You Da Man!

L’Ombre, from mid-17th century Spain, was the trick-taking game that introduced the idea of bidding.  Players of games like Spades and Bridge know of bidding as declaring the number of tricks you and your partner think you can take with your hand.  At the beginning, though, bidding was a declaration of how you, on your own, planned to win the hand with a majority of tricks.

L’Ombre (or Hombre) is a three-player game, using the 40-card Spanish deck.  In the 1657 description from The Compleat Gamester, he describes the card ranks using French suits – the writer was in England, and pared down a French (now standard) deck by removing the 8, 9, and 10 of each suit.  In my illustrations, I will be using a Spanish pack.  Conversion is straightforward – Sword became Spades, Batons were Clubs, Coins changed to Diamonds, and Cups are now Hearts.  First, an excerpt describing card ranks, and then an illustration to show what he means.

The Ranking of Cards

There are two suits, Black and Red; of the Black there is first the “Spadillo” or Ace of Spades; the “Mallillio” or black Deuce, the “Basto” or Ace of Clubs; the King, the Queen, the Knave, the seven, the fix, the five, four, and three. Of the Red Suit there is the Spadillo, punto, Mallillio, &c.

The Spadillo or Ace of Spades, is always the first Card, and always Trump, and the Basto or Ace of Clubs is always third; of the Black there is 11 Trumps, of the Red 12. The Red Ace enters into the fourth place when it is Trump and it is called Punto then, otherwise only called an Ace.

The least small Cards of the Red are always best, and the most of the Black; except the Deuce and Red Seven, which are called the Mallillio’s and always se∣cond when Trump. The Matadors (or Killing Cards) which are the Spadillo, Mallillio, and Basto are the chief Cards, and when they are all in hand the Others pay for them three of the greater Counters apiece; and with these three for foundation you may count as many Matadors as you have Cards in an interrupted series of Trumps; for all which the others are to pay you one Kounter apiece.

Just roll with the spelling – at least the transcription I found converted f to s where appropriate – the scan read as “the leaft fmall Cardf,” for example.  In the first paragraph, he’s naming special card ranks that change depending on which suit is trump for the hand.  The second paragraph mentions Punto, which is a special rank for a red Ace only when a red suit is trump.

In the third paragraph, he describes the full ranking of the cards, seeming to contradict his earlier definitions, although he’s just including the other suits for the special positions.  He also mentions Counters, which represent the bets in the game.  A small counter is worth 1 bet, while a large one is worth 5.  We’ll get to the betting system in a bit.  Below are the card rankings for each suit, assuming they are trump.  When a suit is not trump, the card in the Mallillio or Punto positions are back in normal numerical order – note that the Ace of the red suits only counts as 1, so it’s next to the 2, not above the king.  Meanwhile, the Mallillio card is the lowest-ranked card in a suit when it is not trump.  A little weird, I know.

The Black Suits, from left to right: Spadillo, Mallillio, Basto, King, Knight, Knave, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3. When not either is not trump, their ranks go from King down to 2


The Red Suits, from left to right: Spadillo, Mallillio, Basto, Punto, King, Knight, Knave, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Notice that no matter what suit is trump, the Ace of Swords is always the highest card, and the Ace of Batons is always third highest.  The Mallillio (second highest card) is held by the lowest-ranked card of the current trump suit, so a 2 when it is Swords or Batons, and a 7 when it is Coins or Cups.  The term Matadors refers to these three “super-trump” cards.

You may also have spotted that in the Coins and Cups suits, there is a partial reverse-ranking – that is, after the face cards, the Ace (1) is the highest rank, counting down to 7.  I’m not sure of the reason for this, but I’m sure I’ll dive down that rabbit hole in some future post.

The Deal

Just before the first deal, players put up one of the Greater Counters (worth 5) as the stakes.  If the stakes are empty at the beginning of a hand, each puts in another Great Counter.  Otherwise, the Player to the left of the dealer (the Eldest hand) adds in one Lesser Counter (worth 1) to begin the deal.

The players are each dealt 9 cards, and the remaining 13 are set aside to form what in some games is called a talon or cache.  They are effectively out of play, which makes figuring out what each player is holding more difficult.  Depending on the outcome of the bid, cards may be exchanged (“taken in”) with the talon, blindly from the top of the deck.

