Guide to the Cardpocalypse, part three: Trick-taking games

I’ll be blunt: if you take nothing else from this series of articles, remember this: trick-taking card games are the best games ever.  I have played a lot of other games over the years, whether board or card, but nothing compares to a good trick-taker.  Like many a Cajun, my first was Bourré when I was a pas bon ti garçon, and after thirty-plus years I’m still learning how to “git gud” at trick-takers… and still three-quarters of that description.  There is an infinite well of learning here, so drink greedily or sip carefully; there’s more than enough for everyone.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly solid overview of the concept of trick-taking games; if you’re completely unfamiliar with them, start there.

Four-player partnership full-deck games

The best trick-takers are all four-player partnership games, where teams of two compete to see whether it’s Them or Us that are the best, with the entire deck of fifty-two cards dealt out to the players.  There are a bunch of reasons for this:

  • Partnerships combine both the joy of cooperation (working together with someone to win) and competition (crushing the souls of your opponents);
  • Full-deck games mean that you can have a firm grasp on what cards are still in play, because every card is in play at the beginning, rather than having a pile of undealt or discarded cards messing up your calculations;
  • Weaker players can be paired up with stronger ones to even the teams out, helping to ensure that everyone has a good time; and
  • Probably the best game in the world (Contract Bridge) is a four-player partnership full-deck game.

Their fatal flaw, of course, is that they have to be played with four people: no more, no less.  This is fine for Bridge clubs but less fine for casual gaming.  That said, if you’ve never played a trick-taking game before, this is almost certainly where you should start.  The grounding you get from one of these games will serve you well with any other trick-taker you might play.

The best place to start is with Hokm.  It has a couple of peculiarities: you deal and play “backwards” due to its Persian origins, you deal in packets rather than one card at a time, and one player (the hakem) looks at their first five cards before anyone else to pick the trump suit.  But there isn’t any bidding, which is one of the parts of many trick-takers that can be very challenging for newcomers, so you’re free to simply play the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt, and the high luck factor with the hakem’s trump choices mean that you can always blame bad luck when things go awry.  Hokm is my go-to game for a group that has anyone not deeply familiar with trick-takers, but it’s also a good game to play in general when you don’t have the mental energy to bid precisely.

Next up is Spades, which is probably the trick-taker that most people are familiar with.  It has a near-fatal flaw, though: as a “folk” game, absolutely no one agrees on exactly how to play.  Every group of people scores slightly differently, allows different bids, and so on.  In the event of the Cardpocalypse (and, honestly, now), it is absolutely essential that you work out with your companions exactly what rules you’re playing the game with; disagreements over valid bids can get absolutely vicious.  Don’t go there.

Further up the complexity bar is Forty-One, another Persian game.  It’s unique in that it’s a partnership game where each partner scores separately for each hand, which allows for another layer of strategy–because trick-taking games just weren’t complicated enough.  We typically play with a variant rule that reduces the minimum total-tricks-bid each hand by one when a hand doesn’t “make,” resetting to 11 when a hand finally happens, so as not to spend most of the game shuffling rather than playing… but that probably mostly means that we’re just too timid with our bidding.

The ultimate four-player partnership full-deck trick-taking game (whew, that’s a mouthful) is Contract Bridge.  That said, even though I think it might be the greatest game on the planet, it also has a fatal flaw: you will simply be no good at it unless you devote a lot of time to the game.  A lot.  You have to learn bidding conventions, bidding strategies, and it has this weird dummy-hand mechanic that means one player every hand literally sits there and does nothing.  It’s genius, but it’s flawed genius, and although I respect the game a lot I can’t in good conscience make it part of the Guide to the Cardpocalypse.  I suspect you can figure out a way to learn about it if you’re interested, though.

Three-player trick-taking games

Sometimes you don’t have a full complement of players.  That’s sad, but it turns out that there are a couple of very solid three-player games.

The first is Ninety-Nine.  It’s actually a relatively recent invention, and technically plays from 2-5 pretty well, but the two-player game is meh, and if you have four your time is better spent with one of the games above.  It has a unique bidding mechanic where you have to discard cards from your hand to represent your bid… but those cards may have been the ones that made the bid possible!  It’s a nice little twist of a game.

The second is Austrian Preference, which is actually often played four-player, with the dealer rotating and sitting out on the hands they deal.  My inclusion of this game when I don’t include Contract Bridge is more than a little hypocritical: it has a complicated bidding mechanic, a talon, and some weird “you must play this way” rules that take it away from being a pure trick-taking game.  But it is also unquestionably the best three-player trick-taker I’ve ever played, and I feel that its stumbling blocks are way less brutal than Contract Bridge.  You can actually become competent at it in a couple of games, which definitely cannot be said of Bridge.

Finally, a note that there is actually a quite-solid three-player variant of Hokm, with a quirky “you win if the other two players tie” rule that makes for an interesting game.  But that same rule also feels more than a little unnatural, so unless you really don’t want to have to play a trick-taking game with bids, I’d recommend the two games above.

Two-player trick-taking games

There are, as far as I know, no good two-player trick-taking games.  Believe me, I’ve searched far and wide for them, but I’ve been unsatisfied with every one I’ve played.

