Gaming for the Holidays

Whew!  November has been a whirlwind month for me!  Between a 4-day camping trip, a 4-day convention teaching board games, and then Thanksgiving itself, I have not made the time to sit down and write for my, what, 6 or 7 readers?

Anyway, my family was up for Thanksgiving, and I spent much of that time playing modern board games with them, since I had recently acquired several that I was eager to try out.  However, it got me to thinking about family gatherings and various festivals, and the gameplay that often goes with them.  As a result, I felt that would be an interesting theme to explore during this holiday season.

As a first example, one of my supervisors asked my advice on a “team” game to play during the office Christmas party.  Normally, this would be a fairly easy task, as I own several cooperative games that are easy enough even for people who don’t normally play board games.  However, most of the production staff members are Vietnamese, and many only speak a little English, so explaining rules to a game they don’t know would be very difficult.

Fortunately, I knew about a game traditionally played during Têt (New Year) in Vietnam.  We showed a picture of the game to the production staff supervisor, and she immediately got excited and started talking about it with the others, so it looks like we have that activity covered.

Bâo cua cá cop (squash-crab-fish-tiger) is a simple gambling game played with three six-sided dice with pictures on the faces, and a mat showing those faces.

Although oddly, no tiger – except there is – the shrimp is a tiger prawn.

The game is very straightforward.  Players place bets on the mat for what face they think will appear on  each die face.  For each time that face appears, they win their bet back.  In the example above, a bet on the rooster would have earned twice the amount, so a bet of 1 would get back 3 (the original bet, plus two more).  Crab would also have won, but only doubled their original bet.  Three dice would earn three times the bet.

Typically, the game has many players at once, so that there are sufficient losers each throw to pay the winners.  We plan to play with candy at the office.

Variations on this game include Hoo Hey How in China, Crown and Anchor in Britain, and Langur Burja in Nepal.

Stay with me as I poke around the world for other traditional holiday games.

Playable Apps

Bau Cua on iOS

Bau Cua on Android

Warning – neither of these apps is in English.


A Kerfuffle Over Karnöffel

It rhymes!

Karnöffel is the oldest-recorded card game in Europe, with references to it being played at an annual festival in Nördlingen, Bavaria in 1426.  An amusing bit of trivia about this game is that when the usual condemnations from those in power came, it was more political than moral.  That is, the objection wasn’t about gambling so much as it was about the way the card ranks changed during the game, with lower-ranked cards actually able to beat the King!

It is a plain-trick-taking game with an “elected” suit, that works like a partial trump suit.  It’s also a great excuse for me to use a German-suited deck.  In this deck, the four suits are Hearts, Acorns, Leaves, and Bells.  If you’re going to substitute a French-suited deck, Acorns=Clubs, Leaves=Spades, and Bells=Diamonds.  The court cards are the King, Ober, and Unter, all male, in place of King, Queen and Jack.  Remove the Aces from the deck, and the card ranking from high to low is King, Ober, Unter, 10 down to 2.

Interestingly, my replica 1588 German deck is from when they were still experimenting with suits, so my cards are Books, Jars, Printer’s Ink Pads, and Cups.  My brand new deck from Gemany only goes as low as 7, as the games they play have evolved over 33 cards – King down to 7 in each suit, plus a card meant to be a 2 (or maybe an Ace) in each suit, and the 6 of Bells, labeled the Well.  These are mainly used for Skat (he national game of Bavaria), Schafkopf, and Watten, as well as games in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania.  Obviously, we have much to explore.

Digging around in my collection a bit more, I found a replica 1540 German deck that actually uses the correct suits, and has the correct number of cards.  This was a satirical deck, marketed to the lower classes, as Karnöffel was considered a lower-class game.  You may notice that the replica decks have squared edges.  This is not due simply to someone using inkjet business cards as a template, but an historically accurate representation.  Rounded corners were an American innovation introduced in the late 19th century.

Culture, ladies and gentlemen!


