Tricks and Trumps #3: Trick Taking Meets German Game Designers (1990-1995)

This is our third entry in an eleven-part series featuring trick taking games.  This entry will focus on trick taking games from the early 1990s to 1995.  During this era, German game designers started to put their own creative twists on the genre, leading to games that no longer resembled the public-domain tricksters of the past.  This entry includes Sticheln, Was Sticht?, Hattrick, Flaschenteufel (a.k.a. The Bottle Imp), Foppen, and Mü.  This timeframe also marks the founding of the À la Carte award, so we’ll make mention of any games that won that honor.  

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.  

Sticheln

Sticheln (1993) – Designed by Klaus Palesch

Ranked #1 in 1993 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Chris Wray

Perhaps I’m biased — Sticheln is one of my favorite card games — but I see it as a great step forward in the design of trick taking games.  Sticheln threw out all of the old rules, becoming one of the first entries in a generation of trick taking games that no longer resembled the public-domain games of the past.  One trump suit?  Nah… every suit not led is trump.  Must follow?  Nope… play any card at any time.  And let’s vary the number of suits — and the number of cards in a suit — for the number of players.

The rules are simple:

  • Each player takes a card from their hand at the start of the game to represent their pain suit, and these are all revealed simultaneously.  All cards collected of this suit — including the card selected by the player — will be negative points at face value.  
  • Each other card taken (i.e. all cards not in the pain suit) is worth one point.
  • Zeroes never win unless all cards played in the trick are zero (in which case the first card wins).
  • Any card can be played at any point.
  • All suits not led are trump.
  • The highest trump card played (by number) wins.  If no trumps are played, the highest card wins.  If there is a tie (i.e. cards of the same number in different trump suits), the first player to have played the high value wins.  

That’s it… the rules are incredibly simple.  But the game is actually quite deep, and it is difficult to master.  Even to those well-versed in trick-taking games, it is a difficult game to get your head around for at least a couple of plays.

I fell in love with the game on my first play.  And I’ve never turned down a game of Sticheln since.  Is it for everybody?  Absolutely not — this can be a devilishly mean game — but I recommend that everybody give it a try.  It’s a classic, and it still stands as one of the highest-rated trick taking games on BGG.  

As an added benefit, a Sticheln deck is one of the most useful decks of cards out there.  As shown in this Geeklist, there are dozens — perhaps even dozens — of great games that can be played with a Sticheln deck.  

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: This game has seen a lot of play over the years. It’s main feature early was the novelty of stitching people up with high-scoring cards (in a game where low score wins). It features good hand management, and counting cards in your suit is essential to survival. Once everyone was doing this, it became a bit king-makery as people decided what big cards to keep to the last plays, meaning players in those suits could not afford to play to win tricks unless they were the last player. Which turned it into a bit of a lottery. Because the card play is slow – you can play any card, any time, which provides a large number of options – it gradually fell out of my favour, but we none-the-less got a lot of mileage out of it. And still do occasionally for nostalgia plays.

Larry:  I know this is supposed to be the ultimate in screwage games, but it never really clicked with my group (or with me).  I’ve only played this a couple of times, a while back, so I don’t really remember what the issue was.  Maybe it’s as simple as a bunch of confirmed Eurogamers not getting much pleasure out of schadenfreude.  Not really sure, but I guess it’s safe to say the game didn’t make much of an impact on me.

Dale Y: Though I haven’t played this in quite some time (and this review will likely provoke me to pull the game out again), this one was one of the “classics” way back when. Was played constantly, to the point of needing to order multiple copies from Adam Spielt to replace the worn decks.  It might be a bit old-fashioned now, but that’s no reason to change my rating.

