This Trick-Taking Life: The Suits

If you've got antikheirphobia, this article is gonna make you sweat.

“I never understood the appeal of trick-taking. Isn’t it just, we all put a card down and someone gets all the cards?”

Thus spake someone on social media this past week. I’m keeping their identity anonymous. Not so much because it’s a wrong opinion. Because it’s an opinion I shared not all that long ago. Growing up in a family where playing cards were an endowment from the devil, there wasn’t much room for anything more complicated than UNO. When I married into a trick-taking family, the appeal was lost on me. The processes seemed random. Yet the same people won no matter how poor their hand. Maybe, just maybe, there was something more to these games than first met the eye.

This series is written for my past self. One layer at a time, I want to talk about what makes trick-taking special. Today, we’re starting with the barest of basics: the suits.

Tall Tales gets bonus points for containing multiple cute animals, and also a cute plant.

Every trick-taker must contain cute animals. It is law. (Tall Tales)

There’s something gratuitous about trying to explain the suits. They present such a universal iconography that even my sheltered childhood self understood that a spade outranked a diamond. They’re everywhere: the identifying marks of casinos and lotteries, the heraldries of old bloodlines and advertisements for Las Vegas, the intro sequences to James Bond films. Growing up Mormon, they were presented as warning totems, as perilous to my moral constitution as tattoos or the smoking section of a restaurant.

They’re also as old as cards themselves. Older. The earliest known reference to playing cards comes from a tantalizing legal document in the 14th-century Yuan Dynasty. Two gamblers were arrested, resulting in the seizure of their cards and printing woodblocks. Based on Chinese games of chance, both dice and dominoes, these cards were already suited, although the suits were less abstractly ranked. What makes a heart better than a diamond? That’s a toughie. It’s far easier to understand that coin isn’t as valuable as a thousand coins strung together. Basing suits on money made these early cards readily understood to anyone who also traded in currency. Maybe it isn’t a surprise, then, that merchants were the first to export them from China, trekking them along spice roads and into the Mamluk Empire. In Mamluk Egypt and Moorish Granada, the suits underwent an update, keeping coins for one suit but substituting golden cups, wooden clubs, and curved swords for the others.

From there, you can trace their gradual movement across Europe by observing how people swapped out each suit’s symbolism to better match their culture. Latin traders, speaking Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, only altered the suits slightly, not to mention came up with the word for “trick,” a bastardization of the Latin word “triccare,” a flexible term that could mean either a subterfuge or a toy. With time and transmission, the suits took on new forms: cups became roses became hearts; coins turned into bells and eventually diamonds; the Germans decided that acorns were cooler than clubs, which the French rectified with clovers; and swords became shields, leaves, and eventually the modern spade, a visual representation of the pike-shaped head of a polearm.

The rapid spread of these games lay in simplicity. Not quite the reductive simplicity of everybody showing a card and letting the highest value win. Rather, that a hundred different games soon arose that all shared that identifiable core. Every game was slightly different, urging players to use new skills, bluff one another, or place wagers. Seriously, if you’re ever curious about the popularity of a profoundly bad game, the answer is gambling. Even then, trick-taking offered something more. Before long, it made the leap from gambling dens to domestic parlors and Jane Austen novels.

That's a real mouse. This game is vicious.

Luring the cat. (Catchy!)

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today, we’re only talking about suits, not wagers or triumphs or anything fancy. Over the past few months, I’ve played dozens of trick-takers. Here are four of my favorites that highlight how much can be accomplished with only a suited and numbered deck of cards.

Today’s French suits consist of thirteen cards — nine numbered cards, three face cards, and one ace. Tall Tales, a trick-taking game by Rand (just Rand), pares it down to the numbers. At first glance, it’s as boilerplate as a deck-builder gets. Everybody plays a card. High card wins.

Of course, that isn’t all of it. That simple foundation soon spools outward, becoming stranger and demanding new strategies until it barely resembles any other trick-taker. In this case, the high card not only wins the trick, it also allows the winner to claim another card from the table, adding it to a separate pile that will become their hand next round. The same goes for everybody else, claiming cards in ranked order. The exception is reserved for the low card. This player instead drafts a new card from a selection at the center of the table. These cards have higher values, making them more powerful in future tricks. Except, as we’ve already established, it pays to lose. Since the rank of your cards is also your score, a winning strategy requires players to win some and lose some — but tactically, with an eye for what’s on offer and what your opponents seem to be holding. There’s a rich layer of strategy at play, one that goes far beyond “pick a card, high card wins.”

