T7: A weekend of trick-taking

In January, we got together to play some trick-taking games. It wasn’t the hotel we used two years ago, it was the house from the year before. I should’ve taken a picture of it the night it snowed. It looked like a warm home that surely contained a loving family.

I’d spent the last two years establishing a trick-taking library – though knowing it’s quite unnecessary. I didn’t have it in me to add the whimsy of the bingo cards or the scratch off cards this time – though I did reprint the bingo cards with a few new categories. I borrowed the “map friends” idea from Age of Steam Con and listed games people wanted to play on the front of their name tags. (I also borrowed putting restaurant recommendations on the back.) 

Attendance this year was in the mid-teens, and as my comfort level stops around low-30s, it’s going to need to stay invite only. (That also means people get custom touches to their name badges. You may get the local cat cafe snuck into your restaurant list.)

The reasons for having a Trick Taking Party remain the same as ever: I can’t get enough. It can be the intro or the outro to a game night centered around a 3hr game with a 90min teach. Or, it can be the reason for a whole weekend.

I didn’t take a lot of pictures this year, as I haven’t been inspired to write much. There are times when there is time and there are times when I wonder how there ever was time and if there ever will be again.

Taylor made a video and you can watch and listen about his time. When he mentions I may have a write up before he posts that video, uh, no. About that.

But today I’m feeling sentimental and want to give it a shot.

Here are some words about T7 (That Terrific Trick-Taking Thing: The Third.)

I don’t know what I need a logo for, but I’ve wanted us to have a logo. I haven’t been sure how to do it without burdening a friend or asking a stranger, and, geez, there’s not a lot of budget. (I sort of aim to come in at a loss equal to whatever other folks pay to attend, and that’s my entrance fee.) 

But this year I did it. I asked Beppu-san to make us a logo (probably because I’ve been playing so much nana and can’t get her style out of my mind.) It’s everything I wanted.

Attendees came from around 7 states and we had our 2nd international visitor, this time from Japan. We still were able to arrange rides for everyone to and from the airport or bus terminal, but that may switch to a service available by request next time.

In addition to the main house we arranged an “overflow” house a few blocks away. A bit of sleuthing around my neighborhood (through memory, street view, and a bicycle ride) and we were able to pin down exact locations for what was available. (Though that house wouldn’t rent to folks with a local zip code.)

We didn’t get together in 2021, so my “prize table” accumulations had time to pile up. I didn’t take pictures of it (we’ve been over that), but I had one of each of the Japanese board game piece mugs, wooden playing card tiles, recent Tokyo Game Market releases, custom decks of playing cards with the suits visible on the rear, and a jar of my favorite Everything Bagel seasoning. Some attendees were kind enough to donate additional prizes, like 3D printed card racks or the recent Korean edition of Abluxxen.

The hosts of the house we use have always been gracious (letting me take a tour before booking originally, not charging me for the chair we broke), and this time was no exception – as they let me check in a few hours early so I could get everything set up before folks began to arrive. Oh, as long as I didn’t mind if they were still setting up the hot tub.

Um, what. So yeah, now this is a trick-taking convention with a hot tub. You can see it in the background as folks play Lines of Action with the chess set in the yard (which I also think is new).

There are other parts of the house I certainly forgot. One of the parts of using the house (rather than a hotel) which gives me anxiety is room assignments, but I know most everyone’s room preferences so it’s also no actual burden to accommodate. But as I labeled folks’ rooms, and put some people in the same room as last time, I forgot that one room had this walk in closet which would’ve made for a great library location. 

If we use this house again, I’ll probably swap room assignments and use this room as an extra place to play and as library storage. As it was, we lined up the library along the stairway railing again.

One of the clutch features of using the house will always be the kitchen. Here we are eating pastries from a local bakery one morning. A previous attendee who couldn’t make it this year “sponsored” this morning of pastries from a bakery she loved last time – and which between T7 and now has been nominated for a James Beard Award! (We also went there one night for ramen.)

There were other treats the other mornings, and some select flavors (paw paw, black licorice, etc.) from my favorite local gelato place in the freezer. (I figured out how to fit a small cooler in a messenger bag so that I could bike to buy the ice cream. I took a new route and found this sign that’s part of a neighborhood kids’ reading initiative.)

But I also played quite a few games.

In tribute to the efforts of a friend in Japan whose “Trick Taking Party” events and design competition inspired ours, I like to play some of the recent titles coming out there, which are intended to be playable with a standard deck.  The short list for the most recent award was announced a few weeks before our event, and I played several that weekend.

