This Trick-Taking Life: The Triumphs

aww! the bee doesn't want to rip his guts out when he stabs somebody!

Why are trick-taking games having such a moment? Last time in this series about my personal journey with trick-takers, I proposed an answer: because the things are so dang simple that learning the rules to one immediately opens the door to a hundred more. But that’s not all! Far from being simplistic time-wasters, there are untold depths and ranges to the system. In fact, one of the best things about cracking open a new trick-taker is that you’re almost certain to discover an approach you haven’t seen before.

Today, though, we’re tackling an aspect of trick-taking that initially put me off the genre altogether. I’m talking about the triumph, also known as the trump, also known to my friend Rob as the “super-suit.”

Luring the Skull King... w/ boobs, duh

Can you spot the Mermaid? (Skull King, courtesy of Games Night Guru)

The first time I really got upset about a trump card was as a Mormon missionary. Prior to that, I hadn’t actually handled a deck of playing cards. Okay, that isn’t entirely true. On band trips we would occasionally play Egyptian Rat Screw, a slapping game that abraded our knuckles and imprinted permanent dents in the school bus pleather. That seemed far enough from the gambling games I’d been warned about. The only wager was our dignity. Also the proper function of our fingers for the next day or so.

But this isn’t an article about slapping games. As a missionary, it was common for local families to take us under their wing. We were underfed, overworked, and most likely in some stage of nervous breakdown, so anybody who treated us like ordinary people for half an hour seemed like a literal godsend. It was Christmastime — the loneliest time of year to be a missionary, apart from all the others — and a family invited us over for dinner. Afterward, the mom pulled out a deck of playing cards. I was taken aback. Weren’t these things prohibited? Didn’t they open the door for legion evil spirits to move in and take possession? I didn’t really believe such things, mind you, but I’d heard it so often that the sight of a believing family touching a deck of Bicycles took me by surprise.

Even more surprising, everybody seemed to know the game. It was a trick-taker, although I hadn’t learned the lingo. Within five minutes, I’d gotten into the rhythm. It was just “we all put down a card, and somebody gets all the cards.” I was getting the hang of it. There was no strategy. The whole thing was dependent on having a good draw. Confident, I played a high card to a contested trick. Then the mom put down something low. Let’s say it was a two to my ten. I reached out to claim the trick and she slapped me playfully on the wrist. “That’s mine,” she said. “See? I played trump.”

What. Was. This. Bull. Shit. With a single play, my appreciation for trick-taking games was delayed by a decade and a half.

The art makes it a scooch boring. The 6 should have been a general or something, not even more replicant ashigaru.

Everybody knows Ninjas defeat high-ranked warriors. (Joraku)

What I didn’t understand at the time was that trumps evolved as one of Europe’s few contributions to trick-taking, in part to add an extra layer of strategy beyond “high card wins.” The word itself is a derivation of the Italian trionfi, for “triumph” or “victory procession.” It’s easy to see how the word fits. Triumphs took a few different forms. Most often, an entire suit would be declared the triumph. A single card of that suit could be tucked face-up halfway under the deck. This would reveal which suit was empowered for the duration of that hand. Those cards, no matter how low, would trump the cards of other suits. Suddenly, trick-taking was given a new dimension. By parceling out your triumphs carefully, you could transform lower ranks into winning plays.

That wasn’t the only form of triumph. Face cards had a long history of occupying the highest ranks, with princes, queens, and kings providing a recognizable hierarchy for Medieval players. Every Latin trader understood these hierarchies instinctively — indeed, navigating the waters of hereditary monarchy and imperial electors could be a matter of life or death among the mercantile class, to such a degree that some grasped the distinction between a kingdom’s various claimants better than they understood numbers. It wasn’t long before some enterprising printers began to experiment with other face cards, adding bishops and popes and devils to the mix. The games that used these cards often relied on labyrinthine systems of interlocking trumps: an emperor was higher than a king but lower than a pope. Unless, of course, you lived within the boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire, then maybe you should be very careful about saying as much within earshot of an elector.

