I really enjoy the game, but feel that it is especially sensitive to overstaying it's welcome for two reasons: the repetitive nature of the actions and the aspect of player elimination (both real and perceived). For those reasons, I think that it is really important to choose the rules variations that will make the game the most fun for your group. I feel that the game is best with four or five players, so I will limit my discussion to those player counts.
Auctioning one card at a time and starting with no cards means having forty auctions in addition to the many cattle trades that will occur over the course of the game. This amount of repetition is too much for many groups. Starting with four cards in a four-player game shortens that to 24 auctions. I prefer not to do this fully randomly, as the difference between animal values is great. With four players, the variant giving every player a rooster (R), a goose (G), a cat (C) and a dog (D) works well, as everyone has a balanced start.
Since there are only four animals of each type, this balance is not possible with five players. I see two options. The first is to give each player three cards, keeping the total number of cards left to auction at 25, which is closest to the four player option. I would still recommend using the lower valued animals. While not completely balanced, this keeps the discrepancy to the lowest four values. I suggest leaving one dog card in the auction deck, since it is the most valuable of the four. A suggested distribution would be:
RGC, RGC, RGD, RCD, GCD
A second option with five players is to hand out four cards per player, drawn from the bottom five types, including sheep (S). Each player has all but one of the lowest five values:
RGCD, RGCS, RGDS, RCDS, GCDS
This leaves 20 cards to auction, and has a greater discrepancy in value. Missing a rooster is quite different than missing a sheep (90 points more so than the difference between a rooster and a dog). I think my preference with five is to give each player three cards to start, although this adds a wrinkle to the auction element.
Cards per auction:
With our group, having 20+ auctions would still be too long. We find the most interesting part of the game to be the cattle trades. For this reason, we prefer the variant where animals are auctioned off two cards at a time. This reduces the number of auctions to 12 in a four-player game with starting cards, and to either 10 or 12.5 in a five-player game depending on the number of cards given out at the start. If starting with three cards in a five-player game, the number of cards left to auction is odd. There are several possibilities for dealing with the odd number. One option is to have the last auction only be a one-card auction. As the final chance to get a card through an auction, perhaps this makes fine sense. A second option would be to auction a single high value card by itself (perhaps the first horse card that comes up). A third option is too make the auction with the remaining dog card be a three-card auction. None of these solutions is ideal, but the situation itself isn't really a deal-breaker, so you can choose what your group prefers. Avoiding this issue altogether is perhaps a case for starting with four cards per player.
Secrecy of bids and payments:
Various translations/editions of the game have differing rules about payment in cattle trades and auctions. Keeping the values secret makes it impossible to perfectly track the amount of money (and denominations) that a player has. For our gaming circle, this is vitally important, as many players prefer open information for anything that is trackable. In my mind, this would ruin much of the fun of this game. We play that the entire cattle trade is solely between the two players involved, and the cash results are not announced. In addition, I feel that a player should be allowed to overpay in an auction if they prefer to hold onto the denominations that make up the exact cost of a bid (or if they want to hide the fact that they didn't have exact change).
Keeping payments secret also makes the penalty for bidding more than you have a more serious one. Having to show the table your money gives them so much information that it is a great risk to overbid. Although allowing overbids could theoretically extend the length of the game significantly, I haven't found this to be of practical concern given the harshness of the penalty. I see no need for eliminating the overbidder from the second auction, as some rules editions suggest.
Countering the counter-offer in a cattle trade:
In his excellent article promoting the game, Thijs suggests allowing a player who offers a cattle trade to up their bid after a counteroffer from the opponent. While this may add to the tension of the exchange, it also lengthens the transaction, adding a significant amount of time to the game. It is up to your group to find the right balance for them. For our group, the additional tension does not make up for the extended time. We prefer the tougher decision made by knowing your first offer in a cattle trade is your only offer.
Reducing the number of auctions by starting with four cards and auctioning two cards at a time keeps the game tight and interesting. Keeping money secret for all transactions maintains tension throughout the game. Limiting cattle trades to one offer and one counteroffer keeps the game from dragging at the end, especially for players who only have full sets, or have no chance of winning because of the sets that remain.
I've played this a few times with 4 random cards dealt to start and really feel the discrepancy between people who get good hands and people who get crap so I'm eager to try the RGCD opening setup next time I play. The only question I have is do you feel like the rate at which donkey cards comes out is too frequent? I kinda liked having more money to start the game, but admittedly havent played enough to know if it's really important.
Also, I'm eager to try the two animals per auction. I really like the game as is but wouldn't mind it being just a smidge shorter. In a 4 player game, do you still think auctioning the first horse should be a single card auction? How would you go about doing that if you're flipping two at a time? Meaning if I flip one rooster and then the first horse? My initial thought would be to shuffle the rooster in the draw deck and leave the horse out. I'd also be worried if 2 horses came out during a single auction. Don't know if I'd house rule that to shuffle the second horse back in or just let it be.
Thanks for compiling these variants!
Great article David! Thanks for this excellent contribution in compiling and analyzing the main variants.
While I love the game-play You're Bluffing, I agree with the common opinion that under the standard rules it drags on a little too long for its weight. We often play with the variant rules of starting with four animals and auctioning two animals at a time. While this does arguably introduce the potential for some imbalance due to the card draw, it does make the game length just right for the kind of light game that it is.