The Fool & His Nibs

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Trick-Taking in the Time of Corona (Part 1)

Part 1 | Part 2


From gallery of seandavidross
It's been over a year since the lockdowns began. It's been a weird time; and time has been weird. It feels like so much longer than it's actually been. Kept away from friends and family; spending farFAR too much time on the internet; sleeping quite poorly. But making new friends online. Playing plenty of new games (and sooo many old ones) but also suddenly being bombarded with more ideas for card games than I've ever had before all of this wretched stuckinnedness began (Really. There was only ever the one idea; well, 1.5 ideas).

I've never thought of myself as a Designer (bear with me); I think of myself more as a Developer (I have helped develop quite a few published games over the last decade or so). Or, if not a Developer, then maybe a Synthesizer (that would be a combiner of ideas, not the musical instrument, you pedant). I'm pretty good at synthesis. At least. I think am? In any case, I've been doing a fair amount of the stuff while we've all been inside, waiting for the world to return. Some of the synthesis has worked (and some hasn't--or not well enough to share). Or, I think it has; I could be wrong. Still, other people seem to like what I've been doing, so I thought perhaps there might be other folks who'd like to hear about this stuff that has seemed to work. And perhaps to hear about some stuff that has yet to be tried (and that may or may not work). That's what this post is supposed to be about. I might ramble (perhaps we're already in the middle of one?). I might touch on the trick-takers I've played during this time (there've been so many) but I've covered those in other places and I'd rather not go over that ground again. Instead, I'll try to focus on the "new" trick-takers I've cobbled together. And, mostly, that will involve talking about the strawmen.

And maybe some strawberries. At the end. If you're good...

The Strawman Variations

A strawman is a pile of cards. It is most often used, alongside other strawmen, as an extension of a player's hand in a small number of two-player adaptations of typically three- or four-player trick-taking games. The most famous of these adaptations, if you can call it famous, is probably Officer's Skat. It's called Officer's, apparently, because the German army officers would not deign to play cards with the enlisted men, which often left them short the requisite 3rd player, and an adaptation was made so that the hoity-toity could still play something that approximated their favourite card game. The Officer's treatment was applied to Schafkopf as well, though that is a less hoity-toity member of the same family ([insert horrible black-sheepshead-of-the-family jokes here]).

The Officer's versions usually employ a number of two-card strawmen, with one card face-down and the second card face-up on top of the other one (you can have more or fewer cards, with different mixes of face-up/face-down ordering); only after the top card has been played is the card underneath revealed and made available to be played in subsequent tricks. In many of these variants, the players do not have a hidden hand of cards; all of the cards that will be played are dealt out to form the strawman piles. For versions that do include a hidden hand, their names sometimes receive a justly-deserved promotion in rank from that of lowly Officer (or Lieutenant) to the grand title of Admiral (as in Admiral Skat). I tend to prefer the Admiral variety, with its hidden information. So my Strawman Variations use that.

Note that a strawman is not quite a dummy. The distinction being that a dummy is played from as though it were another player, distinct from the human players; a strawman is part of the human player's hand (an extension), it is played from as an alternative to playing from its owner's hand (assuming the strawman system in use has a hidden hand--many do not, including Officer's Skat). We probably need another term for strawmen used in this way. As it stands, we use strawman to mean both the individual piles of cards and to mean the extension to the player's hand. That can get confusing. For instance, the dummy player in The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine (and in its even better sequel), is made from strawmen, but it is not a strawman (it is not used as a strawman, it is used as a dummy). All of this might seem like a distinction without a difference, but it is different (mechanically and experientially).

That said, it was seeing the dummy in The Crew that set off over a year's worth of experiments with two-player card games that I've taken to calling my Strawman Variations. (Other people call it The "Can you move on to something original soon for Frick's sake?" Period)

That dummy reminded me of a 2P Euchre variant I had been taught back in the dark ages of ye olde 1980s: it used 5 two-card strawmen as an extension of the player's five-card-hand (for a total of 15 tricks) but it also used the 4-player Euchre scoring, which was not a good match. I remember not particularly enjoying that game; I wished there were better alternatives for 2P trick-taking. There are, of course, 2P trick-taking games--and a few are even good--but there are so very few that I actually like or that I would want to play on a regular basis. I figured someone else would make some. At some point. Eventually. So, I waited.

Nearly 35 years passed and nobody else had made one that I loved.

Some I liked; none I loved.

So, I figured I'd take a stab at it myself. And that intention led toStrawman Variation I.

