What makes trick-taking so enduring? And is it the most popular game mechanic on the planet? Eight trick-taking designers weigh in!

Trick-taking is one of the oldest card game mechanics: the first entry in our Tricks & Trumps series was Pitch, which dates to around 1600. I also have a theory that trick-taking is the most popular game mechanic on the planet: trick takers and their climbing/shedding descendants are widely played in Asia, Europe, and North & South America.

I asked several noteworthy trick-taking designers what makes trick-taking so enduring. Their responses are below. These are some busy members of the gaming community, so an enormous thank you for them taking the time to weigh in. Their answers are fascinating! A few disagreed with my premise that it is the most popular game mechanic, but even they thought it was popular.

Responses are in approximately the same order I received them. Links are to a game or two designed by each designer, so check them out! And I did not show each designer the others’ responses.

Here is the precise question I asked:

I have a theory that trick taking is the most popular game mechanic. I think more people play Hearts, Spades, Bridge, Euchre, or any number of classic trick taking games than play many of the games frequently talked about in board game media. And the mechanic has been around for centuries! What do you think it is about trick taking games that makes them so enduring? What draws gamers to them?

Ted Alspach, designer of You Suck, and owner of Bezier Games, distributor of Cat in the Box:

My theory: Trick taking is the oldest Eurogame mechanic. It has much of why certain people are drawn to Eurogames: relatively straightforward rules, lots of player agency, a healthy mix of both strategy and tactics, and variable setup with minimal components. The luck in trick taking games is primarily in the initial distribution of cards. After that, the players control the flow and further choices of the game.

The player engagement is on multiple levels: you are thinking about the goal at the end of the round (how many tricks to take, or what cards to take in the tricks you do take), your overall goal and current position for the game, and each trick has some level of consideration in it…even when you only have a single card that has to be played (in games where you must follow suit), doing so triggers an avalanche of considerations about what you might be playing next, and how to best shape that to meet your goal for that round.

And the mechanics are much more important than the theme…like most Eurogames. Games like Cat in the Box that have the theme intertwined are rare, but when it does work, like in that game or Ghosts of Christmas, it’s surprising to most trick taking players. It’s really all about the gameplay.

Alan R. Moon, designer of Black Spy, Where’s Bob’s Hat?, and Tricks:

Many years ago, while working on game designs together, Richard Borg said he thought a deck of cards was the greatest game ever invented. I agreed, and I still do. 

Richard had a bunch of reasons, but his main one was this, and I’m paraphrasing. Every time you deal out a hand of cards, no matter what game you are playing, you are hoping you’ll be dealt the perfect hand. Of course that never happens, but after playing the less than perfect hand which usually only takes a few minutes, another hand is dealt out and you are again hoping for that perfect hand. Ad infinitum. The hand was fun to play even though it was less than perfect, but what keeps you coming back is the possibility that the next hand will be the one you’ve been waiting for.

I think trick taking games are the third or fouth most played type of games. Somewhat sadly, number one is the basic mechanic of the first generation of games: roll dice, move your pawn, and act on the space you land on. Gamers don’t like the thought that this mechanic is still the most popular but I’m betting it is. MONOPOLY alone continues to sell huge numbers of copies every year, in who knows how many languages, and people continue to “invent” and publish similar games.

While trick taking games have been around for a long time, and many of the newer ones are part of the second generation of games, or maybe even the third generation, they still appeal to a somewhat niche audience. Games with the roll/move/act mechanic have a much more mass appeal.

If you think trick taking games are a mass mechanic, you are wrong. As an example, I introduced one of the smartest people I have ever known to trick taking card games years ago. He had never played any trick taking card game before that and hadn’t played many other card games either! I thought he might have a little bit of a tough time picking up the subtle stuff like what card to sluff when you don’t have to follow suit or how to bid. And he did. But the surprise was that he even had trouble with the concept of following suit and trumping. This was not a short lived learning experience either. He continued to struggle even after playing for years. I’ve seen others have the same problem since. 

The other types of games which bump trick taking games down to third or even fourth place are gambling games (like Poker and Backgammon and Bingo) and Chess. Lumping all the gambling games together may be unfair though. Still, Poker alone is probably more popular than trick taking games. I’m waffling a little on Chess because I think it’s more popular in other countries than it is here in the USA, and you know how self-centered us Americans can be when it comes to stuff like that.

