Chung-Toi – Board Game Review

Chung-Toi Board Game

Chung-Toi

All serious strategy board gamers have been there. You’re on a camping trip out in the middle of nowhere wilderness where there’s plenty of food and plenty of fire to roast weenies and marshmallows, but no electronics and few games to play. Maybe someone brought a deck of cards, but no one can agree to learn anyone else’s card game, they just want everyone to play their own. Often someone brings Uno, which is nice but not too mentally engaging. Perhaps someone who didn’t mind being labeled as the camp nerd took one for the team and brought along chess. He’ll kick your butt every time, but at least it gives you something to do. But most often, in the backwoods campgrounds I have been to, or even on the way there or back while waiting for a table at a Cracker Barrel country store, somewhere there is a checkers board. It may be scrawled out on the top of a wooden barrel, or painted onto a picnic table. All it takes is 12 round pieces each of two distinct colors and you’re saved from boredom. Even if your opponent doesn’t know how to play checkers, it’s likely one of the easiest games to teach.

So you begin playing checkers. At first the game is quite even, piece captured for piece captured with the occasional one piece for two pieces. But eventually the end game comes along, and it’s down to a number of kings duking it out. It feels like I have had more opponents quit on me at the beginning of the late game than not when playing checkers.

“Ah, I can see you’re just too good for me! You win!” they say as if they are doing me a favor.

Sometimes I have thought to myself, “Self, wouldn’t it be great if you could just skip to and play the checkers late game with someone so they don’t get fatigued and chicken out?” That’s kind of what Chung-Toi feels like to play. Chung-Toi, a product of House-of-Chung Enterprises, bills itself as “Tic-Tac-Toe with a Twist.” Copyrighted in 1985 and designed for two players only, the objective of this game is to get three of your pieces in a row. The game contains a 3-by-3 board with three white pieces and three red pieces.

Chung-Toi game pieces

Chung-Toi game pieces

The rules are pretty simple. Both players decide who goes first. Taking turns, each player places a piece on the board until all pieces have been placed. Each piece is in the shape of an octagon and has arrows on four sides. When turned one direction, a piece’s arrows will be pointed horizontally and vertically on the game board. When turned one-eighth of a turn from that position, the arrows are pointed diagonally across the game board. These arrows indicate the direction that piece is allowed to move in a later turn, so when you place your pieces make sure you’re happy with the direction you’ve got the arrows pointing.

Once all pieces are placed, if no player already has three pieces in a row, a player may move one of her pieces in the following ways. A piece may be moved in one direction indicated by the current position of the arrows across the board either to an adjacent empty position or to hop over a piece to an empty position two spaces away from the piece’s current position. When moving any piece, the player may reorient the piece’s arrows in any configuration they choose. A piece may also be rotated to change its arrow configuration from diagonal to horizontal/vertical and vice-versa. Finally, a player may rotate a piece such that its current arrow configuration does not change, in essence passing on her turn.

Chung-Toi game play

Chung-Toi game play

Playing this game starts out feeling like a simple game of tic-tac-toe, but once all pieces are on the board, it is a puzzle to figure out how to arrange your own pieces while not compromising the positions you are holding that are keeping your opponent from winning. This game won a Mensa award in 1994. It’s really easy to pickup and teach. It’s moderately simple to get decent at this game when playing with other beginners, but becomes a delightful challenge to learn how to master besting an opponent when similarly matched.

I was unable to find a website or any real information on House-of-Chung Enterprises. According to the game box, W. Reginald Chung from Tifton, Georgia holds the copyright on Chung-Toi. It’s such a simple game, you could actually scrawl out a playing field using chalk on pavement and then use make-shift objects to designate player’s pieces and directions if you were out at camp and had no games with you.

I found a copy on Ebay selling for under 10 dollars. This seems like a worthwhile price to me. The biggest issue with paying too much for this game is that it literally feels like the end game to another game. The box claims that the “average playing time is 7 minutes per game.” I have yet to play a game of Chung-Toi that came close to 7 minutes, which would make me wonder if I was really getting my money’s worth. On the whole though, this is an excellent game to play with someone who has a short attention span, when you have only a little bit of time to waste, or you’re out in the woods with nothing to do.

Air Empire – Board Game First Impressions

Air Empire Box Art

Air Empire Box Art

Playing Air Empire, a board game released in 1961 by Avalon Hill, is like walking back in time for an educational, yet entertaining history lesson. Playable by 2 to 4 players, each player assumes control of one of the four major airlines at the beginning of the 1960s: American Airlines, Trans World Airline, United Airlines, and Eastern Air Lines.

