Let Me Off is a trick-taking game that was originally submitted to kumagoro’s “Trick Taking Party” design competition in 2017. I’ve played a handful of the games that were submitted, and this is the one that most sticks out to me (though there are several of the finalists and special award winners that I haven’t had a chance to try yet.)
The games typically are playable with little more than a standard deck of cards, and, well, it’s no coincidence that I’m posting this at a time when many people are spending time with their family or will be soon, as that seems like a good time for this one.
It’s simple. Feels folksy. And has a sliver of malevolence.
The jury for the 2017 contest awarded several types of prizes, such as a grand prize and semi-finalists, which each of the jury members voted on, but there were also individual prizes handed out by some members of the jury, and Let Me Off received recognition from Taiki Shinzawa, saying, among other things, that it was among the most eccentric submitted.
While I said it is simple, and I think you’ll find it is, any description has to begin with one of its three notable eccentric twists: each player has 3 hands of cards, and two of those you share with your neighbors -one on the left and one on the right, and the third you hold traditionally.
To set up the game, place a card rack between each of the players, so that each player can see and will have easy access to each of their hands: one in front of them, one shared with their left neighbor (on a rack), and one shared with their right (on another rack).
At either player count, the game uses a subset of a standard deck of cards, with 5-A in play in a four-player game and 6-A in a three-player game. All of the cards will be dealt out evenly.
In a traditional trick-taking structure, one player will lead, choosing any card from their hand and then play will proceed clockwise, with each player choosing a card and playing it. Here, the game play follows that same procedure, but when you play a card, you choose one card from any of your 3 hands.
After the first player has played a card, the other players must play a card of the same suit if they can. If the first person plays the 8 of hearts, and you have no hearts in your central hand, but do in one of the other hands, you’ll need to find one and play it. In traditional trick-taking nomenclature, this is described as being a “must follow” game, but here, the second twist to the game is that it uses an extreme version of “must follow”, where you, well, must follow.
Let me explain: you cannot not follow suit. Whereas traditionally, if you can’t play a card of the same suit that the lead player did, you are free to play any card from your hand, in Let Me Off you simply pass.
The person who plays the highest ranked card of the lead suit will collect the cards into a face down stack, and pile them up such that they can track how many tricks they’ve won. (In a traditional game, each trick would have the same number of cards, but here, as some players may not be contributing a card to certain tricks, you’ll need to keep an eye on the count.)
The game ends when one player is out of cards in all three of their hands. Each player loses points for any aces they’ve collected in tricks (-1 for one, -3 for two, -6 for three, and -10 for four) and for any cards left in their hand(s) (-1 each). Each trick taken is worth 1 point each, regardless of how many cards are included, but, in the third twist, only players who emptied all of their hands can earn these points.
Write down the scores, play a few rounds, see who has the most points.
It’s….a wild ride.
The strategic heart of the game, I think, is the timing of when to pull the trigger on the aces you have access to. You want a warchest of tricks built up to score, but if you can’t play every last card across three hands, most of it doesn’t matter (other than presumably, you will have been better off playing _something_ to each of those tricks rather than having a few more cards still in a hand.)
So if you gain the lead, how will you run out the game? The ace will get you the lead, but it’ll cost you points. It might be worth it if you can lay them all down, but it almost certainly wasn’t if you can’t.
You have to think about the shared hands. Can you force plays from certain neighbors, playing them against each other while you take the tricks? If you leave an Ace on a shared rack too long, will one of them get the bright idea to steal the lead.
It has that sort of climbing-game hand management where being able to play 85% of your hand isn’t good enough – how can you play 100% of it? The easiest way is to take the lead near enough to the end that you can walk a suit down, but you’ll have to watch carefully. This is where the game’s tactical heart is.
Here kino has borrowed a smidge from climbing games (not that you need to play something stronger than the current play, but if you don’t meet certain criteria, you must pass) and shedding games as well.
It feels simple, as you don’t need to make any choices when you can’t follow suit; what to play when you can follow suit can be an interesting mini-game, both with yourself, as you consider which hand to play from, but also on the left and right sides, as you and your opponents have a little drafting game of sorts (and sometimes chicken) going on with who’ll play which card.
Then there’s also leading, when you’ll have free choice of your three hands, and in addition to suit and rank considerations, you want to think about whose hand is benefiting from one less card.
It has a couple moods it puts you in, notably waiting patiently for an ambush and walking a balance beam, but I think let’s talk about them in the other order. You have the lead, and, I think, are generally trying to hold it. Doing your best to count cards and gauge other players’ motivations, and see how long you can string them along. If you lead clubs three times and it comes back to you, can you lead it again with something low like the 8 and make it? You have visibility on ⅜ of the hands, so do you know enough? Can you control enough? Just one more step with this suit and then we’ll be on to diamonds…seeing how long we can balance with the lead.
But the other players (probably) have access to an ace or so, and are sitting in wait. If they jump in too early, they won’t be able to run out their hands and will have taken the negative ace points with nothing to show for it. Are you keeping the lead or are they propping you up? This is where the malevolence I mentioned comes in -stealing that lead when your brother or your mom or your friend wasn’t expecting it.
It’s streaky in that way, as the lead doesn’t pass too often. Heck, some hands it may be better to wait on your neighbors to play any aces from the shared hands and just try to get out of the hand with as few negatives as possible. (This is where the starkest divide is in the 3 and 4 player game; with 3, the hand penalties and risk of not scoring your tricks taken are both smaller as it seems easier to empty your hands.)
This game is a joy for me. The rules’ overhead small enough, the game play whimsical enough, and the strategy and tactics just opaque enough to feel like a compelling puzzle.
Maybe you can enjoy it with your family today, then have another piece of pie and play again.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Dale Y: (2 plays) – this one is interesting, for sure. The hardest thing for me to realize is that the number of tricks isn’t fixed. Most TT games that I play involve all players playing out their hands, but here, that isn’t the case. There are some interesting strategic moves that play out each hand. Trying to get yourself in a position where you can run out a long suit is crucial; you can often win a bunch of 1 or 2 cards tricks if you can take advantage of this situation. Figuring out where to play your cards from is also an acquired skill here – you can gauge what sorts of cards are in each rack by watching where people play cards from (or which racks they initially make a move towards) to figure out where the cards lie. Then, the final bit of trickery is the negative scoring for the Aces. They are obviously great for ensuring that you can take the lead when you want, but are they worth the penalty? Or better yet, are there times where you can force an opponent to take a trick with an Ace to stick them with a huge penalty? A very intriguing game, and one that I would never say no to playing.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! James Nathan (4 player)
- I like it. James Nathan (3 player), John P, Dale Y
- Not for me…