The first thing to do in Karnöffel is to remove the Aces from the deck – they are not used.  Next is to partner up if playing with 4, 6, or 8 players.  Simply shuffle and deal each player one card.  The two (or 3, or 4) lowest ranked cards become partners, versus the highest.  Between cards of equal rank, the suits, from highest to lowest, are Leaves, Acorns, Hearts, and Bells.  After partners have been chosen, they sit in alternating order, team 1, team 2, team 1, etc.  with 6 or 8 players, one member of each team is declared Director.  The reason for this will come up shortly.

Next, players agree on the “target score,” the total that ends the game when someone reaches it.  This is usually a multiple of 10, plus 1.  A target score of 101 is a common choice.

If there is a bet on the outcome of the game, then when one team reaches the agreed-upon score, the losers pay up on the bet, doubled if they didn’t even get to the half the target score, or tripled if it was a complete shut-out and they scored zero.  Maybe don’t bet the house.  Note that this monetary bet is for the winner of the entire game, not individual hands or tricks. I make this distinction only because in Karnöffel, teams will be betting points, as we shall see in a moment.

Now, the object of each hand is to win 3 of the 5 tricks for your team.  The winning team will score 4 between 4 and 22 points.  The amount of points is determined during the deal.

The Deal

On other sites where I read up on the rules, they go into long detail about dealing one card, then something about a Foreman and Proposer agreeing to the value of the round or increasing it, and at first, it didn’t make much sense (especially when trying to figure out how it applied to 6 or 8 players).

Then I had an epiphany.  What was being described was like the multiple rounds of betting in a game like Texas Hold’Em Poker.  Thinking of it in those terms, I was able to follow what was going on, so I can hopefully phrase it in a way that makes sense.

Point-Betting Rounds

First round of betting. 4 of bells and acorns were both dealt in the first pass, bells first, so bells are the elected suit.

Deal each player one card face-up.  The lowest-ranked card determines the elected suit.  This suit is similar to a trump suit in other games, but it doesn’t work exactly the same way, but I will detail that below.

Since they were developed around the same time, there’s no telling whether Karnöffel or Tarot influenced the other, or which one was played first – records of these things are relatively hazy, as we can only see when someone literate found something to say about them.  Hurray for word of mouth.

Next, deal a second card face-up to only the first two players in the deal order, and pause.  The first player (eldest hand) is called the Foreman.

At this point, the hand is worth a base 4 points.  After looking at their cards and consulting their partner(s), if any, the Foreman may ootionally suggest raising the stakes for the hand by 3 points.  If they do propose this raise, the second hand, after consulting with their team, may:

  1. Accept the raise, setting the stakes to 7 points.
  2. Surrender (fold) on behalf of their team, giving the other team the base 4 points before a new deal, or
  3. Raise the stakes by another 3 points.  If this choice is made, the Foreman can either accept the (10-point) stakes, or surrender (7 points).

Note that in 6 or 8 player games, this decision is made by the Director for the team, who may look at all their team’s cards.  Seems a little strange to me, but that’s how it was structured, perhaps to allow an experienced player to help their team win.

A single face-up card is now dealt to each of the remaining players, if any, and we move on to a second round of betting, with the first two players receiving one face-down card.  After the same back-and-forth chance to raise as above, everyone else gets a face-down card.  Then there is a third, and final, round of betting, this time with a pair of face-down cards.

With up to 6 points able to be added during each round of betting, this puts the maximum stakes for the hand at 22 points.  If during the betting, the score reaches a point where one team can reach the target score and win the game, they must announce this, and no further raises are allowed.  The exception to this rule is if they were already within 4 points at the beginning of the deal.

The Play

Once the stakes for the hand are set, each player should have 5 cards.  Forehand leads any card except the 7 of the elected suit, and the other players each play a card to the trick in turn.  There is no requirement to follow suit, ever.  Play any card you like to the trick.