Tuque (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

I started working on Tuque (Two Player Euchre => Two-chre => Tuque; Get it??) back in June of 2020. It's 14 months later and I'm still making tweaks. I think it's very good but I'm not completely satisfied that the scoring is where I want it to be.

At first, it was just a faithful write-up of the rules I had been taught oh-so-many-years ago. It seems likely that the version I played originated in Almonte, Ontario (about 35km from where I grew up)--they play a 6-handed Euchre that adds the 2, 3, and 4 of Spades as Super Trump (or Bennies). That game used a 35 card deck (7 to Ace in four suits, plus the 3 bennies): 5 two-card strawmen were dealt out to each player, along with a hand of 5 cards, and 5 cards were left in the kitty. I liked the 5-5-5 motif that was happening there. But, after doing some more strawman variations, I came back to this one and added the 6s to the deck (bringing the deck size up to 39 cards) and dealt out hands of 7 cards.

My experience has been that you want the hand size to be about 60-80% of the strawmen size (In this case, the hand size is 7 and the strawmen contain 10 cards, so 70%). I don't know why this range feels right; it seems to be a sweet spot. I've been aiming at this range with all of my variations so far. It's become part of a formula (which I will spell out at the end of this post).

The thing I hadn't liked about the variant I'd been taught was the scoring. There were 15 total tricks available to be played but the scoring was very broad: if the maker took 8 to 14 tricks, they scored 1 point; if they took 15, they scored 2; if the defender took 8 tricks, the hand ended with a Euchre and they scored 2 points. It just wasn't granular enough to be satisfying.

I looked and found Joe Chellman’s rules for Two-Handed Euchre. Joe used a different layout with all cards dealt out (4 down, 4 up, 4 in hand)--which I didn't like--but his scoring was 1 point per trick, 2 points per trick if there was a Euchre--which I did like (or, at least, I liked it better).

So I stole that bit.

It's very Euchre in that it is punishing for the maker to miss their target. I'm not sure how fair it is but Euchre isn't particularly fair either. In any case, I've been thinking I want to change that scoring to be less unbalanced (see the Elastic Tuque variant) but I'm not sure. One thing Joe's scoring system provides is High Drama™; the sense of relief when you manage to scrape past the rubicon, or the joy of the defender when you fail, is amplified by the unfairness of the scoring. Maybe it's better to be unfair sometimes? If it makes the overall experience better?

I'm still mulling this one over...

Moosehead (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation II, Moosehead, began as an attempt to make a 2P variant of Doublehead Kids to play with my son. Once I had that working, I decided to make the variant work for the full game of Doppelkopf, adding in its more varied options for trump. And then I decided to make tweaks to the rules of Doppelkopf (sacrilege!) so that, while extremely close to being an Admiral Doppelkopf, Moosehead is a slightly different (and I think better) member of the same family (you could backport my changes to the 4P game, and I would but who would I play it with?). Since what I'd made was not strictly Doppelkopf, I decided to give it a new name. One that was still in keeping with the animal-head convention of the Schafkopf family. I tried a couple of things; eventually, I settled on Moosehead. I thought it sounded good; plus it amused me to use the name of a Canadian beer brand.

The first tweak I made was to include the Foxes and Charlie Miller in all of the suit contracts; not just Diamonds. The Foxes and Charlie Miller are fun so why not have more of them? In Moosehead, for any game where the trump is a suit, the Aces of that suit are Foxes. Charlie Miller, of course, is still just Charlie Miller. No change required. Sadly, Charlie and the Foxes don't quite work in the other contracts (Queens, Jacks, and Vegetarian) but 4 out of 7 isn't shabby.

The other change I made was to allow for an unbidden game to be played (for a lower score). If neither player wanted to bid, then a default game of Diamonds is played and the winner scores 1 point (there is no declarer or defender, per se). If a bidden game is played, where one player chooses to name trump (it could be Diamonds), the game is worth 2 points if the declarer wins, or 3 points if the defender wins. I think it's nice to have an option for playing the hand even if both players are too afraid to name a suit (somebody is going to win, and that person will learn that they probably should have bid as they would have made more points for doing it).

After having made several more strawmen, I came back to this one and gave the first option to name trump to the player who was trailing in points (or to the non-dealer if the scores are tied). Previously, it had just always been non-dealer first (the turn to deal alternates); I've since decided that I might as well give an advantage to the player that is behind (if that's not your cup of tea, then by all means, just go with the earlier version).

