The Fool & His Nibs

A very occasional blog on traditional (and traditional-ish) card games.
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Climbing. Part 3: Catalysts

From gallery of seandavidross
We have finished our coffee before the conversation resumes.

You were saying something about "catalysts" and how they act like bombs.

Right. Well, all bombs are "catalysts" but not all catalysts are bombs. At least, they haven't been called bombs; not yet. I'm not even sure a catalyst is the best word to describe what I'm talking about. "Switch" might be better... Let's see.

What does a bomb do?


From gallery of hanibalicious
Alright... And an explosion. That would be disruptive, wouldn't you say? It would disrupt the order of things?


Well, bombs are disruptive. In climbing games. They shake things up.

In pretty much every climbing game, when someone makes a regular play--a single, a pair, a run, or what have you--the other players must make the same kind of play (or pass). It's like following suit in a trick-taking game but, instead of playing an off-suit, you can pass.

Climbing games that have bombs are like trick-taking games that have trump. If you can't follow suit, you can play a trump; if you can't (or don't want to) play the type of combo that was led, you can play a bomb. In both cases, the context of the round (or trick or whatever you want to call it) changes. It shifts, or switches, from one context to another; it gets disrupted. The round begins in one context, which was set by the lead (a particular suit in a trick-taking game, or a particular type of combo in a climbing game). It ends in a new context, a trumping or a bombing context, which was triggered by someone playing a trump or a bomb.

When the context changes, so does the win condition for the round. Where before it would have been the highest card of the suit that was led or the highest ranked play that matched the type of the combo that was led, now it is the highest trump card or the highest bomb that wins.

So, a bomb is something that changes things. That's what catalysts do. Which means bombs are catalysts, by one definition of catalyst.

And so are trump, for that matter. Maybe I should call catalysts "trump"...


Look. You could think of it like a railroad track. The track, or context, of the round is headed in a certain direction. If nothing changes, you'll continue in that direction until you reach your expected destination--the end of the round; you'll still be on the same set of tracks, the same context, playing the same suit or combo, as when the round began. A bomb is like someone throwing a switch on the tracks ahead; suddenly the tracks have shifted in a new direction. Now, when you reach the end of the round, you'll have reached a different destination. Nowhere near where you expected to be when you started out.

So that can be pretty exciting. Or pretty frustrating. I guess it depends on whose driving when you come to a stop, eh? Whoever has control.

Board Game: 1830: Railways & Robber Barons

Canadians really do say "eh?", don't they?



Um. So, yeah. A bomb is like a switch; each time one is thrown, it can send the round in a new direction. For a game with a single bomb type, like some variants of President, a round can only be sent in one direction: a series of successively higher 4-of-a-kinds. But that's less common. Most climbing games that have bombs have hierarchically-branching bombs. Some simple and some more complex.

Okay. What are "heirarchically-branching" bombs?

Well, hierarchical bombs are a set of distinct bomb types with a fixed ranking for which type of bomb can top another type of bomb. Haggis, for instance, has hierarchical bombs but Tichu has hierarchically-branching bombs. You have two distinct bomb types--4-of-a-kinds and straight flushes--and there is a hierarchy within each type--a higher ranked 4-of-a-kind beats a lower ranked one, same for straight flushes--but there is also a hierarchy between the two types--straight flushes top all 4-of-a-kinds bombs, no matter their rank. Simple enough. Where the hierarchy becomes branching is with the straight flushes because there is more than one type of those, and those types also have a hierarchy. A 5-length straight flush can be beaten by a lower-ranked 6-length straight flush, and so on up to 13-length straight flushes.

So, we're playing a normal round of, say, pairs when I play four Queens and suddenly the context of the round has switched from pairs to bombs. At this moment, the context is narrowed down to 4-of-a-kind bombs; it only takes four Kings or four Aces to beat me.

Only, he says...

But you respond with a 5-length straight flush from 6 to 10; now the round's context has switched to 5-length straight flushes. The context is still bombs but now the branch that led towards higher 4-of-a-kinds has been lopped off. We're on a different path than the one we were just on a moment ago. You can't go back. And then my partner, bless them, hits you with an 8-length straight flush from 2 to 9 and now we are once again on a different branch in the hierarchy. The round is no longer about 5-length straight flushes, it's about 8-length ones (or longer). So, you start the round on one branch, and that branch has a hierarchy, then the context switches to bombs and suddenly you have hierarchies within hierarchies to contend with. The ways forward multiply.

