Tricks and Trumps #4: Modern Trick Taking Card Games (1996-1998)

This is our fourth entry in an eleven-part series featuring trick taking games.  This entry will focus on trick taking games from 1996 to 1998.  During this era, game designers, primarily out of Germany, were putting their own creative twists on the genre, leading to games that no longer resembled the public-domain tricksters of the past.  This entry includes Canyon, Njet! (a.k.a. Nyet!), Twilight (a.k.a. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), Cosmic Eidex, David & Goliath, Löwendynastie, and Schnäppchen Jagd (a.k.a. Bargain Hunter).  

For previous entries, see #1 (Games Before 1965); #2 (1966-1990); or #3 (1990-1995).  

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 more than 50 games split into nine articles.  The games are ranged roughly by the year of origin.  We’ll also mention any games that ranked in the voting for the À la Carte award.

Canyon

Canyon (1997) – Designed by Frederick A. Herschler

Ranked #3 in 1997 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Mark Jackson

Strip away the faux Indian facade and Canyon is basically a melding (card game pun!) of the classic Oh Hell with a racing game. For some folks, that falls flat – but I’ve found it to be well-received by non-gamers and card players who don’t normally “like” board games.

Played with a six suit deck (each suit is numbered 1-10), the number of cards in each hand goes up and then back down. Trump suit is randomly determined before bidding. Players then attempt to predict the number of tricks they’ll take.

The twist is that scoring is done by racing canoes around a U-shaped river route. Each trick taken is worth 1 space, with bonus spaces given for correct bidding. This includes a bonus for bidding (and taking) zero tricks. Blocking can and does happen, especially with 4+ players. The final section of the board (the “waterfall”) requires players to hit their bid exactly to move forward. If they fail, they slide towards the outside of the “track” (river) rather than moving forward.

There is room for intelligent play – though it’s important to note that there can be swings of luck. I find that charming – others do not.

Grand Canyon was a small expansion with DIY counters and a set of special power cards. The special power cards are drafted each hand, adding a Cosmic Encounter-like effect to the game: one player can break suit, another can leapfrog when he moves his canoe, a third can discard up to two cards and draw two new cards, etc. The counters can be used to add obstacles or currents to the river, which can slow down or speed up the game. We like to put some currents pointing forward on the outside edges of the river when playing with 5-6 players, as well as using the special power cards.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: Oh Hell themed with a scoring track. There’s more luck, caused by the extra suit and the scoring track interactions – for those who think Oh Hell needs more luck. It’s also completely unfairly weighted towards players who are lucky enough to get trumps in their hand because every trick counts as a score, especially in the bigger sized hands. It generally only comes out late at night when we’re desperate for one more game for 5 or 6 players. You might get more fun out of the game by adjusting the movement rules to your own tastes. We played the Grand Canyon expansion a few times but felt it just added catch-the-leader length without adding depth or enjoyment. We now prefer to stay with the base game that zips along, speed being the essence required.

Dale Y: I much prefer Oh Hell.  The board adds unnecessary randomness to the game for my tastes, and makes an already too-long game go even longer.  The expansion only exacerbates the problem.

Joe Huber: Dale’s thoughts mirror my own.  It’s not dreadful, but there are many other better games.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Mark Jackson
  • I like it. Jonathan Franklin, John P., Patrick Brennan, Craig Massey
  • Neutral. Frank Branham, Dale Y
  • Not for me… Joe H.

Nyet

Njet! (1997) – Designed by Stefan Dorra

Ranked #7 in 1997 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Tom Rosen

Njet is the best trick-taking game there is.  That sentence will surely raise a few eyebrows, but I’ve tried a lot of trick-taking and climbing games and I keep coming back to Njet.  This 1997 Stefan Dorra game is one that I came across in the 2007 combined release of Mu & Lots More, which included the titular Mu along with Njet, Was Sticht, and Meinz.  With designs from so many heavy hitters, this was a little game box that packed a lot of punch!  And none greater than Njet.

The gameplay is like so many other trick-taking games, except it’s preceded by a process-of-elimination selection round after players are dealt their hands and before play begins for the round.  Through this process, players determine the trump color (if any), passing of cards, starting player, and value of tricks.

Two wonderful things that emerge from this process.  First, the starting player picks their partner for the round.  So in this four-player game, partners switch from round-to-round, and while you earn the same points as your partner in any given round, over the course of 8 rounds everyone tracks their score independently and you crown a single winner.  The shifting partnerships and alliances, along with the possibility of forcing someone into a partnership, is actually reminiscent of the great Die Macher.  The second thing that emerges is the possibility of each trick being worth one, two, three, four, or negative two points.  Every once in a while, tricks go from being desired and valuable to being actively avoided by everyone.  It makes for a nice change of pace that keeps things fresh and lively throughout.