The Goal and Bidding

I’m blending these together, because it’s hard to bid on winning a game without knowing how to win in the first place.  Simply put, you want to take the most out of nine tricks if you win the bid.  This means at least 5 tricks won guarantees the game, and you can win with 4 if the other two players end up with a 3/2 split.  A tie with one or both opponents will have you doubling the bet in play, rather than paying out to either opponent.  I’ll explain more about how the payouts work when I detail the end-game results.

The bidding is very simple – the eldest hand has the right to bid game or pass, letting the second player make the same choice, followed by the third.  When you pass, you pay one Lesser Counter to the stakes.  If all three players pass without bidding game, the eldest hand automatically wins the bid.

To bid game allows you to choose the trump suit, and to have the first right of exchange with the talon. Simply discard any number of cards, and draw the same amount from the top of the deck.  Each card taken costs one Lesser Counter, again paid to the stakes.  If you look at the cards you have drawn before naming a trump suit, however, be aware that the other players now have the right to name a suit for you.

After the game player (the Hombre) has exchanged cards, the other two players have the option of doing so as well.  The Hombre can also choose not to exchange cards at all if he feels certain he can win at least 5 tricks, in which case each of the other two players immediately pays him one of the Greater Counters as a side bet.  If he fails in this declaration, he must return their Greater Counter, and pay another one to each of them, so the Hombre stands to gain or lose 10 bets on this gamble, where each of the other players may gain or lose 5 each.

In later games, such as Tresillo, you could outbid a player who already bid game, by declaring a more difficult win, such as a random trump, or not exchanging cards at all.  But in this first bidding game, you either bid to win or you pass.

The Play

The Compleat Gamester mixes recommended strategy and payouts with the gameplay rules in a way that is difficult to follow, so I will be summarizing how to play.  For the curious, though, here is an example:

When one hath a sure Game in his hand, he is to play without taking in, then the others are to give him each one of the great Counters as he is to give them, if he play without taking in a Game that is not sure and loseth it; if you win all the Tricks in your hand or the Voll, they likewise are to give you one Counter apiece, but then you are to declare before the fifth Trick that you intend to play for the Voll, that so they keep their best Cards, which else, seeing you win five Tricks (or the Game) they may carelessly cast away.

The Hombre leads a card to the first trick.  Players are required to follow suit.  There is no requirement to trump if you are out of the led suit, although of course, you may do so.  Leading trumps or Matadors forces other players to use any trumps in their hand, although the three Matador cards can only be forced out by the other Matadors.

After each player has laid down one card, the highest card of the led suit wins the trick, unless it was trumped, in which case the highest trump wins it.  The winner collects their trick and angles them out to keep track of tricks won before leading a card to the next trick.

If any player wins the first 5 tricks, whether they are Hombre or not, they can either collect one Lesser Counter from each other player immediately, or declare that they are playing for the Voll, that is, attempting to win all 9 tricks.  Success is worth an additional Greater Counter from each other player, in addition to the normal winnings.

Endgame and Payouts

After all nine tricks have been played, each player counts up how many tricks have been won, and make payouts based on three possible conditions:

  • Sacado: The Hombre succeeds in having more tricks than any other player.  He wins the stakes, plus one Lesser Counter from each opponent.
  • Codillo: The Hombre has fewer tricks than at least one other player.  The player with the most tricks wins the stakes, plus an equal amount from the Hombre
  • Repuesto: The Hombre is tied with one or both opponents.  He adds up the current total of the stakes and pays that amount in, doubling the initial stakes going into the next game.

In the case of either Sacado or Codillo, the stakes are empty going into the next hand which means each player will ante in one Greater Counter, as explained in the section on the deal.

Game Evolution – Tresillo

Given that I’ve mentioned it several times and it is the version played today, I will also detail rule changes which will allow you to play Tresillo.  It is virtually the same game, except for the counters, the possible bids, and the payout system.

In Tresillo, the counters are referred to as tantos.  Think of them as poker chips.  Each player had their own color, and there were three denominations – a square worth 1 tanto, a circle worth 5 tantos, and a rectangle worth 10 tantos.  Typically players would buy in to have 10 of each unit.  The different colors were so players could distinguish how much they each won or lost, and settle up after the game.