The trick is won by the highest card of the suit led, or the highest-ranked “trump” card of the elected suit.  This is where it gets a little tricky, and why the nobility was annoyed by the symbolism of the card ranks.  Below is the ranking of the elected suit for each hand:

  • Karnöffel (Unter/Jack): highest-ranked card in the hand – beats everything
  • Pope (6): beats any plain-suited card
  • Kaiser (2): beats any plain-suited card
  • 3: beats any plain-suited card lower than King
  • 4: beats any plain-suited card lower then Ober (Queen)
  • 5: beats any plain-suited card lower than Unter (Jack)
  • King: no special trumping power
  • Ober (Queen): no special trumping power
  • 10: no special trumping power
  • 9: no special trumping power
  • 8: no special trumping power
  • Devil (7): cannot win a trick unless led, in which it is only beaten by Karnöffel

King of hearts was led. Nobody bothered to follow suit, and the trick was won by Karnöffel- the Unter of bells, which was the current trump suit.

The mixed-up ranking takes a little getting used to, but once you have a feel for it, it comes pretty naturally.  The most common thing to forget is that this is not a trump suit.  If Spades are elected and someone leads Hearts, for example, the 10 of Spades would still lose the trick.  Only 6 of the elected suit cards have any trumping power.

During play, nobody may look at anyone else’s cards, but since players of each team have seen each other’s cards during the deal/betting phase, they are free to give advice, so long as it is spoken aloud (no baseball hand-signals, y’all).

Concluding Thoughts

At first glance, this game looked intimidating to describe, until I understood the thing about betting points during the deal.  I don’t really care for two-player trick-taking games, as to me, they feel monotonous, but as a partnership game, I can see the appeal of Karnöffel.  There’s a little less strategy of card manipulation that naturally evolves during a game where you are required to follow suit, since you don’t necessarily have to give up your good cards.  It also uses up so little of the deck each deal that it is difficult to guess at what other players may be holding.  Allowing for open advice helps newer players to learn the game, which is a bonus to me.

I can’t see it hitting the table often among the people I play games with, but as a fan of gaming history, it’s a cool game to see.

And You Thought I Only Meant Card Games

When someone mentions trick-taking games, they almost always mean card games.  But of course, almost is the key word there.  Today, we’re going to be playing with dominos, looking into the official domino game of my home state that I never heard of before digging into historic games.

Texas 42 may not have a sordid past, but it does have a murky one.  There are at least two different stories of how it was invented.  The one most commonly passed around is from a 1985 newspaper article, which cited an interview from 1927 with William Thomas.  He claims to have co-invented the game with a friend of his when he was 12, after they were caught playing cards in the hayloft of a barn in Garland (then called Trappe Spring) around 1887.  Their town was devout Baptist, and they were punished for sinful card playing, but dominos were allowed, so they figured out a way to play cards, specifically trick-taking, with dominos.

The other version is from an article in 1915, which states the game was invented in Mineral Wells, by a brakeman who worked on the Santa Fe rail line, while he was on vacation, and bored in his hotel room. The paper only gave his last name, Giescke, and explained that he’d been musing over the properties of dominos.  Games played with multiples of 5 were pretty popular, and he noticed that between the 1-4, 2-3, 5-0, 5-5, and 6-4 that there were a total of 35 points in a double-six set.  Since there were also 28 total dominos, a 4-player partnership trick-taking game would have 7 tricks.  Add 35 and 7 together, and you get a total of 42 points, which is how he came up with the name.

The process described in the second story sounds more feasible from a game-design perspective, but keep in mind that both stories were written after the game was incredibly popular.  Since Texas is known for tall tales, it’s not unreasonable to think that people would claim to be the inventor of a well-known game, since these things are extremely difficult to prove when the game is mainly passed around through word of mouth.

Regardless, Texas 42 is a 4-player partnership point-trick game.  The goal is to bid how many points you will take, then earn “marks” for reaching your bid.  If you fail to make your bid, the opposing team scores the marks you would have earned.  These marks, oddly enough, are drawn on a score-pad to form the word ALL, with each mark earning one line segment, like Hangman.  Counting it up, it looks like 7 marks wins the game.