The canonical trick-taker for more than four

What happens if you have more than four people?  Well, fortunately, that can actually still work.

Oh Hell! (also known by a bunch of other minced-oath versions of the name) plays smoothly up to 7 and can accommodate 8 in a pinch.  It’s a bidder, and an exact bidder at that, so if there are people at the table who aren’t that familiar with trick-taking games they might be in for a rough time.  Fortunately the game’s pretty light and breezy, particularly if you play with the standard “card count down, card count up” rules; later hands can be a total crapshoot, which can be a great equalizer.  Or a rich-get-richer situation.  You never know.  I recommend two particular variants strongly: the dealer shouldn’t be able to make a bid so that everyone at the table can be happy, and a bid of zero should score 5 points plus the number of cards in the hand (so 13 in an eight-card hand, but only 6 in the one-card one).

Whither Bourré and Hearts?

You’ll notice I mentioned Bourré up above as my first trick-taking game.  In fact, I’m the primary author of the Wikipedia article on the game.  But it’s a weird one, almost exclusively played for money, and with a bunch of odd rules and corner cases that make it a hard sell if you didn’t grow up with the game (or have an enthusiastic Cajun teacher).  I’m happy to show you the ropes in person if you and a group of three or four others want to play (it’s best at 5-6), but as much affection as I have for the game I don’t think it should be part of the Guide.

Hearts is another game many people are familiar with, but it’s not really a trick-taking game so much as it is a trick-avoidance game, and this article is already really long.  Rest assured it’s part of the Guide, but it’ll come later.

I also didn’t cover any point-trick games (Pedro is the canonical example here).  I probably should, and might do so in a later article, but in general I find them to be inferior to their plain-trick brethren, a little too beholden to the luck of the draw.

A final note

I read recently (sadly, I forgot exactly where) that a four-player trick-taking game like Hokm or Spades can be considered a multiplayer puzzle: given this particular deal, with this particular trump, what should you and your partner bid?  And how do you play the cards in such a way so as to ensure victory?  Perhaps that’s why I consider trick-takers the ne plus ultra of card games, as I’m also a huge puzzle fan.  But even if you’re not, I know that you can take any of the games in this section of the Guide, learn them well, and have years of enjoyment.  Like I said at the top: trick-taking card games are the best games ever.

Good luck, partner!  (Or filthy opponent; we’ll see, won’t we?)

Weekly status update [0027/????]

A week past the six-month mark, and… well, other than that particular milestone, it’s been a pretty bog-standard sort of thing.

  • I’ve been having fun writing my Guide to the Cardpocalypse, and plan on writing the first one that actually covers games tomorrow or Monday–it’s going to be on trick-takers–so if you have Opinions you want to Express, now’s the time.
  • A lot of reading this week, but not of the book variety.  Instead I read through a couple of very good Let’s Play threads.  For those unfamiliar, a Let’s Play is a playthrough of a particular game–in this case, early Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest games, along with the original Master of Orion–done by someone who is usually very familiar with that game.  They show off the inner workings, interesting strategies, and hidden bits.  Most modern Let’s Plays are done in video on YouTube; some huge Internet personalities like PewDiePie (ugh) got their start in the format.  But the original form was a combination of text and screenshots in a forum (most famously the Something Awful forum, which I won’t link for… pretty much the same reasons I didn’t link PewDiePie above), and that’s the format I like the most.  It’s easy to pick up and put down, and I read way faster than I watch video, even at 1.5x speed.  If this sounds at all interesting to you, check out the Let’s Play Archive and find some game you’ve always been interested in.
  • Also actually playing games on my own, mostly Let It Die, where I continue to delay my storming of the endgame for no good reason other than that I’m scared, but also some Dead Cells now that it’s out on consoles.  Yeah, that means I bought the game twice, which is dumb, but I really like playing it on my big TV with my PS4 controller.
  • Had dinner with friends not once but twice over the week, which was nice.  Particularly since one of the meals was with someone who moved to Europe in the last few months–it was nice to catch up–and the other was with someone who is moving away soon; another opportunity to socialize with people before they leave is always nice.
  • One of those dinners ended up being not-the-best for my diet, though, so I’ve been playing it tighter for the rest of the week.  I’ve (sadly) gotten used to going to bed hungry, but it’s necessary to help get my “desire to eat everything under the eaves” under control, which (like all addictions) has a nasty habit of springing up with just the slightest provocation.  I’m actually genuinely curious at this point as to how much I weigh now; I don’t know how much I had gotten up to, but I have a rough idea.  I’m not going to seek out a scale, though.  Regular weighing has been one of several things that has completely ruined my self-control due to over-correction.
  • Other than some more time with Picross 3D Round 2, I didn’t do much in the way of puzzles… but I did finally get a lead on getting a bunch of back issues of a particular Turkish puzzle magazine that comes very highly recommended.  (Don’t look at me like that.  I already have a ton of Japanese puzzle magazines; why not Turkish too?)  I’m waiting to hear back from the publisher/editor.  The magazines themselves will be dirt cheap.  It’s gonna be the shipping that’s killer.