That last airline was one I had actually never heard of. Apparently, Eastern Air Lines used to be one of the biggest airlines during most of the 20th century. Run by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I fighter ace and Medal of Honor recipient, Eastern Air Lines “had a near monopoly on air travel between New York and Florida from the 1930s until the 1950s and dominated the market for decades afterward.” according to Wikipedia, though it has been defunct since 1991. I didn’t fly in my first plane until the mid 1990s on a Delta airlines flight. Delta isn’t represented in the game; they didn’t really become a big-time airline until well into the 1960s.

While writing this first impressions review I got so absorbed in reading about Rickenbacker’s adventurous life, from winning 26 aerial victories in World War I, his secret mission to the Soviet Union during World War II, to all his near death experiences where the press reported he had died multiple times throughout his inspiring and exciting life. I want to read his autobiography now. Look him up, you’ll be glad you did.

When I was getting pumped up to play Air Empire I was telling my wife I was looking forward to “flying the friendly skies.” That slogan is nowhere to be found in this game since United Airlines did not institute that slogan until 1965. Their slogan in 1961 was “The Main Line Airway.” I can see why they changed it.

Air Empire game board

Air Empire game board

It’s unusual to write a first impressions review for a board game. Most board games have a single set of rules that you follow and a set amount of time to play through the game. Air Empire has two rule booklets and three sets of gameplay. Booklet A contains the rules for the basic game. Booklet B contains further details about rules in booklet A and additional optional rules of play that add complexity to the basic game. On the back of booklet B are instructions for the Air Empire Tournament Game which adds additional rules designed to make the game more cut-throat and eliminate the players. In tournament play taxes and revenue fluctuations are added as well as forcing the player to turn in old planes and purchase new ones to maintain their airline fleet.

Booklet A directs players to start with it. The instructions are written such that players read a piece of the instructions out loud, then play that piece of the game, then continue reading the instructions, play the next piece and so on. Because we started with the basic game and the basic game is all we had time for during our game night, I’ll have to fully review the tournament game another time. There are some games that offer players kid gloves to get them eased into the game on the off chance they are not very experienced gamers – a “basic” game that is more like a tutorial. This game is not one of them. If we had started with the tournament game, it would have been brutal. My opponent and I kept running out of money and going bankrupt during the game. We made agreements at several points to rewind the game and try again when we had made a game-ending grave mistake.

Air Empire Gameplay

Air Empire game play

Each player assumes control of the airline designated by the logo on the side of the game board that is closest to them. The basic game occurs over a period of three in-game years divided into quarters. Therefore there are 12 rounds of play. The object of the basic game is to be the player with the most liquid cash at the end of those three years. Assets do not count toward this cash total.

There are 18 route cards that correspond to the 18 airport destinations on the game board. Each quarter all of the players bid on which class of service and how much they are willing to invest in each route. At the beginning of the game out of all the players, a “Senior President” is chosen. In the case of a tie in the game, the Senior President wins the tie in all bids. Each quarter, the position of Senior President moves to the next player around the table in a clockwise fashion. I’ve found using a dealer poker chip works well for this. In setting up the game, the route cards are shuffled and placed face down on the designated space on the game board. Each player receives a score sheet to keep track of the statistics for their airline.

Air Empire score sheet

Air Empire score sheet

Each route card contains a city, a list of cities adjacent to it, the flight costs associated with providing service in that city at each class level, and the revenue received from operating flights in that city at that class level. In a two player game, only classes A and B may be bid on. For three or four player games, a player may bid for any class level.

At the beginning of each quarter, the route card on the top of the deck is flipped over to reveal the new route. All players then covertly write the name of the city in an open Route Application slot on their airline score sheet. They select which class they are bidding for and the amount they bid to invest in that route. Their bid must be the same or higher than the flight cost amount listed on the route card.

If two or more players bid for a particular class, the highest bid for that class wins the route at that class. If there is a tie, if the Senior President was involved, the Senior President wins the bid. Otherwise, the player sitting closest to the Senior President in the clockwise direction wins the bid. When a bid is won, the winning player fills in the revenue and profit blanks on the Route Application and places the appropriate number of planes from their fleet at the new route’s city on the game board. The exact breakdown of what planes are required for each bid amount are listed on the game board under the “Flight Costs Table” heading.

