The Fool & His Nibs

A very occasional blog on traditional (and traditional-ish) card games.
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Trick-Taking in the Time of Corona (Part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2

From gallery of seandavidross
After a quick trip to Timmies for a small black coffee (no Double-Double for me, thank you) and an apple fritter, I'm re-energized, slightly glazed, and back to hopefully finish talking about strawmen.

And, yes, this time there will be strawberries. Please, try not to get any on the furniture...

The Strawman Variations (cont'd)

After making Mr Canoehead, I took a bit of a break from the strawmen. I started to work on a version of Vira that I could introduce to new players; I wanted something that was less elaborate (less intimidating) but still able to provide a "Vira" experience. I think I have something that works, but I'll talk more about that game (Cowbell Vira) in another post.

What brought me back to the strawmen was a lingering sense that I'd not finished porting all of the games that I'd wanted to cover. So far, I'd made strawmen games based on Euchre, Doppelkopf, Swiss Jass, and then some mashups of those games. I wasn't planning to do strawmen for every game that would work with them (I'll hope to show you why that's not necessary by the end of this post--or possibly the next post) but I did want to make a version for Sheepshead (or, more specifically Schafkopf). And yet, before I started to work on that, I first took a short climbing detour along a different branch of the Schafkopf family tree, up into the realm of the Saskop (and the Tarocks that inspired this group of games in the first place).

Ducktail (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

Strawman Variation VI began life with the name, "Duckhead".

I found it amusing to have a name that kept the [animal]-head convention but also sounded like cussing (f*ckhead or d*ckhead). I considered "Foxhead" but the German name (Fuchskopf) is perhaps a little too on-the-nose to be said in polite company.

The common trait among the Schafkopf-family of games is the promotion of full sets of face cards to top trumps: in Skat, it is all 4 jacks; in Sheepshead/Schafkopf, it's all 4 Jacks AND all 4 Queens. Saskop takes the next logical step and promotes all of the face cards (4 Jacks, 4 Queens, and 4 Kings).

In for a penny; in for a pound.

Ducktail adopts Saskops trump ranking (but I didn't bother to also promote the 6s to absolute boss-hood--because there's enough to learn without also needing to remember that). If Spades are trump, for example, then the full trump suit in Ducktail looks like this:

♣K, ♠K, ♥K, ♦K, ♣Q, ♠Q, ♥Q, ♦Q, ♣J, ♠J, ♥J, ♦J, ♠A, ♠10, ♠9, ♠8, ♠7, ♠6

That's 18 trumps in a deck of 36 cards. This proportion of trump vs non-trump is very reminiscent of Tarock. The trick play, which uses "must trump" rules, is also like Tarock. The difference is in where the points are weighted within the trump suit: Tarock puts all of the big points at the top and at the bottom and almost no points in between; Saskop (and Ducktail) puts points at the top, slowly drops their value, and then piles the majority just above the bottom. This shift in distribution makes capturing card points more interesting.

Ducktail also borrows another aspect of Tarock games: Ultimos. These are feats where you attempt to win the last trick with a certain card. In this case, you are trying to win the last trick with a 9 (a duckling--or, if it's the trump 9, the Duck). The "must trump" rule provides the slight increase in control that helps make this feat possible (yet still somewhat challenging).

While I was adding feats, I also awarded points for capturing the Duck and Ducklings in any of the tricks (I enjoy catching Foxes in Doppelkopf, so I borrowed that and then doubled down on it); all of these Duck-related feats provide a fun challenge (in trying to complete them or in trying to keep your opponent from doing so) and put at least 6 game points up for grabs each hand (potentially as many 10 points, if you can capture all of the ducks and also win the last trick with the Duck).

So, on average, you'll expect to split the duck points between the players--giving each player about 3 points per hand. But Ducktail also has Schafkopf-like scoring for capturing the most point cards. It's not all about the ducks. If you don't think you will catch them, you can instead focus on this other half of the scoring system, which starts out at 3 points but can be increased at the player's discretion up to 6 points (possibly even more) by using Sheepshead's cracking/recracking.

But, of course, in Ducktail, you don't say "Crack!". You say, "Quack!". And you don't "Recrack!", you "Quack Quack!".

So thematic.

With this mash-up of elements from Saskop, Doppelkopf, Sheepshead, and Tarock, Ducktail is a bit more of an original game than Moosehead. It's certainly more than just an Admiral Saskop. Among the Strawman Variations I've made so far, this game and Vivaldi seem the most like new trick-taking experiences as opposed to variants of existing games.

By contrast, Strawman Variation VII, while very much in the same family as Ducktail, is much more of a straightforward variant of its parent games Schafkopf and Sheepshead. But, again, I made tweaks to their recipes so that the result would better suit my tastes...

Widderkopf (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

With Widderkopf (Ram's Head), I really just wanted to focus on one of the elements that I really enjoyed from Sheepshead.

The Cracking.

The deliberate doubling of the game value. And, what I really wanted to do was to create an excuse to break out the Doubling Cube from Backgammon.

That's about it really.

With Cracking, Recracking, Schneidering, and Schwartzing, the game value can progress from as low as a single measly point for an entire hand of play, or as much as 64(!) points for the same hand (if you both players are doubling fools). Of course, that's very unlikely--most hands will be worth 1 or 2 points (with the occasional 4-pointer upping the excitement)--but the possibility of 64 points is what stokes the fire of my imagination.

And there's not much else to this one; it's really the closest of my Strawmen to being a straight-up Admiral-version of the game I'm porting. In this case, it could just as easily be called Admiral Sheepshead or Admiral Schafkopf, but it's still not entirely the same as either of those (the deck is a little longer there's a card point for the last trick that makes it so you can't tie, and I let the trailing player pick the trump suit--no auction required). I went with Ram's Head on this one because of all the butting of heads caused by a 2P game that is about cracking/recracking.