In the end, you could be playing so many different card games, but if you have four people getting together then Njet is the one you should be playing.  It has the staying power to keep going for almost two decades now and many more to come.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: Standard trick-taking game with a prelude before each hand where players use worker placement to knock out the various options on offer for discards, trumps, supertrumps, start player and points each trick is worth. I thought this would be interesting, but in practice you get such little control – by the time your turn comes around, someone’s probably already knocked out your big suit (because they’ve only got 1 of them), so then you knock out the suit you’re short in, which means you need to get lucky when it comes around to your turn to have only two options left to allow you to finalise it with what you want. Or end up playing no trumps most hands. If the trumps didn’t go your way, then knock out the big point spots, ensuring those with the best hands get limited points. All of which means the exercise falls flat, playing similar hands with not many points up for grabs. The start player advantage is that they get to choose their partner, which you do based on what they knocked out in a relatively blind hope that they’ve got something that supplements your hand. Or do it based on score (ie pick who’s coming last). It’s not very inspirational, and the gameplay is standard so there’s not much to excite there either. I was hoping for more.

Dale Y: Admittedly, I haven’t played this since about 1997, and I only played it a few times back then, but I don’t remember ever having a fun experience with this one.

Larry:  Trick-taking game where each hand’s objectives are designed by committee.  The results are just about as arbitrary and flaccid as you’d expect.  Just not all that fun, which is kind of surprising, given how solid a designer Dorra is.

Joe Huber: There are some mildly interesting bits to the game; there are also two players who are completely eliminated in the final hand before it’s even played, since partners score equal points.  I’d play it again if others really wanted to – but as with Dale it’s been two decades since I last played it, and I’ve never missed it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

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

DrJekyll

Twilight a.k.a. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1997) – Designed by Wolfgang Werner

Ranked #5 in 1997 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Frank Branham

To me, Twilight is a game about rival Sun and Moon cults collecting souls (represented on the cards by candles) and pairing them with various holy site cards to score points. I have 3 copies of the original, just in case something happens to one or more of them. The art is hideous, the theme is dark and kind of twisted, and the entire thing makes me adore it.

The Jekyll version has rather better art and cards, and a more palatable theme which…well…isn’t about collecting souls.

No card game you have ever played will prepare you for the horrors of Twilight. There are only two suits, one for each partnership. There are tricks, and the highest card takes the trick. The temple cards have x1, x2, and x3, and the soul cards have 4-7 candles on each. Add up the multipliers of your temples captured in tricks, and multiply that number by the collected souls.

The really, truly, evil bit is that the card suits are marked on the back of the cards. And you are only allowed to play your suit in front of you when it is your turn to play a card. However, your hand consists of cards from both suits. Instead of playing a card from your hand, you may also nominate any player at the table who plays a card from their hand on your behalf.

GAAAAAHHHHH!

This is maddening. Your opponents have your cards, and you will eventually be forced to allow them play cards for you. The end result always feels just a bit like walking across a bottomless chasm, over a thin tightrope, studded with razor blades. Every play feels like you are just this one play away from total disaster.

The structure of the suits is also nearly perfectly balanced with both sets of scoring cards evenly ranked at the bottom, and ranked trumps at the top. I’m pretty certain that the suit ranking and scoring structure for my own Dia die Los Muertos came directly from here. So many games will scatter scoring cards throughout the suit ranking or put fully half of the points in a hand as the top three ranked cards. (That last bit is Rook’s cardinal sin. )

One other unique thing about Twilight is how you actually learn to play Twilight is that you never really learn what is best to do in a given situation. Instead, you gradually build up a library of ideas of things not to do. (The third player in a trick should never select the fourth player to play for him is a basic one, but it isn’t so patently obvious until you’ve seen how badly it goes.)

The only downside is that the game runs long as written to 1000 points. We find that playing one set of 4 hands works quite well. (Or we occasionally play to 666, just…well…because.) Otherwise, this is probably my favorite trick taking game

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Dale Y: I remember being introduced to this “gem” at a Gulf Games with Frank and Sandy. And we had a great time trying to figure out what to do with it.  But, like so many games, it’s only fun with someone who loves it and someone who understands it enough to help me figure out what my choices are.  I got a copy of the game, and then it proceeded to flop in every other non-Moo setting.  I’d much prefer to play Dia de los Muertos to this.

