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.

Don’t Burro Your Head in the Sand…

Okay, I’m old…I was trying to figure out a Baba Looey joke for the title, but I doubt people would remember Quick-Draw McGraw’s burro sidekick.

Anyway, this is about a Spanish card game that is a blend of trick-taking and card-shedding.  That is, the goal of the game is to get rid of all your cards, but the mechanic is similar to trick-taking games.  It’s a children’s game, which introduces the concept of following suit, and the titular B-U-R-R-O is how you track the five penalty points before ending the game.  The winner will be the player with the least letters spelling burro.

Up to 8 players can play, usually with a 48-card deck (which includes the 8 and 9 of each suit), although the more common 40-card deck can be used, as well. Cards are ranked King high down to Ace low.  Deal each player 4 cards, and set the rest aside as a draw pile.

The first player leads a card to a trick, and players must follow suit.  If they cannot, they must draw cards until they have a card of the led suit to play.  If the draw pile runs out, the player simply passes.  Tricks are won by the highest card of the led suit, and that player leads a card to the next trick.

Players who run out of cards drop out of play, and the last player holding cards receives a penalty point, one more letter toward spelling burro.  Once someone has spelled the complete word, the player with the least points wins the game.  If there is a tie, the tied players may play another hand to determine the winner.

Portuguese Variant

In Portugal, the 40-card deck is used, and gameplay is the same except that the deal is 5 cards, and players may continue to draw even after finding a card of the suit led.  In Burro Deitado, the stock is face-down as normal, but there is another game, Burro em Pé, in which the stock is divided in two piles, and they are balanced against each other in the shape of an A.  If a player knocks over the stock while drawing, they are required to pick up the entire pile.

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


So You Think You Know Chess…

One of the more fascinating things I saw when digging through the Libro de los Juegos was Alphonso X’s description of how to play chess.  I haven’t played since I was a kid, as I was happy with a casual game of attrition, while my peers who played actually learned the strategy.  Rusty as I am, I still know the pieces and how they move.  Now, I always thought the modern rules of chess were still pretty much the same as the original, but our gamer king not only knew of quite a few variants (4 players!  Larger boards!), and the way he describes the “official” game is absolutely fascinating to me, because of how it would change the strategy entirely.

Today, I’ll compare the modern rules to the rules in 13th century Spain.  As common as chess is, I’m not going to explain the current rules here, just note the differences.  He starts out explaining the many different board sizes known at the time, but settles on the 8×8 board we know today.  Next, he talks about the number of pieces being 32 – 16 each, and that they line up on opposite sides of the board, then that half of each army is lesser to represent common people, clearly describing pawns.  He writes that the king goes in one of the two middle squares on the back row,and then the differences start:

And next to him in the other middle square, is another piece which resembles the fers (alfferez) who carries the standard of the king’s colours. And there are some men who do not know the name and call him “fersa” (alfferza). And these two pieces each one plays alone and does not have another in all the sixteen pieces that resembles them.

So, not a queen, but a standard-bearer.  We’ll come back to this when I talk about movement.  Next, in place of bishops, another different pair of pieces:

And in the two other squares beside these there are two other pieces which resemble each other and they call them fils (alffiles) in Arabic which means the same thing in our language as elephants, which the kings used to bring into battle and each one brought at least two so if one of them died, that the other one would remain.

That’s right, no women, and no clergy — this is a battle, dontcha know?  Next are knights, and then rooks, the same as the starting setup we know today.  One ineresting thing is that the rooks were not originally representing castles or towers or siege engines, like presented today, but instead were a “rank of armed soldiers…holding on to each other” – basically like a Roman phalanx.  He then spends several paragraphs reiterating the number of pieces and that most of them are doubled up so there is an extra should one be captured.  He then notes that a pawn advancing to the back rank becomes a fers – the standard bearer. Of note is that in the modern game, a pawn can be promoted to any piece other than pawn or king, but in this game, the only option is a fers.

Finally, he explains about check and checkmate, and that the purpose was to shorten the game, since it would be no fun to have just the two kings remaining on the board.  Next, he explains the movement of the pieces.  The pawn, king, and knights move the same as we know today, although the knight’s movement is described as one square orthogonally, and then one diagonally out in that direction, rather than the L-shape as it was taught to me.  However, the fers (which replaces the queen), the fils (which replace the bishops), and the rook move very differently:

The fers moves one square diagonally and this is in order to guard the king and not leave his side and to shield him from the checks and checkmates when they are given to him and in order to go forward helping him to win when the game comes out well. 

But he can also on his first move jump to the second straight or diagonal square and even if another piece is in between. And this is in the manner of a good captain who charges ahead in great feats and battles and rushes everywhere they need him.

