Halloween is not my jam. This polaroid is the only picture I could find of me in any sort of costume as an adult, and it’s just a few things from the lost-and-found at a house I was living in for a semester during college while Mike was in Bulgaria.
Yet, I’m writing you this “Happy Halloween” post because, well, there’s a Halloween themed trick-taking game I wanted to share, and my love of theme-based gaming is stronger than my Halloween ennui.
It’ll take me a bit to get there, but 常時次人 hid as a sort of Easter Egg (err…, Halloween Treat? Is there a “treat” synonym that starts with an “h” so that we can keep the alliteration?) in a deck of cards the rules for a trick-taking game.
常時次人 is one of my favorite designers, and you can read about several of his designs in Joe’s 2017 list of his Top 189 games. One game he doesn’t talk about there is Sweets Stack. I briefly mentioned it in a Heavy Con post, but Sweets Stack is a trick-or-treat themed pass-and-write(?) game where you are dropping polyomino shaped pieces of candy into the bag of the player on your left, Tetris-style, hoping to play tricks on them and bust their bag.
One of the things that has happened, is that 常時次人 has released a standard deck of playing cards with the Sweets Stack art assets. If you buy it, you’ll find a QR code inside that leads you to the Japanese-language rules for a Halloween themed trick-taking game you can play!
(To take a step back further, the rules were originally submitted to kumagoro_h’s Trick Taking Party design contest under the title KING MAKE(キングメイク) , and I don’t see any differences between the KING MAKE and Halloween Tricks rules.)
Anyway, 常時次人’s designs and trick-taking games are two of my favorites, so I worked through translating the rules to the game and played it recently for whimsical thematic purposes.
Halloween Tricks is played over three rounds with a standard deck of 52 cards plus one Joker. The goal, of course, is to score the most points. In some sort of theme with a Pumpkin King, you don’t want to invoke his ire, so try not to score more points than him: if all players score higher or lower than the King, scores will be calculated normally, but if some score less and some score more, the player(s) who scored more will be severely punished.
Along the lines of Willi (Meinz) and Trump, Tricks, Game!, here you are limited to winning a certain number of tricks, and similar to T,T,G!, the cards you win in one hand will form your hand for the next trick (with a small wrinkle.) You will collect most of the cards from the tricks you win, but the card you won the trick with will go to the “King”.
At the start of the game, the 2’s are removed from the deck, shuffled, and placed face up in a line. The Joker starts above the second 2, and this line depicts the order of which suit will be trump throughout the rounds, with the second 2 being trump in the first hand, the third 2 being trump in the second hand, and the fourth 2 being trump in the last hand.
Scores are calculated as follows based upon the cards you’ve collected, and the calculation is the same for both the King and the players, with one small and important exception. For each suit, multiply the number of cards you have in that suit by the number of A, 10, J, Q, and K’s you have in that suit. (For instance, if you have the 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, and Q of hearts, you have 2 * 6 = 12 points for that suit). Sum your score for each suit, and that is how many points you’ve earned this round.
In Halloween Tricks, the Ace is the low card, and this is important for that exception to the King’s scoring: if the King collects an Ace, he scores no points for that suit. However, as the King only collects the card which wins a trick, if you are wanting to crash his score, how will you win a trick with the low card?
In the split case, where at least one player has scored more points than the King, and at least one player has not, those who exceeded the King’s score will earn 0 points for the round, and players who have not will score 5 additional points for each over-achieving player.
Halloween Tricks is a tough one to wrap your head around. In order to score points, you need to be able to collect A, 10, J, Q, or K in a trick, but it can’t be the card you win the trick with. You’re limited to winning 3 tricks per hand in a four-player game, so you must think carefully about where the low cards will come to rest and be judicious in winning tricks. How can you get the low cards where you want them. How are you going to get the other players to give you scoring cards –and of a suit that you have cards in.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but in the first round, you’ll pass 3 cards to the left; in the second, 2; and in the third, 1. This can prove quite strategic as you know most of the cards a player has in their hand (it’s the cards they took in the previous round), and so you may be in a position to strategically feed them a multiplier card (A, 10, J, Q, K) that is both _less_ than a card you have in that suit and the _only_ card they have in that suit.
(Another thing I haven’t mentioned is that the King’s cards will be collected, shuffled, and dealt to the players to add to the cards they took in the previous round. This adds an element of uncertainty to the make up of the players’ hands, but it’s also an interesting way to, possibly, ensure a somewhat even distribution of the scoring cards. That is, chances are most tricks are won with a 10, J, Q, K, and rather than the potential for these being distributed unevenly through a complete shuffle-and-deal of 52 cards, instead you are shuffling 12 cards consisting of mostly 10-K and dealing these.)
Win too many tricks early, and folks likely will not follow suit with a scoring card.
Win too many tricks late, and folks are less likely to be able to follow suit, and your multipliers will be diluted as your spoils are more diverse.
The nature of how hands are built and cards are passed grants everyone the opportunity to be short suited in one suit.
There can be trick-taking games that overdo it when it comes to creative balancing. Has the designer done so much to give you ways to use a “lousy” hand, that be it high cards, low cards, or middling cards: the potential is always the same. Where did the fun go?
I want a trick-taking game where hands aren’t equal, but there’s also little chance of a hopeless hand: where there is at least some promise of creative play. Something I can try. Maybe what I try with a high hand isn’t the same as what I try with a low hand.
Halloween Tricks is certainly a puzzle. Often the players’ scores and the King’s score won’t be too clear until the whole hand is played. (Be careful getting too brash with giving the King an Ace –the other player’s may be waiting to ambush you with scoring cards and you’ll accidentally cut off your own nose.)
After the first round, how should I set the pace? If I have an early lead, can I hold back the King and myself and ensure that no one can cash in a big round to catch up? (Is it worth the risk if I fail to do both of those?)
For me, I quite enjoy the game.
As a statement that is mute to aspects of fun, enjoyment, balance, etc.: the control of the trick-taking genre’s levers that 常時次人 exhibits here is masterful.