The same goes for Catchy!, a two-player trick-taker by Yuko Y. Here, two players strive to attract the attention of the world’s most averagely fickle cat. Which is to say, its attention span can be measured in nanoseconds. The cat moves between the two players one step at a time according to who won the last trick. But there’s a twist. If both players reveal odd numbers, the cat flips to its reverse side. On the red side, it’s attracted to the winner of the trick; if blue, it will saunter toward the loser. The value of your hand is therefore always changing thanks to your cat’s capricious mood swings. With only three small suits, Catchy! is all about counting cards and outguessing your opponent. It’s a cerebral but frustrating experience, closer to a dueling card game than your usual trick-taker.

There's a puppy in the bookshop. Somewhere. Out of sight.

Adding a splash of blackjack to your trick-taking. (American Bookshop)

Much like the changeable identity of playing suits throughout history, it isn’t uncommon for designers to draw inspiration from their own cultures, including other gaming systems. American Bookshop, designed by Taiki Shinzawa, is not only based on his time working in “the worst bookshop in America,” but also on the idea of hitting a particular number in games like blackjack. Each play adds to the value before it, stopping short if the target number is hit. This can lock certain players out of dropping cards altogether, at least temporarily. Such a shortfall can be leveraged, however. Points are only earned if you hold the most cards in a suit; any other cards you’ve won are instead subtracted. This allows players with more cards to exercise an extra degree of dominance, pushing around players who gobbled up early tricks, not to mention declining to place cards that wouldn’t give them extra points. It captures the highs and lows of gambling without trading a single nickel.

By far my favorite suit-bending example is Cat in the Box. Muneyuki Yokouchi does something devious by declaring that there are four color-coded suits — and then not putting them on the cards. When you play a number, you declare which suit it belongs to. You then mark it on a grid, blocking anyone from playing that number thereafter.

Why is this so devious? Two reasons. The first is that these tokens earn points for adjacency. Winning a trick is fine and good, but it’s better to win a trick that will give you a solid position on the board. The second and more sinister reason is that there are five copies of each number. But wait, weren’t there only four suits? Exactly. Certain cards won’t be playable at all. Like most trick-taking games, Cat in the Box insists that suits are binding — as in, when somebody leads with the green suit, everybody else is obligated to also play green. But cards can be any suit you like, so you’re free to switch to another suit. BUT doing so means you mark on your personal tablet that you aren’t holding green, because otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to play another suit. Put this together and the result is some nasty brinkmanship. As sections of the board are blocked off by previously declared number/suit pairs, the possibility of a “paradox,” the playing of an unplayable card, starts to become a real threat. Since anybody who causes a paradox won’t win any points that hand, Cat in the Box becomes a pressure cooker of a game, everybody needling their rivals to flub the experiment before they do.


We never said the cute animal had to be alive. It can also be superpositional.

It’s horrible. Horribly brilliant. And it demonstrates yet again how much a trick-taker can do just by tinkering with what is meant by a “suit.” Whether the game is making its numbers ratchet up over time, forcing players to count suits to determine whether they should win a trick at all, playing a miniature game of blackjack, or making believe that suits are a quantum superpositional particle that don’t strictly exist until they collapse, there’s so much to explore.

And next time, we’ll be adding Europe’s contribution to the genre: the triumph.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on April 27, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I look forward to reading these! I’ve been thinking about the seemingly deluge of trick taking games and wondering what the heck that’s all about. They all seem to have this wacky attitude of being a trick taking game but trying also to not being a trick taking game by removing some key component (four players, suits, fully co-op)

    I think, thinking about it a small amount. The thing that is that the attractiveness a lot of trick takers can’t really be that everyone puts cards down in the middle and so on (because where does the emotion come from that mechanic?) but it’s something around the predictability of a perfect run or a good pattern but also always on the edge of knowing could fall apart in a chaotic heap because of the partial knowledge of what your opponents can do. Certainly when I play something like wizard what I bet on myself is that xyz are bankers (or cajolable into bankers) but then it can still go wrong.

    I don’t know for sure really though.

  2. Curiously enough, even though trick-taking apparently came through Spain, we Spanish-speakers ended up with a totally different word for “trick”, “baza”. Double-curiously enough, in Argentine they’re crazy for a traditional trick-taking game called Truco. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. Subtle typo “ declaring that there (are) four color-coded suits”

  4. Great article. I had the chance to play Cat in the Box recently and adore the innovations that games like it bring to the table. Accessibility in terms of flexibility with player count and ease of understanding is a huge plus. But this is also a genre where I strongly feel that the classics reign supreme (bridge, hearts, etc.) in terms of gameplay, so long as you can find the players for it.

  1. Pingback: This Trick-Taking Life: The Triumphs | SPACE-BIFF!

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