Daniel Newman, designer of Reapers, and owner of New Mill, who is printing many upcoming trick taking games:

For me, it’s the simplicity of the game structure and the possibilities to make changes to that structure that is so fascinating. It becomes all about the variations on a theme, and there seems to be no limit to the creativity one can bring to it. Teaching a trick taking game also becomes pretty easy once you know the basics, as it just comes down to “what makes this one different?”

Taylor Reiner, designer of Zip Zap Zop!, Of What’s Left, and Short Zoot Suit, and showrunner of Taylor’s Trick Taking Table on Youtube:

I think it’s the ability to foster discussion. James and I chatted about how some of the best games make groups want to talk about plays, choices, and tough spots they get put in. One of my favourite moments in trick-taking is when a player is so excited/scared/amped/bewildered about their hand that they take a photo of it, to show to the group after it’s over. I love that slow leak of information, with players being able to slowly talk about their secret hand. Other reasons may be the streamlined play, reuse of terms, and quick turns, which all allow players to discuss more at the table, so it feels like hanging out rather than playing a game. All too often I know groups of trick-taking people who consider it an activity rather than playing a game. Overall, trick-taking is a discussion generator and what could be better?

Guenter Cornett, designer of The Bottle Imp:

I don’t know if it’s really the most popular game mechanic. Games mechanics like in Uno and Quartett seems to me as popular as trick taking games, but are more suitable for kids.

Of course trick taking gives many tactical possibilities to the players while keeping the luck. So one point is the mix of skill and luck, usually: If you win it was your skill, if you loose it was bad luck. Second: having an influence to the future by having a part of the knowledge with the chance to kid the other players. Third: While second point gives high tension, the cards are played fast, so that the next round comes soon; it’s short enough to forget bad experiences, while remembering the highlights. So you can always feel happy, even you lost most rounds.

Larry Levy, Opinionated Gamer, and designer of WYSIWYG:

if you’d asked me that question 20 years ago, I think I’d have answered it very differently.  I would have pointed out that these are games that are traditionally taught by parents to their children (different games, depending on the region of the world where the family lives, but usually trick-takers).  I would have mentioned that for the last 300 years, the most popular card games in the world have been trick-takers (whether it be Tarock, Euchre, Whist, Skat, Bridge, or whatever) and that this tradition naturally lives on.  I would have also said that these games have an excellent combination of skill and luck and that there’s a trick-taking game of just about any weight and style you would want.  That the lighter games of the family, such as Hearts or Spades, are perfect for playing with friends (particularly for teens, college age kids, and young adults):  few rules, reasonable levels of skill, and lots of opportunity for screwage (and who doesn’t like to smack down their buddies, particularly when you’re younger?).  All of these reasons, and quite a few more, explain why trick-takers continued to endure and be popular through the end of the 20th century.

But today, I’m not so sure.  Do families teach their kids card games of any kind these days, much less trick-takers?  Are these games still played that much by people under 40?  I don’t know.  It used to be, when you had dinner at a friend’s house, you would end the evening with them by playing a few hands of Bridge (or maybe Euchre or Hearts).  Everyone knew these games, so it was a natural and fun thing to do.  When’s the last time you heard of something like that happening, other than with more experienced gamers?

I know that Bridge is a dying game (it’s popularity has been steadily waning for the last 50 years).  Other difficult games like Skat may be as well.  Do people get together with buddies to play Hearts or Spades all that much anymore?  If you went over to a friend’s house in the 80’s, you weren’t going to play Bridge–it was Trivial Pursuit.  In the 90’s, teens didn’t get together to play Hearts–it was Magic: The Gathering.  In the 21st century, I think you’re far more likely to play board games with your friends than a traditional card game.  And, of course, there’s the fascination and allure of electronic games that dominate most youngster’s interests.  Is there room for humble and very non-sexy card games of any kind in our lives anymore, much less more involved ones like trick-takers?

I honestly don’t know.  I know what makes trick-taking games great.  And I know that among more experienced gamers, trick-takers are more popular than ever and more good ones are being designed than at any time in history.  But where that popularity used to extend as well to less active gamers in years past, I’m not at all sure that’s still true today.

Sorry, maybe not the answer you were looking for!

Jeffrey D. Allers, Opinionated Gamer, and designer of Pala:

I think I would agree with you that trick-taking is the most popular game mechanism around the world, especially if you count climbing games, which I understand might be the most popular traditional variation in Asian countries?