The game made use of two plates, one to hold a 5-tanto piece from each player at the beginning of the game, and one for the actual stakes of the current hand, which passes from dealer to dealer – this is referred to as the plato.  To begin a hand, the dealer first examines the plato.  

  • If it is empty, the dealer takes one of the 5-tanto pieces from the middle of the table, and adds a 1-tanto piece from their personal stockpile.
  • If the plato is not empty, the dealer adds only 1 tanto from their personal stock.

The deal and tricks are played the same, except players do not have to pay out for passing on the bid or exchanging cards.  There are, however, other possible bids, listed below from lowest to highest in rank.  The highest bid becomes the Hombre for the hand.  If there is a tie bid, the last player to give that bid is the Hombre.  Like poker, you can raise the bid as it goes around the table, until the other two players pass.

  • Juego (I play): choose the trump suit, then exchange cards with the talon.
  • Vuelta (turn): flip over the top card of the talon to determine the trump suit, then exchange cards.
  • Solo (alone): choose the trump suit, but exchange no cards

In all of these cases, the opponents may exchange cards with the talon after the Hombre either exchanges or chooses not to.  Typically, they negotiate so that the player with the stronger hand exchanges first.

At the end of the game, there are nine possible situations (the same three outcomes as in L’Ombre, as well as three different situations with the stakes.  Below, I’ll list them as an outline, which sadly looks more complicated than it is in actual play.

  1. First Puesta: The plato was empty before the deal, and there are no open debts
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent
    2. Repuesto: Hombre pays the amount in play into the plato.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
    3. Codillo: Hombre pays the amount in play into the plato and an equal amount to the winning opponent.  Again, the amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
  2. Puesta in the Plato: The plato contains an amount paid in by an unsuccessful Hombre.
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent.
    2. Repuesto: Hombre writes the amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
    3. Codillo: Hombre writes the amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name, and pays an equal amount to the winning player.  The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
  3. Reserved Puesta: There are debts recorded on the Reserved Puesta sheet.
    1. Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus the highest recorded debt from that player.  If the highest recorded debt was from the Hombre, they simply win the contents of the plato, and cross out that debt.
    2. Repuesto: Hombre writes the current amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  The amount in play is the highest debt on the sheet, plus the contents of the plato.
    3. Codillo: Hombre writes the current amount in play on the Reserved Puesta sheet under their name.  They also pay an equal amount to the winning opponent.  The amount in play is the highest debt on the sheet, plus the contents of the plato.

There are some bonuses paid to a successful Hombre, as well.  These are paid by the opponents, or to both opponents if the Hombre was unsuccessful in these special bids:

  • Vuelta: 1 tanto extra
  • Solo: 2 tantos extra
  • Estuche: Has all 3 Matadors and wins – 1 tanto extra
  • Primeras: Wins first 5 tricks and does not play the rest – 1 tanto extra
  • Bola (or Voll): Wins all 9 tricks – 8 tantos extra

Closing Thoughts

Between a deck with unfamiliar suits, Spanish game terms, super trumps, reverse card ranking, special rank for the lowest card of the trump suit, two against one gameplay, and the payout system, L’Ombre can seem daunting on the first read-through.  I felt the same way when I initially found Tresillo, which borrows much of the gameplay and adds another layer of complexity to both the bidding and payout system.

I had learned Tresillo first, and though it was fascinating to me, as a lover of trick-taking games, it was complicated enough to explain to a casual player that it was easier to just teach a faster game from the time of El Camino Real, which was the initial inspiration to research these games.  Fortunately, because of those borrowed concepts, when I was slogging through the rules as interpreted by an Englishman writing them up for a compilation, it helped me considerably to fill in the blanks, or follow the rambling strategic suggestions to write up the rules as simply as I could.

It just lends credence to my belief that the broader the range of games you have learned or played, the easier it is to learn unfamiliar ones, as you will recognize concepts and mechanics that carried over as the games themselves evolved.

With that in mind, enjoy the game.  Keep gaming, and keep learning.

 

 

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Trick or Treat!

