The Fool & His Nibs

A very occasional blog on traditional (and traditional-ish) card games.
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Climbing. Part 4: Stability

From gallery of seandavidross
The clock, of late, has sloth-armed grown. I bet
Its scraping hand, from tock to tick, would get
A year of rheumy crust from off its face:
Dry specks of Time that yield to yawning Space.

Inside this "Fool & Nibs", this nest sublime,
No Outer space exists, no Outer time;
From storm and stress secured, we do abide
And grow sufficiently suffonsified.

From gallery of seandavidross

Sure. Jeff?

Your friendly barkeep is already at your elbow, placing a glass beside you.

Aagh! Will you please stop doing that!?




It's spooky.


Thanks, Jeff. Cheers!

I clink your glass. Don't worry. Nothing is contagious at "The Fool & His Nibs".

Uh...right, cheers...

So, where were we?

Well. It feels like you've spent a year or so talking about the different types of playable combinations. Sets and runs. Bombs and catalysts. Probably a bunch more that I've forgotten by now; it's been so long since you started that I can't remember why you felt the need to tell me about all of these things in the first place.

Because they all work together--along with scoring (which I'll get to later)--to determine how it will feel to play one climbing game versus another. As you vary the playable combinations, and how they can interact with each other, you vary the play experience. The combos, hand size, and deck configuration work together to dictate the pace of the game. Changing these can take your game from plodding to parkour. It depends on what you want.

Ooh. Nice. Plodding to parkour. You wrote that down before you came here, didn't you?


Where was I? Oh. Right.

And then there's the way that the combos interact with each other: whether a round is strictly constrained to one type of combo (a single branch of play) or the round can go off in different directions, using different types of combos (through the use of bombs or catalysts). All of these interactions affect the pace of the game as well. But, beyond that, they also affect the game's stability, which can have an even greater effect on how it feels to play the game.

Board Game: Schnapsen

It might not be the right word to choose. What I'm trying to describe is the amount of order versus chaos in the system. Stability vs instability. Predictability vs unpredictability. Restriction vs freedom. Certainty vs uncertainty. Your sense of control or lack thereof.



That's too many things! Break it down for me.

Okay. Let's see... Suppose you have a Schnapsen deck.

Who doesn't?

Too many people.

Anyway. You've got a Schnapsen deck; it's pretty simple: it has four suits (Acorns, Bells, Hearts, and Leaves) and 5 ranks in each suit (Ten, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace). So, there're 20 cards in your deck.


Now, suppose we were going to design a climbing game to play with this deck. We're not going to, but suppose we did. There are many ways we could go about it, but let's start very simply: there are only two players; when it's your turn to lead you cannot pass; and there is only one playable combination--singles.

So, a trick-taking game.

It depends what you mean but let's not get into that. In this game, you have to play a higher-ranked single (the suit won't matter) or, if it's not your lead, you can pass. So, it's not the same--mechanically--as a typical trick-taking game (I play a card, you play card) and our goal will be to go out first (so card capturing will not be something we're worried about, for now). Okay?


We'll continue to keep things simple by dealing out all of the cards between the two players, so each person has 10 cards in hand. Essentially, at this point, it will be a perfect-information, ladder-climbing GOPS. If a player is smart enough and they have the better hand, they can look ahead to find a way to go out first. With the only combination being singles, there are people who could do this. For these folks, the game would feel very stable: there would be little uncertainty over the outcome. If I had the better hand, I'd feel very much in control. You would likely feel you had little or no control.

Worse. I'd feel restricted by the limited number of options for responding to your plays because there would be nothing I could do to steer the hand away from its inevitable conclusion.

You'd feel like it was on rails.

Yeah. It might be an interesting puzzle, but I'm not sure how fun it would be to play.

Not very, I'd imagine.

Anyway. Each addition of a new combination to the system (pairs, for example), will increase the size of the decision tree for the game. There will be more and more ways that an individual round can be played, so there will be more and more branches at each level of the tree--it will become bushier. The larger and bushier the decision tree becomes the greater the uncertainty over finding the correct path to victory will become. And, with this decreased certainty, my sense of control will likely remain but it will be diminished.

But, my sense of being able to steer the hand in a new direction (that will end well for me) will increase.

Yes. The sense of player agency starts to come into balance. And, while all of this is happening--as the list of playable combinations becomes longer, and the number of cards in those combinations grows--the number of ways that you can play each round and the rate at which you can shed cards will speed up, making the game feel increasingly flexible and dynamic.

