The Fool & His Nibs

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Iron Spades? Kitchen Sink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Just the Cards

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

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

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

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

Scoring A1 (Tarock-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 8 2 16 10.0% 5.0%
A 5 8 40 25.0% 3.1%
K 4 8 32 20.0% 2.5%
Q 3 8 24 15.0% 1.9%
J 2 8 16 10.0% 1.3%
T 1 8 8 5.0% 0.6%
9 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
8 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
7 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
6 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
5 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
4 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
3 1 2 2 1.3% 0.6%
2 5 2 10 6.3% 3.1%
160


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

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

Scoring A2 (Ace-Ten-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 20 2 40 13.3% 6.7%
A 11 8 88 29.3% 3.7%
T 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
K 4 8 32 10.7% 1.3%
Q 3 8 24 8.0% 1.0%
J 2 8 16 5.3% 0.7%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
300


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

Board Game: Pitch
Scoring A3 (All-Fours-like)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 2 10 5.6% 2.8%
A 4 8 32 17.8% 2.2%
K 3 8 24 13.3% 1.7%
Q 2 8 16 8.9% 1.1%
J 1 8 8 4.4% 0.6%
T 10 8 80 44.4% 5.6%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 5 2 10 5.6% 2.8%
180


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

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

Scoring A4 (Poker Chips)
Rank Chip Qty Total % Ind. %
F 20 2 40 13.3% 6.7%
A 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
K 10 8 80 26.7% 3.3%
Q 5 8 40 13.3% 1.7%
J 5 8 40 13.3% 1.7%
T 0 8 0 0.0% 0.0%
9 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
8 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
7 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
6 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
5 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
4 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
3 0 2 0 0.0% 0.0%
2 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
300


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

I do like keeping score with poker chips...

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

The Beauty of Dozens

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

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

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

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

In the end, it's all just yuck.

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

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

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

Board Game: Traditional Card Games

Trull, or Honours

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

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

Scoring B1 (Tarock-like, distinct jokers)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 2 10 6.7% 3.3%
A 5 8 40 26.7% 3.3%
K 4 8 32 21.3% 2.7%
Q 3 8 24 16.0% 2.0%
J 2 8 16 10.7% 1.3%
T 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
9 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
8 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
7 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
6 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
5 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
4 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
3 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
2 1 2 2 1.3% 0.7%
F 5 2 10 6.7% 3.3%
150


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

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

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

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

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

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

Scoring C1 (Pip Value)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 15 2 30 10.0% 5.0%
A 11 2 22 7.3% 3.7%
K 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
Q 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
J 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
T 10 2 20 6.7% 3.3%
9 9 2 18 6.0% 3.0%
8 8 2 16 5.3% 2.7%
7 7 2 14 4.7% 2.3%
6 6 6 36 12.0% 2.0%
5 5 6 30 10.0% 1.7%
4 4 6 24 8.0% 1.3%
3 3 6 18 6.0% 1.0%
2 2 6 12 4.0% 0.7%
300


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

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

I know.

It's a lot.

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

Board Game: Hungarian Tarokk


The Trouble with Doubles

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

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

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

SCORING D1 (Tarock-like, for one deck)
Rank Points Qty Total % Ind. %
F 5 1 5 6.3% 6.3%
A 5 4 20 25.0% 6.3%
K 4 4 16 20.0% 5.0%
Q 3 4 12 15.0% 3.8%
J 2 4 8 10.0% 2.5%
T 1 4 4 5.0% 1.3%
9 1 4 4 5.0% 1.3%
8 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
7 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
6 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
5 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
4 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
3 1 1 1 1.3% 1.3%
2 5 1 5 6.3% 6.3%
80


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

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

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




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

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

Doublehead Kids
https://doublehead-kids.de/en/the-game/

Board Game: Doublehead Kids


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