We started with the ambitious Sharing a Table – a game that takes 2 decks of cards and a joker and plays 6 to 8. Players are dealt hands of 13 cards with a single card left over, and the suit of that card determines the scoring rules for two tables of play.  The scorings will be related, but skewed a bit.  Maybe at that table you earn positive points for black cards and negative for red, but this table it is negative for black and positive for red.  Maybe you earn -2 points for tricks won at that table but -1 for each at this table.

All players start at a single table and after the four winners of the first four tricks are determined, they adjourn to the other table.  Both tables finish out the last 9 tricks, score their points, and regroup for the next hand.

The game is long.  It is a one round per player in the game structure, but moreover, it’s just a lot of people playing a game! There’s an element of herding cats that prolongs it a bit as well.  There are quite a few clever things going on – for instance, whatever scoring criteria are awarded at a table is typically what you needed to use to get there.  But some of the criterias were more interesting than others.

The design from the short list that has clicked with me the most so far is Zaraba-22 which has subsequently been announced as the winner. 

Zaraba-22 is strictly a three player game that uses a stock market mechanic to determine the value of each card you’ve taken at the end of the hand.  In short, the lead player will contribute two cards to a trick, and the first one that is followed determines what is “lead”.  The other card moves to a stock market area.  If the sum of the values of the cards in that area exceeds 21, any cards won in that suit are worth negative points; otherwise, cards of a suit are worth points equal to how many cards of that suit are in the stock area.

It’s a well thought out design.  There are a few wrinkles I haven’t touched on, such as the role the A plays, which shows a certain maturity to the development. I’ve linked the rules here, and hope you have a chance to play it.

Most of the games I’ll discuss will be things that are new to me. The weekend is a great opportunity for that.  It’s also a nice occasion to play things you know you love and introduce them to your friends.  The first of these familiar titles I played was Mit List und Tücke.  

MLuT is a “may follow” game, and those can be a challenge for me to enjoy. However, the incentives here guide your choices into an interesting nearly can’t-follow territory. It also uses one of my favorite sub-mechanics in trick-taking, where the cards played to the trick are split between two of the players.

The full explanation of the scoring structure sounds intimidating, but its essence is to collect a lot of cards in 2 suits, and as few as possible in the other 2. The highest card of the lead suit will get about half the cards from a trick, their choice; the lowest off suit card gets the remainder.

That’s essentially it, and we played for hours, without the game going stale. You’ll need to win tricks, but not too early in the trick, as people will dump the colors you don’t want to collect. That also invites players who are slyly collecting suits others aren’t to swoop in with a low off suit card.  Sometimes the two players are able to get exactly what they each want from the trick.  Othertimes no one gets what they want. 

It’s a gem and a puzzle as even with the freedom of “may follow”, it feels like trick-taking, and each card choice is difficult as you try to see if you want to win, want to lose, can avoid the preferred suits of the player in the lead, can save your high and low ranks for later, and so on.

(We played Mit List und Tücke here on the sun porch.  The room was much too cold in the mornings and evenings, and moderately too cold in the mid-day sun, so my apologies to those who got a little chilly as I tried to believe this was a reasonable room for card games in mid-January!)

My normal weekday group had been 3 for a while heading into the weekend, so a few 4 player titles I wanted to try had been waiting.  Maybe not strictly 4, but I was worried that if I soured on the game at a sub-optimal play count, I wouldn’t give it another shot.  One of those was 人喰い屋敷, or Man-Eating House, which came highly recommended from Beppu-san.

At four, it is a one-handed partnership game, and ostensibly, the team who is able to rescue more of the children and defeat more of the ghosts will win. It has two difficult-to-summarize pieces in places where most trick-taking games are rote. The deck composition requires a handout as does the trick resolution.

Each suit consists of children, weapons, locations, dangerous locations, and ghosts.  The resolution is something of a flow chart: if the Old Man is present then this happens, but if the Dog is there, this other thing happens, if anyone played the Young Girl, this sub-phase happens, but if you’ve made it through all that, check for danger zones, pairs of children, weapons paired with ghosts, and so on.

It sounds like a mess, but I don’t think it is.  I want to touch on three things that make it sing, brushing aside that the player aid makes the suit composition complexity moot, and the flowchart of resolution is quickly internalized. 

First is the team play. The game presents you with a few levers to pull to accomplish things, but in ways you would be unlikely to pull off yourself, I think. Having a teammate to work with, to cheer on, to set you up, lets you both feel and be more successful at the possible shenanigans. 

