Tricks and Trumps: Series Introduction (Or Reintroduction?)
This is the series introduction for a 13-part series featuring trick-taking games. And today marks the start of Trick-Taking Week here on The Opinionated Gamers.
If you’re a long time reader, this might look familiar. We tried to write this series nearly seven years ago, starting in March 2016. It was an ambitious project at the time: we had rated more than 100 trick takers, and broken the series into eleven articles, in an attempt to highlight a history of the mechanic and shed a light on the best trick takers.
Ultimately, however, I chose to abandon the series after a few articles, because the project was a significant undertaking, yet each piece was only being read by a few hundred people. To put it mildly, in 2016, the trick-taking trend had not yet started, at least not outside of Japan.
But since then, trick-taking has taken off internationally. I am frequently asked “why” that happened. There is no one reason. But as we re-embark on this series, I wanted to attempt to answer that by giving the biggest reasons. Plus, Tricks & Trumps is about the history of trick-taking design, so a good way to start it is with a recap of the past few years, even if it is from my (admittedly limited) point of view of the recent growth in the English-speaking world. Another author will have to explain in detail the rise of trick-taking in Japan, though I’ve tried to put the highlights as I know them below. This post is also a “thank you” to those who have contributed to the growth, which is why there are so many names mentioned.
Arguably the biggest contributor is the excellence of the games coming out of Japan. Great games define their genre, and if I had to pick a single reason trick-taking became so popular, it is because so many excellent titles have come from the adoration of and experimentation with the mechanic in the Land of the Rising Sun. If Klaus Teuber, Wolfgang Kramer, and Reiner Knizia helped popularize Eurogames, then Taiki Shinzawa, Muneyuki Yokouchi, Hinata Origuchi and numerous others in Japan helped popularize modern trick takers. Shinzawa’s work, which took off early in the 2010s, is indisputably one of the largest parts of the story: he has been prolific and exceptional in his designs.
But beyond the makers of the games themselves, credit goes to those who built the Japanese trick-taking community. The creation of the “Trick Taking Party” (founded by Kumagoro) and its corresponding award have been a big part of why there are about 10 times as many trick takers released in Japan as there are at Essen. My understanding is that the award is judged by Kumagoro, Taiki Shinzawa, and Zyun Kusaba (founder of Game Market), so they all deserve credit for establishing and building an award that inspired and rewarded creativity.
Beyond that, artists like Sai Beppu have contributed to the excellence and the growth of these games. Games have little appeal unless they are both functional and beautiful. She has mastered the art of giving the game appeal on both fronts, which is why she is the artist for more trick-taking games than anybody else on the planet.
Before the rise of Japan, Europe was long the center of new trick-taking design, with Stefan Dora, Doris Matthäus, Frank Nestel, Reiner Knizia, Klaus Palesch, David Parlett, and others releasing at least a couple of popular titles each. Karl-Heinz Schmiel (Was sticht?) and Uwe Rosenberg (Bargain Hunter) each released a trick taker that became popular, showing other designers what was possible. Here in North America, the leading early trick-taking designers were Alan Moon and Ken Fisher, among a few others.
There is still a trickle of new designs out of Europe (and North America), but today it is overshadowed by the flood of new titles out of Japan. Nonetheless, the European designers still contribute to a large portion of the growth in terms of sales. In particular, the recent growth in trick-taking got a little bit of help from Thomas Sing’s 2019 mega hit, The Crew. That cooperative trick taker has helped introduce even more people to modern trick-taking games. Also on the European side, the Spiel des Jahres jury — particularly former chairman Tom Felber — have long promoted trick-taking games, including with their “recommended” list of games. The jury gave The Crew the 2020 Kennerspiel des Jahres.
But a large part of the growth is due to the efforts of importers and translators, the superfans of the genre that do the legwork to get the games to audiences beyond when they originally appear. About a decade ago, a dedicated group of people (many of which, and likely even most of which, write for this site) started following Game Market (the banner group for events like Tokyo Game Market) and importing games. That same group had long been importing trick takers games from Europe before that. The explosion in the English-speaking world is because of those early efforts. Just a decade ago, there were very few people doing that. In 2023, Game Market is pretty well covered, and the import scene is now sizeable.
There has also been an explosion of trick-taking content. We here at The Opinionated Gamers have covered trick takers heavily since our founding in 2011 (and I added to the track record starting in 2015). The now-defunct Punchboard Media had several content creators that joyfully contributed to the trick-taking conversation, and they did a good job of spreading the word around the internet. (Indeed, Eric Yurko still has great coverage of many trick takers.) W. Eric Martin, the board and card game industry’s best reporter, is a fan of trick-taking, and has put his spotlight on a few of the best titles. Others review sites and outlets have chimed in occasionally, and that has certainly helped.
But the bulk of the content explosion happened in the past five years. Several of us enthusiasts founded the Trick-Taking Guild on BoardGameGeek in 2018. I never thought I’d see it hit 200 to 300 members, and indeed, growth was slow for the first couple of years. But today it has more than 800, and it grows by hundreds each year (and in fact, it has grown by more than 100 in the past month alone). The Guild’s award, The Golden Trickster, highlights the best of the best each year, and serves as an approachable list of excellent trick-taking games. Part of the growth in the trick-taking scene are that group’s most active members, who have extolled the virtues of trick-taking not just on BGG, but elsewhere.
Other sources of content have contributed too. The Portland Game Collective discord server, founded by Lee Gianou in 2021, has also been a tremendous resource of information, surpassing even the Trick-Taking Guild in the sheer amount of material available.
