Our stable of writers at Opinionated Gamers includes a bunch of talented game designers. So to give them a chance to expose some of their creations to the world, we’ve started a new feature called “Designer’s Corner”. The first entry is WYSIWYG, a card game from Larry Levy. Enjoy!
Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the year 2000. Gaming was very different back then. The Geek had just been launched. The hot new game was Tikal. And there were practically no commercial 2-player trick-taking games to be found. In fact, there were very few new trick-takers of any kind—there just wasn’t that much interest in them from most players.
That’s the world I was living in during one quiet Sunday, in which I was passing the time by thumbing through my well-worn copy of Hoyle’s Rules of Card Games. (In those early days of the Internet, such an activity was more common than you’d think—at least for me.) I came across a trick-taker designed for 2 called German Whist. The game’s main feature was that, prior to each trick, the top card of the deck was revealed. The winner of the trick replenished their hand with that card, while the loser drew from the deck. This immediately struck me as a missed opportunity. I mean, that second card could be anything: maybe crap, but maybe a considerably better card than the winner got to take. That didn’t seem fair. Wouldn’t it be much better, I thought, if the top two cards of the deck were revealed? Then the players would know what the stakes were prior to each trick and the winner would take the card of their choice, leaving the other card for the loser.
This was such an obvious concept that I spent the next 20 minutes ruffling through the book, until I confirmed that no such game existed (at least, not according to Hoyle). “Well,” I thought, “I guess I’ll just have to design that game myself!”
Naturally, it took a while to come up with a game centered around that mechanism, but that was its genesis. It needed a name, so I turned to the world of computing. Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) were still fairly new to personal computers in 2000 and one much desired feature in applications was called WYSIWYG, which stood for “What You See Is What You Get”. Basically, the things you saw on your screen matched what you’d get when you printed out the file, as opposed to using formatting codes or command lines. Since, in my game, the players got to see the two cards they were playing for, it seemed like an appropriate title.
Once the design and playtesting were complete, I was pleased with how the game played and the friends I played it with also liked it. I created an entry for it on the Geek and among the small number of people who rated it, there were some genuinely enthusiastic comments, which was obviously encouraging. Unfortunately, while I like to think of myself as a decent game designer, I absolutely suck when it comes to promoting my games. Basically, for me, creating the games is the fun part and everything else is drudgery, so I usually don’t take things any further. Posting WYSIWYG on the Geek was pretty much the first and last thing I did as far as publicizing the game. I checked back from time to time to answer any questions about it, but that’s as far as I took it.
So, this is an attempt to correct for years of neglect. I think that WYSIWYG is a good game and one that could easily strike a chord with the many fans of trick-taking games. With interest in such games at an all-time high, this seemed like a good time to raise awareness of the older title.
I’ll basically be treating this like a game review, by giving a thorough outline of the rules, followed by my impressions of the game. For those who are interested, you can find a link to the complete rules here (https://huzonfirst.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=34&action=edit) and a link to the official scoresheet here (https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/191528/scoresheet-wysiwyg).
WYSIWYG is a 2-player trick-taking game played with an ordinary deck of playing cards. In each hand, 13 cards are dealt to each player. At this point, the players bid for the right to name a trump suit; the winner of the auction is called the declarer, and the amount of their winning bid determines how many marks the declarer must score in order to win the hand (each trick is worth a certain number of marks). The game uses the usual trick-taking rules for following suit and winning tricks. During the first half of each hand, the top two cards of the deck are revealed; the player winning the trick replenishes their hand by taking their choice of the two cards, while the other player takes the other card. During the second half, there is no replenishment and you play until the players’ hands are exhausted. Tricks taken during the second half are worth twice as much as those taken during the first half. After all the cards are taken in tricks, if the declarer has taken enough marks, they score positive points. If not, their opponent scores points. Play until one player’s total score reaches at least 80 points; that player is the winner.
So that’s the summary; let’s look at the gameplay in more detail. The game uses the usual ranking of the cards: four suits, with the cards ranked from Ace (high) down to 2 (low). After the initial 13 card hands are dealt, the bidding takes place. Obviously, being dealt a hand with more high cards or longer suits (or both) is definitely an advantage when playing the hand. Not only will that player be able to win more tricks right away, but they’re also in a better position to replenish their hand with better cards, so they can maintain that advantage for the rest of the hand. To put the players on an equal playing field, each player must announce an evaluation of their hand. To do this, each player silently adds together 3 points for each Ace, 2 points for each King, and 1 point for each Queen in their hand. To this sum, they add the length of their longest suit. Each player states their total, without any breakdown of how it was reached. The player with the higher evaluation will have to take more marks if they should win the bidding and the player with the lower one will have to take fewer marks should they win. This procedure effectively handicaps the hand to make up for the differences in the initial hands.
The bids consist of simple integers, with the first bid being at least 15. Each player must either make a higher bid, or pass. Once a player passes, their opponent becomes that hand’s declarer and gets to name the trump suit. The declarer can also choose to play the hand without a trump suit. If the other player thinks the declarer’s bid was too high, they can raise the stakes by doubling the bid. The declarer can raise the stakes even further if they are confident they can make their bid. The winning bid is then modified by the difference in the evaluations to determine the hand’s Goal, which is how many marks the declarer must take in order to win the hand.