Mary Prasad: This game just annoys me.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Chris Wray, Luke Hedgren, Michael Weston, Jonathan Franklin, Frank Branham, Lorna Dune, Alan How, Craig Massey, Dale Y
  • I like it. Patrick Brennan
  • Neutral.  Joe Huber, Larry Levy, Mark Jackson
  • Not for me… Mary Prasad, Erik Arneson

WasSticht

Was sticht? (1993) – Designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel

Ranked #2 in 1994 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Larry Levy

Was sticht? probably started the trend of innovative trick-taking games in Germany.  Not only was it popular, but its designer, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, was held in almost reverential respect by the leading gamers of the day.  So not only is this an excellent game, but it’s an historically important one as well.

The game turns many standard trick-taking conventions on their head.  As far as I know, it’s the first game to use a trump rank as well as a trump suit.  And the cards aren’t dealt–they’re drafted!  The dealer, the only player at the beginning who knows the identities of the trumps, lays out the cards in rows of 4 cards each.  The players then take turns drafting their cards from each row, after which the dealer tells them which card “won” the trick!  This allows the players to eventually identify the trump suit and rank; naturally, the quicker you do that, the better you’ll draft.

At the start of the game, the players draft different task chips from a common pool.  Tasks are hand objectives and include things like “win most tricks”, “take no red cards”, or “take exactly 2 tricks”.  After the hands are drafted, the players each select one of their tasks.  All except the dealer, who has to try to achieve another player’s task!  If you succeed with your task, you put it aside.  The first player to accomplish 5 of their tasks wins.

Was sticht? is absorbing, varied, and, like so many of Schmiel’s designs, doesn’t feel like any other game.  It’s also just plain fun.  For many of us, it was our first exposure to something truly different in the staid old world of trick-taking games.  It has held up very well for me and it still gets regular play, more than 15 years after I first learned it.

By the way, the title is a typical bit of German wordplay.  It can mean either “What’s trump?” or “What stings?”.  The latter sentiment is not only appropriate because of the gameplay, but because of the name of Schmiel’s publishing house, Moskito Spiele.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: Was sticht? is an enjoyable game, limited primarily by the fact that there is no hidden information; hands and goals are all drafted.  This makes play a little predictable, in practice – and significantly slower than in games where the cards are dealt.  It’s still an enjoyable game, but for me this limits my overall enjoyment.

Patrick Brennan: A good trick taking game that would come out more often except that it takes too long and it only plays with 3 or 4, and the 3 player version is not nearly as good. Each player chooses 5 goals to win on various hands (least tricks, most tricks, no yellow cards, exactly 2 tricks, last trick, etc). First player to achieve all their goals wins. On each hand, each player declares their stated goal, and the dealer attempts to stop them being met. Each player actually chooses their hand card by card from a display whilst gradual information is being deducted on the colour trump and number trump, so if you can track it all, perfect information is available. Good luck though. What I like about it is that every hand is a battle – choosing, deducting, tracking, playing.

Dale Y: I love the shifting goals in the game, and when I first got a copy (back in the early 90s), it did seem to stand out from the relatively limited trick takers that I had back then.  We played it a fair amount, but I think that was more in the day when a small trick taker could take up all our attention for a game night.  90 minute games of this were the norm in our group, and in retrospect now, there isn’t enough game there to hold my current attention span for that time.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Larry Levy, Alan How, Chris Wray, Luke Hedgren, Jonathan Franklin, Michael Weston, Frank Branham, Craig Massey
  • I like it.  Joe Huber, Lorna Dune, Patrick Brennan, Dale Y, Erik Arneson
  • Neutral.  Mark Jackson
  • Not for me…

Hattrick

Hattrick (1995) – Designed by Klaus Palesch

Ranked #3 in 1995 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Alan How

Hattrick is my most played card game, having played it hundreds of times. It is my closer of choice. What makes Hattrick so special? 60 cards, numbered 1-20 in three suits (red, blue and green) hardly sounds inspiring. Cards are dealt evenly across 3-6 players (4 is best in my opinion) and cards are played in tricks. Two suits can be played – which is the clever aspect – with high card in each suit collecting the cards won. After all but one round the game ends with points scored in a positive way for the longest length of cards won and negative for other suits. I always play one round per player which makes a set of four games last 30 minutes.