The weather’s been uncommonly pleasant here in North Carolina, not but not crazily so, although the off-and-on rain makes it hard to enjoy.  I’ll take it, though, along with the lassitude of my current lifestyle.  It’s been a very different August than my last twenty or so, that’s for sure.  And that’s a good thing.

Twenty-six weeks and what do you get?

…half a year older, for sure; thankfully not deeper in debt.

(A quick note: I added a widget to the side that lets you subscribe to the blog via eMail; put in your address and you’ll get a message whenever I write a new article.  Several people have asked how to follow along a bit easier.  Hopefully that helps.)

My last day of work was February 2nd, 2018.  This past Friday marks twenty-six weeks since then, fully half a year of retirement.  It’s kind of crazy to think about; I remember when I was in my late twenties and thinking, “huh, maybe I can pull this off sometime in my mid-forties if I work really hard at it.”  Working in tech let me pull that off seven or eight years before my original plans, and for that I will always be grateful.

It doesn’t feel like it’s been six months, but it doesn’t feel like it’s only been a couple of weeks either.  If I had to put a number on how long it feels, I’d say something like three months… but I’m not sure that that perception of time is really any different from when I was working.  I was at my last job for just a bit over five years but it felt like three at most.

Let’s answer the most obvious question first, because it’s also the easiest: No, I don’t regret retiring.  Do I have any concrete regrets at all?  Sure.  I miss the social aspects of my workplace, playing board games at lunch and chatting with people in the halls.  I miss the food team and the delicious free food (although my waistline is rather happier now).  But I honestly hadn’t been all that happy with my day-to-day job for a couple of years when I left, and there’s no question that I enjoy what I’m doing now–even if, to the outside world, it might look like a fat lot of nothing–quite a bit more.

The money situation requires a Magic 8-Ball response: Ask again later.  The market volatility this year has completely swamped any attempt I could make at understanding whether my rate of spending is sustainable or not in the long term.  That rate of spending has actually been surprisingly constant over the year, which I discovered almost by accident last week when messing around with graphs in Gnucash; it’s quite a bit higher than I would like–looks like it’s likely to be somewhere around $36,000 for the year, when I’m aiming for something more like $30,000–but there is still a ton of superfluous spending in there, if it turns out I have to buckle down and Get Serious about my money habits.  And assuming my spending increases at the same rate as the value of my investments (a pretty ridiculous assumption, seeing as the trend is downwards, not upwards) I still have somewhere around twenty years before I have to touch the first penny of my retirement, at which point I’ll be in my late fifties.  Yeah.  It’ll almost certainly be fine, but still: ask again later.

As for longer-term plans, well, I said I’d give myself a year before I started worrying about that sort of thing, so get back to me in six months.

From one perspective, these twenty-six weeks have been profoundly unproductive.  Other than this blog, I haven’t written anything of note; other than a few tiny patches and tinkerings, I haven’t written any code either.  But that’s at least partly by design; I don’t want to force myself into those things if I’m not really feeling it, and in both cases I can feel the desire to “do something” percolating more and more inside me.  I suspect it won’t be more than a couple of weeks before I sit down and write something, be it code or prose.  I’m going to let it happen naturally.

From another perspective, though, it’s actually been quite productive.  Changing the way that I type–something I do a lot of, even if it’s not writing prose–has been a huge undertaking; I remember that first weekend, typing at 5wpm and thinking it was the worst idea I had ever had in my life.  But now I’m back to something like 75% of my old typing speed, which puts me in the top 1% or so of typists in the world, and that is Plenty Sufficient for my needs.  It’s also way less strain on my hands, something I need to be careful with if I want to be able to do this for the next thirty-plus years.  It’s the sort of “short term pain, long term gain” thing that I couldn’t really justify back when my livelihood at least partly depended on how fast I could bang on the keyboard, and my life will be better now indefinitely into the future for it.

There’s the other stuff too.  I’ve read a bunch of books I hadn’t gotten around to, played a bunch of games I never finished, completed a couple of puzzle books that have been lingering near my chair for years… basically doing things I always pushed off because I didn’t have the time.  My backlog of media is effectively infinite, so it’s hard to say that I made progress on those fronts, and it still grows at a rate greater than my ability to consume it, but there’s no question that I did something there.  And that’s satisfying.

Another thing that retirement has made easier is taking control of my weight.  There’s no question that I’m addicted to food, and being alone at my house allows me to highly regulate the food I come in contact with; the ever-present snacks at my old work place were a serious impediment to my diet, and although I overcame that for a while it is always easier to just eat all the things.  I still have quite a way to go, but the combination of calorie restriction and keto is doing its job.  (It’s also making me pretty grumpy some days, but you can’t have it all, at least if you want to drop a bunch of pounds in time for the holidays.)

In some ways this was always something of an experiment.  You can plan and plan, hypothesize that “it’s going to work out,” but until you actually do the thing it’s almost impossible to know whether or not such a long-term life shift is actually going to work out.  And it’s still very much early days yet; I won’t presume to know that my first six months are indicative of the next six, much less the (hopefully) long life ahead of me.  But: so far, so good.  So very, very good.