Domino “Suits”

In a standard set of double-six dominos, there are 28 tiles, and 7 “suits.” That is, the numbers 0-6 on either side of the domino determine the tile suit.  In Texas 42, the double of each suit is the highest-ranking domino, followed in descending order by the rest of the tiles sharing the same suit number.

This by itself is intuitive enough, but the problem that comes to mind is how do you decide which suit a tile is when you play it?  The official ruling is that when a non-trump tile is led to a trick, it is the suit of whatever the higher number is.

As an extreme example, let’s imagine that the suit of 3s is trump for the hand.  You have the lead, and you lead with the 0-6, under the mistaken belief that you just played the six of the zero suit, just one tile less than the double-blank.  Unfortunately, you immediately lose the domino to the 1-6, because you actually played the zero tile of the sixes suit, the lowest ranked tile if the suit.  Of course, then they lose it to the 0-3, and threes are the trump suit.  Later in the same hand, someone leads the 3-5.  Because threes are trump, it counts as being a member of the threes suit, so it actually is the five of threes.

Clear as mud?  Good, me too.  The computer stomped me for like half an hour before I caught on how to lead properly.  I’m also terrible at choosing the appropriate bid for the hand, even though I understand the rules.  Just because you know the game well enough to teach it, it does not mean you are actually skilled at playing it.

To sum it up:

  • Trump Suit: Double high, followed by the six of that suit down to blank, always
  • Non-Trump Suit, When Led: Counts as a member of the higher suit number on the tile
  • Non-Trump Suit, Following Led Suit: Ranking within the led suit is still double high, followed by the six down to the zero.  So leading a 2-4 sets the trick suit to fours, and the 5-4 is still a member of the fours suit during the trick.

The Deal and Bidding

The dealer for the hand shuffles the tiles by “washing” (mixing) them face-down on the table, and each player receives 7 dominos.  The dealer’s opposing team get to draw first, followed by the dealer’s partner, and finally the dealer.  Then each player, starting with the dealer’s left, gets one bid for points or marks.

Bids are a declaration of how many points you think you can take during the game, or how many marks you are willing to risk if you think you can take all the tricks.  30 points is the lowest bid, all 42 points is 1 mark, and the opening bid is maxed out at 2 marks, although the bid itself can go higher.  If all 4 players pass, their hands are turned in, and the next dealer shuffles.

Trying for a bid of 30, declaring ones as trump


The Play

Tricks won by me (left) and my partner, on order from bottom to top, left to right, with the first domino being the tile led, and all suits at the bottom: won by 1-2 (11), won by 1-3 (6), won by 1-6 (1), won by 1-1 (6), won by 3-6 (1), won by 1-5 (6). Our final score is 31, so we made the bid and gain 1 mark.

Normally, after winning the bid, the declarer declares the trump suit and leads to the first trick.  The led suit must be followed, if possible, or may be trumped if you have none of the led suit.  Remember, trumps belong to the trump suit and nothing else.  For example, if twos are trump, and someone leads the 4-6, and you have both the 3-6 and 2-6 in your hand, you must lose the 3-6 to follow suit.  Tricks are taken by the highest-ranked domino of the suit led, or the highest trump.

The declarer may also call no trumps, or “follow me.”  This means there is no trump suit for the hand, and the suit for the trick is always determined by the higher side of the domino led.  Remember, the double of each suit counts as the highest tile in that suit.

Tricks remain face up and are displayed next to the winning player in sets of 4, presumably to check for mistakes in who won the trick.  If playing for all 42 points, these may be stacked to only show the 8 dominos of the last two tricks taken.

Special Contracts

However, there are a couple of special contracts the declarer can attempt instead.  During the bidding, they just bid the appropriate number of marks, and announce the contract before beginning play.