I felt like doing a theme this month, so all my game posts are going to be about trick-taking card games, and their evolution through history.  Trick-taking games are actually my favorite, because they require a skill in making the most of the hand dealt to you, as well as getting a rough idea what other player’s hold.  You must manipulate the other players to lay down cards advantageous to you, while playing cards with as little value as possible when you cannot take the hand.  There are many distinct classifications of trick-taking games, but in broad terms, they boil down to two basic groups:

  • Plain Trick-Taking: What matters is how many hands (tricks) you capture.  Spades is a well-known example, as is Contract Bridge.  Bidding is usually for the number of tricks, and may or may not involve trump suits, partnerships, or a requirement to follow a led suit.
  • Point-Trick-Taking: In this group, individual cards have different values, and the goal is to win a certain number of points, or to capture particular cards.  Hearts could be considered to fall into this group, with each heart being worth negative points.

There are other games with a mechanic that is similar to trick-taking, such as Big Two, which has players trying to beat a led combination of cards by laying down the same combination with higher ranks – the hand may continue around the table more than once, until someone cannot or will not match the combination.  On rules sites such as Pagat.com, these are considered quasi-trick-taking games, as the goal is usually to accumulate or get rid of cards, rather than specifically capture tricks.

Early trick-taking games were simply about capturing tricks, and didn’t require following suit, as is taken for granted today.  Each hand was usually won by whomever played the highest card of the led suit.  Given the simplistic play, it looks like these early games were of minimal interest to historians or game collectors, as I could not find any specific named games.

The earliest game to introduce the idea of cards with greater power than the others was Karnöffel, first mentioned in 1426. In this game, a card is dealt face-up to select a suit, in which the Jack, six, and deuce have special ranks. Interestingly, the objection to this game by the gentry had more to do with the lower-ranked cards having power over the “royalty” than the usual complaints about gambling.

Near the same time, close enough that we don’t know which influenced the other, if at all, the point trick-taking game Trionfi was introduced in Italy, later renamed Tarocco.  This was the Tarot deck, which added a 21-card fifth suit specifically to be able to beat all other suits in tricks.  In French, it translated as Triomphe, in German, Trumpf, and in English, Trump.  The French were enamored of the game, and spread it throughout the rest of Europe.

Pretty much all card games that use a trump suit were influenced by the idea introduced by the Italian Tarot deck in the mid-1400s.  Use as a divination tool didn’t occur until around 1780, when some French scholars saw the Italian-suited cards (still using swords, cups, coins, and batons), and interpreted the symbols as being hieroglyphs, creating occult meaning where none existed.

In the 17th century, Spain introduced a game called L’Ombre, a plain trick-taking game that was the first to incorporate bidding.  The game was immensely popular and spread throughout Europe, mainly the Renegado variant.  When I originally heard of it from Pagat, it was from the page about Tresillo, which is a variant still played in Spain today.  Since I was looking specifically for Spanish games to demonstrate on El Camino Real, it made sense to use Tresillo, since the rules for L’Ombre were supposed to be lost.  Fortunately, I recently found a scan of The Compleat Gamester from 1657, so I’ll be plodding through the rules to write about it in my next post.

Now, bidding wasn’t originally specifying a number of tricks – it was betting whether you could win the game with or without choosing trumps or using extra cards that were set aside during the deal.  The most challenging way to capture a majority of tricks would win the bid, and the other players would cooperatively try to prevent the winner of the bid from achieving their goal.  This was a three player game.  If a fourth player was participating, they would sort of rotate into the game, with one player sitting out each hand.

Meanwhile, in England, a game called Ruff and Honors was evolving into Whist, which is a bit more recognizable to modern card players, as it was widely played in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Whist is a plain trick-taking game in which trumps is determined randomly, and partners score the number of tricks above 6, as well as for holding the Honors (the Ace and face cards of the trump suit).  From there, the idea of bidding based on how many tricks you think you can take was an inevitability.

Stay tuned, readers….next time, I try interpreting a rambling explanation of game rules from the tail end of the Renaissance.

Würfelspiel and Bowling!

