How to play Oh Hell

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Goal

Oh Hell is a trick-taking game similar to Euchre, Piquet, Hearts and a ton of other games. Your goal is to get more points than the other players by taking a certain number of tricks each turn - though how many you take depends on the strength of your hand and the perceived strength of the other players.

Quick Summary

For pro card players who want to get into the game without a ton of rules, here are the straight basics:

  • Establish a dealer. Players are dealt all the cards on the first hand, removing one card on each subsequent hand. Play ends after the single-card hand.
  • Players bid for tricks. Trump is Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, No Trump in that order, then goes back to Spades and starts over. Try to get exactly the number of tricks you bid. The number of tricks bid cannot equal the number of tricks available; one player must always miss their bid.
  • Play begins with player left of the dealer. Aces are high, must play to suit. No right or left bowers.
  • Players report their tricks to the scorekeeper at the end of each round. Those who got their bid earn their total number of tricks in points, plus ten more for getting their bid. Players who missed only get points equal to the tricks they took. The player with the most points at the end wins.


Setup

Begin by cutting the deck between players. The player with the highest card from this cut is the dealer for the first round.

Next, draw up a score sheet. Oh Hell's scoring is a little more complex than some other card games, and requires a bit of attention. It's divided into three sections that will make more sense as you read more of the rules:

  • Number of cards dealt, trump and dealer - in the first hand, for example, each player gets 17 cards, spades is trump, and M is the dealer
  • Player bid
  • Player tricks taken

Refer to the sample scoresheets for a possible layout of an Oh Hell scoresheet. The bottom image shows how to add more players - simply create additional columns, supplying each player with the latter two categories.

Once the dealer has been established, he divides the number of cards in the deck (52) by the number of players and deals that many cards to each player. With three players, each hand consists of 17 cards, with one card left out of the round. With four players, there would be 13 cards dealt to each player, 10 for five players, and so on. Players sort their hands by suit and number, and play begins.

Bidding

Each round of Oh Hell begins with bidding by the players. The player to the left of the dealer begins the round by guessing how many tricks they'll take, based on what they have in their hand and what trump is on that round. Trump changes every round in a rotation of Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and No Trump, going back to Spades after No Trump.

In order to bid, players must consider their hand alongside the hands of the other players. Sort your cards into suits and numbers, paying attention to how many high cards you have (aces are high) and how much trump you have compared to your other suits. Players with a lot of trump and high cards should bid high; players with very little bid low. Consider the following hand:

Spades are trump, so this is not a terribly strong hand. The Ace of Diamonds will likely take a trick, as the chances of every player having Diamonds are high. The King and Queen of Clubs might take a trick before players run out of Clubs. The Ace of Hearts will almost certainly take a trick, and, because there are few Hearts in this hand, the Seven or Two of Spades stand an okay chance of taking tricks by trumping any Hearts played. This player should bid between three and five tricks on this round.

Bidding starts off fairly simple. It gets more difficult with each passing turn, however, as the number of cards dealt each hand goes down by one. Next turn each player will get 16, then 15, then 14, all the way down to one card. By that point it's perfectly acceptable to be bidding zero tricks. Another example with less cards:

This time, there is no trump. This player is bidding on a relatively low hand - the only card likely to take a trick is the King of Clubs, and if this player was bidding first they might want to bid one, play the King, get their trick and bow out with a low card on their second play. If they bid second in a round, however, they might discover that that first player bid very low, in which case they might want to bid two to buffer their chances.

One last caveat on all bidding: the number of tricks bid each turn cannot equal the number of tricks available. Say, for example, that there are 12 tricks, and the first two players both bid four. The dealer, who always bids last, cannot bid four tricks. Because of this rule, at least one player will always miss during a round of Oh Hell. (Which means if everybody got their bids on a turn, the dealer tossed out too many cards.)

Play

Play proceeds with the player to the left of the dealer and goes clockwise. Each turn players toss out cards to either try to take tricks or to get rid of cards they don't want (also known as sloughing). The player with the highest card each turn takes the trick, and gets to play the next card. The round ends when the players run out of cards.

There are two rules to note about play:

  • Trump defeats any other card. For example, if one player plays the Ace of Hearts, another can put the Two of Spades on it and take the trick if Spades is trump that round.
  • Players must play to the suit on the table. The trumper in the previous example can only play the Two of Spades if they have no Hearts in their hand. If they do, they must play a Heart instead.

Once the players are out of cards, they announce the tricks they took to the scorekeeper, also announcing if they made their bid or not. The deck is collected, reshuffled, and dealt out by the next dealer, removing one card from the total deck and changing trump to the next in line.

Scoring

Once a hand is played through, the scorekeeper tallies up the points earned by the players during the round.

  • If the player did not make their bid, they get points for however many tricks they earned. A player that took five tricks gets five points.
  • If the player did make their bid, they get points for their tricks plus an extra ten. The player who took five tricks and made their bid would instead get 15 points.

Play continues until the deck runs out of cards to deal. The player with the most points at the end of this final hand wins the game.

Variations

There are a few different ways you can play Oh Hell with the same overlying rules. Here are some examples:

  • You can greatly extend the game by adding in another deck of cards. When you have more than five or six players this is practically mandatory, as the game gets shorter and shorter with each new player.
  • You can shuffle trump around. Rather than following the usual Spades, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and No Trump rotation, change the order to something different - or make trump random every turn.
  • You can change the number of cards received each turn. A full game of Oh Hell between three players (17 cards to start) can take a while to play. To cut down on play time, deal two less cards each turn rather than one. The first turn would be 17 cards, the second 15, the third 13 and so on.

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Confused? Want some pointers? Have any other rules variations? Let me know.

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