BRIDGE CITY POKER: A REVIEW AND A GUIDE TO A GENRE
by Mitchell Thomashow
Over the last decade, accompanying the extraordinary proliferation of global board games, there’s been an equivalent blossoming of trick-taking card games, including a category of game called climbers. To place this proliferation in perspective, consider that David Parlett’s classic book, The Oxford Guide to Card Games, published in 1990, has no category for these types of games, and the most recent revision of The Penguin Book of Card Games lists a category called “First Out Wins” that includes Zheng Shangyou and Tieng Len, which Parlett describes as a “relatively simple member of the ‘climbing’ family.” Yet there is no category for climbing games in his compendium, nor is there a definition in the otherwise comprehensive glossary. ‘Climbing’ aficionados are well aware that there is an entire catalog of these types of games, many of them played throughout China and Southeast Asia, and undoubtedly Parlett’s coverage is overwhelmingly Western. There is no doubt that if Parlett were to offer another revision he would have to include many of these games.
John McLeod on his fine website includes a category of traditional Climbing games. He lists fifteen, with origins in China, Vietnam and North Korea (!!!). Here is his definition of the genre:
“In climbing games, each player in turn must play a higher card (or combination of cards) than the previous player. A player who cannot or does not wish to beat the previous play can pass. This continues for as many rounds as necessary until someone makes a play which no one will beat. That player wins the “trick” and leads to another one. Because players can pass, their cards are not used at an equal rate and some will run out before others. Often the aim is to get rid of cards, but sometimes it may be to win cards in “tricks”.”
If you aren’t aware of his website it deserves your attention:
In Eurogame circles (people like us), the game that turned everyone on to this genre was Tichu (1991), a now classic partnership climbing game of great reputation, popularity, and depth. Haggis(2010) was released nineteen years later and offered a highly enjoyable, equally deep, version which could be played by 2 or 3 players. I believe Tichu and Haggis were the games that sparked a new era of interest in climbing game designs. Similarly as Eurogamers gained increasing access to Japanese and Korean markets, they discovered a wonderful catalog of innovative climbers. To get a glimpse of these possibilities, the best place to start is by perusing several fine BGG lists.
Many of these lists necessarily cover trick-taking games of all types as climbing games are just one of many approaches. For starters check out Pete K’sTrick Taking Quarterly where aficionados discuss what they’ve been playing and exploring:
Equally enjoyable is Lorna’s “Let’s Talk 2 Player Trick Taking Games”
Be sure to check out the fine and detailed commentary of Sean Ross (designer of Haggis) in his “My Top Games” list:
Also of great interest and even some comical amusement is Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table, a You Tube series:
Perhaps the most comprehensive of all is Lee Gianou’s colorful and comprehensive list “Financial Ruin: My Enormous Collection of Trick-takes and Climbing/Shedding Games”. This list obviously includes more than climbing games exclusively, but it has a substantial number in that genre, and it displays an admirable knowledge of both these games, their derivation, and their context in the great big world of card play.
I should mention that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure there are many such lists and discussions of which I am unaware. Plus, there are several Opinionated Gamers who know this genre inside out, have much more experience playing these games than I do, and are both highly skilled players, wonderful networkers for folks who love these games, and supremely knowledgable about them.
It turns out that Lee Gianou (see above) has also designed a fine new game,
Bridge City Poker (BCP), and all of this preparatory context is designed as an introduction to my review.
BCP is an excellent introduction to this genre. The game is easy to grasp, accessible to first time players, and a great deal of fun. It has two particularly interesting features—the climbing mechanism lasts for one trick only (either you win the trick or pass), and the play includes a variety of “power cards” that temporarily change or modify the rules. Here’s a brief description.
The deck consists of sixty cards in four suits numbered 0-14, distinguished by both color and a bridge that spans a Portland, Oregon river. Depending on the player count, you might remove some of these cards and you will start with a different number of cards in your hand. For a two player game, the only one I’ve
played, you remove the 0-s, 13’s and 14’s and you start the game with a hand of eleven cards. The game lasts three rounds. The game also comes with 27 Power Cards. Although they are a neat and important aspect of the game, you can play without them, and I will describe the game first without their use.
There are three phases—trick, draw, and cleanup. During the trick phase you will play a meld or pass. The meld can be a single card, a pair, a triple, a full house, a run, or a sequence. The leader initiates the action and then the follower either bests the meld or passes. To win the trick the follower must play a card or cards at least equal to or better than the leader’s meld, except in the case of a flush when any matching flush will be sufficient. The winner of the trick takes the bounty and places them in a discard pile. The loser of the trick must draw new cards. If you pass (the only alternative when you can’t best the trick) you also draw cards. The number you draw depends on the number of players. Like most shedding games, the object is to shed out first, and to score the fewest points. You gain a -5 reward for shedding out. Then the player(s) with remaining cards take out one suit and then total up the rest to get their score. After three rounds the player with the lowest score wins. BCP is a good enough game even without the power cards, and that is a fine accomplishment in its own right.
The power cards add a completely new dynamic. From the pack of 27, you randomly select five cards and mix them into the deck. There is quite a variety of cards and they run a full range of possibilities, including the possibilities of wild cards, avoiding a trick entirely, forcing players to discard, or allowing you to reconstruct your hand, among many other possibilities. Each power card has an icon which indicates whether it can be played alone, with a meld, or only as a lead. They also have a score attached to them. When you play them, they add to your score (not a good thing) but you balance that against their effectiveness. These cards add a lot of spice, variety, whimsy, and surprise to the game, and many offer some interesting tactical and strategic possibilities. Some are just a change of pace. Most of all, they dramatically increase the fun factor and create a personality for the game.
During a recent six week trip to Australia and desert California, my wife and I played BCP regularly. It’s portable, quick to play, addictive, features a small footprint, and is an absolutely wonderful travel game. It is not nearly as deep a game as Haggis, but it is also simpler to teach and play, easy to introduce to non-gamers, and offers enough interesting decisions to capture the attention of veteran card players. BCP invites multiple ways to play, from designating your favorite power cards, to considering how many rounds you would like to play. We love it as a two player experience and I’m sure it will play out differently and well with either three or four players. It’s a superb introduction to the climbing genre and that alone makes it worthwhile.
The game box and cards are simple, non-descript, modest, but appealing. The bridges are pleasant to look at and serve as a fine metaphor for the play. The instructions are mainly clear, except there are quite a few edge cases that can occur with the power cards. Our rule of thumb was to use common sense in utilizing them, and if a particular card was too obscure, we just didn’t use it. The rule book suggests five cards for new players. BCP is begging for more curation, that is, an assortment of recommended combinations of cards, and even a sequence from beginner to expert. No doubt there are a few combinations that are wonky, some that are puzzling, and some that really work great. Yes, part of the fun is customizing that for yourself and discovering favorite combos on your own, but some additional hand-holding would be helpful, especially since BCP does have gateway pedigree. No doubt too, there are certain edge cases that require arbitration, but that seems to be the case with any of these card-driven combo games. The best rule of thumb is that(1) the power card rule change takes precedence (2) do whatever you think makes the game better. Just decide in advance!
BCP was published as a Kickstarter by the Portland Game Collective, and they apparently have more games on the way, some of which will be ports of Asian designs. That’s really great! I believe there are still copies for BCP sale and you purchase them by following this link:
Bridge City Poker is a fine addition to the climbing/shedding family, of interest to newcomers and veterans alike, a game that is simultaneously light and deep, fun and thoughtful, spirited and lively.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- Love It: Mitchell
- Like It: Eric M
- Not for Me: