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.
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.
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:
- Accept the raise, setting the stakes to 7 points.
- Surrender (fold) on behalf of their team, giving the other team the base 4 points before a new deal, or
- 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.
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).
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.