Air Empire Flight Costs Table

Air Empire Flight Costs Table

Air Empires is very unforgiving for players who don’t plan ahead. If you win a bid, but you don’t have the right number and type of planes to support your bid amount, you automatically lose the bid and the next highest bidding player wins the route at that class instead. There are two types of planes: propeller and super jet planes. In one round I attempted to hurt my opponent by bidding high in class A for the Baltimore-Washington route at a price of $18,000. For $18,000 I needed 4 propeller planes and 2 super jets. I think I had 3 super jets at that point in the game, but I needed more propeller planes. If I had bid $17,000 or $19,000 I would have had an adequate number of planes to service the route. But because I frivolously bid $18,000, I lost the bid and the round as a result.

Any player who loses a bid in a class does not get to open a route that quarter. There are many perks for fighting for and winning bids in class A, however. For every two class A bids a player wins they may, if they choose, “borrow” $5,000 from the bank. This bank loan gets recorded on their score sheet on the round it was received, they receive the cash from the bank, and they are never required to pay it back. As the rules state, “Interest would be too small to effect play of the game, so this step has been eliminated.” Sounds like a cheap bonus granted to the current winner to me. Another bonus granted to class A route holders occurs when a player holds two adjacent class A routes. When this happens, a player receives a 20% increase to the profit generated from the new route. Each route card indicates which other cities are adjacent to it. It is possible, given a player has the planes necessary to support it, to bid so high no immediate profit is made from winning the bid. This can be used as a strategy to keep another player from getting a class A route, or to obtain a strategic class A route that can be used later.

Filling out the Air Empire score sheet

Filling out the Air Empire score sheet

After the winners of each class on the current route have been determined, players fill out their score sheets with their profits added to their current gross profit. Filling out the score sheet is kind of like filling out a tax form. Imagining that I was an actual president of a commercial airline, I enjoyed seeing my profits written down on paper and doing the math there. Others might consider this to be more work than game play though. This is a large component of the game, so keep that in mind if you consider obtaining a copy of Air Empire.

After recording profits, the player must decide how many new planes they would like to purchase. Propeller planes cost $2,500 each while super jets cost $7,000 each. There are a finite number of super jets and propeller planes. There are fewer super jets than there are propeller planes. It is a workable tactic to buy up all the super jets to make it more difficult for opponents to bid on the higher class routes. After recording the total purchase price of all planes, the player then calculates the total maintenance and overhaul cost of their fleet. Each propeller plane costs $200 per quarter while each super jet costs $500 per quarter to maintain. Gross Profits – (New Plane Cost + Maintenance Costs) equals net profit received from the bank. If this number is negative, the player owes the bank money.

Just like running an actual business, it’s really easy to plan poorly and wind up dirt poor or bankrupt. I found it helpful to use a calculator each round for planning out my next round. While calculating my scores for the current round I also came up with a shortcut to make figuring out the number of planes I would purchase easier by combining the cost of the plane with its maintenance cost. So when purchasing a propeller jet I calculated it at a cost of $2,700 and super jets at $7,500.

Once all players have made good with the bank by receiving their net profit or paying their outstanding balance, the next route card is turned over and the next quarter of play begins. It is important to keep track of when the game will end. When the game is over planes may not be turned in for cash, so it is wise not to purchase too many planes in the final quarters.

Air Empire is so cash.

Air Empire is so cash.

Air Empire is a moderately complex game of extreme strategy and skill. As I noted before, a great deal of math and planning goes into excelling at this game. Even more interesting is the bidding process though. Each bid I made with my opponent was akin to playing a hand of Poker, trying to determine the opponent’s next move and whether they would bluff or not. Air Empire is rich in these chance game mechanics while not actually being a game of chance. Based on these mechanics, I find this game to be absolutely fascinating. I concede it is not for everyone, but if you consider yourself to be a serious board game player and love strategy or betting games, I would highly recommend you give Air Empire a try.

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent – Compatibility

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent

Windows 10

  • Installs – Yes
  • Runs – Yes
  • Uninstalls – No, not automatically.
  • Requires CD-ROM to play.

Surprisingly, this game from 1997 installs and runs nearly flawlessly for me in Windows 10. There is some flicker or transparent artifact that can be seen surrounding the border of the video cut scenes, but the cut scene itself is unaffected and so is game play. This game requires the CD-ROM to play, even when installing the full game to the hard disk. Its consistent polling of the CD-ROM drive can cause the game to lag slightly. You will want to reconfigure the controls prior to playing this game since the default controls will trigger a “Sticky Keys” dialog to appear in Windows 10. The Sierra provided uninstaller program does not seem to work correctly in Windows 10.