Funny things happen. In four player games there is a forced fight over at least one coloured suit; you do not have to follow suit if only one suit has been played and there are many occasions when the suit you thought that you would do well in you do not. It is possible to get 15+ points in a round so you can catch up after a bad start. Or you have a terrible time and are always competing in a suit that another person wants and that person is playing cards after you. You can score negative points, so the range of scores can be big to small negative. I have found Hattrick to be a great balance of skill and luck and it has provided many laughs. Not surprisingly, I love it.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Joe Huber: I had the chance to play Hattrick again recently, after a long time away from the game, and it mostly served to remind me why I’d let the game go.  It’s not bad, but the twist in the game isn’t interesting enough to really drive my interest, and far from enough to balance out a bad hand.

Patrick Brennan: I quite like the brain food this one offers in such a simple idea, and it makes for all sorts of interesting decisions – I really need to offload this highish red card, but I can’t afford to win any reds as I’m collecting greens, so should I play it under the 20 Red just played, but that means I’m donating points to the 20 Red player who’s collecting reds, or should I hold on to it to see if I can offload it later on to someone who’s not collecting red but has a higher red than I. Hmm, need to start counting the high cards at least. As there’s few ‘forced’ plays, you can’t actually determine other players’ hands so the educated guess runs rampant.

Dale Y: I really like this game with 4, for reasons that Alan outlines above, but I find that my enjoyment of the game is limited to that number.  The tension of collecting suits and fighting over them doesn’t seem to pan out with other player counts.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Alan How
  • I like it.  Luke Hedgren, Patrick Brennan
  • Neutral.  Joe Huber, Jonathan Franklin, Lorna Dune, Craig Massey, Dale Y
  • Not for me… Frank Branham, Mark Jackson

BottleImp

Flaschenteufel (a.k.a. The Bottle Imp) (1993) – Designed by Günter Cornett

Ranked #4 in 1996 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Joe Huber

Trick taking games are not, by their nature, thematic.  This doesn’t detract from them, but it is their nature – when you hear of a new trick taking game, you tend to expect a game which is completely abstract, typically with some twist to make it unique from other trick taking games.

Flaschenteufel has such a twist – while you must follow suit if possible, by default, the highest card played to a trick wins the trick, regardless of the suit.  And another twist as well, tied directly to the reason I consider it a highly thematic trick taking game.  The game follows the theme of The Bottle Imp, a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson (which can be read here), wherein a bottle can grant the owner wishes; however, anyone who owns the bottle when they die will suffer eternal damnation.  Likewise, in the game you can win tricks with low cards; if _anyone_ plays a card below the current value of the bottle imp, the highest card _below the current value_ wins the trick – but must also take the bottle imp, with the new value being set to that of the card that won the trick.  Whoever ends up with the bottle imp scores none of their tricks, instead scoring negatively for a few cards set aside before the first trick.  Everyone else scores the value of the cards in the tricks they took.

Flaschenteufel has been released with three different versions of artwork.  The original, which also has some differences in the scoring, is far and away my favorite; it’s the artwork that fits best with the theme, in my opinion.  The second version of the artwork, which mixed pictures and quotes tied to the story, is nice enough if not standing out as much for me.  The third version of the artwork – I won’t play with again.  But the game is fantastic in my opinion – enjoyable with four, and among my very favorite games of any description with three.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: Clever and unique. There are hands that are easy to play as you rack up the points, and others where you feel the pressure tighten inexorably card after card as you try and work out a way to escape the seemingly inescapable misery burden of the Imp. A game that rewards thought and concentration and is standing the test of time.

Alan How: I played this first in 1996 and immediately loved it. I think it was 10DM and a game that I bought for the price rather than the quality of the game. I think three is the best to play with and has those delicious moments in card games when you decide to risk all and succeed or fail by playing low or very low. Incredibly clever and well ahead of its time, it still works today of course.

Mary Prasad: I remember liking the game, although it has been a while since I’ve played. I’ll have to locate my copy!