  • Nello: If every player before them has passed, the declarer may bid 1 or 2 marks and go Nello instead of passing and going to the next hand.  This bid is to attempt losing every trick.  The declarer’s partner turns down their dominos and is out of play for the hand, making it a 3-hand game.  There are no trumps, and doubles are a separate suit, from 6-6 down to 0-0.  A led domino counts as a member of the higher-numbered suit, as usual, and a double may not be played to the trick unless no other dominos of the led suit are in hand.  In this bid, the point tiles do not matter, only successfully losing all the tricks.
  • Plunge: The declarer must hold at least 4 doubles to choose this contract, and must have bid al least 4 marks (this is the only way an opening bid can be higher than 2 marks), or 5, if the bid was already 4 before their turn to bid.  The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, with no hints from the declarer.  They must then win all 7 tricks.

Variations of Play

In some games, there are a few other trump options, or differences in the contracts.  These are all optional rules, and should be agreed on by all players before beginning the game.

Follow Me (no trumps) declarations may choose whether doubles count as high or low within their suit.

Doubles Trump is a declaration that the doubles themselves are a trump suit, and no longer count as a member of their own suit.  This means that if a double is led, players must play a double to follow suit, or discard any tile if they have no doubles.

Nello players may choose how doubles are treated during their attempt.

  • Doubles high: Doubles are the highest tile in their suit
  • Doubles low: Doubles are the lowest tile in their suit
  • Doubles take doubles: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 6-6 down to 0-0, and not a member of their numbered suit.  This is the normal way Nello is played.
  • Doubles take doubles, inverted: Doubles are a separate suit, ranked 0-0 down to 6-6.

Splash is similar to a Plunge bid, but only requires 3 doubles, and a bid of 2 marks.  The declarer’s partner chooses the trump suit, as usual, but they also lead to the first trick.  Again, all 7 tricks are required to win.

Sevens is another special contract in which the point tiles do not matter.  A trick is won by a domino whose pips total is closest to 7.  If more than one tile is tied, the first one played wins the trick.

Playable Apps

Texas 42 on iOS

Texas 42 on Android

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.



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.


More Dicing with Royalty

I think it’s time we look over a few more dice games, courtesy of our old friend Alphonso X, from the Libro de los Juegos.  Let’s start with a couple of simple ones:


There is another kind of game which they call riffa that is played in this way: he who first rolls the dice should roll them as many times until he rolls a pair on two, then he should roll the other one. Then the pips of this third die are to be counter with the pips of the other first two dice. 

And if the other who is playing with him, in rolling the dice in this same way rolls more points he wins, and if as many he ties, and if less he loses. 

This is basically a game of high score.  Roll the three dice until you get a pair, then roll the third die one more time.  Add up the pips for your score, and the best score wins.

Par Con As (Pair with an Ace)

And if he rolls a pair on two dice and an ace on the other, he wins. And if not, the other must roll and in this way they play until one of them succeeds and he who should rolls it first, will win. 

Yep, another game of pure chance.  The first to roll any pair with a one on the third die wins.  But that’s easy mode for the gamblers of the day.  How about something a bit more challenging?


There is another kind of game that they call panquist and it is played in this way: he who wins the battle will roll first and the other is to place four bets one in front of the other. And whichever one rolls will give the first point number to the other one and the second he will take for himself. 

And the rolls which can be given are from seven pips to fourteen. 

And these are the rolls that win both for the one who places the bets as well as the one who rolls the dice to the one whose roll comes first. 

The break in flow here is because I skipped 8 paragraphs showing how pips add up, even though for this game, the way you roll each of the point numbers matters.  However, I thought it was best expressed as a table:

 Point # Dice Show  # Bets Won 
3-6  Ignore & reroll  0
10  5-4-1/5-3-2
11  6-3-2/5-4-2
12  6-5-1/6-4-2
13  6-5-2
14  6-5-3
15-18  Ignore & reroll  0

Basically, choose someone to roll first.  The person who is not rolling puts up 4 bets as the stakes for the round.  The roller rolls at least twice, giving a point number first to their opponent, and then to themselves.  Rolls below 7 and above 14 are ignored – there are no hazards in this game.  The first person whose point number comes up again wins a number of the bets as shown in the table.

