very punishing. In our game, I believe I took something like 7 tricks in the first portion, but--because I do a bit better at recalling which cards have not been played--11 tricks in the latter portion. The final score was very lop-sided in my favour.

For me, it felt like I was playing a gimmick-game. You have a clever idea, a gimmick, you make a game to showcase that gimmick and then people get to experience your gimmick and decide if it really was clever or not. Pat on the head, good job.

But the game experience itself is often hollow and unsatisfying as a result. There's no soul. It's a mesh of clockwork gears that run to get a result. The spark of life isn't there.

Lua Cheia and Schwarz und Weiss are further examples of gimmick games.

Lua Cheia is an experiment by the designer of American Bookshop, Taiki Shinzawa, where he tried to teach the principles of play for a must-follow game but using a may-follow game and a very small deck of cards to do it. And it felt like an experiment. It was cute. It was kind of clever but there wasn't much there to enjoy.

Schwarz oder Weiss (Black or White) was an experiment by another Japanese designer that worked as an experiment but not so much as a game.

In many German trick-taking games there is a bid called Schwarz, which is a bid to take all of the tricks. A Slam, if you will. The designer of this game lamented that this most interesting of bids was so seldom called and so they decided to do something about it. This was the result.

How it works is this: after receiving their first card, two players take turns drawing cards into their hand until one of them bids Schwarz or one of them bids Weiss (a bid to take zero tricks). After the bid is made, the declarer can opt to have more cards dealt or play with what they have. The hand size can vary from two to five cards, at most. The first lead sets the trump suit and from there it is standard must-follow trick-taking.

It's a neat idea, and it works for what it's trying to do, but it's not something I would want to play more than once, nod to say that it worked, and then never try to play it again. It's not a bad game. It's just not a satisfying game.

You know how they give you these small portions of food at gourmet restaurants, and the purpose is for you to experience the isolated flavours of the chef's latest, genius experiment?

Well, I'd rather have the Chili.

The new wave of trick-taking designs coming out of Japan is a marvel to behold. There are games that are refining classics, giving them that extra bit of development I seem to keep harping about, to make them presentable for a modern audience. And then there's this tsunami of trick-takers-with-a-twist. These can be hit-or-miss. When they hit, as they have with American Bookshop and Nokosu Dice, they produce modern classics; when they miss, it's like hoping for fireworks but finding a damp squib. Disappointing.


Gan Deng Yan
Or, as I like to call it, "Paddington".

I was introduced to this game by Robert (BankofDracula) who learned it from one of his students. It reminded me that, despite being the greatest resource for traditional card game rules on the planet, was sadly incomplete. There are more card games out there than were dreamt of in my philosophy... [Your narrator gazes out into a night sky filled with uncountable stars, clutching the skull of Yorick. Alas.]

Too much? Let's bring this ship back to ground.

The game is like eating potato chips (crisps for my British readers), you keep wanting just one more.

Fascinating and frustrating. The name of the game is descriptive, "to watch helplessly". The other translations are "Glaring Eye" or "Hard Stare". It's the look you give the player that stops you from climbing higher. Like this:
From gallery of seandavidross

Gan Deng Yan is a low-hand-size (5-6 cards) climbing game with very restrictive response rules: you can only play a combo that is a single rank higher (e.g., respond to 4 with 5, respond to 456 with 567), 2s, or a triple/quad bomb. There are 38 unknown cards at the beginning of a 3 player game, so there's quite a bit of luck involved. You need to prepare your mind for being thwarted and you need to keep your hand ready to respond to being thwarted at the right moment.

Despite the luck during the early rounds, you can usually still play well or poorly with what you're given. However, as the hand progresses, fewer and fewer cards are unknown: eventually, if the hand lasts long enough, the draw pile will be empty and you'll have quite a good idea of what cards are where. Then, certainly, skill is very much on display.

I still haven't played this with 2. Rafał W. Orkan (Skeeza) introduced it to his wife who "was just crazy happy playing it one-more-time and one-more-time again and again, even tho she lost most hands." So, it's probably pretty good at 2. I would guess that the scope for skilful play will diminish with more players. You add an extra deck to the game for 5 or 6. so it becomes more likely that someone--definitely not you--O! never you--will be able to respond to what has been led. Surely, somebody can play on this... Anybody? Grrrrrr!

I continue to enjoy this one quite a bit; though I may be adding significantly to my frown lines by playing it...

Guan Dan

In the past, I've suggested that the feel of playing Tichu is like high-wire, movie Kung Fu and that Haggis feels more like a grappling sport--Brazilian Jujitsu comes to mind. Well, keeping with that theme, Guan Dan would be the professional, tag-team wrestling of climbing games.

It's body slams and pile drivers and flying off the top ropes to destroy your opponents. It's flash and glam but mostly slam.

Imagine if WWE was real. It's like that.

It begins with the hand size--27 cards--which is flamboyance itself (and yet is not the largest hand size in climbing games (See Băo huáng (保皇), which can have 43 card hands. Life goals). Because you have so many cards, you have so much to choose from. You've got most of the expected combinations--sets, straights, full houses, even stairs (though they call them plates)--but a few unusual ones like tubes (consecutive triples), 10-of-a-kind bombs, and the almighty 4-joker-bomb. It's a smorgasbord. All you can eat special. It's the candy store near where you grew up. You'll want to use them all.
Board Game: Guan Dan

The game plays out with regular floods of 6 card stairs or tubes, followed by dribbles of smaller combinations punctuated by the occasional full house or straight. But that's just the calm before the storm. Most rounds escalate to a flurry where multiple waves of increasingly powerful bombs are blasted into each other for longer than you might think possible. And then it ends. And the mists clear. And you start building towards the next wave.

