The Fool & His Nibs

A very occasional blog on traditional (and traditional-ish) card games.
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Climbing. Part 1: Combos

If you haven't read the Preamble, you may wish to do so before proceeding:

If you're unfamiliar with Climbing Games, you can read a bit about them here:

From gallery of seandavidross
Here we are, back at The Fool & His Nibs. It looks like we’ve managed to score the seats closest to the huge stone fireplace where a birchwood log is already crackling into embers; that fire smells almost as good as the apple crisp baking away in Karen’s kitchen. Almost.

By the time we have crossed from the heavy entrance door to the most comfortable seats in the house, Jeff--the patron--has poured and served our regular beverages without a word being uttered; the tab has resumed.

I’ve begun tinkering with climbing card games again and you've graciously agreed to help test the 2 player version of my latest pasteboard contraption. My Sticheln and French-suited decks have been cobbled together with the current card distribution; as I riffle the cards on the table between us, I begin to go over what I think is working. And what is not. Mostly not...

The combos seem fine. There's singles and pairs and triples, of course; the standard Sets. Almost every climbing game has those in them. Some only have those. Or those plus 4-of-a-kinds. Most versions of President, for instance. Who's the Ass? is essentially double-deck President, so it has Sets up to 8-of-a-kinds; and the The Great Dalmuti goes up to 12-of-a-kinds, but only for one rank. Gou Ji gets you up to 16-of-a-kinds but it also has you holding 36 cards at a time, so I probably don't want to go there.
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Gou Ji. I don't know how to pronounce it. It's a fixed-partnership game for 6 players; 3 vs 3. I'd really like to try it but I think it might be hard to find five other players who'd be willing to play a game where you're holding that many cards. It's a bit much. Maybe if I buy some Canasta card holders...?

Tiles, maybe? Like in Lexio.

That could work. But I'd like to be able to play my game with regular cards, so I don't think I want to go there just yet.

People like tiles. They're "clacktastic"!

Yeah. I like that too. But I also like to be able to play my games wherever I am; it's easier to carry around a couple of decks of cards than a box full of tiles. Doesn't matter how scrumptious they are. So, we'll stick with cards for this one.

Next one?

Maybe. Where was I? Sets. The game has Sets like everything else.

You said "almost" all earlier. Which ones don't have Sets?

Well, it might depend on how you define "Set". If you think a single is not a Set, but pairs and triples are, then Ohio would be climbing without Sets. You only play singles; each single needs to be lower than the last. I suppose it's more of a "digger" than a "climber"... Anyway, there's also Prime Number. It's like Daihinmin, or Dai Fugo, but instead of Sets of equally ranked cards you play one or more cards to form a prime number; each card is a digit in that number. So, 5-3 would be 53, which is prime. The other player needs to play a higher prime using the same number of digits, or pass. It's still sort of like Sets, but not quite.

You have to do math?! Who memorizes prime numbers?

Don't worry. I won't be using that kind of combo in my game; it's just an example. Though it is kind of neat...


"No" what?

You can't do primes.

It's my game...


Okay. I was just kidding... Or was I...?

Board Game: Clubs
What do you have other than Sets?

There's Sequences. Or Runs. Those are like Haggis' right now: three or more consecutively ranked cards in the same suit. Like Gin Rummy. They need to be in the same suit to apply pressure on people to use their wild cards; they need to be three or more for the same reason. A lot of games let you have unsuited runs of 5. Straights. Sometimes they can only be that length--like in Guan Dan (Throwing Eggs) or the different variations on Big Two, including Lexio or Gang of Four, where the larger combos are only ever poker hands (well, other than Gangs, but we'll get to those later). More often they can be longer, like in Tichu or Dou Dizhu and, its offspring, Chimera.

Some games let you have unsuited runs that are 3 or longer. The Bum Game, would be one. Also Dai Fugo, or Millionaire, that I mentioned earlier, and Tien Len (Thirteen), and Big Three. There are even a couple that let you have runs of 2 or more cards. Those are pretty rare. There's Clubs and there's a Decktet version of Haggis called Caravan; I'm not aware of any others that do that.

Anyway. I need mine to be shorter than 5 because, when the run needs to be suited, 5 is a bit too hard to make; but I also need them to be longer than 2--though I do like the idea--because those are too easy to construct with wild cards; and then they're also too easy to confuse with pairs. So, 3. As a minimum.

