Tricks and Trumps #2: Variations on the Classics (1966-1990)

Tricks and Trumps #2: Variations on the Classics

This is our second entry in an eleven-part series featuring trick taking games.  This entry will focus on trick taking games from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, which tended to closely resemble the classic, public-domain trick taking games.  Games included in this entry are Coup d’etat, Ninety Nine, Black Spy, Wizard, and Wer hat mehr?.

As we explained in our first entry, we put more than 150 trick taking games into a ratings spreadsheet, giving each Opinionated Gamer the chance to offer their rating.  We decided to write about any game that was (a) rated by more than three people, and (b) had an “average” rating higher than our neutral rating.  The end series will feature 56 games split into nine articles.  The games are ranged roughly by the year of origin.  

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Coup d’etat (1966) – Designed by G. W. “Jerry” D’Arcey

Review by: Larry Levy

Coup d’etat is derived from the traditional cardgame Barbu and was released by Parker Brothers in the mid-sixties.  I’ve actually never played Barbu, but my family played quite a bit of Coup d’etat when I was growing up.  I have very pleasant memories of it.

It uses a 33-card deck:  four suits ranked from 7 up to Ace, plus a special Coup card.  There are multiple rounds of hands (one for each player) and each round consists of a series of different games.  Most of the games are avoidance ones, like Hearts, in which the players try not to take certain cards (Queens for one game, Spades for another, etc.).  Each player in turn begins as the dealer for a round.  At the beginning of the hand, the dealer decides which type of game will be played.  Each game can be chosen only once per round.  Any player who takes a penalty card during the hand must pay the dealer.  So the dealer tries to choose the game which will maximize his take and the players try to avoid winning penalty cards.

Adding spice to the game (and setting it apart from Barbu) are its coups and hidden coups.  The player who is dealt the Coup card can declare a coup.  In that case, she chooses one of the remaining games and essentially tries to “shoot the moon” (i.e., take all of the penalty cards in tricks).  If she succeeds, the other players must pay her and then she becomes the dealer for the rest of the round (so that she’ll be receiving payments for those remaining games).  If she fails, she must pay a sizeable penalty.  Hidden coups work the same as coups, except they don’t have to be declared ahead of time, but the effect is the same as if a player managed to shoot the moon at the declared game.  These elements make a standard avoidance game more dynamic and definitely add excitement.

Coup d’etat was a pretty sophisticated game for its time.  The variety of the different games and the potential overthrows were enough to keep us entertained for several years during my childhood.  The downside was that playing 24 games with four players took time–a full game took 3-4 hours.  As a result, I’m not sure this has held up too well over the years.  But it was certainly a fine game for its day and one I remember fondly.

One final note.  One of the appeals of the game was its physical production.  The artwork on the box and in the rules, with its pictures of peasants stoicly blowing up generals, had a delightful Gallic feel.  You also indicated which games had been played each round by moving small metal daggers on the central board!  It might be viewed as somewhat un-PC today, but the lighthearted nature of the components absolutely made the game more fun to play.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: Coup d’etat is an enjoyable game, but Barbu is a more interesting game – if a bit long to play in preference to Bridge when you have four card players.

Frank Branham: Barbu feels like such a slog, so I tend to prefer Coup d’Etat. My preferred version of this game is the drop dead gorgeous Dragonmaster. This later version features plastic scoring crystals, and Art Nouveau-inspired Tarot cards by the same artist who illustrated the classic electronic game Dark Tower.

Dale Yu: I had this one growing up, assuredly picked up at a garage sale or a thrift shop.  While I honestly remember nothing about the game (having not played it for a good 20-25 years), I do remember trying to find multiple copies because we needed the metal daggers for something.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Larry Levy, Frank Branham
  • Neutral.  Joe Huber, Dale Y
  • Not for me…

Deck of Cards 2

Ninety Nine (1967) – Designed by David Parlett

Review by: Alan How

I was first introduced to 99 via Games &Puzzles magazine in 1973. Imagine a game where the numbers 9 and 99 are woven onto the games. A deck of 37 cards formed of a joker and 8 to Ace in the four regular suits is dealt to three players with the remaining card as the trump indicator. Three of each players hand form a bid as in estimation whist. The suits indicate the number of tricks to be won, with each diamond placed and no tricks, spades 1 trick, hearts 2 and clubs three. ( I was taught that the shape indicated the tricks – each curly element was one trick and diamonds having no curls was nil.)

Tricks are played as in regular whist, and each trick taken scores a point, so 9 points are available each deal and there are 9 deals. You get bonus points for accurately scoring your bid (10/20/30) depending on the number of people who do so and up to 60 more points for a successful “reveal” which shows your hand to the other opponents. This makes a maximum score possible of 9+30+60=99 points, giving the name of the game. The reveal and lesser scoring declare option are do or die possibilities. Either the person risking the bonus or their two opponents will score these points. The game is elegant, clever and provides skilful players the chance to do well. It’s nearly 50 years old and I’d say it’s a classic 3 player game that every serious card player should have in their gaming CV.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Chris Wray: David Parlett’s card game is brilliant: the bidding presents tough choices before the hand is even played, and gameplay subtly reveals the bets made by other players.  From my vantage point, this is easily one of the best games that can be played with a standard deck of cards.