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent – Computer Game First Impressions

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent Title Screen

Title Screen

It has probably been years since I last played a pinball game, let alone one on a computer. The last time was probably when I played Space Cadet Pinball as a pack-in game for Windows XP. Its 2D visuals were nice and crisp. Its sounds were sharp and futuristic. And it was fun. Computer pinball games in general have always been fun for me. The first computer pinball game I recall playing was Crystal Caliburn by Little Wing for Windows 3.x. Even though it came out in 1993, its sharp higher resolution bitmap artwork kept me enthralled with its medieval theme. I would play for hours as a grade school student when I should have been doing my homework.

For those who don’t know what pinball is, I’ll have to write a later article to do the subject justice. It should suffice currently to just imagine that there is a ball, falling down at an incline, and that the player can push it back up using one of two paddles on either side of a hole in the middle. If the ball falls into the hole too many times, the game ends. The object is to keep the ball up in the air and score points by knocking the ball into objects within the inclined playing field.

Jewel Case Art

Jewel Case Art

While working my way through my game collection, looking for games that will run natively in Windows 10, I found 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent. It is the second in a series of pinball games created by Dynamix and published by Sierra in 1997. While I was impressed with how well the game runs on Windows 10, what is most impressive about this game is how cheezy it is.

CD-ROM Art

CD-ROM Art

The game’s plot appears to be that a passenger plane is damaged in a lightning storm and crash-lands on a deserted island filled with dinosaurs and a mad scientist. In the beginning cut scene, as the plane is going down, you can see the pinball playing field on the island. It looks like the plane actually crash-landed into a pinball table. The intro cut scene looks like something designed by my high school buddies using Microsoft Movie Maker. It was 1997 and Movie Maker did not come out until 2000. You can decide if I should cut them more slack. It looks like they had fun making this game what it is, and honestly its most redeeming quality is that it does not seem to take itself too seriously.

Pinball Table Lower Right

Pinball Table Lower Right

I can only imagine begging for my parents to buy me this game in the store when it was retailing upwards of 20 dollars and then getting it home and being incredibly disappointed. I got my copy for 3 dollars at Goodwill. That price was probably worth it just for the laughs I have gotten from watching the intro cut scene and listening to its terrible one-liners. I’m actually somewhat surprised that Sierra released this game at all.

While Sierra released some duds over the years, they generally kept the bar for their releases relatively high. A potentially little known fact about Sierra is that they provided a one hundred percent money-back satisfaction guarantee on all of their games, one that they stood behind. If for any reason you didn’t like the game, you could send it back within 30 days for a full refund. I wonder what percentage of these they received back after people complained demanding their money back.

T-Rex with Some Happy Little Trees

T-Rex with Some Happy Little Trees

The game play in my initial play-through was mediocre. Balls seemingly sometimes unfairly fall out of the play field immediately after being released. When this happens, the game would often toss me a free ball as if it knew it gave me a cheap shot. The free ball seems to come in at random though and blends in too much with all the dinosaurs moving across the screen. It’s hard to tell what the ball is doing when it’s doing it, or why I received certain points and bonuses. I read in another review that 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent has 16 pinball table levels. When I hit a game over, it allowed me to continue. Hypothetically, if the player were to have unlimited continues, there is nothing stopping them from playing all the way through the game provided they had the patience to do so. 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent can also be played by up to four players, so play with people you hope to bore that you don’t want coming to see you very often.

Multiball!!!

Multiball!!!

Apparently Windows 10 retained another pinball buzzkill I remembered from my Windows XP days. Whenever you press the shift key too many times in a row, a dialog box pops up asking if you would like to turn on Sticky Keys in Windows. Of course the shift key is a standard paddle key for most computer pinball games. It sure would have been nice if Microsoft had provided a checkbox on their dialog that said something on the order of, “Don’t display this dialog again.” Control keys can be configured in 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent and game pads can also be enabled, but when all you have is a keyboard, using the shift key just feels natural.

Reconfigure Controls to Avoid this in Windows 10

Reconfigure Controls to Avoid this in Windows 10

Another frustration I have with 3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent is the way it continuously checks the CD-ROM drive for the disc during play. This is a game from 1997, and yet it is lagging on my computer from 2017 because it’s continuously polling the CD-ROM drive even after I chose the option to install the entire game to the hard disk. I figure this is some form of late nineties DRM. Someone at Sierra had a lot of pride in believing anyone would want to make pirated copies of this game.