Thanks for coming along on this ride with me.  If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, whether briefly in replies or via longer-form posts, just let me know.  Thankfully I get enough comments to know I’m not just screaming into the void, but I’m happy to hear feedback of all types.

See you here again in six months!  (Also on Friday or Saturday, for the weekly rundown.  But also in six months.)

Guide to the Cardpocalypse, part two: Etiquette

Before we dive into any actual games, there’s still some more important ground to cover.  (And I’m still looking for feedback about which games you think should be part of the Guide!  Feel free to comment either here or on the earlier post.)  In the case of an actual apocalypse, this part is actually probably more important than knowing the rules of any particular game; screwing around with cards is more likely to get you stabbed, or shot, than simply not understanding the rules.

Shuffling

Learn how to do a bridge (or riffle) shuffle properly.  There are unsurprisingly quite a few nice, short videos on YouTube about this; it is a skill that will take the majority of you an afternoon at most to reach a reasonable level of competence.  My mother didn’t pick it up until she was in her late sixties, so don’t let “but I didn’t learn it as a kid!” be the thing that stops you.  Practice with a fresh deck of plastic-coated paper cards, then practice again with your nice all-plastic cards, which tend to be a lot more slippery and have a habit of shooting off everywhere if you don’t keep a firm grasp on them.  Then find that old shopworn deck of cards that’s hiding in the back of the drawers of the china cabinet and practice on that.  Worn-out cards are toughies, but in the Cardpocalypse you’ll have to deal with them sometimes.  You don’t need Vegas-level pizzazz with your shuffling, just competence.

I generally shuffle the deck a minimum of seven times before using it, but I am a compulsive shuffler, so it’ll get done twenty (or thirty, or…) times if I’m the person holding the second deck while the first is getting used.

If someone asks to cut the cards, let them.  Place the deck face down on the table in front of them; they’ll make two or more piles of cards, which you’ll pick up in reverse order.  Keep the deck level when you do this; more about how you hold the deck in Dealer etiquette, below.

Player etiquette

Wait for the dealer to finish dealing before you touch the cards in front of you.  If you’re an inveterate fiddler, like me, offer to pre-shuffle the second deck while you wait for the dealer to finish.  There are exceptions, like for the hakem in Hokm, but you’ll know them by the game; the vast majority of the time, you should keep your hands far away from the dealt cards until they’re all distributed.

Learn to pick up cards properly.  On a felt/cloth surface, rubbing them across to the edge is just fine, but on hard wood/stone surfaces you’ll scratch the cards.  Some tables are easier or harder to take cards from, and you’ll have to be careful not to accidentally flip them over.  Feel free to use one card as a bit of a lift for the others if you’re having trouble; just don’t slam it into the table.

Learn to hold your cards properly.  They shouldn’t be held out far away, where the people to your sides will be able to (intentionally or inadvertently) see what they are; if you need to do that to see them, get new glasses and make sure to use large-index cards.  (They shouldn’t be crammed up in your face to where you’re rubbing your nose on them, but that tends to be less of an issue.)  Don’t hold them so tight that you’re actually folding them over, either; these cards need to last the entire Cardpocalypse, after all, and people like me will get on your ass for damaging a nice set of cards with your death grip.  They should be kept as vertical as possible; tilting them too far forward–“tipping” your cards–shows them to people across the table, which in a partnership game is an extreme form of cheating.  That’s bad.  Very bad.

Don’t fidget with the cards either.  This is a hard one, and I used to do it myself, but tapping the cards on the table is both distracting and damaging, particularly on hard surfaces.  Riffling them back and forth, rubbing them together, and so on are all no-nos as well, distracting at best and damaging at worst.

Learn to play cards properly.  Flinging them across the table and having them embed in the hat of your opponent can be amusing but also deadly.  The vast majority of time you just need it to land face-up in roughly the center of the table.  A little style here goes a long way; no one’s gonna begrudge you a smug thwack when you snatch an assured victory out of some jerk’s hands with a perfectly-timed trump (except for that jerk), but if every card you play is a miniature Stephen Sondheim production you might want to tone it down a bit.  Meekly dropping the card right in front of you and forcing whoever cleans the trick or hand up to reach three miles across the table is not cool either.

If you’ve got to get up from the table, put them down well.  A sort of fan layout, like you hold them in your hands, will make them easier to pick back up when you return, but anything that isn’t too close to the edge of the table (where they’re likely to get knocked over when you sit back down) is fine.  Never, EVER walk away from the table with your cards still in hand.  This is grounds for getting shot now, much less in the Cardpocalypse.

If you’re the next (or second-to-next) dealer, collect the cards from the table after the hand.  Sometimes this happens naturally over the course of the hand, sometimes it needs to wait until the end, but as the hand finishes the cards should end up with whoever needs to be shuffling the deck.  If you’re doing the Cardpocalypse right, you should be using two decks, so it’s not the next dealer, but the one after that.  Do not let the cards lie messy on the table while a new hand is getting dealt.  That way lies mixed decks, madness, and stab wounds.