People like this game – it gives the same kind of thrill as modern Craps with slightly less risk, since there’s no bad roll except the opponent’s point number.  But one thing about the rules as written just doesn’t fully make sense to me, and that has to do with how each round is bet upon.

Let’s say you’re rolling, and your opponent puts up 4 bets.  Then their point number ends up winning, but only for 1 of those bets.  What happens to the other 3?  If they stay up on the board, then the opponent didn’t win 1 bet – they lost 3.  If they get them all back, then they didn’t win anything – they broke even.

For that matter, how does it affect the next round, when the roller is now putting up the 4?  Do they just fill it back up to 4?  Give back the previous bet and put up a new 4?  Add to it, forming a pool?

I dug around, and couldn’t find any source that gave a better explanation of how the betting worked.  If each player takes turns putting up stakes for the roller, they will simply get it back as often as not, so it becomes an exercise in losing slowly to the current roller.  To make it more exciting, I’d have each player ante 2 coins each round.  The game would still progress slowly if only 1 or 2 bets are won, but winning 3 or 4 would be far more exciting it wasn’t all your own money.

Alternatively, have the non-roller put in only 2 bets per round, gradually growing a pool.  If someone wins more bets than the pool currently has, then the loser pays the extra out of their current personal stash.  This would add much more interest in the results of the rolls, hoping for those high-paying combinations.


For the final dice game from Libro de los Juegos, we have something special, not because of the goal – it’s another Hazard-type game – but because of the playing pieces.  This is the only game King Alfonso X presented that uses only 2 dice.

There is another kind of game they call guirguiesca that is played with two dice in this way: Those who want to play have first to roll battle, and he who wins it will roll first. 

And if he should roll 6+6 or 6+5 or the flip-sides of these which are 2+1 or 1+1 it will be azar, and he will win one amount of such quantity as they agreed upon that it should be worth. 

And if per chance he should not roll azar and he should roll four pips or five or six or seven or eight or nine or ten in whatever way that they should come, each one of these will be called a point number and that whomever he is playing with shall have it, and the other will bet upon it whatever amount he should wish and if the one who rolls the dice should then roll of it as many pips as he gave him, this will be called match and he will take whatever is there whether he had been assigned to that point or whether he had kept silent. 

And if by chance he should not roll a match and he should roll one of the numbers which we said above were azares, he will lose it all. And if he should roll neither match nor azar and he should roll one of the other point numbers, that one he will take for himself, and he will roll as many times until his (point number) or that of the other one comes. And rolling his own he wins and for that of the other one he loses. 

I thought I’d give the entirety of the text for this final dice game.  I’d been skipping the part about rolling battle in the previous games – basically it’s just rolling to see who goes first.  Usually they’d roll all the dice for a high number, but given the wide range of results, it’s more fair to roll only one die.

After seeing all the other hazard games, this one is very simple.  If you get 2, 3, 11, or 12 on the first roll, you win an agreed-upon base bet.  If not, they are now azares, and you’re assigning the first result as a point number to your opponent, who then places their bet against you.

Next, start rolling again.  If you match the opponent’s point number on this second roll, you win.  Rolling one of the azares loses.  Any other number is now the roller’s point number.  Continue rolling until you match your point number and win.  If you roll the opponent’s point or one of the azares, you lose.  Any other result is ignored.

From here, it’s an easy jump to modern-day Craps, in which the hazards changed to just 11 and 7, which of course is the most common number rolled on two dice.  The only point number is taken by the roller.  The rolling itself got simplified from these early games – if I recall, it was the betting that got more complicated, with the non-rollers betting on how the roller would win or lose.  In this way, craps borrowed from panquist, it seems.

That’s it for this entry, but while there are no more dice games presented in this book, there are many others, with new mechanics and goals, which end up proving the last words the king gave on the subject in this text to be incorrect.

In this 12 games of dice that we have put here, can be understood all the others that they play in the other lands which are made or which can be made from here on which we do not know. 


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.

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