T-Rex says, "Hi Guys!".

T-Rex says, “Hi Guys!”

3D Ultra Pinball: The Lost Continent really does have a lot of charm. It’s worth installing and loading just to see the cut scenes if obtained at a reasonable price. As far as pinball games though, this just isn’t as fun as a lot of pinball titles that I recall playing prior to its release and pinball games that came after it hit the bargain bin and was largely forgotten.

Minecraft: Card Game? – Card Game Review

Minecraft: Card Game?

Minecraft: Card Game?

In order to capitalize on the success of the best selling game of all time, Minecraft’s license has been used extensively on a host of in real-life products. One of these is the Minecraft: Card Game? card game. Despite the question mark on the cover, it is undeniably a card game. The cards are square instead of the typical rectangular cards you would expect in a normal card deck, but they are cards nonetheless.

The game is designed to be played by 2 to 4 players. There are two types of cards: resource cards and craft cards. Resource cards are used to craft tools: 24 wood, 9 stone, 8 iron, 7 gold, 6 diamond, 11 wild cards, 5 creepers, and 5 TNT cards. A player turns in resource cards to obtain a tool card and with it the number of points that particular tool card grants. The player with the highest point total wins.

The rules are not very well written. It’s almost like the person who wrote the rules never played the game to check that the rules made sense. Most notably there is no mention of how to determine which player goes first. I realize it should be simple enough to roll a die to determine who goes first, but this is a game where turn order actually matters. In a 2-player game, the first person to 24 points is the winner. In a 3-player game, it’s the first player to reach 20 points. And in a 4-player game, the first to 16 points. This potentially gives the first person to play a distinct advantage.

In a similar card game, Splendor, the rules state that if the player who was first to play reaches the winning point total first in her turn, all other players may play to complete the round. This allows every player the same number of turns to get to the winning score. In the Minecraft: Card Game? game I played, the final scores were so tight that using this method only favored one player over another and was seemingly unfair. Another option might be to play multiple games where each player takes their turn as the first player. The player who has won a majority of games is then declared the winner.

Minecraft: Card Game? is set up by shuffling all of the resource cards and then dealing them out into a row of 5 equal piles in the middle of the play surface. Then the craft cards are shuffled and also dealt into a row of 4 equal piles in the middle of the play surface above or below the resource card piles. After distributing the craft cards, you will be left with one remaining craft card. This card is placed into a discard pile, and discarded cards will be placed on top of it.

Minecraft: Card Game? Setup

Minecraft: Card Game? Setup

When a player takes a turn, they may mine a resource card, craft a craft card, or reserve a craft card. A player is typically afforded two actions per turn. When a player mines a resource card, they pick a wood, stone, iron, gold, diamond, or wild card off of a resource card pile and place it in front of them. When a resource card pile becomes exhausted, the cards in the discard pile are shuffled and used to fill in the exhausted resource card pile.

When a TNT card is mined from a resource card pile, the player who mined the card chooses two cards to keep, and then discards all remaining cards from the top of all other resource card piles. When a creeper card is shown when drawing from a resource card pile, each player must discard a card from the resource cards in front of them. What if a creeper happens to be the top card in a resource card pile when the game begins? This scenario is not mentioned in the game rules. When this happened in my game, I just placed the creeper in the discard pile and drew the next card as the top card in the pile. No player may draw a TNT or creeper card as a resource.

When a player crafts a craft card, they place the number of resources shown on the craft card into the discard pile face down. They then take the craft card and place it tool side up in front of them. (Once again, the official rules don’t make this very clear.) Each tool crafted has a special ability that can be used only once for the remainder of the game. Once the tool has been used, the player will flip the craft card back to the craft side to show the tool has been used. The player receives all of the points for crafting the tool, whether or not the tool is used during the game. A resource card may only be used on one craft card. If you have a resource card that states it is worth 3 diamonds, it cannot be used as 1 diamond for one craft card and 2 diamonds for another craft card.

Using a tool does not count as an action, and can be done at any time during the game even outside of a player’s turn. There are five tools which match up to the five basic tools which can be crafted in the Minecraft open world multi-platform game that we all love: sword, shovel, pick axe, axe, and hoe. The sword allows you to forgo discarding a card when a creeper card is exposed in a resource card pile. The shovel allows you to force one player to have one fewer action on their next turn. The pick axe gives you an extra action on your turn. The axe can be used to provide two wood as a resource. The hoe can be used to take the resource card off of all of the resource card piles directly into the discard pile thereby exposing all of the resource cards underneath.

