I played Ghosts of Christmas last night. It was, simply put, one of the best trick-taking games I’ve ever played. I’m hooked. Thematically, it is a nod to the Dickensian novel A Christmas Carol. Players can play into one of three tricks — the past, present, and future — and winning a prior trick can help with winning a later one. Not only is it mechanically innovative, but the gameplay is tense and engaging, and the artwork is striking. As a bonus, the theme matches the mechanics, which can rarely be said for trick-takers.
It’ll be released in a few weeks by BoardGameTables.com, and I’ll likely do a full review then. In the meantime, it is one of my most anticipated games of 2022.
But while we’re still in 2021, I wanted to reflect on the state of trick-taking in our hobby. This is my reflection on the past, present, and future of what is likely the world’s most popular game mechanic. I’m sorry if it veers into rambling, but I hope fans of the genre will enjoy the post.
Three years ago, I founded the trick-taking guild on BGG. It has become one of my favorite communities on the internet. It is approaching 500 members, though candidly, I would have been ecstatic a few years ago if it had hit 100. BGG is a niche; trick-taking on BGG is a far narrower one.
Part of the growth has been a reflection of how active some of the members are (and there are some truly exceptional contributors in the group). But part of the growth is, unquestionably, due to the popularity of The Crew, which was released in 2019. The Crew currently has 48,000 owners on BGG, which means sales are surely in the hundreds of thousands, possibly in the millions. A few modern trick taking games have been extremely popular (Wizard comes to mind), but The Crew seems destined to smash a lot of records. It seemingly came out of nowhere at Essen 2019 (my post is a comical read in retrospect), but by the end of fair, it was perched atop the Fairplay list. It went on to win the Kennerspiel des Jahres.
But despite the popularity of The Crew, publishers still seem reluctant to print trick-taking games. Well, at least North American and European publishers seem reluctant. Dozens of new games come out each year in Japan, albeit often in small (or very small) releases. So when it came time to vote this year, the Trick-taking Guild ended up nominating three finalists, all from Japan. The winner was Cat in the Box, which is still hard to find, but which is getting a wider release from Hobby Japan. (I enthusiastically recommend tracking down a copy of Cat in the Box, although the forthcoming second edition is the better bet since it will accommodate a wider player count.)
Why the reluctance to print trick-taking games among North American and European publishers? I’ve asked a dozen or so game makers, and the usual refrain is that they don’t sell. I’m skeptical of that claim: after all, look at The Crew. I suspect the real answer is not that they don’t sell — most trick-taking games I’m aware of sell out their initial batch pretty quickly — but that they’re just not that profitable. After all, it is easier to get margin out of a bigger box game than a small box card game.
The result is that we get a couple of random trick-takers on Kickstarter each year, like Ghosts of Christmas, or American Bookshop (which is on there for another day or so). We also get a couple of German releases (like Stichtag) by companies that are known to print card games. Then we get a few dozen Japanese releases… that are really hard for us outside of Japan to find.
Your grandparents probably played trick-taking games. I’m convinced — and I mean that, absolutely convinced — that it is the most popular game mechanic on the planet and has been for some time. Other than Poker, I suspect playing trick-taking games is one of the most common uses of a standard deck of cards, though I have no concrete data to back that claim up.
I’m one of the few “gamers” in my rural town of 10,000 citizens, yet I know of Bridge clubs, numerous families that play Hearts/Spades at the holidays, and other ways the people around me play trick-taking games. And it can’t just be me: a few years ago, a digital version of Hearts came on every computer with Microsoft Windows. As any card game site would tell you, trick-takers are popular around the world, and have been for decades. Pagat, for instance, discusses the broad range.
Though you’ll often come across non-gamers that don’t know what “trick-taking” means, I’ve rarely come across people that have never played a trick-taking games. Hearts? Spades? Bridge? Euchre? Rook? If you’re an American (each country has their own set of games), ask a random person if they’ve played any of those. They might not remember the rules, but they’ll probably say that they have played at least one.
But despite that popularity, designer trick-taking games (using a specialty deck, with a designer’s name on the box) were pretty uncommon until the 1990s. I previously wrote about this in our Tricks and Trumps series (which, sadly, was never finished due to lack of interest). There were a few designer games before the 1990s (including a personal favorite of mine, Black Spy, which turned 40 this year). But the 1990s are when they really took off.
The timing is no coincidence: as the number of games have grown, so have the number of trick-taking games. But what’s so fascinating about this genre is that it is pretty common to teach even a new trick-taking game using the lingo of the past. Words/phrases like “bid,” lead,” “trump,” and “must follow” are a vocabulary that carries between generations, and across hundreds of games. That’s because this is a genre of games that stands on the giants — often the public domain giants — of the past. As one excellent post on BGG recently said, this is a genre of clever little twists.
So what does the future of trick-taking hold? Here are are a few prognostications.
First, I think we’ll see more and more out-of-print but critically-acclaimed titles getting new print runs. We saw this with Sticheln (now Stick ‘Em), which got picked up by Capstone games. Foppen got reprinted after a couple of decades too.
Second, I suspect we’ll see other countries adopt what appears to be the model in Japan, with games being printed with just a few hundred (and maybe even a few dozen) copies. To a small extent, we’re already seeing that. I’d love to see more small-batch games: sites like The Game Crafter, Drive Thru Cards, and others make it easy to make and sell a small batch of games. (That’s how Texas Showdown started out: it was available via The Game Crafter, before being picked up by AMIGO.)
To that end, I’m actually going to do a small print run of a couple of trick-taking games I’ve designed, and I hope others take a similar path. I hired an artist (a close friend), and in the next couple of months, we’ll print a small run of trick-taking games. The first, called LetterTricks, mixes word games with trick-taking, and the cards are ranked by letters instead of numbers. (The cards pictured above are from LetterTricks.) The second, called February, is an area majorities game that combines the first two game mechanics I ever loved. It is kind of my ode to El Grande, though that naturally leads it to being a mean game that won’t be for everybody.
Third, I suspect the trend of cooperative trick-taking games will continue. The Crew wasn’t the first cooperative trick-taking game, but it has shown what is possible, and hopefully more designers (and publishers) take note.
Here are a few of my other favorite things in trick-taking right now:
- Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table is a YouTube channel covering trick-takers. He’s got a lot of them covered. The best part is that his videos are funny: I watch them even if I know a lot about a game.
- Potato Man (like so many trick-taking games) went out of print. But there’s a new Brazilian edition that is pretty easy to order, and it has solid card art (although it comes in a tuck box, which I’m not a fan of).
- A reprint of Yokai Septet is planned.
- Scout was released by Oink Games. Though it is not a trick-taking game (it is more of a climbing game), it will likely appeal to fans of the genre.