Larry:  Ninety Nine is my favorite public domain trick-taker for 3.  Having to use the cards of your hand to bid is really clever and leads to many tough decisions.  Even though he’s best known for Hare and Tortoise, Parlett is primarily a designer of card games and this is his best.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Alan How, Luke Hedgren
  • I like it.  Larry, Chris Wray
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

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Black Spy (1981) – Designed by Alan R. Moon

Review by: Chris Wray

Black Spy has the historical distinction of being Alan R. Moon’s first published game.  Today it is available as part of Z-Man and Filosophia series of deluxe card games.

Black Spy is a variant on hearts and can be played with three to six players.  The deck consists of 60 cards: 11 each in red, yellow, green, and blue, and 16 in black.  There are five extra “spy” (i.e. rank 7) cards in black.

All 60 cards are dealt to the players, so the number each player receives depends on the number of players in the game.  All players pass three cards to a designated other player, with the receiving player rotating between rounds.  The player with the “Red 1” leads the first trick.  Players must follow suit if possible, and there is no trump.  The player with the highest card of the color led takes the trick; if the highest card is a Black Spy, and there are two or more Black Spies in the trick, the Black Spy takes the trick.  The winner of the trick leads the next trick.  Play continues until all cards are played.

Black cards rank 1-6 are worth 1 point each.  Black Spies (i.e. rank 7) are worth 10 points.  The black 8 is worth 2 points, the black 9 is worth 3 points, the black 10 is worth 4 points, and the black 11 is worth 5 points.  The red, yellow, green, and blue spies (i.e. 7s) are worth -5 points.  Thus, there are 60 points per deal.  However, if one player captures all of the black cards, all other players get 60 points.

Play continues to 200 points in a three-player game, 150 points in a four-player game, 120 points in a five-player game or 100 points in a six-player game.

Black Spy is a derivative of Hearts, and like Hearts, it is simple yet tense.  But Black Spy ramps up the tension by introducing different scoring for different cards in the avoidance suit, making for interesting decisions.  I find there to be more strategy here than in Hearts, as rather than avoiding one card (the Queen of Spades) you’re avoiding several painful cards.  Shooting the moon is also riskier — and seemingly rarer — in Black Spy.

Gameplay is typically fast-paced, and anybody that knows Hearts can pick it up in seconds.  My family has worn out a couple of decks, and I hope Z-Man keeps this in print for a while.  It’s been around for almost 35 years, so here’s to 35 more.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: Black Spy is one of a few Hearts variants, all playable and enjoyable, I’ve come across.  I’d even buy Chris’ assertion that there’s more to the game – but they are comparable enough that I’m happy to play either, even if I will tend to suggest other games in preference.

Larry:  Meh.  I don’t care for Hearts and I saw nothing special here to make me change my mind.

Dale: I’ve had fun playing this over the years, and the new Z-Man edition brought on a short revival of this.  While it does have a bit more options than Hearts, I find that I don’t necessarily prefer it over Hearts.  I’m happy to play either if requested, but I think I would not really be the one requesting either game…

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Craig Vollmar, Chris Wray, Alan How, Erik Arneson
  • Neutral.  Joe Huber, Luke Hedgren, Frank Branham, Larry Levy, Mark Jackson, Dale Y
  • Not for me…

Wizard

Wizard (1984) – Designed by Ken Fisher

Review by: Frank Branham

Wizard stays very close to the classic Oh Hell. The basic formula of trying to take an exact number of tricks is present. The differences are:

  • Oh Hell has a 0 trick bid option which can net quite a few points. Wizard doesn’t.
  • Wizard subtracts points for an incorrect bid.
  • Wizard includes two additional cards: 4 Wizards and 4 Jesters. These have no suits. A wizard always takes a tricks, a Jester always fails to take a trick.

The difference is unusual. The scoring places a stronger focus on getting the exact number of tricks, and then the extra cards add a bit of uncertainty to the proceedings.

The problem with Oh Hell for me is that we played quite a bit of Oh Hell when I was young,  second only to Rook as the family card game of choice. Oh Hell is pretty easy to work out the number of tricks and target score. Even the zero bid is relatively easy to account for while bidding.

The actual card play in Oh Hell often then feels like just a formality. The end result is not deep enough to be a serious card game and is far too dry to be a bit of raucous fun.

For my taste, I like games which require you to constantly rethink your card play. Wizard definitely manages this. The Wizards also allow you to target game leaders to steal their tricks, introducing a natural balancing mechanism.