Larry:  Flaschenteufel tends to be known most for being just about the only truly thematic trick-taker.  But it deserves to be known for its excellent gameplay as well.  Of course, that may not be apparent at first–the mechanics, though not particularly difficult, can be hard to grasp and playing a hand well can be wildly unintuitive.  But that’s one of the things that makes it great, that it is so different.

There are multiple layers to the strategy.  Beginners strive to ensure that they aren’t left holding that damned (literally) bottle at the end.  But there are many hands in which it pays to grab a ton of points while flirting with the bottle.  Then there are others where you’re pretty sure that bottle will be yours, so you might as well scarf down as many points as you can, to keep them from your opponents.  Figuring out which situation applies is part of the skill, but it’s often fluid and can change with each trick.

The game is pretty good with four, but it really shines with three.  The larger hands truly are necessary for the game to be at its best.  This and Schnappchen Jagd are easily my two favorite 3-player trick-takers and I’ll be very surprised if that doesn’t continue to be true ten years from now–they’re that good.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Joe Huber, Luke Hedgren, Lorna Dune, Larry Levy, Alan How, Jeff Allers, Patrick Brennan, Craig Massey, Dale Y
  • I like it.  Jonathan Franklin, Craig Vollmar, Chris Wray, Mary Prasad
  • Neutral.  Frank Branham, Erik Arneson
  • Not for me… Michael Weston, Mark Jackson

Foppen

Foppen (1995) – Designed by Friedemann Friese

Review by: Joe Huber

Foppen is one of Friese’s earlier releases – as I understand it, an attempt to put out a less expensive game after Falsche FuFFziger failed to sell out as quickly as Wucherer did.  The deck is oddly unbalanced, with 9 blue cards, 13 yellow cards, 15 red cards, and 19 green cards, plus four wild 1s.  Play of the first trick of the game is fairly standard; you must follow suit (or play a 1 – but play of a 1 is not required if it’s the only way you can follow suit) if possible.  But the winner of the trick only earns the right to lead to the next trick; the more interesting question is the _loser_ of the trick – the player who played the lowest card outside of the lead suit, if any, or the lowest card in the suit lead if everyone followed.  That player receives the Foppen (fool) token, and must pass on the next trick – but is thereby immune from being the Foppen, at least.  Play continues until at least one player is out of cards; players score negative points for cards left in hand, and can only score positive points if playing all of their cards without taking the Foppen on the final trick.

And as a result – Foppen doesn’t really belong on this list, as the objective _isn’t_ to take tricks, either for the number of tricks taken or for the cards in the tricks.  But while I would categorize with other games where the objective is to void your hand, rather than to win tricks, regardless of how it’s categorized it’s a very enjoyable game.  It’s best, in my opinion, with five players, though it’s also quite good with six; we always choose other options with fewer than five.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: An older card game by Friese where the loser of the last trick doesn’t play to the next. It’s an oddly constructed deck but playable with a Sticheln deck if you want to try it out. Best with 5, ok with 4. Good hands really help, as will card counting. Things that help are keeping a strong suit to play out the mid-game, knowing who’s short in what suits, tracking what’s left in each suit, knowing when to play high to stay in, and when to play low to keep yourself strong for later. But a high hand means you don’t have to worry about much!

Alan How: This is a game that escaped me for years and then a friend brought it out and I really enjoy it. The timing of how you play a hand, how you take control and lose control are all important. Will the long green suit come out early or late? When do you risk keeping high cards or ending up with a bad score? It plays so quickly as well and for me a top enjoyable game.