Dealer etiquette

You can always shuffle.  Even if someone hands you a pre-shuffled deck ready to go, it’s a good idea to give it at least one shuffle.  This isn’t even necessarily a “cheat check,” particularly in a friendly game; I don’t want to get into psychology too much here, but pairing shuffling with dealing helps put you into a precision mindset that’s very important when you deal.  (But, yeah, it’s also a “cheat check.”)

Always offer a cut.  In general, you should offer a cut to the person in the opposite direction of the deal (usually to your right) that isn’t on your team.  They can always decline, and in friendly games you’ll often skip this entirely, but they should never have to ask to cut if they want to.

Hold the deck properly when you deal.  You want to grasp it firmly in one hand, generally your off hand, with the deck tilted very slightly downwards away from you.  (This is to keep from exposing the bottom card of the deck to the people across the table.)

Deal the cards one at a time, starting with the eldest player (unless the game uses a different dealing mechanism).  The “eldest” player is the person next in player order, usually the person to your left; this baffled the heck out of me when I was a kid reading my copy of Hoyle’s, and looking up the definition of eldest didn’t clarify it at all–why should I start with the oldest person at the table?  But I digress.  In almost all circumstances, you should get the last card dealt in each pass around the table.

Deal the cards carefully, properly, and in order.  You want to slide them off the top of the deck one at a time, still keeping them tilted very slightly downwards away from you, for the same reasons that you do so with the deck.  Make sure to deal them to each person in order.  We are rational beings who do not believe in the Heart of the Cards, but hoo boy will you infuriate some people if you skip them and then proceed to deal them a different card than the one they rightfully deserve.  Don’t do it.

In general you’ll want to stand up and deal directly in front of each player.  This is one of those rules that is easily relaxed in friendly games, where you’ll often deal right in front of yourself, sitting down, and then just push the packets to the right person, but this is the Cardpocalypse we’re talking about.  Better safe than sorry.

If you accidentally flip over a card, stop.  It is absolutely the right of anyone at the table to call a misdeal at this point, at which point you may forfeit the right to deal again.  Some games handle this in particular ways (in Bourré a single flipped card can generally become your “trump card,” but if it’s a high face card or an Ace it should probably be a forfeited deal), but let the table decide.  And then don’t do that again.

Etiquette etiquette

(Wow, that word is starting to lose all meaning for me at this point.)

Etiquette is as serious, or as irrelevant, as the table decides.  If you follow the guidelines in this article, you’re very unlikely to piss off even the staunchest of SRS BZNS card-players, and a lot of the tips (particularly in how you handle cards) should be followed no matter how casual the game.  But most friendly games don’t care a lot about cutting, proper deal order, or how pristinely you play your cards.  If it’s time for a raucous round of something, don’t take it any more seriously than you have to.  If, on the other hand, there’s someone at the table who wants it done prim and proper, who believes in the Heart of the Cards?  Accommodate them.   You can use the practice, after all.

Any game, or social group, may have its own rules that supercede these.  There are games that want you to shuffle in particular ways, to maximize clumping (no, really!)  There are groups that really, really care about how you shuffle and deal.  Serious Texas Hold’Em players don’t want you picking up the cards at all, just tipping the corners to peek at their values.  And, of course, who knows what weird new rules of etiquette will come up with the dawn of the Cardpocalypse?  Make sure you know the details and follow them appropriately.

We are finally done with this etiquette stuff

Phew.  That was a much longer article than I was expecting when I sat down to write it!  But there was a lot to cover.  Do you feel like I missed anything?  Went too far?  Comment away.

It’s poor etiquette not to.

(Seriously.  Not even a word any more.)

Weekly status update [0026/????]

Half a year in.  Woof.  Let’s jump right in.

  • I made up for lost time on reading this past week; the first book (Ninth City Burning) was fun but slight.  The second, A Dirty Job, was so good that I read the whole thing in a single sitting, something I hadn’t done in ages.  Christopher Moore is always at least interesting and funny, but A Dirty Job was also very engaging, as evidenced by the fact that I couldn’t put it down.  Good stuff.
  • As mentioned here previously, we had a game night Tuesday that led to me starting a new series of articles about card games.  I’ll be writing another one up soon on card-playing etiquette before we jump into the games proper.  I’m still looking for feedback on what games you think should be part of the Guide to the Cardpocalypse.
  • I actually watched the tiniest bit of television this week, a single episode of Jessica Jones.  It was better than the first, which was good.  I have a lot of catching up to do with the Marvel Netflix series, not to mention everything else… but honestly I’d generally much rather read, play games, watch other people play games, or do puzzles.
  • Speaking of puzzles, while I didn’t do a whole lot in any magazines, I picked my Nintendo 3DS back up and did a bunch more of Picross 3D: Round 2.  It’s an excellent game, really hampered only by the clawlike way you have to hold the 3DS to be able to hit all the buttons; my hands actually cramp up after solving a puzzle or two, an issue I don’t have with any other puzzle games.  I’m close to the end, though, so I’m likely going to try and muddle through in the coming week or two.
  • I broke my diet somewhat for the first time since I started; I just really really needed some General Tso’s chicken on Thursday, and topped it off with jalapeño poppers.  It was delicious, and I suspect that one moment of weakness will help make the next several months easier.  I’m not really craving anything right now the way I was before… other than the always-persistent Ghost of Carbs Past moaning in the back of my head, but I’ve gotten good at ignoring that particular bugaboo.