Instead of being able to move as far as possible in any of the 8 directions, like a queen, the fers moves like a limited king – one square in any diagonal direction, because their purpose is to guard the king.  The only exception to this movement is on their first move, when they can move two diagonal spaces, even jumping over another piece to do so.  This makes a big difference in strategy, as you no longer have to guard from the “queen” when it’s clear on the other end of the board.

Likewise, the elephants are more limited than bishops, in that they only move 2 spaces diagonally, although they are able to jump while doing so – think of the piece it jumps over as getting out of the way to avoid being trampled!

Meanwhile, the rooks can still move orthogonally as far as possible, but they have less control.  Unlike merely being allowed to move as far as you could, the rook in the 13th century was required to do so.  A rook had to move until it either was stopped by an allied piece or the edge of the board, or they captured an enemy piece.

More advanced movement, like capturing en passant, and castling, simply didn’t exist at the time.  Given how gradually the pieces moved, I can see where checkmate may have been a new concept – forcing an opponent to surrender once the king was captured, rather than trying to eliminate all the pieces, like most other games of the time.  It might also have been a reason for changing the movement of the queens, bishops, and rooks to allow for control and more distant captures.  It makes me wonder just how long these historic games of chess took to play.

And I Always Thought Hopscotch was Easy!

When I was in elementary school, I was a bit of an oddity, as I never went through the “icky girls have cooties” phase.  I was also often the new kid, since we moved a lot, and while I made friends easily, I knew I was unusual in that I was also willing to play the “girls games” as much as running around on the swings and jungle gyms with the boys.  So it was interesting to go poking through the Outdoor Boy’s Handybook of Sports, by Daniel Beard, and see a whole section dedicated to hopscotch.  Ignoring the hilariously misguided attempt to make it seem like it came from wild East India, the game as written in the late 19th century was considerably more challenging than the game I was taught in my youth.

Modern Hopscotch

To play, you draw a hopscotch board similar to the one shown here.  Players take turns standing a little bit away from the space marked as 1, and toss a small stone onto the board.  Then they have to hop up to where it lands, lean over and pick it up, and then hop back.

The single boxes are to be hopped on one foot, and the double boxes are straddled, with one foot in each box.  If I remember right, you’re also supposed to turn around by hopping and landing facing back toward the beginning.

If you miss the board, stumble, or put a foot in a box other than where it’s not supposed to be, you’re either out, or miss a turn, or lose a point, depending on the group you play with.

This version can either be played for points or as a player elimination game, probably largely depending on how clumsy the players are.  You can add a rhyme to be said, a requirement to switch feet while hopping, or even tossing the stone again while in the middle of the board, until you miss or end your turn with one of the other disqualifying conditions.

Simple, boring, a kid’s game.  And even among kids, it is looked at through a sexist lens as just being for the so-called weaker gender.

However, as we look back, the game used to be considerably more challenging.  So, regardless of gender, you can have your more athletic kids give hopscotch a try with the original rules.  First, below are a few more options for the board.


These boards were all taken from the Outdoor Boy’s Handybook of Sports, right after the rules for Mumbledy Peg, which, as common as it was, should have made every kid an expert knife thrower.  But that’s getting off-topic.

These boards might look pretty easy, with the apparent difference being only that there are more one-foot hopping spaces, including a tricky sequence where the crossed lines are.  But the real challenge is in what you do with the rock.

First, all of these games have a separate line some distance away from the board, called a taw line, which is also a term used in marbles.  From this line, you toss the rock onto the board, and that will be the position you hop to for this turn.

Seems like the same game, right?

Here’s the first catch – you have to do the numbers in order.  That means first to 1, then 2, and so on. If you throw the rock and it lands in the wrong space, you miss your turn.  The goal, naturally, is to be the first to get to the last space and back.

But wait, there’s more!  When you get to the space with the rock, you’re not supposed to pick it up.  Instead, you kick it backwards, by a hop-kick if you’re on one foot (not using your other foot, that would be too easy), or with a slide-kick that doesn’t lift the foot of the ground if you’re straddling.

Challenging, but still doable, right?  Oh no, there’s one more teeny-tiny little tricky rule to remember to avoid losing your turn.  You’re kicking it back into just the previous space, hopping as per the requirements of the space, and then kicking it back through all the spaces as you go.  So if you were throwing the rock into space 3, you would hop up to space 3, then you would kick it back into space 2, then hop to space 2 and kick it into space 1, then hop to 1 and kick it out and back past the taw line.

With the stamina and coordination this game requires to make it to the end and back, it can be a solid game for burning off energy, since all it really requires is some way to draw a board, and a rock to hop after.  The problem is if the players are more likely to quit from frustration or fatigue.  That would be an ideal time to encourage self-confidence and the drive to see a project to its end no matter how hard it is.  Alternatively, teaching good sportsmanship if someone is having an easier time with it than others would also come up as an opportunity.

So get some chalk, find a sidewalk, and rediscover a game from your childhood.  Can you play it the old-school way?