In Germany, I’ve met so many people who play the traditional German trick-taking games like Skat and Doppelkopf (and I’ve seen other games like Schafkopf). Most gamers in my game group know these and played them growing up, and many people who don’t play all the newer German board and card games still know how to play trick-taking games. Many are passionate about them, and there are clubs dedicated to them (especially Skat, similar to Bridge clubs elsewhere).  So the serious Skat players only play Skat, much like serious Chess or Go players focus solely on their one game. 

But why are TT games so popular worldwide? I think it’s for several reasons:

– it’s a hugely adaptable mechanism. We are seeing a revival of TTers because there is so much you can do with it. Change just a couple of rules (while keeping the basic TT structure) and you have a completely different game!

– it’s generally accessible. Basic TT games are easy to learn, and it doesn’t take much to “graduate” to the more strategic games. 

– it’s also physically accessible: most everyone has at least one standard deck of cards in their home. 

– they are extremely portable.  Most only require a deck of cards, and you can play multiple games with the same deck (with the exception of more modern games, which often add special cards or other components).

– they play quickly

– they are multi-player (unlike popular abstracts like Chess, Go, Mancala, etc.)

– they are often partnership games or include partnership variants, which are psychologically more appealing, being able to share a win or a loss. It also lends itself to a more social “tournament style” play (multiple tables, with winners moving to next table, then switching partners). 

– it’s an ideal medium for game designers—especially newer ones, for many of the reasons listed above:  variations are endless and you can change the game by altering a few simple rules. It plays quickly and components are simple so you can test and iterate quickly. The core mechanic is familiar, so new designers are not overwhelmed with design choices, and playtesters can learn the game quickly.

– and finally, I love the rhythm of play, which is snappier than in board games—especially the thinkier abstracts (yes, lightning Chess has this, but it needs and “artificial” mechanism—the timer—to work).  Did you ever see my article about this in Opinionated Gamers, back when I was still writing?  Here it is: https://opinionatedgamers.com/2014/02/05/postcard-from-berlin-i-got-rhythm/.

Editor’s Note: Jeff’s article from back then is worth checking out! It predated my time at OG, so I had not read it, but it is a fascinating article about the rhythm of games, with a mention of trick-taking games!

Reinhard Staupe, designer of David & Goliath:

Yes, it’s true, there are many people playing the traditional trick taking games, which in Germany are mainly: Skat, Schafkopf and Doppelkopf. These games go back about 200 years and are sort of a cultural asset. When I was a kid in the 70ies I played Skat on every occasion with my dad, uncle and my brothers, which I really loved doing. But it’s vanishing more and more. The young generation is not really interessted in these games anymore, which is a pity. They have so many options nowadays, so many games, and if you come up with Skat, they are not interessted. To me personally Doppelkopf is the best card game in the world. A pure 4-player-game, creating and revealing two teams every time while playing – a perferct mix of tactical decisions and a little luck (a little bit like Tichu), always great fun.

Concerning the modern trick taking games, the situation is difficult. Since I am not just an inventor of games and a gamer, but also working for game companies since 1996, my experience is that trick taking games is the hardest genre – very difficult to sell, very difficult to make a success, especially becoming a long term seller. There were so many great trick taking games in the past 30 years, but most of them did not survive or only sold small numbers (the only exception is “Wizard” from Amigo, which is constantly doing pretty well). The reason probably is that trick taking games demand tactical thinking in the first place if you want to be successful. This is great for real gamers, who play a lot of games and have no problem with a little more rules and tactical thinking (which cards have already been played?, which cards are left?, what is the best way to proceed and win?). They play games like Tichu, Die Crew, Skull King. The fanbase of these games is the experienced gamers. But the normal family prefers card games for having fun without this kind of analytical and tactical depth, which explains the enormous success of games like UNO, Skip-Bo, Phase 10, Skyjo, etc.

I really cross my fingers that there will be more easy trick taking games becoming a big success and staying in the market, but I have my doubts.


It is me, Chris Wray, again.

Thanks to the above designers for answering the question! I thought the responses were all fantastic. These are some of the most insightful people in the hobby/industry, so I was excited to hear from all. of them.

Other trick taking designers reading this, I’d love to include your responses in a follow up article, so feel free to send them my way!

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