At any rate, by the mid-18th century this deck spun off into its own genre. Yes, I’m talking about the tarot. But that idea of interlocking trumps is still found in plenty of popular trick-takers today. One need look no further than Brent and Jeffrey Beck’s immensely popular Skull King for an example of both types of triumphs. The first is an entire suit of trumps, which instantly defeats any other suited card. Built over the top of that, however, are simplified face trumps, with Pirates who defeat any card whatsoever, a Skull King that defeats even a Pirate, and in later editions a Mermaid that loses to Pirates but defeats the Skull King. Which means that the entire history of the triumph has somehow been encapsulated by Grandpa Beck.

But I’d by lying if I said Skull King was one of my favorite trick-takers. For a similar sense of interlocking face trumps, I’d rather play Joraku by Iori Tsukinami. Set amidst the feuding warlords of the Ashikaga Shogunate, this is a blend of trick-taking and area control that sees players laying cards in order to add samurai to the board’s various regions. The trick-taking itself is fairly breezy; there are only three suits, no trump suit, and high card wins — with one exception. That would be the ninja, a card with no rank whatsoever. This means it loses to everything else unless somebody plays a six, the highest-ranked card in the game. Then the ninja assassinates that six and gets to add its troops to the board instead. Much like Renaissance face cards and triumphs, it’s a thematic flourish that everybody at the table is likely to instinctively understand.

Speaking of Mormonism, one time I got in trouble because one of our young men's leaders very sternly told our class, "Nothing good happens after bedtime," to which I replied, "Yes it does!" I think I was talking about reading in bed, but I sure earned a talking-to for that one.

Night time is the right time. (February)

In fact, that’s one of the reasons trick-takers stand out as such a flexible genre. By mapping the cards to a real-world topic, we’re able to sit down and play a game without having to learn a whole bunch of icons or exceptions.

Last year, Christopher Wray self-published a little trick-taker by the name of February. In that one, players are event planners trying to fill up the calendar month of, you guessed it, February. It’s a game with plenty of interlocking ranks and trumps. Since cards correspond to the days of the week and weeks of the month, it might seem confusing to sort them into their proper ranks. Except we’ve all had to plan a birthday party or two, so the sorting rules soon become second nature. Later in the week is better because weekends are easier to plan events for. Later weeks are better, because giving everybody some breathing room is superior to scheduling it for two days from now. And in case that wasn’t enough, nighttime cards trump daytime cards — duh, because most people already have time off in the evening. Rather than being too complicated for its own good, February instantly connects itself to a real-world rubric we’ve all interfaced with.

And, yeah, that’s cool and all, but why does it matter? Board games have used real-world settings as mnemonics since forever. Well, it matters because it shows how much can be added to the genre once we start tinkering with triumphs. Notably, both Joraku and February are hybrid trick-takers, partially area control games in addition to letting you lay down cards. This adds a crucial element. In Joraku, you’re trying to amass troops in high-scoring regions. These regions change over the game, getting closer and closer to Kyoto with each play. In February, you’re trying to dominate the rows and columns of the calendar. Trick-takers aren’t only easy to learn, accessible, and surprisingly clever. They’re also playful.

Which brings us to my favorite recent example. Bug Council of Backyardia, designed by Patrick Engro and Kyle Hanley, is all about controlling an ever-shifting trump suit. There are five suits in all — bees, mosquitos, ants, cockroaches, and flies — and none of them are inherently dominant. That’s where the game’s mancala rondel comes in. After each trick, whoever played the lowest on-suit card gets to make a move on the rondel, picking up a suit’s strength cubes and counting them around the wheel. The suit with the most cubes becomes trump for the upcoming trick. This hands an untold level of flexibility to players, letting them manipulate the power of their hands on the fly (sorry). Low cards are suddenly transformed into triumphs. Previously dominant hands are reducing to pudding. And losing cards are now worthwhile, giving weaker players a hand on the tiller.


Wait, is this trick-taking? (Bug Council of Backyardia)

There’s another element to Bug Council of Backyardia, one more piece of innovation that makes it all the more exciting. As members of the titular bug council, players are also asked at the start of each hand whether they’ll reaffirm their allegiance to this pan-species convocation of insects or go rogue. Both options offer their own rewards. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Because while triumphs bestow trick-takers with an extra layer of surprise — and sure, according to my nineteen-year-old self, an extra heaping of bullshit too — they pale in comparison to the topic of our next installment.

Strap yourself in, because next time we’re talking about contracts and bids.


(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 May 18, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Nooooooooooooooo. I know you’ve gotten over your predisposition against trick-takers, but I haven’t. 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: