Understanding Trick-Taking Games
Trick-taking games are a staple in the world of card games, beloved by players for their strategic depth and social interaction. At their core, these games revolve around the concept of “tricks.” In each round or hand, players play cards one at a time in a specific order, and the person who plays the highest-ranking card “wins” the trick. The objective varies from game to game: sometimes you aim to collect tricks, other times to avoid them.
A Brief History
The history of trick-taking games is as rich and varied as the games themselves. Dating back to early card games in the 16th century, such as Tarot (a forebear to modern games rather than the fortune-telling deck), the genre has evolved significantly. The introduction of the four-suited playing cards we’re familiar with today—a concept likely imported to Europe from the Mamluks of Egypt—was the foundation upon which trick-taking games flourished.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, games like Whist became popular, especially in Europe, and it is from Whist that many modern trick-taking games have descended. As societies and social gatherings evolved, so did these games, often reflecting cultural preferences and the competitive spirit of the times.
How to Play
The basic structure of trick-taking games involves players having a hand of cards and being required to follow suit (play a card of the same suit as the first card played) if they can. Should a player be unable to match the leading suit, they are at liberty to play a card of their choice from another suit.
The rules dictating which card wins the trick can vary. Sometimes, it is simply the highest card of the suit led, while other times, certain cards (like trump cards) have the power to win over any other suit.
Players need to strategize about when to play their strongest cards and when to hold back. There’s often a balance between collaborating with a partner (in partnership games) and competing against all other players. Success in trick-taking games comes from a combination of strategic planning, an understanding of probability, and an ability to read other players’ intentions.
Five Fascinating Trick-Taking Games
Bridge is arguably the most renowned trick-taking game, requiring four players who form two partnerships. Using a standard 52-card deck, the game begins with an auction where players bid to determine the contract (how many tricks above six their partnership will attempt to win, and the trump suit). After the bidding, the play proceeds clockwise, with the objective being to fulfill or exceed the contract or prevent the opposing partnership from doing so.
Popular particularly in the United States, Spades is played by four players in fixed partnerships. Spades are always the trump suit in this game, and players bid on the number of tricks they expect to win. Meeting or exceeding the bid scores points, while failing to do so results in penalties. The game is praised for its balance of luck and skill.
Hearts is unique among trick-taking games in that the goal is usually to avoid winning tricks with certain cards that carry penalty points, namely the hearts and the queen of spades. It’s typically played by four players, and the game has an interesting element of risk and reward, as players must navigate both the cards they want to win and those they need to avoid.
A game with a strong following in Canada and the Midwestern United States, Euchre is played with a smaller deck (24, 28, or 32 cards, depending on the variation). The game introduces the concept of a “bower,” with the Jack of the trump suit and its same-color counterpart being the highest-ranking cards. The game is played over several rounds, and the team first to reach a set number of points wins.
Pinochle has a dedicated fan base and uses a unique deck—you need two copies of the 9 through ace cards of all suits, making for 48 cards in total. It combines the mechanics of trick-taking with melding (creating combinations of cards that score points). It’s usually played by four players in partnerships and is known for its complex scoring and strategy.
Trick-taking games are a testament to the enduring appeal of strategic competition and social interaction. They offer a fascinating window into the way games can evolve from simple concepts into complex pastimes that are beloved by many. Whether you’re a bridge enthusiast, a spades aficionado, or a hearts or euchre rookie, the world of trick-taking games is rich with challenges and fun. So, gather a group of friends, pick a game, and start taking tricks!