Patrick Brennan: The ability to call on other players to play on your behalf is the mechanic that sets this game apart from others. There’s only 28 cards to count (which you’ll need to do), but this game is really, really hard to play well and determine best moves. Which means it plays slowly. This, and the fact it’s maybe too hard, means it never hits the table enough for you to actually get on top of it. Still, it’s a brain bender for when you’re looking for one.

Craig Massey: My head hurts just thinking about this game. I love getting it out and playing it with players who have played it before because it leads to really interesting discussions after each hand about what everyone should do. What seems patently obvious for one player is often far from obvious for a partner leading to much hand wringing and loud exclamations and exasperated sighs. Of course when you then review the options and information after the fact you come to the realization that from another perspective a decision seems perfectly logical. So you pick up the cards and try to get it right the next hand. A frustratingly fabulous game!

Joe Huber: This is a very clever game.  It wasn’t quite as much fun in practice – it’s a game that seems to need the right crowd – but while I no longer own a copy I’d gladly play it should I be in such a crowd.  I do agree with Patrick that the pace isn’t quite right for a trick taking game, but that’s not enough to prevent me from enjoying the game.

Mark Jackson: I prefer the theme of Jekyll & Hyde to the creepy soul-harvesting of Twilight… but either way, it’s an intriguing game to play.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

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

CosmicEidex

Cosmic Eidex (1998) – Designed by Urs Hostettler

Review by: Nathan Beeler

Cosmic Eidex came to me highly praised as “twisty”. Having now played many dozens of times, I can confirm that not only is this true, but it is heaps of fun trying to coax out good strategic play from your cards. The game is reportedly based on the game Jass, with elements of Skat squeedily-bopped in for good measure. I feel obligated to add that information, even though I have only played the latter of those two once. The comparisons are meaningless to me, and it stands alone as something entirely different. In fact, it is my wife’s favorite card game, and it’s nearly that for me.

In a nutshell, Cosmic Eidex is a three player only game with a trump suit and no bidding or melding. Its deck consists of cards from six to Ace in four suits: Hearts (red), Lizards (green), Ravens (black) and Stars (yellow). Cards are worth differing amounts of points when taken in a trick, but these points aren’t how you win. Victory points are how you win. Seven of them, to be precise. With each hand exactly two victory points are given out: one to the player who took the most points, and one to the player who took the fewest. Unless one player took more than 100 (of the 157 possible) points, in which case the other two split the victory points. But that’s only true if one person didn’t take all the tricks, because if they did they get both victory points. This can also happen if all three players have fewer than 100 points and two of them tie. Players aren’t allowed to look at the tricks they’ve taken once they add them to the pile. Practically, the results of that rule is you can often never be sure if you’ve nabbed a victory point until you count points at the end of the hand. Picking your moments to duck the lead can be crucial, and timing is everything in Cosmic Eidex.

By rule, the game doesn’t allow for multiple overall winners. So if the two winners of the victory points are both at six and would normally both get to the magical target of seven, then the one who scored fewer points actually loses a victory point and the other stays on six. However, the situation is different if all three players are at six victory points and the points are split. This is what the game calls “chaos”, for good reason. What happens in chaos is the player who didn’t score a victory point becomes the only one who does and is declared the sole winner. Think about that for a moment. All game long players have been generally aiming to avoid the dreaded middle and to keep their running count under 100 points in a given hand. Suddenly, everything gets flipped on its head and that’s exactly what they try to do. And all this is just the jumble that is scoring.

The last card dealt each hand is flipped up, and this determines not only the trump suit, but the type of hand to be played — the relative value and strengths of each card or even if there is a trump suit at all. When we play we give out little cheat sheets to each player to help guide them through this. I can’t fathom how you could play without them. The game also has some variable player powers that make it slightly different each time you play. Everyone gets one randomly at the start of the game. These are relatively weak, so it tends not to throw the game out of balance most of the time. But the powers are there and they must be accounted for. In practice, this acts to keep everyone on their toes and slightly uncertain. In fact, that is the overriding sensation I always have when playing Cosmic Eidex; it’s like a three-legged sack race through the middle of a paintball war zone. So fun, but a little unsettling.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: It’s a hard game to get your head around. There’s a wide disparity in the value of the special powers each player gets, so we play that everyone gets a new power each hand to add variety and interest. It’s important to track the points and the cards, so that slows things down. It’s a neat central idea, but it only ever gets the occasional play.

