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Subject: A Fun, Quick Family Game rss

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Randatollah
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A few years ago, I was anxious to find a decent card game I could play with my son. He was about five at the time, so finding a game that we both could enjoy was a bit difficult. However, I came across this little trick-taking game the Italians play, Briscola, and found it intriguing. I suppose I am an odd sort of fellow, and at first blush, Briscola seemed like an odd sort of game, so I liked the look of it. For one thing, unlike every other trick-taking game I had ever encountered, you were not required to follow suit. On top of that, each player only had three cards in his or her hand. And on top of that, each player drew a card after each trick was played.

If you are unfamiliar with what a trick-taking game is, well-known examples include Hearts, Spades, and Bridge. The basic idea is that you play a series of "tricks," where everyone lays down a card, and whoever lays down the best one collects all of the cards played. That person then starts the next trick by laying down another card. Normally, everyone has to play the same suit as the card that was led if they can. Otherwise, they have the option of playing any card they want, including a trump. Trumps are cards of a particular suit that was chosen before the first card was played. Cards of that suit automatically beat any card of a different suit, no matter how high. Methods for determining trumps vary widely depending on which game you are playing.

In Briscola, trumps are determined by flipping over the top card of the draw pile. Like in other, more familiar trick-taking games, tricks are won by the highest card of the suit led, or the highest trump if any of those were played. The kicker, as already mentioned, is that players do not have to follow the suit of the first card played to the trick if they don't want to. You might think that this would ruin the game, but the small hand size balances things out nicely. Sure, you can trump whenever you like, but first you have to draw a trump into your little three-card hand.

Regarding that three-card hand, another thing that sets Briscola apart from other trick-taking games is the fact that your hand stays at three cards for almost the entire game. As mentioned previously, as long as there are cards left to draw, each player draws a card after each trick. In theory, the players draw cards in order, starting with the one who won the trick, although I wish you good luck in trying to get children to follow this procedure. It only really matters when you get to the end of the draw pile. The face up card will be the last card drawn, so you have an incentive to lose the last trick before the draw pile is depleted, as you are sure to get a trump card by doing so.

However, I have heard that some people play that if you are holding a trump card that is lower than the face up one, you can swap them out, taking the higher trump into your hand and putting the lower one down as the new face up card. We have never played this way, but it might have an interesting effect on the game. On the one hand, it takes away the incentive to lose the last trick before the draw pile runs out. On the other, every time you trade out cards, you give your opponent information about your hand.

In any event, I figured the lack of a restriction on which suit you could play would make the game easier for my son to grasp. Also, the small hand size made the game quite literally easier for him to grasp. The only hangup was the scoring system and order of the cards. Briscola is typically played with a deck of Italian playing cards. There are regional variations, but Italian decks usually have 40 cards, divided into four suits. Each suit has one through seven, plus three face cards. The one is the highest card, worth 11 points. Next is the three, which is worth 10. After that are the king, knight, and knave, which are worth 4, 3, and 2 points respectively. The other cards have no scoring value.

To save you a bit of arithmetic, there are 120 points in the deck. As you might expect, the goal is to collect the most of these points.

I expected the unusual order of the cards to be too much for my son, so I came up with an equivalent variant: using the standard 52-card, French-suited deck, I removed the twos, threes, and fours, and made the aces worth 11, the kings 10, queens 4, jacks 3, and the tens worth 2.

We played the game this way, and it was enjoyable. Briscola is not a game that will set the world on fire, but there are definitely difficult decisions to be made. The goal is to maximize the effect of the trumps in your hand, trying to hold them until they will win you good point cards. However, since you are only allowed to hold three cards at a time, sometimes you have to make sacrifices. You will have to judiciously choose when to lead point cards, knowing that you are probably feeding your opponent points. Otherwise, you will end up with a hand full of high point cards, and the agony will only be increased. Also, I like how you can dangle the low point cards for your opponent, to try to get him or her to use a trump on it. Sure, you want all the points you can get, but to play well, you have to find ways to win the more valuable point cards, and one way to do that is to get your opponent to use up his or her best cards cheaply.

Also on the subject of strategy, although this is something I didn't really learn until I started playing Briscola on my phone (the AI is a little tougher than a five-year-old), remembering what has already been played is vital. In the more common trick-taking games like Spades or Bridge, you can sometimes get by just remembering how many times a particular suit has been played. In Briscola, you really need to remember the specific cards that have been played, particularly in the trump suit. It also helps to have an idea of how much of the deck has been played through, because you can make plays based on your calculation of the odds that your opponent is holding a particular card. Briscola is all about calculated risks. Sometimes you can lead a high-point card of a non-trump suit, and manage to collect it because your opponent doesn't have any trumps. Sometimes it is a good idea to lead a low trump, when the odds are good that your opponent has nothing but point cards.

You may have noticed that the ten cards in each suit are split up into two high-point cards, three low-point cards, and five cards that are worth nothing. Looking at the non-trump cards, that makes six high-point cards and nine low-point cards. Meanwhile, there are ten cards in the trump suit to win them with. The trick of the game is managing your hand so that you have trumps at the right time to win the high-point cards.

Of course, it is possible for one player to draw most of the trumps, giving that player a decided advantage. Conversely, it is possible for one player to draw most of the non-trump point cards, which will require that player to give away more points than he or she would like. That leads me to a common criticism of the game, which is that Briscola is too driven by luck. Well, luck is certainly a factor, as it is in any card game with a random deal. However, a judicious player with a good memory will win more often than not.

So that is the game of Briscola. In this review, I have discussed how it plays with two players. With three, the only change is that you need to remove one of the low cards from the deck so that there is not a leftover card at the end. With four, you can play in partnerships, which is a lot of fun. It adds another dimension to the game as you try to toss point cards to your partner. If you have ever played Rook, you will have an idea of how that works, although in Briscola, those sorts of plays are always a little riskier. It's also a relief when you find yourself having to lead a high-point card, and your partner bails you out by winning the trick.

There is also a five-player version of Briscola that is so different that it ought to be considered a different game -- in fact, I see that BGG now has a separate entry for Briscola Chiamata. It features hidden alliances, and is highly regarded. I have only ever gotten to play it twice, though, so I cannot comment on it further.
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Martin G
United Kingdom
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Nice review! I bought an Italian deck while on holiday in Naples a couple of years ago, and my wife and I learnt Scopa and Briscola. Scopa was the big hit for her, but I enjoy Briscola and downloaded an app to play it too. I got to try Chiamata once and it was really interesting.
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Randatollah
United States
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Thanks! Scopa is a great game, too.
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Andrés Pérez
United States
Germantown
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Played this my entire childhood and taught it to my wife who enjoys it. Can't wait to teach it to my daughter!
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Paolo Pinosio
Italy
Venice
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Glad to see that my childhood favorite games ( both Scopa and Briscola ) are appreciated by gamers from other countries but Italy!
Paolo
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Nicola Bocchetta
Italy
Milano
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Now you should try Tressette!
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