Larry:  Played it once and it did nothing for me.  For some reason, I found that having to skip the next trick after you’re the lowest player in a trick to be annoying.  It seemed like piling on the low guy and smacking the player with the worst hand.  Maybe I should try it again.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Joe Huber, Luke Hedgren, Lorna Dune, Alan How, Craig Massey
  • I like it.  Jonathan Franklin, Mark Jackson, Patrick Brennan, Erik Arneson
  • Neutral.  Frank Branham, Larry Levy, Dale Y
  • Not for me…

Mu

(1995) – Designed by Doris Matthäus & Frank Nestel

Ranked #1 in 1996 À la Carte Voting (as Mü & More)

Review by: Joe Huber

With four players, Bridge is my favorite trick taking game.  With six, Sextet – an adaptation of Bridge to six players, which ironically seems to be easier to introduce new players to than Bridge, because of the lack of bidding conventions – has long been my preference.  But Bridge doesn’t adapt well to five players (even with the five suited decks which are available), and so for many years our default five player trick taking game of choice has been Mü.  The game technically handles 3-6 players (in the original edition; 3 player rules and scoring have since been dropped), but the sweet spot for the game is definitely with five.

As with Bridge, there is a round of bidding, followed by a round of play.  Unlike Bridge, however, partnerships are not fixed, but instead vary from one hand to the next.  And, even more importantly, two trumps – which can either be a color or number, making many more hands interesting than usual.  The second highest bidder, who can’t be chosen as partner, picks the lower trump, then the high bidder chooses the higher trump and their partner for the hand.  There is one more twist to the game – bidding is not to take a number of tricks, but instead a number of triangles, with each card having between 0 and 2 triangles, depending upon the number.

For years, we had a weekly Mü game at work, which I dearly miss.  But as a result, I’ve played Mü more than nearly any other game – and it holds up wonderfully.  This is a game that truly rewards regular play – one of the things I’m always looking for.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: This is a hard game to play well, which may be the reason why it’s attractive. Knowing how and what to bid based on who’s going to be the vice and what the under trump might be, or choosing to prostitute yourself to the would-be chiefs seems to be the key. With 5 suits spread across 5 hands, it’s highly unlikely to get a winning hand yourself, so it’s all about the bid declarations. As a result, it’s slower than I’d prefer, and perhaps a bit too luck-based in the final analysis. For a game that’s thought well of, it rarely hits the table here, and there lies the rub. When suggested, it usually procures groans at the thought of having to get our heads wrapped around the bid repercussions once more.

Alan How: I’ve only played Mu end enjoyed my plays of the game, though resuming play between huge time gaps means that you forget the subtleties and the scoring system of course. It remains as good today as when it was launched which was the height of Doris and Frank mania time.

Frank Branham: One of my faves, and the excellent IOS adaptation has remarkably solid AI. Part of the reason I mention this is that the game is so difficult to learn that it is really only playable by advanced trick taking players. So it never gets played. Bidding via face up cards is the truly genius mechanic here, but I cannot offhand name another game which has nicked this particular mechanic.  Hmm.

Mary Prasad: Another game I remember enjoying but haven’t played in a long time.

Dale Y: What she said… :)

Craig Massey: What Dale said with the addition that it should really be played more often to see the depth the game has.

Larry:  If I was stranded on that proverbial desert island, one of the games I’d really try to get played is Mu.  I’ve tried it a few times, but it’s obviously a game that requires considerable experience to even begin to achieve competency.  I like it, but recognize that there’s so much to it that I don’t get.  I will say this, though; there are very few absolutes in the world of gaming, but I don’t think anyone disputes that Mu is the best 5-player trick-taking game ever created.  For Doris and Frank, that’s a nice little thing to have on your permanent record!

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Joe Huber, Luke Hedgren, Jonathan Franklin, Frank Branham, Lorna Dune, Alan How, Craig Massey, Erik Arneson
  • I like it.  Larry Levy, Patrick Brennan, Mary Prasad, Dale Y
  • Neutral.  Michael Weston, Chris Wray
  • Not for me…
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2 Responses to Tricks and Trumps #3: Trick Taking Meets German Game Designers (1990-1995)

  1. Really enjoying this series so far. This set of games is particularly amazing!

    • Chris W. says:

      I agree. From my vantage point, this is the golden era of trick taking games, although Japan has made a few phenomenal ones in the past five years.

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