It's a wonderful, mad, fun and smart game. Absolutely recommend.

Haggis (6P)

I always knew that Haggis could be extended to support more than 3 players; I just never bothered to do it because I didn't want to be in direct competition with Tichu. I would surely be found wanting in comparison. And who wants that?

Then, about 3 years ago now, a publisher approached me about designing a climbing game for them. I wasn't motivated; I'd already been published so I wasn't driven by the prospect of doing it again. Still, shortly thereafter, I had a notion that did drive my interest. I began to wonder what it would have been like if climbing games had been introduced to Spain in, say, the 1600's. What would a climbing game, played with a Spanish-suited deck of cards, be like? This got me working on a game that I currently call "Rooster".

At first, I tried to steer the game away from being another version of Haggis. But, as the development went on, the best version of the game kept pulling me in that direction; I would have ideas that I put into Rooster and then I would think, "I could do that with Haggis as well". So, I started developing the two games in parallel. They aren't identical--the decks are different, there are different bombs, and Rooster has 6 wild cards (yes, 6)--but they are definitely fraternal.

Eventually, I stopped working on Rooster and began to focus on Haggis. I'll probably return to Rooster at some point, but I will change its combos to be restricted in length to no more than 6 cards. At least, that's what I think I'll do.

Anyway. Haggis. I got the 4P game working very well, I think. It's a different enough experience from Tichu that I feel it merits existence. Some people might like it; I do. More than Tichu. Shhhhhhhh! Don't let Tichu know!

There are some interesting features in the game. If you win a round with a bomb, you can either lead OR you can give the lead to your partner. Your team scores points based on the number of cards your opponents are holding when you go out; if your partner goes out second, even if the opponents have managed to get their hand sizes down, your team scores a Slam--which means that your partner scores whatever you scored when you went out. So. Big Points. Potentially. However, if you go out first, but don't get a Slam, it's entirely possible for the opposing team to score more points for cards in hand points than your team. It's also possible for them to greatly reduce the damage they will take for cards in hand points by getting their hand sizes down quickly; defensive play is meaningful.

While I was at it, I figured I'd take a stab at making the game work for 5 and 6 players as well. I still haven't played the 5P game but I've had several tests of the 6P game. I like it. I think it's really very good. But it takes a long time to play. Like, 90 minutes for 3 hands, long. We're playing online, so the length could be inflated, but I'd still say it would take at least 60 minutes to play it in person. Sure, it's a fully engaging 60 minutes, but yeah, 3 hands. I don't know... Also, the last playtest I had for the game, back in July, ended up in a blowout; this discouraged me enough to quit play-testing for the next 3 months (please don't judge me, I was sad). The scoring wasn't (isn't) where I want it to be. I'm hoping to get back to it sometime in November.

Okay. I think that's enough. I'll stop now.

[1] "focus on the fun" is one of Jay Cormier's mantras for game design. Jay and I are both members of the Game Artisans of Canada. Name-drop accomplished.
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Sun Oct 18, 2020 8:54 pm
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Playtesting Request

From gallery of seandavidross
I've recently been playtesting a 4P version of Haggis (thank you playtesters!). It's based on some ideas I developed while creating Rooster (at this point, they are essentially the same game with different distributions and slightly different bombs). I think it works very well. And, if Rooster is a good indicator (and it seems to be), the 6p game will also be very good. I still have to test it, and my new 3p version of the game, but I think this is going to work out.

However, here's the thing: When I increased the number of cards in the deck to match the higher player counts, I also increased the number of point cards you would have to fish out of your tricks at the end of the hand, which is a bit tedious on its own, but then you also have to do all of the arithmetic with those additional point cards and that really was tedious. So, I got rid of the point cards.

And it was fine. In fact, it was better.

Now, at every player count other than 2P, you do not add up point cards; instead, you simply count how many total cards you captured and that number is your score. It's much simpler. It's much quicker. It's cleaner and it's easier. And it works for 3P, 4P, and 6P (and will work for 5P if I ever get around to working on that).

My concerns now are: Should I also remove the point cards from 2P so that the game is consistent for all player counts? Is the game as good at 2P without the point cards? If I remove point cards from the game, is this still Haggis? Or should I move on and call this game something else, like Rooster?

What I would like--what I need--is for people who play 2P Haggis already to try the game again at least twice. Play a full 2P game with the rules as they are now. Then, play a full 2P game but instead of adding up point cards, just count the number of cards that you capture and score that amount for captured cards. And then tell me which you prefer. The results of these tests will determine what a reprint of Haggis (or printing with some other name) will become...

Poll: Haggis 2P without point cards
Is Haggis without point cards better, worse, or pretty much the same?
      7 answers
Poll created by seandavidross

Poll: Haggis or Rooster
Should I still call this game, that does not have point cards, Haggis?
      9 answers
Poll created by seandavidross


Note: I changed the first poll. It was not worded clearly before.

If the answers are "Better" or "Pretty much the same" then the point cards will go away. If the majority answer is "Worse", which I doubt, the point cards would stay, but only in the 2P game.
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Sat Jun 6, 2020 6:50 pm
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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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