Trick-taking long needed a video reviewer, and Taylor Reiner of Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table, founded in 2020, has taken up that mantle masterfully. He is now, to my knowledge, the content creator who has reviewed the most trick-taking games.
Others long influential in the hobby, like Sean Ross, have founded Discord communities (and Sean is certainly a first person on the trick-taking scene in many respects). There are also now a couple of dedicated trick-taking podcasts, including Trick Talkers and Dads on a Map’s Tricky.
Publishers taking risks on trick-taking games have also helped. As the old saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Publishers like Allplay (formerly known as BoardGameTables) started publishing trick-taking games, because people like James Nathan (a writer for this site) scouted games from Japan on their behalf. Other publishers, like Portland Game Collective and New Mill, are continuing the trend. Even publishers known for games other than trick-taking games have also taken up the mantle. Bezier distributed Cat in the Box, which has become a mega hit, and Capstone gave Stick ‘Em its long-overdue first English printing. Kickstarter has helped make a few indie releases, and even a few bigger ones, like Yokai Septet from Ninja Star. And German publishers like Kosmos and Amigo have continued to put out a few titles.
James Nathan has been an enormous part of the trick-taking growth: he translates rules, generously serves as a resource for fellow gamers, writes about his experiences at Game Market, signs the best games for publication, and even hosts a trick-taking convention. He has built the mother of all trick-taking spreadsheets, listing the different mechanics and which games have them. As I wrote last month, the trick-taking community owes him an enormous thank you.
At the risk of sounding prideful, I also credit the writers on this site for trick-taking’s growth in the English speaking world. Many of the genre’s fiercest advocates are here, and we are still by far the biggest outlet regularly covering the games. Video may have killed the radio star, but not this board game review blog: we outsize the overwhelming majority of video review channels and podcasts in readership/viewership, so it has an impact when we dedicate so much time to trick-taking content. We have covered trick takers since our founding because we love them. Plus, the contributors to this group were a lion’s share of mechanic’s early enthusiasts. We were some of the very first on the import scene, both for Europe, and now Asia. Some of our writers were the first to cover Game Market in English. The first several members of the Trick-Taking Guild were from this group. The largest growth in the Trick-Taking Guild still comes from us linking to it in our content.
And a couple of our members have even designed published trick-taking games, including Jeff Allers (Pala), Frank Branham (Four Dragons), Ted Alspach (You suck!), Rand Lemley (Tall Tales), and the late James Miller (Control Nut). A few more of us have designed other harder-to-find tricksters, including Joe Huber (Transportation Tricks), Larry Levy (WYSIWYG), and myself (February, LetterTricks, T8), among others.
We have some remarkably dedicated trick-taking fans here, and I personally thank OG-ers Luke Hedgren, Joe Huber, Dan Blum, John Palagyi, Larry Levy, Dale Yu, Jonathan Franklin, Lorna Dune, James Nathan, Simon Weinberg, Alan How, Ted Alspach, Tery Noseworthy, Brandon Kempf, Michael Weston, Craig Massey, Matt Carlson, Mark Jackson, Erik Arneson, Rand Lemley, Fraser McHarg, Melissa Rogerson, Talia Rosen, Mario Pawlowski, Mary Prassad, Jeff Lingwall, and others for introducing me to so many amazing designer trick-taking games over the years, and for their tremendous work in all of this. Thanks to them too for letting me commandeer the calendar for this whole week! I’ve done a lot with trick-taking these past few years, but my proudest title remains “Opinionated Gamer.”
Returning to our prior series: Even though readership was relatively low at the time compared to our other articles, it slowly gathered traction in the years that followed. Dozens of people talked to me at conventions, left comments on the posts themselves, sent me emails, or messaged me on BGG asking me to continue the series. Every single one of those comments meant the world to me. When Dale Yu and I had dinner with Sai Beppu and Jinpil Lee (a.k.a. Trick Kuma) in Cincinnati last month, they mentioned that when they got into trick-taking, they read The Opinionated Gamers, which I’ve since remembered to be the first iteration of this series. I was floored. It was that comment that inspired me to retry this.
We, as boardgamers, talk about the hottest releases, the highest rated games on BGG, and so on. But more people will play Hearts, Spades, or the ancestors of Tichu tonight than will play Brass, Gloomhaven, or Pandemic Legacy. Trick-taking has long been the most popular game mechanic in the world, because of the great public domain games of the past. (Or at least that is my theory; later this week, a couple of famous game designers will argue that it isn’t necessarily the most famous game mechanic!)
Regardless, thanks to designer trick-taking games, it is now one of the most popular mechanics among dedicated gamers too. Now, more than ever, we have well-designed, well-produced games. Just a few years ago, it felt like a desert; the releases this year feel like a flood. Thanks to everybody that made that happen.
I hope you love the series. We’ll have a new entry about every couple of weeks, so the series won’t conclude until the end of the year. We’ll be covering about 55-60 games, give or take. And I have a few surprises as well as we celebrate trick takers this week.
Just so we do not have to cover the methodology in every post, I’ve listed it here. I created a ratings spreadsheet, giving each Opinionated Gamer the chance to offer their rating. We decided to write about any game that was (a) rated by more than five people, and (b) had an “average” rating closer to our “like it” rating than our “neutral” rating. I also added in games of historical significance and the winners of the Golden Trickster Award. Plus, if we had already written about a game as part of the original Tricks & Trump series, I left that in too.
The games are ranged roughly by the year of origin. First we’re going to discuss the classic tricksters, everything from Hearts to Spades and other games you may have played at family gatherings. Then we’ll discuss how (mostly) German designers started to modify the classics and make designer trick taking games. Then we’ll walk through the modern hits and hidden gems, talking about the rise of the Japanese trick taking scene.