Half a year.  I’m definitely going to write something up this coming week about what it’s been like so far, but just in case you were worried: still not bored.

Guide to the Cardpocalypse, part one: Intro and equipment

We had another game night last night–the first time since I’ve retired that I got to play games two Tuesdays in a row–and we ended up playing trick-taking card games for most of the night.  I was shocked to learn that those two games, Oh Hell! and one of my own devising, were the first times Chad had ever played a trick-taking game, and I already knew that another one of the regulars had only played them two or three times before.

Trick-taking card games are, I think, one of the best ways to spend an evening with friends.  I love “proper” board games to death, but I’ve sunk something like four thousand hours of my life into trick-taking games–mostly Bourré, being a proper Cajun boy and all–which is probably roughly equal to the time I’ve spent playing literally every other kind of game I’ve ever played.  So you could say I’m a fan.

I mentioned yesterday evening that I consider a solid command of a bunch of card games an essential skill; a deck of cards is pretty much universally available, either in someone’s house or the nearest gas station or convenience store, and cards remain the most versatile piece of gaming equipment I know.  (Six-sided dice are the only other things that come close.)  Armed with a deck of cards, you can stave off boredom for yourself… or up to seven or so other people.  You’ve just gotta know what to do with them.

So: I’m starting up a new series of posts, a “guide to the Cardpocalypse.” It’s a set of games and concepts I feel every person reading this blog should learn.  Armed with these and a simple deck of cards, you should be prepared for all eventualities.  Give or take an apocalypse.

The equipment

As mentioned above, you can get a deck of cards just about anywhere, and in a pinch gas station decks will do.  That said, spending a few bucks on a decent set of cards will pay dividends.  The act of shuffling a nice deck of cards is a way to bring pleasure to a large subset of humanity (myself included); that deck you have in the back of the closet that’s been used 100 times, with the nick on the Queen of Hearts, should probably be retired.

If you’re cheap, go for the better plastic-coated cards, like Bicycles or Bees.  There are two general sizes of cards, “Poker-sized” and “Bridge-sized”; most people are only familiar with the former, but Bridge-sized are way better for games like, well, Bridge, where you have to hold 13 cards in your hand at the same time.  If you can only buy one and have both available, buy those.

A little bit more money in the short term will save you a ton in the long run, though.  Good plastic playing cards will last years of play (particularly if you wash them occasionally… yeah, it sounds dumb, but it works), and a pair of decks of plastic cards isn’t much more than their inferior plastic-coated relatives.  I’ve gone back and forth over the years since KEM got bought out, but I’ve come to prefer the Da Vinci over the Copags by a bit.

You’ll note that both links above are to “large index” cards.  That’s intentional; in general, if you let older people play card games with you, they will teach you a lot while mercilessly crushing you.  Be nice to their eyes (and also people like me with crap vision).

You also want a minimum of two decks of cards: one that’s being used to play while a second deck gets shuffled by someone else at the table.  There are also several very good games that require the components from two decks of cards with identical backs; I probably won’t be covering them in this series, because that’s a little fancy for a Cardpocalypse, but consider ordering two of the same Da Vinci or Copag sets so that you’re set up for this.  In general, though, you’ll want the two decks you’re using to have different backs to minimize confusion at the table when the cards get messy, as they inevitably will.

 Next time

I’m going to save talking about actual games for two posts from now, because I want feedback before then.  The next post will be about general card-playing etiquette; in the coming Cardpocalypse, you don’t want to get murdered by an opponent because of bad dealing habits.

So: What games do you think are essential parts of the guide to the Cardpocalypse?  I’ll be covering trick-takers, of course, but also games like Rummy and Poker (which isn’t a card game, but we’ll get to that later) and even single-player pastimes like various solitaires. “Kids’ games,” too, although preferably ones adults can play without losing their minds; War is decidedly not on the list.  And I’m open to what games should be talked about.  I have a good idea as to what trick-takers I want to cover, but the rest of the field is a lot more nebulous.  Comment away!

Weekly status update [0025/????]

A pleasantly quiet week, punctuated with some quiet pleasantness.

  • As mentioned in my rant earlier this week, I finished up Final Fantasy XIII after years of having it hang over my head.  I then immediately started playing it again from the start.  I’ll probably write a “Here’s a Thing” about it soonish, but: it’s a lot better than people think.  Except for the trophies.  Damn the trophies.
  • We had the first extended game night in ages at Fercott Fermentables on Tuesday.  We played Power Grid at Jase’s request; despite him having never played the game, he won on the first tiebreaker, with Chad in second.  Power Grid is a stone cold classic board game, and I enjoy it every time I play, although in this particular game I knew I was going to lose and lose badly about halfway through.  Good times, though, with great company and a good atmosphere.
  • I have a big stack of books from the library but haven’t made a huge dent in them yet due to playing too many video games instead.  I did finally read/look at/gape at Banksy’s Wall and Piece, which Chad kindly loaned me.  It’s a gorgeous piece of art full of gorgeous (and sad, and clever, and all other sorts of things) pieces of art.  One of my favorite touches: a lot of the pieces have either how long it took to paint them–sometimes crazy short amounts of time–or how long they lasted before getting painted over or removed.
  • The diet continues to go well, inasmuch as I’m pretty sure I’m still losing weight and I’m definitely still managing keto.  I intentionally didn’t weigh myself when I started and still haven’t, due to my tendency to obsess over slight variations in the short-term numbers when long-term trends are the important part, but the key “clothes fit better” index is going strong.
  • Speaking of personal health, neither my back nor my wrists have been acting up recently, which is a very pleasant state of affairs.  I suspect the former is at least partly due to the continued weight loss; not sure about the wrists, but I’m not gonna knock it either.

