Conquian – the First Rummy in the West

It is generally accepted that rummy-type (draw, meld, discard, try to go out) games originated in China (don’t worry, I’ll get to mahjong eventually).  I’ve played many different variants on the idea, and when I was researching card games played during the heyday of El Camino Real, I was pleased to discover that the very first rummy-style game in the west came from Latin America.  The best guess is Mexico during the 1860’s, but even as of the roaring 20s, game rule collectors weren’t sure.  Here’s an excerpt from Foster’s Complete Hoyle, in its third publication in 1922.

The etymology of this word is Spanish, con quién, “with whom”, but of the game it stands for, little or nothing is known except that it is a great favorite in Mexico, and in all the American States bordering upon it, especially Texas. It is an excellent game for two players, quite different from any other in its principles, and requiring very close attention and a good memory to play it well. In its finer points, especially in the judgment of what the adversary holds or is playing for, it ranks with our best games, and will probably grow in popularity as it becomes better known.

The game is played with the 40-card Spanish deck, of course.  Remember again that the 10 (sota, or jack) comes immediately after the 7 in sequence.  For play with a standard international deck, you can either remove the 8, 9, and 10 from each suit, or the three face cards to have a continuous run from Ace through 10.  In this game, the Ace is low, and the King is high.  When played with stakes, each game is worth one bet, and if it is a tie, another bet is added and a new hand played until someone wins.

Since it is my oldest source, I will be pulling the rules from Foster’s Hoyle.  Modern sources or apps may vary slightly in the number of cards dealt, but the rest of the gameplay remains the same.

The goal of the game is to be the first to meld 11 cards.  A meld is either 3 or 4 cards of the same rank (the 3 of cups, swords, and coins, for example), or at least 3 numbers in sequence within the same suit (such as the 7, 10, and 11 of batons).  In common card-playing jargon, cards of the same rank are a set, while cards in sequence within a suit are a run.

Traditionally, both players are dealt 10 cards, two at a time, and the remainder of the deck is placed in the center as a draw pile.  Play begins with the non-dealer.  The first player turns over the top card of the deck, and checks whether they can form a meld with anything in their hand.  If so, they lay down the cards to meld before adding the revealed card from the deck.  This is important, since so many other games work differently.  A player never draws a card into their hand for this game.  The first player now has a choice:

  1. Play at least two cards from their hand to form a valid meld (set of 3 or 4, run of 3 or more cards in suit) with the face-up card from the deck – you cannot lay down a meld without using the card from the deck. Afterward, they discard 1 card from their hand, ending their turn.
  2. Reject the card, ending their turn.

After this decision has been made, the second player has a slightly different choice:

  1. Play a meld using at least two cards from their hand with the discarded/rejected card from the previous player’s turn.  Afterward, discard a card from their hand, ending their turn.
  2. Reject the card left by the last player.  Turn this card face-down to form a waste pile.  The waste pile cards are out of the game and will not come up again.  Then, reveal the next card from the top of the deck and either meld it, or reject it, which ends their turn and passes this new card to the other player.

Player 1 rejected the revealed card. Player 2 could reject the 4, but then could not meld the 1-2-3 of swords alone. They can meld 2-3-4 or 1-2-3-4 of swords.

Play continues like this, with an old card to either use or reject.  If rejected, it is discarded permanently, and a new card is revealed to be decided on before passing play again.  After you have melds on the table, you may add the revealed card to your existing melds by itself or with a card from your hand.  Again, you may not meld to anything from your hand without using the card from the deck.

After any meld, you discard 1 card from your hand to pass to your opponent. If your discard causes you to be out of cards, the game is not over until you have eleven cards melded in front of you – you just have to hope for a lucky rejection or draw to win.  If you run out of cards in the draw pile, the game is a tie and you play again.

Seems simple so far, right?  There are just a couple little wrinkles left: Borrowing, and Forcing.

Borrowing is about using cards from a meld of 4 or more cards to form a new meld with the card in play from the deck.  You can pull one card from a set of 4 of a kind, or from either end of a run.  No meld can have fewer than 3 cards after any borrowing is complete.

Forcing is when you make your opponent use a card to add onto one of their existing melds (the 4th card to a set, or to extend a run from either end).  It can be done in only two situations:

  1. They reject your discard or drawn card, and turn over a new one that can be used on their visible melds
  2. After you have melded, as it is the only time you would discard.
Conquian_Forced_Play.jpg

An example of a forced play. The player rejected the 3 of coins at the beginning of their turn, revealing the 5 of swords. Because they have a visible meld that can use the 5, their opponent forces them to do so, making them break up one of the pairs in hand.

 

To force a card, simply pick it up once revealed or you discard, and play it on their meld, telling them to discard, instead of melding normally.  This is a technique to disrupt a potential meld in their hand, making it more difficult to finish melding their full 11 cards.