Dale Y: I have really always hated special power games, especially those which seem to have powers that are not necessarily balanced.  Maybe I just hated this one because I’ve never played with a cheat sheet, and therefore spent a lot of the game in a daze not knowing what other people could do.

Joe Huber: I like the idea of the game quite a bit – but in practice the game wants a fixed set of regular players, even more than Twilight does.  And – no one liked it enough to sign up for that.  Absent that, it’s not nearly as fun as it should be.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Jonathan Franklin, Frank Branham, Nathan Beeler
  • I like it. Chris Wray, Michael Weston
  • Neutral. Patrick Brennan
  • Not for me… Joe Huber, Mark Jackson, Dale Y

David Goliath

David & Goliath (1998) – Designed by Reinhard Staupe

Ranked #2 in 1998 À la Carte Voting

Review by:  Chris Wray

David and Goliath is a completely different twist on the trick taking genre.  There are five suits, with up to 15 cards per suit.  Players use cards numbered 1-9 in a 3-player game, 1-12 in a 4-player game, and 1-15 in a 5-player game.  Players must follow suit if they can.

The winner of the trick is the highest card played, regardless of suit. The twist is that the winner only takes the cards he didn’t play in the trick. That card that won is given to the player with the lowest card, regardless of suit.

After all tricks are played, scoring begins, with each player scoring the face-value of the cards in the suits that they only collected one or two of, and one point per card for suits with more than two. The player with the most points after a number of hands wins the game.

David and Goliath is an interesting little game where the lower-numbered cards are often the better cards to have… high cards don’t give you much control.  I mostly think of it as a trick avoidance game, and it can be devilishly challenging and occasionally mean.  Some trick taking games — such as hearts — can switch into “auto play” mode, where you can work out your decision tree the moment you see your cards.  That isn’t true for David & Goliath… this one rewards careful play!

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: With 15 tricks, and only wanting to collect 10 cards, this is a study in avoiding tricks. The problem is it’s very difficult to short suit yourself with 15 cards … but then again, shortsuiting yourself in this game is less meaningful than usual as the highest card regardless of colour wins the trick. It’s difficult to escape some bad outcomes if you’re stuck with high cards – you’ll win tricks but they’ll transfer your colours into low scores. The perfect hand is choc-a-bloc of low and middling cards where you can pick off single high cards from the tricks played. Unfortunately there’s no balancing mechanism to allow you to discard / offload bad cards to improve your winning chances. A study in managing randomness really. I don’t mind exploring it every now and then to see if I can play the ‘low takes high, high takes the rest’ mechanism better, but it’s by no means a favourite.

Joe Huber: I remember this game being very popular for a while, which I never quite understood.  It’s not a bad game – but there aren’t enough options to overcome a poor hand, and not enough hands for the luck to balance out.  Harmless, but not particularly engaging.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Luke Hedgren, Alan How, Jeff Allers
  • I like it. Frank Branham, Craig Vollmar, John P., Greg Schloesser, Craig Massey
  • Neutral. Joe Huber, Jonathan Franklin, Chris Wray, Lorna Dune, Larry Levy, Patrick Brennan
  • Not for me… Mark Jackson, Nathan Beeler

Lowendynastie

Löwendynastie (1998) – Designed by Hartmut Witt

Review by: Chris Wray

The BGG entry describes this as a combination of Frank’s Zoo (a climbing game) and Hattrick (a game with more than one open trick), and I think that description is apt.  

Each suit — which represents a lion family — has numbers ranging from 1-10.  Each player starts the game with a “1” in front of him, which means he has 1 point.  If he earns an additional point by winning another trick, he would get the “2” card of the same color.  The game will end when somebody reaches “10.”  In addition to the numbered cards, there are also “nets” and “mice” in the game, which act as special cards.

Players must follow suit, and a card can only be played if it is higher than the current one being played (except for the nets and mice).  Players may pass even if they can play.  A player wins the trick if everybody passes and the trick comes back around to the person who played it.  

The 7, 8, and 9 cards can form a “marriage” trick, meaning a second trick is opened.  These cards show gender symbols, and a player opens a second trick by playing the number of the other gender. These two tricks continue simultaneously, but a third trick may not be used.  If either trick ends, the last person to have played on either trick wins it, meaning they both end at the same time.  

The “nets” are wild and can be played on any card but another net or a mouse played as a net.  A lion cub (the “1”) can be played on a net, and so can a mouse played as a lion cub.  The mouse can be played as a net, as a lion cub, or as any card showing as a player’s score.  (Mouses cannot be used as a marriage.)

