The Fool & His Nibs

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

or

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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