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Vira: a review

Raymond Gallardo
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A couple of weeks before Essen Spiel 2018, I visited Stockholm and had the good fortune to play Vira at Stockholms Wirasällskap, a friendly group of Vira players that meet every Thursday to play.

Thanks to them, I learned that Vira is much easier to learn than the rules suggest!

Table of contents
• Summary of play
• Why this is the best three player trick taking game ever!
• Components
• How to play
- The deal
- The contracts
- Bidding
- Payment
• Saving endangered trick taking games

Summary of play

Vira, at its core, is simple. The dealer deals 13 cards to each player. Thirteen cards will be left over, which forms a stock. Player conduct an auction to see which player will play against the other two. There are 40 possible bids. Each bid is a contract requiring the player to win a certain number of tricks or lose all tricks. Depending on the contract, certain players will exchange cards with the stock. Afterward, players play their hands to tricks.

Why this is the best three player trick taking game ever!

This game is awesome because it provides the strategic depth and tension as Bridge without players having to learn complex conventions! This is a naive comparison as I've only played several hands of Bridge in my life; however, these are the two characteristics of Bridge that I think raise it above most trick taking games, and which Vira also possesses:

1. A bidding system that enables players to deduce a lot of information about other players' hands.

Bridge does this with its infamous systems of conventions. An example of a convention is a bid of one no trump (a contract to win at least 7 out of 13 tricks with no trump suit) means (depending on the convention) that I'm holding between 12-14 card points (where an Ace is worth 4 points, Kings 3, Queens 2, and Jacks 1) and a balanced hand (which means that I have about the same number of cards in each suit, such as 4-3-3-3).

In Vira, the contract objectives are more diverse, which means bidding them gives away more information. About half of Vira's bid are about losing tricks, so if an opponent bids one of those contracts, then (supposedly) you should have more confidence in winning tricks!

But what if you don't have a hand of lots of high cards or low cards? There's a type of contract, Gask, where you discard almost your entire hand and then pick up the entire stock! And most of the lower valued bids enable you to exchange as many cards as you want. What this means that in Vira almost every hand is biddable! As a result, players bid more often, which gives away more and more information about players' hands.

One additional consequence of relatively easy to succeed bids and no well-established conventions is the opportunity of bluff! You could push the bidding higher, hoping that an opponent will overbid; many of the points you'll earn will be from your opponents failing their contracts.

2. Analytical card play because players know the location of many of the cards.

In Bridge, each player knows the precise location of half the cards in the deck! One player of the partnership winning the auction exposes his or her hand (thereby becoming the dummy player) and the other plays on his or her behalf!

As mentioned before, Vira has Gask bids that let you exchange your hand for the stock. When I first read about this, I thought this was way too luck dependent -- you're replacing your hand with unknown cards! However, by doing so, you know (a) the location of half of the cards in the game and (b) which cards won't be played in the hand.

But the main reason I prefer this over Bridge is that, for me, it's no fun being the dummy player!

Components

Two decks of cards with different backs
Like Bridge, Vira uses two decks of cards to save time: while one deck is being shuffled for the next hand, the other deck is dealt out to the players. In addition, the shuffled deck is used to determine the preferred suit; you can outbid a player if you choose a trump suit that matches the colour of the preferred suit or choose the preferred suit itself.

You can probably use only one deck of cards and specify one suit as the permanent preferred suit for the entire game, but that sounds like sacrilege.

Of course, it's preferable to use Swedish playing cards, K = Kung, D = Dam, and Kn = Knekt. (Why the Swedes chose to use both K and Kn is beyond my comprehension.)

Virapulla
A virapulla is a container that contains scoring chips, one colour per player.

The long rectangles represent one point, or one pinne. The circles represent two pinnar. The short rectangles represent one bet, which is equal to 8 pinnar. The triangles (which are rarely used in Vira) represent 5 pinnar.

I bought two virapullor, one from Old Touch, a second-hand store (Upplandsgatan 43, 113 28 Stockholm) and another from Stockholms Wirasällskap. You should be able to find one for 50-70 kr. Avoid the antique stores. They charge 250-325 kr. There was one store selling one for 3400 kr.!

When you win a contract, you win points from each of your opponents and from a common pool or pot; players use the virapulla as the pot and cover it with the lid upside-down (for easier access to the pot's contents) so that no one is exactly sure everyone's standings.

You can probably just use paper and pencil to keep track of scores, with an extra column for the contents of the pot. It might be better for beginners to use paper and pencil as you could probably see the consequences of scoring more clearly.

A bell
When someone successfully wins a difficult contract, that player is entitled to ring a bell to call attention to his or her accomplishment.

A ridiculous wearable cow-themed accessory
Conversely, when someone fails any contract badly, that player must wear a ridiculous cow-themed accessory until the game ends or someone else succumbs to the same fate.

How to play

The rules on pagat.com is the best English resource for this game. The bid table contains all you need to know to play the game, but there's too much information in it! It's easier to understand the game if this information is split up into different tables, so I'll present those.

The deal

This phase of the game was surprisingly confusing! Anyway, to make things easier to explain, each player has a role, and these roles rotate clockwise for each hand. Going clockwise around the table, these roles are Forehand, Middlehand, and Rearhand. At the beginning of each hand (except the first) they'll be two decks of cards. The first deck is face up and to Rearhand's left. The second deck will be all over the table in the form of won tricks.