Board Game: Guan Dan
Throwing Eggs branches in the opposite direction from Tichu: it has a single branch for 5-length straight flushes but then, like Gang of Four, it has a nest of branches for different length Set bombs (or, Of-a-Kind bombs). And then it has the Almighty bomb, the four Jokers, that tops everything and can't be topped. Like Krass Kariert's "Stop" card.

What do Rooster's bombs do?

It has a fixed hierarchy, like Haggis, but not the same hierarchy. It's on the player aid I gave you...

Okay. So, what are these catalysts, or switches, that are not bombs? Or aren't called bombs.

Those are regular combos that can be played within a system of hierarchical branching. It's not so much that the combos are bombs, it's that the rules for playing the combos allow them to act as though they were bombs--they have a similar context switching effect on the round that bombs do.

What would be a good example?

Well, you could start with some variants of President, but I think one of the best examples I could give you would be Crazy Clubs.
Board Game: Clubs

In Clubs, you have two types of combos--or melds, as they call them: of-a-kinds (which are sets) and runs. There are different sizes of each type; you have 2-of-a-kind, 3-of-a-kind, run-of-2, run-of-3, and so on. In regular Clubs, if I play a 2-of-a-kind, you can only ever respond with a higher ranked 2-of-a-kind or pass. There are no bombs or catalysts or switches or whatever. The track, the context of the round, never changes.

Crazy Clubs lets you beat shorter melds with longer melds of the same type. So a single 7 could be topped by a pair of 5's, for example. Or a 5-6 run can be beaten by a 3-4-5 run. That sort of thing. In both cases, the context of the round has changed: in the first, the context changes from 1-of-a-kinds to 2-of-a-kinds--the next player needs to play a higher ranked 2-of-a-kind to continue the round, or they can switch the context again by playing any 3-of-a-kind; in the second, the context switches from runs-of-2 to runs-of-3--and the next player has a similar choice, they can play a higher ranked run-of-3 or lift the context up to playing runs-of-4.

It's the same effect you would have if Clubs had defined 2-of-a-kinds or runs-of-3 as bombs; and then said that 3-of-a-kinds and runs-of-4 are also bombs. And so on. It doesn't say that, but the effect is the same. This is what I mean by catalysts; they aren't called bombs but they act in a similar way and they have a similar effect.

Board Game: Frank's Zoo
You should call them "ducks"!


You know... "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..."


Does Rooster have ducks?

No. Only chickens.

Any other games have ducks?

Yes. Wait. No!! We're not calling them ducks!



Fine. Catalysts, then.

Frank's Zoo allows you to play a larger set, but only of the same rank; this still changes the context to the larger set size. Krass Kariert is almost entirely catalysts. The combos progress from singles to runs-of-2 to pairs to runs-of-3 to triples; the context of the round switching as you climb the rank of combos. Also, you can't re-arrange the cards in your hand in Krass, the combos have to come together in your hand--like a match-three puzzle--as you pull contiguous combos out to play. So, I imagine it's less crazy-feeling than Crazy Clubs.

That sounds awesome!

I suspect it is. Looking forward to trying it. That and Animale Tattica which has its own catalysts, they call it "Surrounding". You normally play a set, they call them armies, and I'd need to play a higher ranked one of the same size; surrounding lets me play a lower-ranked, but larger-sized, set if the numbers in the new set add up to the same total as the previous set. You'd have to play a set of the same size as mine, or surround it again, or pass. The neat thing with Animale, other than its supposedly playing very well with 2 players, is its asymmetric decks. Everybody has their own deck, with different rank distributions. Your hand is drawn from your own deck, not a communal deck like most other climbing games. Monster Crunch does this too and its also supposed to be pretty good with two. I really have to try these...

And I'll stop there, for now. The next article will be on how bombs and catalysts affect the experience of playing a climbing game. How the experience of a game changes based on its stability, or lack thereof. Image credits go to hanibalicious, henk.rolleman, EndersGame, and Maeglor.

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