Basics of Trick-taking Games

The genre

You have probably played a trick-taking game already, but may not know it. The basic idea of a trick-taking game is that the deal is composed of a series of tricks, each consisting of one card from each player. After all players have contributed a card, the trick is completed, and the cards in it are removed from play until the end of the deal. Additionally, one player is declared to have taken, or won, the trick. The rules to determine who has won a trick vary by game, but in general highly-ranked cards are "better" at winning tricks. Another thing that varies is whether it is desirable to win tricks! For example, in bridge you want to win as many tricks as possible; in hearts winning tricks that contain cards of the heart suit is [usually] bad, while winning other tricks is neutral.

Playing cards in action

Source

Okay, like what?

The most popular and well-known games in the trick-taking family are:

Sample cards

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Source
Source

Card ranks

Earlier, I mentioned the rank of a card. You probably already know about card ranks: in a standard deck each suit has a four, a jack, an ace, and so on. In trick-taking games the ace is usually ranked highest, followed by the king, queen, jack, and the numbers ten through two. Some games have exceptions, however: in pinochle the ten ranks just below the ace, and in euchre the jacks can change ranks as the game is played.

If all cards played to a trick are of the same suit, then the highest-ranked card wins the trick. Easy, right? But if there's more than one suit involved, interesting things start to happen, and each game has its own means of resolving which suits are "better" than others. Before we get to that, though, we'll have to cover the concept of leading and the order of play.

Order of play

You already know that each player1 plays exactly one card to each trick: but what order do they play in? In every trick-taking game, the order of play is clockwise: after you play to a trick, the player on your left plays next (unless the trick has been completed).

The player to play first to a given trick is said to lead, and the privilege of leading is given to the player who won the previous trick. This will naturally not stay the same from trick to trick, so while you will play one card to every trick, you may end up playing twice in a row (if you are the last to play to a trick, and win it, then you must lead to the next trick before anyone else can play).

The lead is usually the most important card played to a trick, because while the leader can select from any of the cards in his hand (usually: again, Hearts has an exception), the other players have their choices restricted significantly based on the leader's card.

1Most trick-taking games use exactly four players, but the rules extend easily to more or fewer players.

A sample deal diagram

The players are named here after compass points, and the order of play is NESW
The players are named here after compass points, and the order of play is NESW | Source

Following suit

Central to trick-taking games is the concept of following suit. You've probably heard the phrase before: it's an idiom that has been adopted to mainstream English from card-playing jargon. In English it means to mimic, emulate, or go along with; unsurprisingly, it means something similar in card games. To follow suit means to play the same suit as the card led to the current trick: if a heart is led, then each other player is following suit if, and only if, he too plays a heart.

The highest-priority rule in any trick-taking game is the requirement to follow suit if possible. Suppose the leader plays a club: when it is your turn, you must play a club if you have one. If you have more than one, you may choose among them; if you have only one club you must play it; and if you have no clubs at all, you may play any card you like.

Failure to follow this rule is known by several names: revoke and renig are the most common (and can be used as nouns or verbs). But whatever you call it, the most important thing is don't do it. The interesting tactical and strategic points of every game hinge on this requirement, so in addition to being against the rules, it would detract from everyone's enjoyment of the game.

Now that you understand about following suit, it's time to introduce a complication to the rule mentioned earlier: the highest card of the suit led wins the trick. So if the queen of diamonds is led, and you have no diamonds, you may legally play the king of spades, but you cannot win the trick with it: although the king outranks the queen, it is of the wrong suit and is ineligible to win the trick. Playing a suit other than the one led is often called a discard, because you are "getting rid" of the card played, making it impossible to win a trick with it regardless of its rank.

Complications: The trump suit

The final factor that can influence which card wins a trick is the trump suit. Relax, there are still only four suits; but some games designate one of the four suits as trumps, conferring special privileges to cards of that suit. Specifically, cards of the trump suit rank higher than cards of any other suit, regardless of rank and which suit was led. The requirement to follow suit still applies, but if you lack a card of the suit led and you "discard" a trump card, you are said to trump or ruff the trick, and you will win the trick unless someone plays an even higher trump. So if the trump suit is hearts, and the king of spades is led, you will have an opportunity to win the trick if you either:

  1. Have the ace of spades
  2. Have no spades at all, but do have one or more hearts -- even as low as the two!

But if the trump suit is just a temporary designation, how is it determined? That varies by game, but here are the most common approaches:

  • Hearts never has a trump suit
  • In Spades, the trump suit is always spades
  • Oh Hell selects the trump suit at random
  • Euchre, Bridge, and Pinochle use a separate mechanic called bidding: basically a preliminary auction/competition among the players, with the winner earning the privilege to choose the trump suit for the upcoming deal.

But it's not terribly important how the trump suit is selected unless you plan to take up a game with a changing trump suit: you just need to know what a trump suit is and how it behaves. If someone wants to teach you a trick-taking game, they will need to teach you its rules, if any, for selecting a trump suit; but now that you understand the mechanics of winning tricks and playing with trumps, the task of learning a new game within the family of trick-taking games will be much easier.

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