Wizard is harder and more capricous. Of course, the end result is so very close to Oh Hell that it is barely a separate game.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Chris Wray: I like trick taking games that involve bidding how many tricks you’ll take, but I’ve always found the mechanic works better with partners.  Additionally, I’m not a huge fan of trick taking games where bidding involves very few tricks in a hand, so the first few hands of Wizard tend to annoy me.

Patrick Brennan: I love Oh Hell, but the power of the Z’s (uber trumps) and the N’s (nulls), both of which can be played anytime, can be quite difficult to predict for. It certainly makes the early hands more of a lottery if you don’t have them (not knowing whether someone’s going to arbitrarily smack over the top or not, even if you have top card). Great if you have them, as they’re the only way to gain control, but they make the game a lighter and less satisfying affair than better Oh Hell variants out there such as Die Sieben Siegel. Still very playable though if you’ve taken that into account.

Joe Huber: Wizard is a pleasant game – but not my favorite of the predict-your-tricks genre, and not one that has really stood out for me.

Larry:  All the badness of Oh Hell, but even more chaotic.  Yuck.

Dale Yu: Though Oh Hell is pretty dry, I prefer dry and predictable over “being the guy dealt the most Z’s and N’s in the rounds with few cards”.  I think that the hands with more cards are possibly more interesting due to the unpredictable special card plays, but not enough to overcome the feeling that game is usually decided by those few hands where someone “knew” what tricks they would win or not because they happened to be dealt the right special cards.

Alan How: My favorite version of this type of game because of the wizards and nulls. I could play this all day and not be bored.

Mary Prasad: I like the game OK; the N/Z randomness can be annoying (unless I get them!) but I still enjoy playing once in a while.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Alan How, Erik Arneson
  • I like it. Frank Branham, John P., Mary Prasad
  • Neutral. Luke Hedgren, Joe Huber, Jonathan Franklin, Chris Wray, Lorna Dune, Mark Jackson, Nathan Beeler, Matt Carlson, Patrick Brennan
  • Not for me…  Larry Levy, Jeff Allers, Dale Y

Bob'sHat

Wer hat mehr? (1990) – Designed by Alan R. Moon; later modified and re-released as Where’s Bob’s Hat?

Review by: Joe Huber

First to be clear – I am reviewing Wer hat mehr?, not Where’s Bob’s Hat?.  The original game, built upon the basic Oh Hell mechanism of predicting the tricks being taken – but with the twist of simply bidding the suits in which one will take the most cards – or bidding to take the fewest tricks.  With only three suits, numbered 1-20, this leaves little scope for bidding – adding significant tension and interest to the bidding and play.  This also makes the game ideal for 3 players, or at most four – in spite of the box indicating that six can play.

The game also features some of the worst artwork of any game I know of, though it’s become so familiar that I actually missed the bad art when playing Where’s Bob’s Hat?.  One of the real challenges is that the yellow cards feature a guy in a red shirt and coat, confusing many players into thinking it’s a red card.  Where’s Bob’s Hat? also adds some twists to the game, which to me felt like another layer of randomness on top of the vagary of the deal.

Early hands are very difficult to bid – but don’t score, or penalize, by much.  Later, as more and more of the deck can be guessed to be in play, hand evaluation becomes easier – but the potential rewards are also increased.  It also becomes possible to take the fewest tricks, but still the most in one suit, a combination bid that always adds interest.  It’s also quite fun when every player bids the same suit…

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: As with traditional ‘Up And Down The Road’, chaotic, but fun. Being forced to make a bid on a hand with an even spread between suits, ranged from high to low, is hard. Most hands I feel like I’m flying along on a wing and a prayer, at the mercy of how the cards fall. But the game did generate decent after-the-fact moan chatter. It’s too long for what it is though which limits replay.

Larry:  Only played once or twice, but it did nothing for me.  Again, I’m not a fan of Oh Hell, or of games like it, so it’s no real surprise that this game doesn’t work for me.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it!
  • I like it.  Joe Huber, John P., Nathan Beeler, Erik Arneson
  • Neutral.  Luke Hedgren, Jonathan Franklin, Frank Branham, Chris Wray, Lorna Dune, Mark Jackson, Alan How, Greg Schloesser, Patrick Brennan, Dale Y
  • Not for me…  Larry Levy
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2 Responses to Tricks and Trumps #2: Variations on the Classics (1966-1990)

  1. jeffinberlin says:

    A Syrian refugee just taught me Trex, a popular compendium game in that country that sounds a lot like Coup d’ Etat, in which the dealer chooses the “game” to be played for each of 5 hands. Does Barbu have Middle Eastern origins?

  2. pdfprime says:

    I posted on the part 1 thread. Kind of surprised to not see Barbu there, but it does show up in a different form here, so all is good. With 4 bridge players, we play bridge. With 4 card players, we play Barbu or Hearts or Spades.

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