When a player takes their 10th trick, they become the “King of Beasts” and the game will end that round.  If another player gets 10 points that round, they depose the previous King of Beasts and are poised to win the game.  

Löwendynastie is arguably a trick-taking game and arguably a rolling trick game, but regardless of the classification, it is a unique and fun experience.  There’s luck, as is the case with the vast majority of trick taking games, but there’s also skill in knowing when to pass and when to use the special cards.

I played it for the first time at Gulf Games 37 this year and had a blast, thanks to the Hendee family.  It accommodates a large group — my play was with six people — and gameplay is fast.  There are more clever twists here than in the average trick taking game, and I look forward to adding this one to my collection.  

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: After the first game, everyone was a little unsure, but could see potential for good vs poor play. A second hand proved more rewarding, again indicating potential. High hands with lots of jokers certainly rule the roost, but there are opportunities to weasel your way out of things. New hands come aplenty, and the last hand can be nerve-wracking, working out how to be the last player to win the last trick. Having said that, it’s never hit the table since.

Larry:  A huge favorite of a number of Atlanta gamers, which is the only reason I even know about it.  Not a bad game, but not one that really grabbed me either.  Probably wouldn’t refuse to play a game, but certainly wouldn’t seek it out.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Chris Wray, Greg Schloesser, Michael Weston, Craig Massey
  • Neutral. Larry Levy, Patrick Brennan
  • Not for me… Joe Huber, Mark Jackson

 

BargainHunter

Schnäppchen Jagd a.k.a. Bargain Hunter (1998) – Designed by Uwe Rosenberg

Ranked #4 in 1998 À la Carte Voting

Review by: Joe Huber

What really makes Schnäppchen Jagd interesting is that the twist – you’re collecting one value of cards at a time, but at various points later can convert most of the cards you’ve collected in some other value into scoring cards.  This scoring system makes the loosey-goosey trick taking component – you must follow suit if you can, but otherwise any other suit can be (but need not be) trump for that trick, resetting entirely for the next trick – work.  The twist also makes Schnäppchen Jagd most interesting as a three player game – more hands (6 vs. 4), and more opportunities to clear other values (7 vs. 5) make for far more strategic choices.  And, not surprisingly, a wider range of scores; I’ve been involved in two four players games where the final scores were -1, -1, -1, and -1.

At the same time, this is a very accessible game.  More experienced players tend to do better at the game, as you’d hope, but unlike some of the games on this list it’s easy to bring new players to Schnäppchen Jagd.  The various friendly appliances used with each different value help to entice new players – I’ve often heard the game called The Toaster Game – and the shapes matched to each of the six colors in the game makes for a particularly color-blind friendly game for the time.

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Patrick Brennan: 50+ plays. One of the best 3 player card games out there. Two things make it special –  the choice of trumping with any offsuit, and the junk / treasure pile score mechanism – and twists this into a non-typical trick taking feel. In the early hands you’re trying to win. In the latter you’re mostly playing misere. A close watch on what people are collecting is key, as you’re trying to discard cards onto them that they haven’t been collecting, and being careful here can be the difference between winning and losing. We’re still playing this regularly as a 3 player closer multiple times every year.

Larry:  This and Flaschenteufel are the gold standard when it comes to 3-player trick-takers and both take some time to wrap your head around them.  The way you can change your point cards each hand is very innovative, as is the ability to decide whether or not any card not of the led suit is a trump.  Add to that the fact that sometimes you want to take tricks and sometimes you want to avoid them and you have a game with a completely unique feel.  There’s lots of decisions, but it isn’t really a brain-burner, it’s subtle, and it’s consistently entertaining.  Definitely one of the great card games of the 90’s.

Mark Jackson: In my opinion, it’s the best 3 player trick-taking EVER. (I don’t like Bottle Imp – sue me.)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:  

  • I love it! Joe Huber, Luke Hedgren, Jonathan Franklin, Lorna Dune, Larry Levy, Mark Jackson, Greg Schloesser, Patrick Brennan, Craig Massey
  • I like it. Michael Weston, Frank Branham, Chris Wray, John P., Dale Y
  • Neutral. Alan How, Nathan Beeler
  • Not for me…
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One Response to Tricks and Trumps #4: Modern Trick Taking Card Games (1996-1998)

  1. Dan Blum says:

    I don’t think Canyon really belongs in the section since it is nearly identical to Bid & Bluff, which was published by 3M in 1972. (I guess I should read these articles before they’re posted, huh?)

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