Player 2 is now in a bit of a pickle. They have laid down 10 cards and have none in hand, meaning they must be able to use the card from the deck in order to win the game. They can only add the 10 of swords or the 7 of cups to their runs. The 10-swords is melded by the other player, and what Player 2 doesn’t know is that the 7-cups os in Player 1’s hand. Unless they discard it, Player 2 cannot win.

 

It is interesting to see elements that were used by so many later rummy games.  The rearranging of melds is especially interesting to me, since the first place I encountered it was in Rummikub, which despite just being plastic tiles representing cards, is considered more of a board game.  I have also seen rules stating the initial deal as 8 or 9 cards, again only requiring melding 1 more card than the number dealt.  In this, I prefer the challenge of the original deal of 10.  Because there are only 10 cards in each suit, this prevents you from winning with only a very long run.

The game can feel more slow than other rummy games, because of the reject/new card/can’t use/reject mechanic.  In other games, you can pick up the discard to try and improve your initial deal, which is not the case here.  It adds a greater challenge to do the best you can with your deal, but it can be frustrating to realize you cannot possibly go out and have to go through the motions of rejecting cards until you finish the deck to tie the game and redeal.

In the example game above, this is exactly what happened.  Player 1 only had sets, and the 4th card of each was melded by Player 2.  Because they had no other pairs in their hand, and no two cards of the same suit that were close enough for a potential run, they could not meld or discard for the rest of the game.  Meanwhile, Player 2 could only win with the 7 of cups, which was in Player 1’s hand and could not be discarded.  So, back and forth, they ended up rejecting the last 10 cards in the deck one by one.  I think when you’re drinking and gambling and not playing very close attention, this wouldn’t be a problem, but for someone used to the light card-counting that helps in trick-taking games, it is frustrating to know the game will be a tie, but to waste time getting to the redeal.

It is a minor quibble, though, and if you can let that go, Conquian is an enjoyable and challenging game, worthy of being the parent to a wide variety of rummy-type games in the west.

Playable Apps

Conquian for iOS (uses the 8 card deal/9 cards melded to win rules)

Conquian for Android

Cinquillo : Introducing the Spanish Pack

To be honest, I’m not sure whether Cinquillo would be considered “historic” or not, as it is difficult to find when any particular card game surfaced.  However, given that it involves laying out the entire deck by rank and suit, I like to use it to introduce the Spanish deck to newcomers.

In the most common Spanish deck, there are 40 cards.  The four suits are oros (coins), copas (cups), bastos (clubs or batons), and espadas (swords).  Each has 10 cards, numbered 1 through 7, and then three face cards: sota (jack), caballo, (knight), and rey (king).  The printed numbers of the face cards are 10, 11, and 12, which initially confuses people new to the deck, since I need to explain that 10 comes immediately after 7.

Originally, Spanish decks were 52 cards, like our modern deck, but one rank was removed so a full deck could be printed on two sheets.  Then, in the 17th century, the game Ombre (played today as Tresillo, which I will cover later) used a stripped deck of 40 cards, by removing the 8 and 9.  This game was wildly popular, and soon, the 40-card deck was the most common deck used for games.  Today, it is possible to get the larger decks (my highest-quality deck, with plastic cards, is a 48-card deck), but the 40-card deck is still the most widely available.

Cinquillo is the Spanish version of Fan Tan (also known as Sevens), which is a relatively common game with the standard French-suited international deck.  Is is a blend of what is known as a tableau game, in which you are laying out cards in a specific pattern (like most solitaire games), and a card-shedding game, in which the goal is to be the first to run out of cards (like crazy eights or Uno).  It can play between 2 and 5 players, and I like to lead with it to familiarize people with the deck.

To play with 3 or more players, deal out the entire deck.  With three, this means one player will have an extra card, so the deal will rotate between hands.  For two players, deal out thirteen cards to each player, and the remainder of the deck forms a draw pile that will be used up during play.

The player with the 5 of coins plays first, laying it down on the table, and then play passes to the right. In a 2-player game, it is possible that the 5 of coins was not dealt.  In this case, choose someone to go first.  They must draw a card and pass their turn.  This continues until someone has the 5 of coins to play at the beginning of their turn.  You do not play the 5 of coins immediately when you draw it – drawing the card was your turn – play it on your next turn.

After the 5 of coins is in play, you will do one of three things on your turn:

  1. Play the next-ranked card (up or down) in suit to a group already on the table.
  2. Play one of the other 5s to begin a new suit.
  3. Pass (and draw a card, if in a 2-player game and the deck has not run out).  Note that you may not pass if you have a possible play.

In this example, the possible plays are the 7 or 1 of coins, the 7 or 4 of cups, or the 5 of either swords or clubs.  The hand shown must play the 5 of swords – they have no other available play.