All in all, a pleasant week, with the sadly-too-rare pleasure of an excellent board game evening in the middle.  I… should really try and do something to make those happen more often, but I’m not sure what.  Now, though, it’s time to get back to reading on this quiet Saturday, which is actually a whole lot like what I would have been doing on most Saturdays before retirement anyhow.  Funny how that works.

The devil in the dull

After seven years of it hanging over my head, I just “platted” Final Fantasy XIII for the PS3, and I’m here to tell you: trophies (or achievements, or whatever your favorite system calls them) are the absolute worst.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the idea, a brief explanation.  Achievements (or trophies; I will use the terms interchangeably from here on out) are a way of tracking and rewarding a player’s actions in the vast majority of modern games.  It all started with the Xbox 360; the PlayStation 3 followed suit a couple of years late, and both Sony and Microsoft’s modern systems continue the trend.  Steam, the juggernaut of gaming on modern PCs, also tracks achievements, and people have even reverse-engineered them into games of yore.  They act as a “scoring system” for all of their platforms; for example, as of this moment I’m Level 20 on my PlayStation Network account, with 32 platinum trophies–essentially but not precisely “games I got every achievement in”–and another 3300 or so other trophies of less valuable metals indicating progress in hundreds of games.

There are fundamentally three types of achievements:

  • Some you get for passing certain points in the game; these tend to be unmissable, assuming you play through the whole thing.
  • Others you get for doing certain challenge-y things within a given game, such as beating it on a particular difficulty level or using a weak weapon, or simply pulling off something clever or challenging that isn’t required to beat the game itself.
  • Lastly are achievements that pretend to be the second kind, above, but are secretly actually “play the game until you hate it with every fiber of your being because this stupid achievement is making you do something tedious and awful.”

Now, perhaps you can put your sleuthing hat on and figure out which of the above I abhor.  (I’m actually not a big fan of the first type of achievement, either; they feel like participation stickers.  But at least they tend to be inoffensive.)  Sometimes the second type can even shade into the third, if the challenging thing you’re asking a player to do ends up being too challenging; game designers tend to be a little too close to their games, and often don’t realize that what is easy for them and their testers can be downright devilish for players out in the real world.

The problem is that almost every game with achievements has at least one of that last type, even games I’ve otherwise really enjoyed.  For example, Axiom Verge–one of my favorite games of all time–has an achievement that requires you to “glitch” at least one of every enemy in the game.  This is quite tedious and frustrating, as some enemies only show up in one or two rooms in the game, and missing one means scouring the map for That One Thing You Didn’t Do.  Now, I happen to have collected all of the achievements in Axiom Verge on three different occasions (two different PSN accounts, plus on Steam), but I still hate that particular achievement with a passion.

I recently “platted” (short for “platinummed”, a delightful verbing of the act of getting the last trophy/achievement on a PlayStation game, which nets you a special platinum trophy on top of the copper, silver, or gold one that whatever the actual thing you did provides) Diablo III.  That game also had a couple of awful trophies; one required you to essentially beat the game with six different characters, which is a lot of one game for most people, but that wasn’t the big offender.  No.  The awful one was the “complete 500 bounties” trophy.

Bounties in Diablo III are semi-random tasks the game assigns you, five at a time.  The thing is: after you’ve done twenty bounties or so, you’ve basically seen everything that the bounty system can offer.  And yet you have to grind out another 480 of them.  480!  Even a fast bounty takes a couple of minutes to complete.  It took me hours of completing bounties while doing other things (mostly watching Twitch) to complete that trophy, none of it fun.

So, back to Final Fantasy XIII.  It, too, has a couple of awful achievements, but one of them takes the grand prize in the Garbage Design Sweepstakes.  You have to “hold” (i.e. have in your inventory) every single weapon and accessory in the game.  Many of these you can’t actually find in the game; instead, you have to upgrade other, weaker items into the missing ones.  The details of the system aren’t important.  What’s important is that getting this one trophy easily adds another ten or so hours onto the game, minimum… all of which consists of repetitive tasks where you kill enemies over and over and over and over and over to get items to sell (or use) to feed the upgrade engine.  It is awful, unfun, and you are basically forced into using a guide off the Internet to make sure you don’t miss any of the upgrade paths.