The Strawberries

I'm going to gloss over Strawman Variations VIII & IX, Strawberry Whist & Strawberry Jam as those are still works-in-progress and I am uncertain about whether those experiments will result in games that are enjoyable enough that I'm willing to risk THE-HARSH-JUDGMENT-OF-OTHERS by sharing them... (which means, for the other variations, I'm pretty confident they will find an audience for which they are well-suited...these two I'm not as certain about).

These two games are attempts to use the strawmen-as-battery system that Mark Ball introduced to me from the 2P Rook game, "Over the Top".

I call the strawmen-as-battery system "strawberries" (straw'b'ery, see?) because I'm perverse and silly and I want to annoy people who just want to call them dummies (Hi Jonathan!) or a partially-exposed-double-dummy-system (Hi me!) --which, as it turns out, is exactly what they are. But doesn't strawberry sound more... appetizing?

In the strawberry system, unlike a strawman system, the piles of cards on the table are not an extension of your own hand; they are the partially exposed hand of your "partner's" cards. And they are played as such: you play one card from your hand, your opponent plays one from theirs, and then you each play a card from your strawberry patch (I am inventing terminology as I go, and it is either charming or maddening and I'm okay with it either way). If the trick is won by a strawberry, the first two cards of the next trick are played from the strawberries and then cards are played from the hand. It's as though the play of the hand switches direction from going clockwise to going counter-clockwise.

The benefit of this system is that it allows you to pull off 4P trick-taking maneuvers (like finesses and squeezes), something you can't quite do with only two cards per trick, and those plays can be quite satisfying. The downside is the game can start to feel deeply puzzly, dry, cold, and analytical. It's interesting, but I'm not truly sold on whether it's fun or not.

Strawberry Whist is what you might imagine it would be if you're familiar with Bid Whist (but it doesn't have bidding; again I let the trailing player choose trump and also whether the hand will be played Uptown or Downtown). Players will either score one point per trick taken or two points per trick if they take the majority.


I may revisit that one and try it with just strawmen instead of strawberries; it doesn't actually need to have 4 cards per trick, so perhaps it will work better with only 2 per trick. We'll see...

Strawberry Jam is Klaverjassen (the game from the Netherlands, not Clobyosh) for 2P. That game is about capturing tricks that include runs of cards in the same suit or sets of cards of the same rank (something you can't do when only two cards are being played per trick; so, enter the strawberry). Again, the game is functional but I'm not truly sure it's fun.

I was going to call the latter one Strawberry Jass but when I saw "Strawberry Ja" it seemed natural to go with Jam instead. Also, the card-play is about trying to force your opponent into completing tricks that form high-scoring melds. In other words, you're trying to jam them.

I did make some other Strawberry games, a few versions of Tarocks, but I haven't listed them as part of my variations as I found them unsatisfying. I had high hopes for Ottocento Fragole but I think I need to go back to the drawing board for the 2P Tarocks.

Old MacDonald (Rules)
From gallery of seandavidross

The latest variation, Strawman Variation X or Old MacDonald, is near and dear to my heart as it's an Admiral-version of a Scottish pub-game called Phat. Phat is a variant of a game called Don, which is a member of the All Fours family (a group that includes Pitch and Pedro). In Britain, there still exist Cribbage & Don Leagues, where players gather at their local pubs to play cards and peg points over a pint of bitter. I would very much like to visit those pubs...

Like Widderkopf, Old MacDonald is a fairly faithful translation of its 4P inspiration to an Admiralized version. I stripped out the two bottom ranks from the deck, added a Joker that can win any trick and also cannot be forced out of your hand (it doesn't need to follow suit), and then put a single muck point on the Joker so that it's not possible to tie for Muck points at the end of the hand. I also leave 3 cards undealt (to avoid perfect information); I put the cards aside in "The Pen" and let the winner of the last trick score any muck points the Pen provides (which could be quite a lot of muck, but then the Muck only pegs 8 points so I'm not overly fussed about it).

The existing 2P variants for Don and Phat, called Blind Don or Blind Phat, deal out all of the cards to strawmen, with no undealt cards, and no hidden hand of cards. Some variants have hidden hands, but no undealt cards (eventually, you know exactly which cards the other player holds--it's inevitable and yet it could so easily be avoided...). None of them, that I'm aware of, add a Joker into the mix. And, as with most of my other variations, I'm letting the trailing player choose trump. That is definitely not in the traditional variants.

The game is quite simple to teach as it uses standard Ace-high card ranking and standard must follow trick-taking. It's nearly as vanilla as Whist, in that regard. But, what elevates the game is its distribution of card points among the ranks; in particular, trying to avoid giving up the high Phat points for capturing the middle- and low-ranking 9s or 5s makes for some interesting and sometimes quite tense decisions. Overall though, I find this game relaxing. It's enjoyable. A great game for playing at a pub or on a patio, with a pint and your favourite peg-board, dusted off and happy to be scoring something other than Cribbage for a change...

A nice way to while away an afternoon.

And that's it, for now. But, there will be Part 3. Sometime.

In that post, the plan is to point out some things to consider when trying to make Strawman Variations of your own (so that I don't have to keep making them!). I'll jot down some different ways you can consider for how to form your strawmen (they don't need to be just piles of two cards) and I'll note aspects of existing games that seem well suited for use in strawmen (and which aspects are not such a great fit) and then we'll turn things up to eleven by working through the Admiralization of yet another traditional card game. The result will be Strawman Variation XI (and, no, I haven't made it already).
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