What's "Throwing Eggs" like?

It's kind of like Guo Ji, but for 4 players, and it has more variety in its combos. It's really great and that one only has a hand size of 27 cards.

Only 27. Yeah, that's much better...

Here, Jeff arrives with two plates of apple crisp, still warm from the oven, paired with home-made vanilla bean ice cream; two teensy cups of Ristretto appear as well. I don't know how he carries them...

From gallery of seandavidross
From gallery of seandavidross

What comes after Sequences?

Multiple Sequences. Stairs, Plates, Tubes. That sort of thing.


It's two consecutive 3-of-a-kinds, in Throwing Eggs. Plates are also from that game. They're like multiple sequences in other climbing games but they're limited to exactly three consecutive pairs. Most of the other games, like Tien Len or Fight the Landlord, let you play three or more; Tichu and Haggis allow two or more (but Haggis' Stairs are a little different from Tichu's). Big Three lets you play three or more consecutive 3-of-a-kinds or 4-of-a-kinds. With its wild cards, Haggis lets you get up to playing two or more consecutive 6-of-a-kinds (in 3 player); and the game we're working on here, Rooster, let's you play consecutive 10-of-a-kinds (with 4 players). So. Pretty big. Maybe too big for the 2 player version...

So, you've got Singles and Sets, and you have Sequences of Singles and Multiple Sequences of Sets. Any other options?

Sure. There're some more Poker hands that get used in the Big Two type games: flushes, full houses, and straight flushes. I don't think flushes would work in this game and it already covers straight flushes--all of the sequences have to be in the same suit already--so I don't need those. I don't think I need full houses when I have consecutive 3-of-a-kinds. I know people who miss them, from Tichu. Chimera has them but they don't work as well here. For one thing, it becomes too easy to get rid of cards when you can make full houses using wild cards. Full houses are more common than consecutive triples, so you'll get them more often, naturally--I need you to want to spend your wild cards to make the bigger combos so that there's tension between crafting big plays versus saving your wilds for bombs.

Before we get to bombs, is there anything else, other than Poker hands, that gets used for combos?

Board Game: Dou Dizhu
Oh, yes. There's more. Chimera and Fight the Landlord have variations on the full house called "attachments": you can attach a single card or any two cards, they don't have to be a pair, to a three of a kind and that is a valid combination for those games. And then you have something called a "Quadplex Set" which is one name for two different things. One is a 4-of-a-kind (a Quad) plus any two cards, doesn't have to be a pair; the other is a Quad plus any two pairs, they don't have to be consecutive or anything like that. They're a bit unusual, but you get used to them. Still. I can't use those. For the same reasons I can't use full houses, but even more so, as these are even easier to construct... And they have a fair number of cards in them, so they empty your hand pretty quickly.

Why would that matter?

Hand emptying speed changes how the games feel. Some games will have faster speeds--the ones with larger combos and more varieties of them--and the others will be slower; the experience you want the players to have will depend greatly on how quickly or slowly they can get rid of their cards. You have to find the right balance if they are going to get the feelings that you want them to have.

You've got some huge combos.

True. But they are rare. You'll almost always need to spend wild cards to create them; they come at a cost in power and flexibility. Getting that feeling of tension around whether or not to pay that cost is really what my games are about.

Are we getting to Bombs now?

Sure. There's probably some regular combos I've missed but maybe we'll remember those later. In the meantime, can I get you another drink?

Please. Yes.

Jeff? Another round, please. Thanks.

From gallery of seandavidross
From gallery of seandavidross

I think that's good for now. Next time, I'll start writing about the games with bombs. Eventually, I'll get a bit more into about how the different combos, and hand sizes, affect the experience of the game. These early articles are setting the stage for other articles where, hopefully, I'll manage to provide some insight that is more than an inventory of what is available in climbing games now. Still, please do let me know in the comments if there are other non-bomb combos I haven't touched on yet and I'll talk about those before moving onto bombs. Note: I know I haven't mentioned Frank's Zoo. I will. It's sets but with an unusual ranking, different topic, I think. Thanks.

Credit to EndersGame and LurkingMeeple for two of the images used in this article. The hand of cards arranged in a jagged array is from, the Bao Huang page, so credit goes to John McLeod.

The end images are from playtests of Rooster and 4P Haggis.

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