So: I beat the game back in 2011, looked at what I had to do for the last trophies–there are some other really stupid ones in the game that I won’t get into–and went “nope.”  But it’s been nagging me in the back of my head ever since then.  I platted both of FFXIII‘s sequels, and FFXV as well (for those of you wondering “why not FFXIV?”: it’s an massively multiplayer online game, and I’m not allowed to play those for a whole bunch of reasons having to do with my well-being), and still FFXIII sat there, trophy list 60% complete, mocking me.

And so this past week I decided I’d finish it off.  And finish it I did.  A tiny bit of that was fun; a couple of the bits in the game that I hadn’t done were interesting and challengin.  But mostly it was miserable and boring and tedious.

But.  By merely existing, achievements are a gamification of the act of playing games.  And a lot of people–myself included–are easily susceptible to that sort of thing.  I look at a game where I have 70% of the trophies and go: I should get the rest.  Then I have a shiny platinum!  Then people will know I beat the game.   And so I found myself listening to The Dollop for two hours tonight while tediously playing the same battle over and over and over to get enough in-game money to just be done with this.  This is not good game design.  It’s captive, sure, but it’s unhealthy.  And I don’t like it at all.  But I can’t help myself, either.

At least I can blame Bill Gates.

Weekly status update [0024/????]

Hey, look, I’m actually writing this on Friday for a change!

  • I finally, finally finished up Diablo III‘s Platinum trophy on my PS4.  I promptly uninstalled the game afterwards.  I need to write a post at some point about how unhealthy “trophy culture” is, particularly because just about every game has one or two absolutely idiotic trophies that make what is otherwise a delightful  experience miserable.  For Diablo III, that was the “do 500 bounties” trophy: it was a tremendous amount of boring busywork.  Fortunately…
  • …I did many of said bounties while watching Twitch.  I still watch Landail on the regs, and I’ve also started watching quite a bit of Sinatar, who mostly plays old PC RPGs, for much the same reason: a chill pace and a sense of actual community in chat.
  • With Diablo III done, I picked Shining in the Darkness back up again with some more seriousness.  I’ve made quite a bit more progress in the game, and am still very much enjoying the act of mapping the game on actual graphing paper.  There’s something deeply satisfying about looking at the stack of maps I’ve drawn that staring at a map on GameFAQs just doesn’t match.
  • I’ve been reading a lot too.  In fact, the only thing I picked up on Prime Day was a shiny new Kindle Paperwhite.  I’m not a huge fan of it being touch-only, but I can’t deny that it is a lot easier to read thanks to the LCD backlighting.  Getting all of my books onto it was a hassle, since they’re spread across my Amazon account and my computer (yes, before you tech people ask, I use Calibre), but I got everything back up and running the way I like it.  That said, my current efforts are geared towards a fat stack of books I checked out from the library, including a whole lot of Christopher Moore that I missed out on in the last fifteen years or so.
  • I went to a dinner thing Thursday night.  The company was good and I got to play board games for the first time in something like a month, which was a pleasure, even if they were all very casual games.  The Mind continues to be fascinating, and I got to play CrossTalk for the first time, which plays a lot like the old TV show Password, with the key twist being that the other team guesses when your team captain gives clues.  This makes the game a fascinating game of chicken on the part of the captains.  It was a lot of fun and way more interesting than even I had suspected it would be, and that was without the advanced “gamers’ rules”.
  • The dentist was was fine.  Expensive, but fine.

It was a pretty good week, on the balance; I cleared a couple of irritating things off of my plate and got to play board games with people, so, y’know: pretty peak retirement living.

Leader of the plaque

(Don’t blame me, blame Little Shop of Horrors.  Also, if you have a visceral hatred of talking about dentistry, feel free to skip this one.  I don’t blame you one bit.)

My dentist appointment went fine, other than costing rather more than I would have liked.  In fact, for the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t told that I needed to floss more.  This has been a goal of mine for at least the last decade, and while I’ve been flossing regularly for years, apparently the combination of keto and overall reduced consumption was finally enough to pass muster with the dental hygienist.  Success!

Also, still no cavities, for 37ish years and counting.  (I’m not sure when my first baby tooth came in.)

Like many people, I don’t like going to the dentist at all.  Perhaps unlike most people, my problem is 100% focused on a single thing: the water-pick device that modern hygienists use for scaling the plaque off of your teeth much more efficiently than the hooked picks (although they still use those as well).  Something about the frequency the water-pick runs at makes my entire head ache with the sound when it’s in my mouth, and on top of that it inevitably zings some of the nerves in my gums as they knock off the build-up, which makes me jump… and so I spend the entire time in a state of nervous shaky tension waiting for those zings, making the whole experience indescribably worse.  It’s basically a solid fifteen to twenty minutes of my body in complete and total fight-or-flight quivering-in-my-boots fear, except that I can neither fight nor fly.  I feel deeply drained after every visit.

Imagine how bad it’d be if I had cavities and they had to break out a drill.  Uggggggggggggggh.

Anyhow, that particular obligation has been done and dusted for the next six months.  As a first semi-major “health” thing since I’ve retired, it could hardly have gone better, so for that at least I’m quite pleased.  I’m also very, very pleased that I shouldn’t have to go back for quite a while.  That water-pick.  That water-pick.