The big difference when moving from Tuque to Moosehead was that Tuque was a plain trick-taking game while Moosehead was a point trick-taking game. In a 2P trick-taker, I think it's best to always have at least a little hidden information (otherwise the game degenerates into being a puzzle). With a plain trick-taker, you can just set aside a small number of unseen cards and then play with the rest of the cards--it doesn't matter which cards are out-of-play. With a point trick-taking game, which cards are out-of-play matters--and it matters increasingly depending on the number of cards that are out-of-play.

You almost always need all of the point cards to be capturable so that the scoring of the game you are adapting does not need to change. This means you want all of the point cards to be scored but you also want some cards to be out-of-play. You could set some cards aside, blindly, and then let the player that captures the last trick also win these set-aside cards, but the number of points in those set-aside cards can vary wildly: suppose you set aside 2 cards in an Ace-Ten game, those cards could be worth 0 points or they could be worth 22 points. That is quite a lottery (which can be fun in the right game but in a serious game, it's just too much luck swinging in someone's favour).

Instead of blindly setting cards aside, in my early variations of point trick games, I went with dealing out all of the cards; I then let each player put one card from their hand into their own capture pile. This gets two cards out of play (there is one unknown card for each player), the amount that goes into the capture pile is controlled by the players--not by random chance--AND the value of those hidden cards can never exceed 11 points for either player. Pretty good. Not bad. But a few months later I transitioned to what is now my current preference.

Instead of putting a card into your own capture pile, I now make players put a card into their opponent's capture pile.

This change means that most of the high-value point cards remain in play (to be captured by trick-play instead of being squirreled away without being fought over); it also means that, if you want to have more unseen cards in the game, you can have the players discard two or three cards, say, instead of just one and be reasonably certain that (out of protecting their self-interest) most if not all of the point cards will remain in play for the round.

Because I found the trick-play of Moosehead, with its focus on capturing point cards over just capturing tricks, to be more interesting than the trick-play in Tuque, I kept my attention turned to point trick games for Strawman Variation III (and for several variations afterward).

Strohmann Jass (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

I knew I wanted to have a 2P Jass game, at some point, but I wasn't entirely sure which Jass I wanted to port to this strawman structure. I knew that Differenzler was out (precision trick-takers of any kind are really not an option when nearly a third of your hand is unknown to you!) and I also didn't want any of the Jass games that used melds (I think it's okay to have games that capture melds--like Klaverjassen--but ones that display melds to trade information gain for bonus points are not a great fit for a game where you would be forming melds with cards from a hidden hand and cards from your strawmen, and once again you have a third of your hand unknown so more melds may exist that you cannot score simply because you are unaware of them--for now). I also don't think that games with bidding are a great fit for strawmen (unless the bidding is quite broad--as in "I will win more than you" rather than "I will win this many"). So, no La Belote Coinchée.

Domage.

Coiffeur-Jass seemed like the best fit (though there are several other Jass games that would function nicely using this same configuration of hand size and strawmen--I leave this as an exercise for the reader...). For my version, I decided to keep the scoring relatively simple (no potatoes!)--you just score the number of card points you capture. There are no multipliers for the different types of contracts. I also don't force you to play through all of the different types of contracts; instead, you decide how many different contracts you want to play (I recommend 3 to 6 per player--or 6 to 12 deals); that's how many you play.

Of course, there's nothing stopping people from using this structure to play a complete game of Coiffeur-Jass, with 10 different contracts and different multipliers for certain groupings of contract. You can potato to your heart's content (or 20 deals have been played, whichever comes first). You also don't need to restrict yourself to the contract types I've chosen: if you just loves you some Gustav or Slalom then, by all means, add them. Strohmann Jass is a pretty flexible system for playing a variety of Jass games; adapt it to suit your tastes.

The lesson I learned from Strohmann Jass was that "may trump" trick-taking rules (you must follow suit BUT you may always trump) seems extremely well suited to strawmen when applied to a point trick-taking game (I can't see much advantage to using it in a plain trick-taker). I don't think you'd ever want to loosen the trick-taking restrictions as far as "may follow" (so no Briscola Paglierino is on the horizon) but "may trump", "must follow", and even "must trump" seem to work fine; I haven't tried a game that has "must win" restrictions...yet.

The other thing I particularly like in Strohmann Jass was the Undenufe contract, where the ranks of the cards go from top-down to bottom-up, the eights become worth 8 points and the largest scoring cards (the Aces, worth 11 points each) are also the lowest-ranked cards (some versions of Jass switch the 11 points up to the Sixes, but I don't care for that). This shift in where the weight of the points is located among the card ranks creates a lot of tension and fun card play. I enjoyed this change so much that I paused in my adaptations of existing traditional card games to make an entirely new game that is all about this single aspect of Strohmann Jass.

