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Swimming in pips and painted faces

It has been over a year since I wrote about my history with cards:

I’ve spent a lot of time since then playing cards, mostly with my family, which I'm convinced is the best way to do it.

Here’s a list of lists for those who like lists.

Top 3 favorite 2p card games
1 Haggis
2 Schotten Totten
3 Scopa

Magic: The Gathering should probably be here at #1. I still love it, specifically drafting, any form of drafting, or even limited constructed. But, yeah, I also hate everything about it, the cost, the felt (real?) need for a constant influx of new cards, the community that is caught in an obsessive culture that is not healthy (yes, I went there) and jokes about how unhealthy it is (cardboard crack, etc). If a game can be judged by the culture that it spawns (and I think it can be), then I think it's fair to continue to stay away from this scene.

You might have heard of Haggis? I would be worried about praising it too much, but I’m late to the party on this one, and Sean already knows that he created an excellent game. If his head were going to explode from too much praise, it would have happened already! I’ve only played Tichu once and half the table wasn’t enthusiastic about it, so it’s hard to truly compare, but I prefer Haggis. What elevates it for me is that everyone always has at least one 'bomb' at their disposal, but doesn’t always want to use that bomb because the constituent parts of the bomb are useful as wild elements completing other incomplete puzzling elements in the hand. How to best get rid of all of these cards?? I had a great game recently (playing to 350 points) with my 11yo in which she was ahead 222 to 29 and I was able to pull off an insane comeback win 386-290. That was exciting.

Lost Cities used to be my Knizia 2p card game of choice. I still do love Lost Cities, and both games are full of delicious tension, but I prefer Schotten Totten’s tug-of-war tension right now. It is really satisfying to be holding on to those cards you know your opponent needs, then playing one of them right after they’ve given up on their plan. Likewise, the pain of having to commit to an action while being uncertain of being able to complete it in the best way is just the right kind of pain. So good.

And Scopa. This one might stay or it might go. I almost left this spot blank or filled it with another Knizia (Lost Cities or even Duell). I need to play Scopa more this year. I found it to be a relaxing game, enjoyable in the best way a casual game can be. I’ve already forgotten some of the weirder scoring quirks (the 7 of diamonds is important, right? something like that?), but I want to play this again more than other games in this category, which is what nabs it the #3 spot.

Top 3 favorite 3p card games
1 Plus-Minus Jass
2 Ambiente Abissal
3 Boon (Sheepshead)

3p is a sweet spot for card games for me. There’s still a lot of control, but the addition of one more person increases the unpredictability substantially.

Plus-Minus Jass is a brilliant game. Play to 7 victory points. Each hand, you win a vp by having either the highest score (based on card points won in tricks) without going over 100 or the lowest score. If you’re that third player stuck in the middle, you get nothing. What’s especially beautiful about this is that it takes something many people don’t like about 3p games, something that I’ve always loved, and just doubles down on it. If two players are competing for one thing, the best position as the third player is to go for the opposite thing. So here, if two players are going for points, avoid tricks and settle into lowest score. If two players are losing lots of tricks, go all in and get the highest score (keeping an eye on points to stay under 100). This involves first, reading your hand when it is dealt to you, but then, second, reading the other players, and being flexible enough to pivot in response when needed. This is complicated by trump being determined by one of the players during the course of play! And all of this packed into a fairly rules-light game that is easy to pick up (especially if cards are marked with points values, which can change depending on trump).

Ambiente Abissal is an even lighter game that plays super-duper-extra-booper-quick. It’s played to 6vps and rounds are quick. The “gimmick” of this climbing game is that not only are there numerical ranks as usual; the colored suits themselves are ranked. Lead player plays 1 card or a pair of cards. The next players must play a higher number (following single or pair) or a higher color. The thing is, it’s not just a gimmick. It increases the choices significantly and makes for tough decisions. It’s still a very light game, but it’s a satisfying one, like that peppery popcorn at the bar that has you eating a handful of popcorn because it’s so good, taking a swig of beer because it’s so peppery, then taking another handful because yum, then more beer, then more popcorn, then suddenly you’re ordering your 3rd beer and asking for another refill of that tasty popcorn. Ambiente Abissal is like that, in the best way.

And Boon (Sheepshead). Like Scopa (how often do Sheepshead and Scopa get linked together?), this is one that I played and greatly enjoyed last year and just never returned to because, as we all know, there are always new games, even for those of us who are actively trying not to buy new games!! What I love about this one is the 1 vs 2 nature of it. By ‘picking’, you’re shouting that you’re confident enough with your hand to beat two other players actively working to undermine everything you do. It feels great to accomplish this and it feels great to stop someone else from doing it! Maybe someday I'll try the 5p game, but I really love it as a 3p game. I just need to play it more.

Top 3 favorite 4p card games
1 Hearts

Yes, I find trick avoidance very satisfying. Yes, Hearts is fairly simple. Yes, I like fairly simple. Not only is trick avoidance satisfying. Slipping nasty cards to others at the table is very satisfying. It’s maybe the perfect family game for me if I had stopped procreating at 2 kids. :-p

I’m looking forward to trying Haggis 4p. I almost put it in this slot just based on reading through the rules.

I almost put Maskmen on this list, but I'm still unsure about it.

It's also possible that Doublehead Kids might settle in here, but I've only had one play of it.

The truth right now is that at 4p settling down with a deck of cards I'd always rather play Hearts than anything else.

Top 3 favorite 5p card games
1 Vivaldi
2 Oh Hell
3 High Society

Vivaldi is so good that I wrote a true review of it, something that I hadn’t done for any other game in a long while (usually settling for rambling incoherent comments scattered across a dozen different places instead). It’s the secret partner aspect and the simplicity of it that I love. It’s even the bidding system that determines the picker that I love.

Oh Hell is a close second at 5p, again because it’s simple. Its exact bidding rewards skill (and some risks), but is also frustratingly stupid in a fun way when there is hardly any information and you're making a bid based on seeing one card. I play that meeting the bid scores 10 points, but every trick won also scores a point, which I find is a bit kinder and forgiving, while also really allowing the game to continue to be almost entirely about meeting your bid.

Finally, High Society. Is it a card game? It’s played entirely with cards, so maybe? I’ll admit that it feels less like a card game than any other game I’ve mentioned so far. It’s an auction and resource (money) management game. The status cards could easily be tiles. The money cards could be Monopoly money. I think maybe I’m talking myself out of including this one? Dang. Um, how about I slip No Thanks in this spot real quietly right now. Did anyone notice? Is anyone still reading this? No? Phew.

Top 3 favorite 6p card games

I've got nothing here.

I'll eventually try Haggis 6p. I should also try Cancellation Hearts at 5 and 6. It has been a while, but I like 6 Nimmt. Ziegen Kriegen goes up to 6. 6p is pushing at the limits of what I'd like to play, either card game or board game. At 6, you might as well go outside and play kuub or settle into some stupid Telestrations fun. Pagat has a very helpful 'games by number of players' list. I should check out more of these 6p+ games.


The question that follows all of this is… can’t I just be satisfied with these great games? 2 players and want to play? Choose between Haggis or Schotten Totten. 3 Players? Plus-Minus, Abyss, or Boon. 4p? Hearts. And so on. Pick from 2 or 3 games that we all know well instead of picking from a dozen or two dozen or several dozen games that I’m fuzzy on the rules for and don’t remember liking quite as much as these. Of course, I’ll keep trying new games because I like playing new games, but that shouldn’t be the usual thing. The usual, the normal, should be just defaulting to a handful of favorites.

I should stop writing this same thing over and over again in different ways and just be more active in actually doing it instead.
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