The game is over when one player runs out of cards.  They score 5 points for going out, plus 1 for each card remaining in their opponents’ hands.  Typically, the game is played to 100 or 500 points.  As a gambling game, there are no points.  Instead, each player antes at the beginning of the game, then adds one bet to the pool when they have to pass.  The winner gets the pool, plus one bet for each card remaining in the losers’ hands.

The easiest mistake to make is to pass because you forget that the 10 follows the 7.  Once you get that down, the game is very simple, and the basic strategy becomes apparent quickly.  Since the hardest cards to play are those at the very ends, you can make your opponents more likely to have to pass by holding on to the central cards (like 3 through 7) as long as possible.  Of course, if you have an end card, you’ll probably want to play cards to force other players to fill in those gaps as early as you can, so you don’t get stuck passing later.

So far, Cinquillo has always gone over pretty well, with players enjoying the light strategy and becoming excited to learn what else can be played with this new deck.  I have no idea how old it is, but it’s definitely a game worth remembering.

Playable Apps

Be warned, there is usually not an English language option available for Spanish card game apps.  You may have to learn a few words to get the hang of what the buttons do.

Cinquillo on iOS

Cinquillo on Android

 

La vie n’a qu’un charme vrai: c’est le charme du Jeu.  Mais s’il nous est indifférent de gagner ou de perdre?  (Life has only one true charm: it is the charm of the Game.  But what if one is indifferent to whether one wins or loses?)

— Charles Baudelaire, Fusées, 1867

Alquerque

Alquerque.jpgAlquerque is the Spanish name for a Middle-Eastern game known as El-quirkat, which was believed to have been introduced around the time the Moors invaded Spain in the 8th century.  The game quirkat was mentioned in a 10th-century muslim text, Kitab al-Aghani (The Book of Songs), albeit without rules.  It is an abstract game of attrition that is very similar to checkers (draughts), although draughts-type games on a grid appear to predate it by about 4000 years.

It is, of course, also described by our old friend, King Alfonso X, in Libro de los Juegos, although he names the game twelve men’s morris, even calling the board a millboard, despite the fact that they are two very different games (and there is a variant of Nine Men’s Morris that adds a few lines to that board and is played with twelve pieces).

The Alquerque board is used to play many games around the world, which I will describe in future posts, but for now, here’s the basic description as per King Alfonso:

And it is played in this manner: on the millboard there are to be twenty-five places where the pieces can be placed and there are to be twenty-four pieces. And they put twelve of one colour on one side and the other twelve on the other in a troop formation. And one place remains in the centre to allow play. And the one who plays first has a disadvantage because he is forced to play in that empty space. 

And the other player moves his piece to the space the first left empty and captures the one that was first to move. That player captures the second player’s piece by jumping over it from one space to another according to the straight lines on the board, and over as many pieces as he should jump in this manner he will capture them all. And the other player does likewise. 

And the one that plays first always moves first trying to capture some piece from the other side. And the other player guards himself well from attack because of and by understanding the move that he wants to make so that he guards that piece of his best. And the other does the same thing that his opponent plans to do to him and therefore he is at a disadvantage, the one who plays first. 

And the one who guards his pieces worse and loses them more quickly, loses. And if both players known how to play it, they can both tie the game. And this is the mill, the pieces, and how they are placed in their spaces. 

Put simply, the pieces are first arranged as shown on the board above, 12 for each side. Of course, in the picture, the players are sitting to the left and right of the board.  Your pieces are grouped on the side if the board nearest you.

On your turn, you either move along the line to the next intersection, or you capture an opponent’s piece(s).  You capture a piece by jumping over it into the space behind, just like in Checkers, with the goal being to capture all the opponent pieces.  As the king points out, the first player is at a disadvantage, because the only possible first move sets up the piece to be captured.

One detail in the third paragraph that is easy to overlook is that if you have a possible capture, you must do so.  The translation is a little clumsy and should probably read that the current player moves, first trying to capture some piece from the other side.  This means your first priority is always capture over defense.  While these rules don’t explicitly state it, the common penalty is that if you had a possible capture and failed to take it, your opponent may capture the piece that failed to make the required movement.

Once the board starts getting more sparse, the game can easily end up a stalemate as players simply avoid moving pieces into a potentially risky position, leading to the opponents dancing around the board with no progress.  To resolve this problem, a few more rules were added as time went on:

  1. A piece cannot move backward.  (For example, from the center, a piece would have 5 possible moves, not 8)
  2. No take-backs, you can’t just undo your last move.
  3. Once a piece gets to the back row, it can only be used to capture.
  4. An extra win condition was added.  You can also win if your opponent can’t move.
This game provides a decent challenge of wits, and as you will see, there are many other games of capture played on the same board.  Some add extra spaces outside of the square, while others may further subdivide it to add more intersections.  Many are hunt games, with one player having fewer pieces, and different goals for each player.  Best of all, it’s another good game you can play by simply scratching the board in the dirt.  Give it a try!

Playable Apps

Alquerque for iOS (uses the extra rules)