Monday, August 4, 2014

Free Clubs

When I design a game that only uses standard components (in this case, a deck of playing cards), I like to give away the rules for free. Here are the rules for a three-player trick-taking card game with a fun strategic twist!


Like Spades, Hearts, and Bridge, Clubs is a trick-taking game, where on each turn (or "trick"), each player puts down one card from a large hand, and all players compete to try to make sure their card is the highest card played that turn, winning (or "taking") the trick. 

Unlike most other trick-taking games, Clubs is designed for exactly three people. Also, most other trick-taking games let players guess how many tricks they are going to take, with bonuses for guessing well and penalties for promising more than you can deliver. 

By contrast, Clubs has a fixed target: 7 out of 10 tricks. Whoever wins the bidding in a hand of Clubs must win at least 7 tricks in order to avoid a big penalty. Instead of moving that number up or down, players bid to see what kinds of handicaps they can give themselves without falling short of 7 tricks. For example, a player might say that she can win even after discarding a high card, or that she can win even after passing a high card to her neighbor.

The player who accepts the harshest and most dangerous handicaps will win the auction and get to collect the 'treasure chest' of bonus playing cards. The other two players will then usually try to stop the first player from reaching 7 tricks, although every trick is valuable, so the other two players may also compete among themselves to collect their own tricks!

Play continues for several hands until someone has collected at least 250 points (which represents about 3 solidly won hands). Then, whoever has the most points is the winner.


Start with a standard deck of 52 cards, plus 2 Jokers, for a total of 54 cards. Take the Jokers, Kings, Queens, Jacks, and 10s (18 cards total), and shuffle them together, dealing out 6 cards per player. These are known as the "auction" cards. 

Then, take the remaining 36 cards (Aces, twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, eights, and nines) and shuffle them together (do not mix them with the face cards). Deal out 10 cards to each player; these are known as the "primary" cards. Set the remaining 6 playing cards aside face-down; these cards are called the "treasure chest."

Order and Meaning of the Cards

Ace  -- Lowest Primary Card; loses to any higher card of the same suit.
Two through Eight  -- Middle Primary Cards; higher numbers are better.
Nine -- Highest Playing Card; beats any Primary card except a trump
Ace through Nine of Clubs -- Trump Primary Cards; beat all non-trump primary cards.
Ten of Spades -- Lowest Auction Card; opens the auction and means you must discard one spades primary card of your choice (usually the lowest).
Other Tens -- Low Auction Card; means you must discard one primary card of that suit of your choice (usually the lowest).
Jacks -- Middle Auction Card; means you must discard your highest primary card in that suit.
Queens -- High Auction Card; means that you must pass your highest primary card in the suit to the neighbor on your left. For example, if you played the Queen of Hearts, and you had [A, 3, 6, 8, J] of Hearts in your hand, you would have to pass the 8 of Hearts to your left (the Jack is an auction card, not a Primary card).
King -- Very High Auction Card; means that you must discard your three highest primary cards in the suit. For example, if you played the King of Spades, and you had [2, 4, 5, 9, 10] of Spades in your hand, you would have to discard the 4, 5, and 9 of Spades (the ten is an auction card, not a primary card). If you do not have enough primary cards in suit, just discard all the primary cards in that suit. For example, if you had [2, 4, 10] in Spades, you would discard the 2 and the 4.
Joker -- Highest Auction Card; means that you form a partnership with whoever bid most recently. Instead of you alone needing to take 7 tricks, the two of you together need to take all 10 tricks, or you both suffer the penalty for breaking your contract. Whoever bids the Joker wins the auction immediately, ending the auction and collecting the treasure chest. Both players in the partnership must keep and enforce their handicaps from the auction.


After the cards are dealt out, players take turns (going clockwise from the first bidder) bidding with their auction cards to try to win the playing cards stored in the treasure chest. The last player to make a bid will get to collect the playing cards in the treasure chest and use them as part of her hand during the main part of the game, which is a big advantage.

When bidding you must follow two rules:
(1) You can only bid a card that is more valuable than the most recent card that was bid, and
(2) You cannot jump up more than one 'level' on a single bid.

Jokers and then Kings are the most valuable auction cards, followed by Queens, then Jacks, and finally Tens. If two cards have the same 'number' or face card, the tie is broken using alphabetical order, with Clubs being most valuable and Spades being least valuable. For example, if the player to your right just bid a Jack of Diamonds, you could bid a Jack of Clubs, a Queen of Hearts, a Queen of Diamonds, or a Queen of Clubs. You cannot bid a Ten of Hearts or a Jack of Spades, because those are not more valuable than the Jack of Diamonds; that would violate Rule 1. Similarly, you cannot bid a King of Spades or a Joker, because that would jump up more than one level, violating Rule 2. The card one level up from a Jack is a Queen; that means the highest card you can play off of a Jack is a Queen. You cannot play a King until someone has played a Queen, and you cannot play a Joker unless someone has played a King.

Joker > KC > KD > KH > KS > QC > QD > QH > QS > JC > JD > JH > JS > 10C > 10D > 10H > 10S.