The play of the hand follows the normal rules of trick-taking games. Each trick consists of one card played by each player. Any card can be led. The other player must follow suit if they can; if they can’t, they can play any card. If no trump cards are played, the highest card of the led suit wins the trick; if trump cards are played, the highest trump wins.
During the first half of the hand, the top two cards of the deck are revealed prior to each trick. Tricks during the first half of the hand are worth 1 mark apiece. To show this, the winner of the trick takes one of the played cards and puts it face down in front of them in their Marks Pile; the other card is put out of play. They then take the revealed card of their choice and add it to their hand; the loser of the trick adds the other card to their hand. This continues until all the cards in the deck are exhausted, which ends the first half of the hand.
During the second half of the hand, the hands are played out until the players run out of cards. Each trick is worth 2 marks, so the winning player takes both of the played cards and places them in their Marks Pile. The last trick is worth 3 marks, so the winning player takes one of the discarded cards and adds it to their pile. The declarer then counts how many cards are in their Marks Pile. If it’s at least equal to their Goal, they score points; if not, their opponent scores points. If the declarer falls far short of their goal, it can result in a lot of points for their opponent, so wild bidding isn’t a good idea. If the bid was doubled, the amount of points scored is even higher. The method for scoring each hand is provided in the full rules, but it’s quite straightforward.
Keep a running total of the points scored during the game. When a player reaches at least 80 points, they win the game. This usually takes no more than five or six hands.
Why You Should Try It
When I designed WYSIWYG, there were hardly any 2-player trick-taking games. Today, there’s a bunch of very good ones. So what does WYSIWYG bring to the table that these other games do not?
Well, for one thing, assuming you have a deck of cards lying around, the game is free! But in a hobby where we’ll gladly drop a few hundred bucks to pick up the latest Kickstarter hotness, that’s hardly a compelling reason.
My experience has been that WYSIWYG works very well with players who are fans of traditional trick-taking games. The newer designs tend to add a lot of new twists to the trick-taking genre and most of them are very clever. WYSIWYG, on the other hand, sticks to the basics for the most part and does a good job of bringing the multiplayer trick-taking experience to a two-player game. There are certainly some novel features to the game, but the things you enjoy in standard trick-takers are probably what you’ll enjoy with this game.
However, I’ve also found that the game can serve as a good introduction to trick-taking games for those who aren’t too familiar with them. There are no unusual mechanics to distract you and you don’t have to worry about pissing off a partner while you struggle to learn the basics of these games. So WYSIWYG can work very well with both experienced and less experienced players.
What are some of the features that makes the game so notable? It starts with hand evaluation. The evaluation mechanism is designed to even the playing field, but there’s still plenty of room for judgment about which hands are better or worse than their point value indicates, which ones will be better on offense or on defense, and so on. This is similar to the hand evaluation issues with multiplayer trick-takers, but since your starting hand will be modified over the course of the hand, it’s a different kind of beast and experience will give you a better idea of how to handle this.
The bidding can be challenging and, again, there’s really no substitute for experience to do it well. But the concepts are simple enough and figuring out how far to take a hand and deciding when an opponent has bid too high and punishing them for their aggressiveness is fun. The best part about the whole bidding subgame is once the players understand it, it leads to closely fought and exciting hands with very tight goals.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the game is how you choose to build your hand in the first half of each hand to prepare for the second half. Even though the marks you gain for winning first half tricks are obviously valuable, second half tricks yield twice as many marks, so setting yourself up for doing well during the second half often take precedence over just winning tricks. Assembling a healthy side suit can be useful, but much of the maneuvering during the first half revolves around the trump suit. The declarer usually has more trumps to work with, so one way to win tricks and grab valuable cards is to void themselves in a suit and trump cards of that suit. The problem with this is the declarer has to be careful not to use too many trumps like this, because of the danger of shortening their trump length too much. That can lead to losing control of the trump suit to their opponent and very bad things can happen if that occurs. Again, these are concepts found in standard multiplayer trick-takers, but with only a single opponent and with such tight goals due to the evaluation mechanism, they take on an added intensity here.
In theory, playing out the second half of the hand could be automatic, since all the cards have been revealed and a player with a very good memory would know all the cards in their opponent’s hand. Most players don’t possess that kind of memory, but card tracking is still valuable and knowing the suit lengths and the higher valued cards in your opponent’s hand is often sufficient. The play of the first half requires more skill and judgment than the second half does, but the latter part of each hand is still enjoyable and requires good execution to optimize the play of the hand.
Even with the recent explosion of two-player trick-taking games, WYSIWYG remains my favorite game in that category. I’m sure there’s some bias there and, naturally, it’s a game that I’m very familiar with. But as a person who has played a lot of traditional trick-takers in their life, with Bridge being a particular favorite, I find it gives me what I’m looking for in a trick-taking game, with the added benefit of only requiring a single opponent. Hopefully, I’ve explained enough here to interest some of you and you’ll check it out and like it as well.
By the way, here’s the entry for WYSIWYG on the Geek: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/29578/wysiwyg