Speaking of shenanigans, the Little Girl.  Many trick-taking games ask you to pass cards at the beginning of a hand.  Sometimes left, sometimes to your partner, sometimes to everyone.  Man-Eating House is the only game I know of which allows it mid-hand!  When someone leads the Little Girl, you pass cards, and the lead chooses in which direction and how many seats.

But! There is a certain risk there, as when the third has been played the flowchart is over.  Wut. The rules allow a certain emergency override that can be triggered where it moves into vanilla “highest card of lead suit wins”.  Maybe you’ve looked at your hand and you want that. Maybe you’ve looked at your hand and you don’t want that. The lead, or non-lead of the Little Girls can control how close the game gets to this line. Shenan-agains.

The other not-new-to-me game I wanted to talk about was Catty, from Taiki Shinzawa. It is a 2015 release and while that is recent, it pre-dates the current mania in the Western trick-taking world for Japanese designs.

This one has been hard to get ahold of for awhile – and I own my copy accidentally, but fortuitously. A T5 & T6 attendee, and one of the reasons we have the con at all, was visiting Japan and asked if there was anything I was looking for.  I had her pick up a different game, and when she sent it to me, a copy of Catty was also included – on a recommendation from someone who worked at the used store she was at.  Three years later, that chance encounter turned into my adoration for the game and being able to sign it on behalf of boardgametables.com.  I’ve included a preview of the art for Catty, now known as 9 Lives, below, and it’s on Kickstarter now if you’re interested.

And that’s why I haven’t been talking about it! I’ve loved this game since somewhere in the midst of the first hand when I finally played it in February 2021 (and even more so when the designer sent me a rules tweak to use.)  But as I was considering it for publishing since that first game, I didn’t want to talk about it too much without being able to disclose that, and now I can.

Where some people bounce off of this designer’s games is the bidding system.  He typically uses an unforgiving scoring where you must hit your bid exactly, and you are rarely rewarded for winning zero tricks. Here, I think the bidding system is the most mature and robust of his designs. The cats on the rug above show the bid options: the yellow cat has bid 1 or 2 tricks, the blue cat has bid exactly 1.  The points scored will only be relative to what you bid, not how much, so hitting a bid of 1 will score the same as hitting a bid of 4.

The game also gives you a variety of levers to pull to adjust the strength of your hand on the fly and forecast what may be about to happen.

You can see the suits on the rear of your cards.  You’ll know who is short-suited in what.  You’ll know who can trump in when they need to win more tricks. Maybe you can stick them with being forced to trump in, and they overshoot their bid.

The winner of a trick will also take a card from the trick (other than the one they played) back into their hand.  This produces a couple of ripples.  You may be short-suited in a color, and then not. You’ll want to play close attention to what you throw off, as it may return to be played again by another player.  Or two. (“9 Lives”, get it?) (In a similar Japanese idiom where cats come back, they have two tails and can talk to humans.) 

That rug only goes to 4, so what happens if you win a 5th trick?  You go back to 1! Bidding modulo 4.  Blue’s bid of “1” could be a bid of 5, or the wildly confident 9; they are equivalent. Yellow bid 1 and 2, but also 5 and 6. If you overshoot your bid, you may be able to come back around and hit it again.

I’m just wild about this game and the way the subtle twists interact. I hope you like it too.

I feel like I have a good grasp on the Japanese titles released in the last 3 years or so, but they are still somewhat of a black box to me from before that.  There are certain designers and publishing circles that I know well, but others I don’t know at all. 

In my scouring for new titles, that sometimes means searching used websites for keywords that I think may lead me to treasure.  That’s how I found Ultriten. The price was…high for a small box trick-taking game. Meaning it was rare, though not necessarily good. I looked for commentary that was contemporaneous to its release, and it seemed positive. Sure, I thought, let’s take a shot.

I typically share photos on Twitter when a new box of games arrives in the mail from Japan, and I did not expect the response for this one. There were more than 30 games in that box, but people latched onto Ultriten as being a real find and a great game.  T7 was the first time I had a chance to check it out.

It is a four-suited game where you’ll sort the cards you take into piles, and those piles tell a story. It is a story of kaijus destroying cities and heroes destroying kaijus.

Except…the kaijus are the protagonists in this story.  The heroes knock things over and then return to their home planet. (But the heroes are the antagonists in this game…)

Each player starts with pristine nature.  At 3 points per card, that’s 12 points for winning no tricks.  But when you win that trick which has a blue power line on it, you’ll end up laying it right through that scenic river, losing points for the bucolic card (rotate it 90 degrees to show 0 points), and gain 1 for the building. 