Here's what each role does for the deal:

• Forehand: Does nothing
• Middlehand: Cuts the first deck. Reconstitutes the second deck, shuffles it, then places it face up to the right of him or herself.
• Rearhand: While Middlehand is shuffling the second deck, Rearhand deals the first deck to players.

The contracts

There are eight types of contracts. You can categorize them by who gets to exchange cards:
All players exchange: Begär/Spel, Turné/Vingel/Tringel, and Köpmisär på
Only the declarer (the winner of the auction) exchanges): Vira, Gask på, and Gök
Only the declarer's opponents exchange: Solo and Solo misär

Each contract can have one or two objectives:
Positive: Win at least a certain number of tricks with a chosen trump suit: Begär/Spel, Turné/Vingel/Tringel, Vira, and Solo
Negative: all tricks at no trump: Köpmisär på, Gök, and Solo misär.

With Gask på, you can choose whether to win a certain number of tricks or lose all tricks.

Some contracts have a number associated with it. This number is called the contract's level, and it has a different meaning depending on the contract:
• Spel, Turné/Vingel/Tringel, Solo: The number of tricks you must win
• Köpmisär på: The number of cards you must exchange with the stock
• Gask på: The number of cards you must keep in your hand; you must discard the rest before picking up the entire stock

The following table summarizes this information. (When I saw this table, it made me realize that there's a logic in the types of contracts!)


See The Contracts for details about each of these contracts.

Bidding
Starting with forehand (who must make the initial bid), each player in turn bids one of the contracts in the following table or passes. Once a player passes, that player cannot bid again. The bidding round ends once two players pass.


W means you have to win the specified number of tricks. L means you have to lose the specified number of tricks. If the number is less than 13, that means that before play starts, you discard cards from your hand until you hold the specified number of cards. The degree symbol means you have to play with your cards face up.

When bidding, you don't have to mention the bid's level. It's implied that you've bid the lowest ranked bid that beats the last bid made. After all players bid, you can raise your bid to any level (except for Turné and Vingel).

There's several ways you can outbid a previous bid:

• Bid a contract with a higher rank
• If the contract requires you to pick a trump suit, then you can bid the same bid in colour, which means you'll pick a trump suit that's same colour as the preferred suit. You can beat an in color bid by an in preference bid, which means you'll pick the preferred suit as trump.
• If you're forehand, you can hold or tie any other players bid. Once Forehand passes, Middlehand can hold rearhand's bid.

Gök passing convention
Actually, Vira has only one convention, and unlike Bridge, it's a passing convention. If someone bids Gök, you are allowed to pass only if you hold certain cards. If not, you must make a bid. The reason this passing convention exists is that it's too easy for a player to accomplish a Gök contract.

If the player before you bid Gök, you can only pass if you hold two low guards in different suits. If you pass, then the player after can only pass if that player holds one low guard. A low guard is a set of one to four cards of the same suit that's guaranteed to lose a trick. See Bidding in the pagat.com version of the rules for more info.

You can pass after a Gök without holding the required number of low guards, but if the declarer succeeds in Gök, then you have to pay as a penalty one pinnar to the pot!

Payment
At the end of the hand, if you're the declarer and you succeeded in your contract, you receive payment in betar from your opponents and payment in pinnar from the pot as specified in the following table. Conversely, if you lose, you pay your opponents and the pot.

The column labelled ① means that you chose the preferred suit as trump. Column ② means you chose a suit the same colour as the preferred suit as trump, and ③ means you chose another suit as trump or a negative contract.

In the pinnar payment table, W means you won your contract. L means you lost your contract by one trick. For example, you needed to lose 13 tricks but you won 1. K stands for kodilj and it means that you lost your contract by two or more tricks. If that happens, then you must wear the ridiculous cow-themed wearable accessory. There are two sections labelled 1st and 2nd in this table. If you won the bidding round with a contract where you can exchange cards, and you didn't like the cards that you drew, you can exchange cards a second time. If you do so, then you have to pay your opponents as specified in the betar table. In addition, if you do manage to win, the payments you get from the pot (the 2nd section) are much smaller, so much so that your win is actually a net loss! However, the option for the second exchange is there to avoid the humiliation of kodilj.

Why is the ridiculous wearable accessory of shame cow-themed?
In Swedish, cow is ko. I believe that if you lose a contract by more than two tricks, it's called ko med kalvar, cow with calves (or just kalvar, I don't remember exactly).

On a positive note, if you win a Vira contract with the preferred suit as trump or higher, you get to ring the bell!

Saving endangered trick taking games
Vira must have been crazy popular in its heyday considering the manufacture of quite beautiful virapullor. But Bridge took over and apparently Sweden didn't have enough room for two heavy hitter trick taking games. The only two English accounts I know of regarding this game are pagat.com and David Parlett's The Penguin Book of Card Games (2008 edition). What attracted me to the game was its exhaustive table of crazy contracts, which Parlett noted:

Quote:
With a contract and scoring schedule resembling a railway timetable, this remarkable game could well go under the name of 'Gothic Whist'.

Unfortunately for most other gamers, in particular, casual card gamers, this complexity would be a turn-off.

Hence, I created an English player aid, Vira booklet, that resembles the ones that Stockholms Wirasällskap have created (the tables in this review appear in this player aid); if you do try the game, let me know how I should improve these aids!
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