Always follow the fun.

Vidrasso (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation IV, Vidrasso, is a mash-up. It takes the "may trump" trick-taking and Undenufe-like card ordering (where the most valuable cards are the lowest in rank and the least valuable cards are the highest in rank) from Swiss Jass, combines that with the simple card point system from Vivaldi (the card is worth the number printed on it), and then makes the game a race to a cumulative scoring threshold (a thing in a few traditional games, but I was thinking about Madrasso at this time). After a play-testing session with Fukutarou, I also added trump ranks that function something like the highest trump in Mighty (the trump ranks belong to their original suit, they do not become an extension of the trump suit). So, Vidrassomite?

For a point trick-taking game, Vidrasso is very easy to teach. You don't need to remember which card is worth how many points (the value of the card is its printed rank). The scoring is simple: you just add up the numbers on the cards you capture, keep a cumulative total, and race to reach the target score. The trick play is highly tactical but there's enough control that you feel like you can steer the hand (or your opponent) in the direction you want. The decisions around when to trump and what to trump and how to trump (trump suit or trump rank?), what to lead, when to trade points for information (by revealing the bottom card of a strawman)--these decisions all ride the cusp between certainty and uncertainty. The player that best navigates the maelstrom wins.

I've enjoyed Vidrasso at 2P. And, so far, this had been the first game that I'd worked on that didn't start from an already existing game with a higher player count. And, of course, I've been thinking about how to extend the player range beyond 2P. So far, I've only tried the game at 3P, once, and I was not particularly keen on the result. I'd still like to try it again to see if I can make it work (it just feels like it should); it also seems like a 4P partnership version would be possible but I haven't tried to make that yet and I'm not sure how the partners could communicate effectively to decide on a trump suit or on a trump rank that best fit both of their hands.

While there's nothing really "new" in Vidrasso--as I say, it's a mash-up of ideas from several games--nevertheless, I think the resulting synthesis has formed an original-enough game where none quite like it has existed before and it's one that I think occupies a niche some folks may have been wanting to fill but could not quite articulate what had been missing.

I'm not sure the same can be said about Strawman Variation V.

Mr Canoehead (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

This game is partly an attempt at synthesis between Euchre and Doppelkopf (or, to be more precise, Tuque and Moosehead); however, it is mostly a very much inside joke made to amuse a circle of one. Me.

To understand the joke, you need to be 1. Canadian, and 2. Old enough to remember a very niche Canadian comedy show from the terrible days before cable existed and there were something like 5 channels being picked up by enormous metal contraptions strapped to the sides of people's homes (these contraptions were known as "TV antennas", children). This show was called "Four on the Floor". It featured a troupe called "The Frantics" doing sketch comedy that was only very occasionally amusing (but there wasn't much else on so might as well watch it...).

A recurring skit featured a Canadian super-hero, Mr Canoehead; he had a canoe permanently welded to his noggin during an unfortunate portage incident. His super-power was to thwart evil-doers by turning around (swinging the canoe which would then knock the baddies out cold, by accident). Oops! Sorry!

You have Sheepshead. Doublehead (Doppelkopf). Now Moosehead. Why not Mr Canoehead? Eh?

I went with it.

But it wasn't quite Canadian enough. So I made the game about a trip where the players are "oout" and "aboout"; they take the religiously required detour through a Tim Horton's drive-thru for some essentials (coffee and donuts).

And then I added references to the only other remotely amusing bit I remembered from Four on the Floor (and even that is questionable).


Of course, I kept a spot open for adding in a reference to the Littlest Hobo. If you know what that is, you know why this inclusion is necessary.

Well, really, none of that needs to be included, but once I got going down the wrong path I didn't feel like turning back. If you put the Canadiana aside, the game is an attempt to bolt the scoring from Moosehead onto the plain trick play of Tuque. I liked that Moosehead had an option to play the hand if neither player wanted to bid, and I wasn't sold on the stick-the-dealer rule being used in Tuque, nor was I 100% on the high penalty scoring for being Euchred in that game, so I thought, why not take the scoring from Moosehead (which I liked) and replace the scoring of Tuque (which I was less certain of) to make something that Euchre players (the people who live around me) might like? And that's what I did.

I've only played it once, and it works. It's fine. It's not bad. But it's also not compelling. Maybe give it a try? Maybe don't? I'm not sure what else to say about that one...



And, at this point, I've run out of gas. Hopefully, I'll get the second part done sooner than a year from now. A trip to Timmies might be in order...

Where are the strawberries, Sean? We were promised strawberries! (I said, if you were good)
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