Less plodding, more parkour.
External image

You got it.

So. At this point, the game will still feel relatively stable. More often than not, you'll feel like you can assess the strength of your hand and predict whether or not you'll be able to navigate successfully to a winning path through the decision tree. You'll still feel like you can take control of the hand and, more importantly, keep control of the hand.

Adding bombs into the mix makes things feel a little less stable; the sense of instability will be directly proportional to the frequency with which the bombs can occur.

Fewer bombs, less instability; more bombs, more instability.

That's right. But also: fewer bombs, less freedom; more bombs, more freedom. If the game is feeling too restrictive, just add more bombs.

Bien sur.

And, don't forget: catalysts have the same effect on the stability of the system as bombs; they just tend to occur with greater frequency. So, catalysts tend to be very destabilizing. The sense of freedom is increased but the sense of control is reduced.
Board Game: Clubs

Catalysts can make things Kerrazay!

Jazz hands? Really?



The tipping point for the amount of stability and pace of shedding to have in your system will depend on your taste. It's like adding salt to your food. You have to add the right amount. Too much stability, you won't like it; too much instability, you won't like it. Shed too quickly, you won't like it; shed too slowly, you won't like it. To get this balance right, you need to calibrate the deck, the types and sizes and frequencies of the combinations, and you need to decide if you want to include bombs or catalysts into the mix.

I'm surprised you went with salt for your analogy, just then. I truly thought you would say it was like adding water to your Scotch.

Jeff snatches your Scotch glass away.


I can't even look at you right now...

I tend to think of stability as being like No Trump trick-taking. Bombs (and catalysts) are kind of like trumps--they create instability. Trump adds enough instability/uncertainty to make the game exciting. Bombs and Catalysts do the same thing, but they can create too much instability (depending on your taste). The greater the instability, the less feeling of control that you have, the lighter the game feels--and yet, the decision space created by the flexibility of play means that the game is actually deeper than a game that is more stable. Similar to how it feels playing a trick-taking game where you do not have to follow suit but can play any card to any trick--your options are greater but your feeling of control, especially on a lead, is less. When you feel like you have less control, you feel like the game is lighter; with more control, you might feel that the game is deeper. The decision tree might tell a different tale on the depth of a game, but how deep it feels can matter more than how deep it actually is...

Schnapsen is a good example of what I mean. It goes from unstable to stable, as you play. It starts with no restrictions on trick play-- total freedom but very little control--then moves to greater control as the number of cards reduces, until the stock is finally closed and the game ends with full restrictions and absolute control. It goes from a game that feels very light or chaotic, to a game that gets deeper and more orderly as you go along.

The equivalent in a climbing game would be sort of like starting a hand by playing with Crazy Clubs' rules but finishing the hand playing with regular Clubs' rules.

Image credits go to moxtaveto and mnowaczy.

The next topic, if I ever get around to it, will be Scoring. It might need sub-topics. We'll see...

If anyone ever wanted to actually play a climbing game with German suited cards, you'd probably find it easier if you can find a pack with rank & suit corner indices. These would work pretty well:
External image

I wish I hadn't thought of trying to do a climbing game with a Schnapsen deck; above, I said "we're not going to" but the ideas are just bubbling away...

For combo play, it would be sort of like Crazy Clubs but with Big Two-like ranked suits (Acorns, Leaves, Hearts, Bells--to be like Skat and Doppelkopf). Combo types would be of-a-kinds, runs (2 or more consecutive ranks; but, like Haggis, they need to be the same suit), and of-a-kind-runs (runs of pairs, runs of triples, runs of quads--again, like Haggis). Probably restrict the length of of-a-kind-runs to 2 (e.g., 22-33, 222-333, 2222-3333) and I'd need to figure out the catalyst rules for of-a-kind-runs (probably let them beat both of-a-kinds and runs and then let longer of-a-kind-runs beat shorter ones). Scoring would probably be simple (no card capturing), but who knows...

Maybe you don't rearrange your hand? Like Dealt!? Maybe you each get a Schnapsen deck and the game is more like Animale Tattica? Maybe it's both?!?

Names? Something German I suppose. Lammkopf (lambs head)? Jäger? Korn? Eichel?

Oh my...

Somebody else please make one so I don't have to!

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