Game Curmudgeon

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Nivåvira or Vira in Levels: Will it supplant Vira, my favourite trick-taking game?

Raymond Gallardo
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While browsing the site of Stockholms Wirasällskap, I discovered Åstols vira och bandyklubb, a Vira club located in the Gothenburg area. Vira clubs across Sweden play the game a bit differently, but the Åstols Vira club play it quite differently! They’ve been playing their version of Vira, Nivåvira or Vira in Levels, for the last 25+ years and have been tweaking and improving its rules regularly.

What’s Vira?

Vira is a trick-taking game for three players. From a standard deck of cards, each player receives a hand 13 cards leaving a stock of 13 cards. Players hold an auction; the player who bids the highest-valued contract becomes the declarer and plays against the other two, who play as a temporary partnership. The goal of the declarer is to win a certain number of tricks with a trump suit, or to lose all tricks with no trump suit.

The game has 40 contracts. The reason why there are so many is that other the number of tricks to win or lose, they vary by how many cards you may exchange, or buy, from the stock.

From gallery of rayzg

Why is Vira so AWESOME?

The bidding is aggressive and intuitive. Unlike Bridge, there’s no need for any bidding conventions! It’s because the types of contracts in the game require totally different cards. There are (a) positive contracts, where you want to win tricks (b) negative contracts, where you want to lose tricks and (c) gask contracts, where you want to exchange most of your hand with the stock. Unlike many other card games that have negative or misère contracts, Vira has a lot of them. So if you start bidding a low negative contract and someone else bids a positive contract, that encourages you to outbid that player with a higher ranked negative contract, which encourages that other player to bid a higher positive contract and so on! Similarly, if you have a mediocre hand but want to bid a negative contract and someone bids a high positive contract, you can try your luck with a gask contract, hoping that the stock is full of low cards!

Card counting isn’t as important. I have an awful memory and find remembering things a chore. In Vira, 13 cards are always out of play! And because players buy cards instead of exchange cards -- meaning players first discard cards they don’t want and then draw the same amount from the stock ... and not the other way around -- the card distribution is usually wonky and unpredictable.

How is Vira in Levels different?

Equally ranked contracts: Contracts on the same row on the bidding table are ranked equally. That means you can outbid by selecting any other unbid contract on the same row. That makes it easier and less risky to bid higher.

From gallery of rayzg

More negative contracts: There’s a very unusual exchange misère contract: You flip face up a certain number of cards from the stock. Then you buy as many cards from the face-down stock (and not from the face up cards). Then you exchange two cards from your hand with one of the face-up cards. This makes it a bit easier to void a suit or get rid of a pesky high card.

Passing conventions: This is the aspect that I think makes Vira in Levels feel very different. A passing convention is a pass during the auction that signifies that you hold certain cards that could defeat the proposed contract of highest bidder. For example, the passing convention for the contract beg (pick a trump suit, buy as many cards as you want, then win six tricks with a trump suit of your choice) is 4 stops in different suits, which means you have a guaranteed trick for each of the four suits (provided that the declarer has cards of that suit). Most of these passing conventions are optional; you can pass and not hold the cards specified by the contract’s passing convention.

This is what makes the game feel very different from “regular” or “Stockholm” Vira: In Stockholm Vira, there’s a big push-your-luck feeling in the auction. As mentioned before, if one player bids one type of contract, that gives you an incentive to bid higher in a totally different kind of contract as the types of contracts in Vira require different cards. In Vira in Levels, passing conventions reveal information about the players’ hands -- information that makes it much easier for the opposing team to defeat the declarer’s contract. In Vira, if you lose your contract by more than two tricks, then you’ll lose more points than the amount you would’ve won if you had won your contract. Couple this with the added ammunition of information from passing conventions, and you’ve changed the auction from a push-your-luck bidding war to something that’s really, really passive-aggressive, akin to letting your friend walk in front of an incoming truck. (Thanks Sean for the analogy!)

Vira in Levels is probably the meanest trick-taking game I’ve ever played, provided that players are using the passing conventions. (Note that many Vira clubs in Sweden use passing conventions, too. But I’ve never played any of their versions.) In Stockholm Vira, a pass feels like a sign of resignation. A pass in Vira in Levels feels like a fuck-you to the declarer!

But will Vira in Levels supplant “Stockholm” Vira

Vira is probably the card game with the highest complexity-of-rules to ease-of-play. This game is surprisingly accessible despite the convoluted bidding table. I find it much easier to play and teach Vira than Skat with its notoriously complex bidding system.

However, Vira in Levels crosses the line when it comes to accessibility. Unlike Stockholm Vira, I’m not able to create a bidding table that’s as clear as the one I made for Stockholm Vira. And any trick-taking game with conventions, by nature, is hard to teach. So I’ll probably suggest Stockholm Vira over Vira in Levels, especially with new players.

But I really love the fuck-you passing in Vira in Levels!

Which version of Vira I should play?

If you’re relatively new to trick-taking games, then play Short Vira. There are only four contracts, and those four are some of the more bizarre contracts. Then move on to Stockholm Vira.

If you want a hint of what Bridge feels like, then definitely try Vira in Levels. All the passing conventions are on the bidding table, and they can all be explained at once.

Also, play Vira in Levels if you are passive-aggressive at heart!
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