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.
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.
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 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.
- First Puesta: The plato was empty before the deal, and there are no open debts
- Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent
- Repuesto: Hombre pays the amount in play into the plato. The amount in play is the contents of the plato, plus 4.
- 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.
- Puesta in the Plato: The plato contains an amount paid in by an unsuccessful Hombre.
- Sacado: Hombre wins the contents of the plato, plus 1 tanto from each opponent.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reserved Puesta: There are debts recorded on the Reserved Puesta sheet.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.