The heroes are the highest card of each suit, and the kaiju are the penultimate.  Within a trick, you add to your piles in numerical order.  Kaiju and heroes will both knock down buildings, but you’ll gain points for those areas still being ravaged by a Mothra; you’ll lose points if the hero defeats them.

The first hand was confusing, as, among other reasons, I’m not sure I properly explained that the heroes are not the heroes. The narrative is reasonably present for a trick-taking game and it aids your internalizing of the point incentives. But the later hands clicked and the dark humored satire showed through. I’m eager to play again.

Not…everything was a winner. I bought this Beverly Hills 90210 trick-taking game on eBay. Must follow, high card wins.  Which cards are worth points?  The 9, the 2, the 1, and the 0!  Of course I bought it.  But there are 6 card hands, and a sizeable amount of the deck left out, though that’s a feature I’ve been coming to admire recently – I think it works well in games that penalize too many wins like Marshmallow Test or Hii-Fuu!!  Here, well, frankly I’m surprised we finished the first hand; we did not start a second.

I played many things I didn’t take pictures of, such as my annual game of Sextet – 6-handed bridge (2 teams of 3 and 6 suits), which I enjoy more each year. I played Master of Rules, one of my evergreen choices for 5-players, and a masterful design. I played Skull King: das Wurfelspiel …twice!  (Including a time when we rolled flags all the way around the table – 6 flags!) Joe came, so I got in a game of Colour: Wheel – and scored the best I had yet, and felt like I had the best musings of a strategic plan in my games so far, but Rand tied my score, and Joe beat it.

I also had a chance to play each of the three new trick-taking games from kuro that were released at the November 2021 Tokyo Game Market.  Two of them have been getting a little bit of chatter, but the remarkable one of the trio for me is 日の出横丁ニャンばーわん (Top of the Hinode Town).  It has a few things in common with MLuT above, such as being may follow, with the highest and lowest played to a trick earning something.  It has some things in common with Cat in the Box, such as scoring your largest orthogonal grouping on the table. But it combines everything from the trick-taking buffet in a new way.

Using 1 to 13 in three suits, the game takes place in a 3×4 grid of locations.  The lead to a trick chooses which location the stray cats of this town will be fighting over, and there are 4 rewards.  The location color determines the highest suit of the trick, and the highest play earns the top most points (typically positive, sometimes not) and places a pawn; the 2nd highest earns the other points shown and places a pawn.  The lowest takes 2 cubes from the location, and the 2nd lowest the other cube.

One of the cube colors allows you to adjust the value of the card you play and one adjusts the color.  The other is held for VPs at the end.

There are long games I love, like the 18 hands of Mizerka, but I generally appreciate the modern trend towards “1 round per player.”  But there are also some special 1-hand games, like Man-Eating House above, or LetterTricks, and this is one of those. You could play more than 1 hand for a total score or best of x rounds, but it also feels complete after 1, and like you had enough agency to compete. Do I “love” it?  Probably not, but I like it quite a bit. 

Still on “may” follow, I can talk a little about El Irecca, an upcoming release from JrnyCat, the designer and publisher of the delightful 2-played release Catchy!. It uses a market mechanic where some cards played to a trick go to a central market, with a single stack for each suit, and others may end up in front of you as stocks.  Any of your stocks which have a value higher than the visible card of that suit in the market will be worth positive points, and any lower will be worth negative points.

I’m going to leave out most of the specifics as things are still developing and subject to change, but this was a challenge! The cards in _your_ hand cannot end up as your stocks.  They may go to the market; they may go to the other players’ holdings.  After one game I had not quite internalized how to evaluate a hand, in the good way.  There’s a lot to think about here, and it will be a definite buy when it releases.

Another quasi-prototype I got to try was Chris Wray’s upcoming LetterTricks. It uses three suits of cards that show certain letters of the alphabet.  The rules include options for both cooperative and competitive play, but opted for the cooperative, as it had been the most recommended.  

In short, each person plays a card, and you want to have made a word when you’re finished.  You can talk about how many cards of each suit someone has left, and how many vowels they have left.  

It’s a treat.  I’ve played it again since with some potential rule changes, and it hasn’t disappointed.  How will you handle the more persnickety letters.  Can you dump them all in a single word (probably not…Chris put them in different suits.)  Do you persist and work them into words. How to lead when the folks at the end of a trick have limited options in the suits you’d like to lead, etc. A lot to think about. A lot of words to shout out, trying to help the last player runs through the cards in their hand and confirm there isn’t a word there.

