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?)

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