Whoever holds the 10 of Spades (the lowest auction card) opens the bidding by putting the 10 of Spades face up in front of her. Bidding then continues clockwise, with each player either bidding one card by putting it face up in front of him, or saying "pass." If you pass, you take no action, and the bidding continues clockwise. You may rejoin the auction if the bidding comes around to you again. However, if two players in a row both pass, then the auction is over, and the auction is won by the last person who bid a card. For example, suppose Jason, Eric, and Rachel are playing. If Jason bids the Jack of Clubs, Eric could pass. Rachel could then bid the Queen of Spades. Jason could pass, and then Eric could bid the King of Diamonds. If Rachel and then Jason both pass, Eric would win the auction. After Jason passes again, it is too late for Rachel to decide to rejoin the auction.
JC < pass < QS < pass < KD < pass < pass.
(KD wins)

The winner of the auction leaves any cards that she bid face-up in front of her, and then sets the remaining auction cards face-down out of play. All other players also discard all their auction cards face-down and out of play, whether they bid them or not. Then, the winner of the auction collects the playing cards from the treasure chest and mixes them in with the playing cards from his/her own hand. The winner of the auction will now have a hand of 16 playing cards, and the other two players will have a hand of 10 playing cards each.


After the auction is over but before the trick-taking begins, the player who won the auction (or both players who won the auction, if the auction ended with a Joker) must resolve all of their handicaps that go along with all of the cards they bid during the auction. For example, if the winner bid a 10 of Hearts and then a Jack of Diamonds, she must look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her choice of heart. Usually you would want to discard your lowest heart. She would then look at her hand (including the treasure chest) and discard her highest diamond (usually the 7, 8, or 9). Note that you cannot discard auction cards to fulfill the requirements of a auction card. That would not make any sense. Instead, discard primary cards to fulfill the requirements of an auction card.

Finally, the Joker changes how many tricks the auction winner needs and adds a second player to the auction 'team.' Leave the Joker face up in front of you, and put the other Joker face up in front of your teammate, to remind all players of their roles. Both players on the Joker team have to discard primary cards based on their handicap bids, but only the player who bid the Joker wins the treasure chest.

If you did not win the auction, and you are not part of a Joker team, then put your bidding cards away -- you do not have to worry about any handicaps.


Immediately after resolving handicaps, but before play begins, each player chooses one card from his or her hand (including the treasure chest, if you have won it) and passes it to the player on his or her right.

Then, play begins with the player clockwise from the person who won the auction (in case of a Joker, play begins with the only person who lost the auction); that player chooses any card in her hand and plays it face-up near the center of the table, facing her. Then, the person to her right must choose any card in a matching suit and put it face-up near the center of the table, facing him. Finally, the third player (who in this case is the player who won the auction) chooses a card in a matching suit and puts it face-up near the center of the table. If you do not have any cards at all left in the current suit, you may choose any card from your hand, instead.

Ordinarily, the highest card played in the correct suit will 'win' the trick. Cards played in a non-matching suit, even if they are very high, are worthless for winning a trick. The winner of the trick collects all three of the cards that were just played and sets them aside in a face-down pile near his or her seat. Aces are low cards; they cannot win a trick unless they are played at the start of the trick and nobody else is able to follow suit.

The exception is Clubs, which are called trump cards. When a club is played after a non-club card, it 'trumps', or automatically beats, the non-club card. For example, the Two of Clubs will beat the Nine of Diamonds, even though nines are higher than twos. Keep in mind that you cannot play a trump card just because you feel like it -- you must have no cards of the current suit in your hand in order to play a non-matching card, be it trump or otherwise. If the first player in the trick chooses a club card (which is allowed), then clubs are the correct suit, so trump is not really an issue -- you either have a higher club to play, or you don't.

If you have no cards at all remaining in your hand, simply pass when it is your turn to play. If you win a trick with your last card, then the player to your right gets to play the lead card of the trick and choose the correct suit for that trick.

After the player who wins the trick collects the three cards, he or she then plays the lead card of the next trick. Play then continues for ten tricks total, or until at least two of the players are out of cards in their hand (whichever comes first). Players then count the cards they collected to see what they scored.


+10 points for each trick you personally won
- 50 points if you won the auction by yourself but you did not make 7 tricks
- 50 points if you were part of a Joker team but your team did not make 10 tricks
+ 20 points if you collected the most Diamonds as part of winning your tricks
          (in case of a tie, all tying players get +10 points)
+10 points if you collected the Ace of Hearts as part of winning your tricks
+5 points if you collected no spades at all as part of winning your tricks

As soon as one player has at least 250 points, whoever has the most points wins.

Penalties for Cheating

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and someone notices the mistake before another card is played, you may pick up that card and choose a new one, with no penalty.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after another card is played but before the trick is taken, you must leave the card you played on the table, and you forfeit that trick. If you would have won the trick, then instead the trick is won by whoever had the second-most powerful card on the table.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the trick is taken but before the next hand is dealt, you forfeit your positive points for the round. You can still get negative points if you failed to complete your contract, but you cannot get any positive points for any reason for that hand. Other players score as normal.

If you play a card that you are not allowed to play because of one of your handicaps, or because you are not yet out of the current suit, and the mistake is noticed after the next hand is dealt, there is no penalty. Seriously, whoever was pointing out that mistake needs to either pick up the pace or learn to forgive!