We played games that weren’t trick-taking too. If I wasn’t doing T#, they would be D# – dexterity conventions, and that showed through this weekend.  We played 4-player crokinole and had a special 3-player crokinole board.  Spinball. Breitseite. Magicalligraphy. And Linkage. I’ve never found out much about the group behind Linkage, and the rules leave a lot out. But how to play seems like something you can intuit from the rules.  

(I checked.  The “How to Play” section of the rules is 35 words.  8 of those are explaining an exception, the answer to which you could predict.  So 27 words.  The victory conditions are 0 words, as they are not present.  Game end?  0 words.)

The game comes with 20 sticks, and some small square cards.  The cards come in 8 colors, with 1 blank, one showing the outline of a human head, and a card for each finger on one hand. When we play with 8, that means each person only needs to use one hand.  When we play with 4, it means everyone uses both hands.  It also helps to have an administrator. 

Assign a color to each hand in play, shuffle the finger cards and reveal 2.  Place a stick between those fingers and keep it there as you try to see how far you can make it.  The rules suggest that it’s possible to get them all in the air, and then challenges you to stand and rotate 90 degrees.

Ok.  Ok.  That’s…not going to happen.  But this game is great.  We played once at this table, realized it was too large, and adjourned to a smaller table.  Our arms were on fire. You are tensing your body as you brace in every direction at once. I’ve played this a handful of times and it is a treasure on each occassion.  There’s also a lot of room for improvement! 

It’s not important that we do well here, of course. But I’d love to know what it’s like to get them all in the air!  Perhaps moreover, what’s it like to see that’s within your grasp?  Knowing you’ve only got 2 or 3 or 4 sticks left to completion.  That’s a feeling I want to have.

Hey, we haven’t talked about food for a while, so a small @OpinionatedEaters break and then we’re out of here until next year. The Monday crew was Jonathan, Taylor, Dale, and myself for most of the day.  After we cleaned out the house and dumped everything in my basement, we adjourned to an incredible Peruvian restaruant and Latin American nightclub that Dale knew about and chatted away the early afternoon.

Fileting whole fish is something I’ve been digging recently, and when I can, ordering a whole fish from a restaurant menu.  They were out of the trout, but this tilapia was just what I wanted.  (Look at that pesto and fried chicken on Dale’s plate!)

The restaurant of course had the virtue of also being in the vicinity of Jungle Jim’s, a sort of amusement park grocery store in the area, that I think I’ve begun to take for granted, and should show to more out of town folks.  You can see Taylor’s highlight from it in his video, but below you can see him enjoying the animatronic cereal character band, atop the boat which separates the produce area from the seafood area and houses the seafood manager’s office.

It’s a field trip I would make in high school.  I’m imminently familiar with what happens after your first few trips, as you gorge yourself on the way home with the treats you’ve bought yourself.  As I drove Taylor and Jonathan back to the airport, I looked in the rearview mirror, and saw Taylor pouring the crumbs from a big of something or other he bought into his mouth.  “Is that snack number 1 or 2?”  He chuckled in the way you know he does: “…third.”

My deepest thanks to everyone who came and ate spicier Chinese food than their body wanted to allow them, figured out a way to get some work done in rooms without desks, enjoyed scenic detours from the overflow house, watched the Bengals get a playoff win for the first time since there were two Germany’s, and visited Cincinnati on a cold January weekend to hang out. It means the world to me.

Here’s a list of everything I played:

キャットインザボックス (Cat in the box)2
Sync or Swim2
Unpublished Prototype2
Zaraba Twenty-Two (ザラバ22)2
人喰い屋敷 (Hitokui Yashiki)2
9 Lives1
Bargain Hunter1
Beverly Hills 90210 Card Game1
Just Heroes1
Master of Rules1
Mino Dice1
My Favorite Carrera RS Trick Taking Game1
Plotters, Inc.1
So Clover!1
Stella: Dixit Universe1
てづま師 (Tezuma Master)1
Three-Player Crokinole1
Touchdown Heroes1
Zip Zap Zop1
ウルトリテン (Ultriten)1
ホシゾラトリテ (Starry Sky Trick-Taking)1
ラムラムパーティー (Lum Lum Party)1
四畳半ペーパー賽系 (Yojōhan Pēpā Saikei)1
宝石泥棒の予告状 (Houseki Dorobou no Yokokujou)1
日の出横丁ニャンばーわん (Top of the Hinode Town)1
狸と茶釜 (Tanuki to Chagam)1
白と黒でトリテ (Trick-Taking in Black and White)1
相席 (Sharing a Table)1
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