I’ve been poking around at other interesting sources of historic dice games, and ran across a document published by the SCA.  For those who don’t know, that’s the Society for Creative Anachronism, a long-running LARP (Live-Action Role-Playing) group.  They research and practice the skill-sets from medieval Europe, although they are especially known for mock battles with PVC and foam weaponry.  Several of my friends in college were into the SCA, although it wasn’t really for me.

However, some of what they claim as historically accurate may be a bit romanticized and not strictly correct – creative anachronism, after all, so I like to double-check sources to make sure things like games weren’t a modern invention created to feel historic.  Fortunately, this particular dice game was referenced in a book from 1910, published in Germany. There doesn’t seem to be a translated version available, but at least I found the book – Würfel und Würfelspiel in Alten Frankreich (Dice and Dice Games in Old France – thank you Google Translate).

The game is called Le Drinquet, which immediately makes me assume that the stakes were alcoholic beverages, but who knows?  It is a simple two-player dice game, racing to score 101 points, with one small twist – it requires a chessboard.

One player takes the dark squares, and he other has the light ones.  They agree beforehand whether each throw will consist of one, two, or three dice, and who goes first.  The player trows their dice onto the board, but only gets to score the dice that land fully within their squares.  If any portion of the die touches an opponent’s color, it scores zero.  This adds a fun extra element of chance and dexterity, in addition to not knowing what number will be rolled on each die.

Since it would be a shame to end a dice blog entry with only one game, here’s another fun one from the 1910 edition of Foster’s Complete Hoyle – Ten Pins with Dice.  In this game, you play ten frames, like a standard game of bowling, with up to three throws each.  Any number of people can play, each throwing two dice.  After each roll, a player may leave one or both dice on the table.  If only one is left, the other is thrown again.

When throwing, a six counts as zero (think of it as a gutter ball), so double-fives (ten pins) is the best possible roll.  If you throw double-fives, on your first roll, it counts as a strike.  Double-fives on the second roll is a spare.  If you don’t throw a strike of spare, it is a break, and you keep the results of your third throw for the frame.

As in bowling, a strike not only scores ten points, but also the results of your second roll in the next frame (the total of throwing the “ball” twice).  A spare scores ten plus the results of your first roll in the next frame.  Now, the rules don’t specify this, because the odds of throwing double-fives twice in a row are relatively slim, but I would assume that if you throw a strike again immediately after scoring a strike, you would also add the first throw in the next frame.  This would allow the change of a maximum score of 30 for a strike, as in real bowling.

 

Dama – Turkish Draughts

There’s a video that floated across my Facebook feed some time ago of what looks initially like checkers, but isn’t.

Checkers is not a unique game – it is part of a large family of games known as Draughts.  What they were playing in the video is the Turkish variant, also known as Dama.  I’m skeptical of it being a real game between a master and beginner, since it feels like it may be a demonstration of a fool’s game, such as a game of chess being won in two moves by black.  The setup at the beginning of the video is non-standard, and based on how captures work, makes it impossible for the dark player to stop the light player from reaching the final row.

The normal starting setup is as shown here.  Movement is always forward or sideways, never diagonally, and capturing is done by jumping over an enemy piece to the space beyond.  Regular pieces cannot move or capture backward, and if a capture is possible, you must take it.  Multi-captures are possible, and if there is more than one direction you can take, you must capture the most pieces possible in one turn.

The big key to understanding the upset win in the video is that when a piece advances to the far row, it becomes a king, but with much more powerful movement than a king in checkers.  In Dama, a king moves only one space at a time, forward, backward, and sideways.

The exception is when capturing – a king can capture an enemy piece any number of spaces away in a straight line, and may land on any empty square beyond it.  This is what allows the old man to capture every piece in one turn.  The only thing you can’t do with this capture sequence is move 180 degrees, so no reversing your path.

You win if your opponent has no legal move (out of pieces, or blocked), or if you have a king versus a single man.  The latter rule was introduced to avoid a stalemate where one avoided capture indefinitely.

This video was interesting to me, as I basically had the rules figured out before researching them.  Checkers is one of the great time-killing games for children, although I left it behind as I discovered games with more complex rulesets.  Going over draughts variants could make for an intriguing multi-game post sometime down the road.

Playable Apps

Turkish Draughts in iOS

Dama on Android