Finally a player may reserve a craft card to be crafted later. The craft card is placed off to the side into that player’s card holder. As far as I can tell, there is no limit to the number of craft cards a player may place in reserve.

Like I said before, Minecraft: Card Game? is a lot like Splendor perhaps crossed with aspects of Monopoly Deal. It’s not in any way a bad game, but it does lack polish. It is a fun little game if you don’t take it too seriously, but experienced card gamers such as myself might expect something more balanced coming from an experienced game maker like Mattel.

Spades – Card Game Review

Spades

Spades

The other night I attended a game day with many people from my local church. I noticed that while a large number of people showed up with the expectation of having a great deal of fun, few were willing to take a plunge on learning a game they had never played before. It seems to me that most people get awkward when approaching a new game. Perhaps they don’t want to appear ignorant or less than proficient at something they don’t have much experience with. Most of the family classics were represented. There was Battleship!, Yahtzee, Jenga, Connect Four, and all sorts of games high on luck with little skill required. I will admit Jenga requires a great level of skill, and the Jenga game played that night was phenomenal. More on that in its own game review. In general however, it is my hypothesis that most people who would consider themselves to be non-gamers prefer games of chance. If they lose they can always blame their situation on simple poor circumstance.

I tend to be the opposite when it comes to these types of game gatherings. Because of my highly introverted nature, talking about a complex game helps me ease into social interaction with people I don’t know well. I think I’d rather play a game I had never encountered before, because talking about that game helps me overcome my social anxiety just enough to break the ice. Gamers who have never met but share a love for a game in common can talk strategy and experience. Doing so conjures up all sorts of powerful good memories that they share in common which in turn builds rapport between people who were complete strangers prior to that interaction.

I think I am going to come up with a new scale to publish along-side all of my game reviews to measure a game’s position on the chance/skill spectrum. Yahtzee might be an example of a game solidly on the chance end of the spectrum with no skill. Maybe it should receive a 100/0 chance/skill rating. Then there is the game of Chess which is solidly on the skill end of the spectrum. Obviously this would receive a 0/100 chance/skill rating.

So I stood there awkwardly at the game day hoping someone would play something interesting I could talk with them about. Meanwhile others stood awkwardly looking at complex games they were hoping they would not be asked to play. I brought the games Codenames and Forbidden Island with me. To my knowledge they didn’t get touched the entire night. I watched people fawn over a really neat looking yard sized checker set someone purchased on Amazon. Many people said they might buy one too, but no one actually played checkers at all.

Thankfully my friend Larry came up to me and asked me if I knew how to play Spades.

Yep!” I said trying not to sound too enthusiastic.

Would you like to be my partner?” he then asked.

Yep!” I replied, happy to get into a game and away from my social anxiety and awkwardness.

Spades is a card game that can be played with a standard 54 playing card deck. Both jokers are removed to make a 52 card deck. It is typically a four player game with two players playing together on each team. Each player sits across from their teammate such that each turn iterates from one team playing to the other. Spades is part chance and part skill. While the cards are dealt to all players at random, it is up to the player by what strategy they play their hand. Measured on my chance/skill spectrum, I would rate it as being C50/S50.

Now Spades is one of those games in which I find it wise to tread carefully as far as the rules are concerned. Because of its wide popularity, the general faultiness of human memory, and the disregard many people have for reading written rules of any sort, many variations of Spades with their own house rules exist. I did my best to not be a bother and played by the rules the opposing team insisted were the correct ones. I still don’t really understand all of the arithmetic my opponent used to calculate our scores, but I can tell you his house rules math did not impede the fun we had playing together.

A starting dealer is selected. The dealer shuffles the card deck and deals out 13 cards to each player, which when dealt properly will exhaust the number of cards in the 52 card deck. With 13 cards in each player’s hands, there are thirteen tricks that will be played in each round. Starting to the left of the dealer, each player examines their cards and makes a bid for the number of tricks they believe they will be able to win.

A trick is won by being the player to play the highest ranked card in that moment of play. Rank is determined first by suit and then by number. By number, Ace is high followed by K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Spades are trump. Essentially whatever suit (clubs, hearts, diamonds, or spades) is led (played by the person who starts the trick), its highest ranking number will win the trick unless a spade is played, in which case the highest numbered spade will win the trick.

In the first round I examined my hand, noted that I had two aces (diamonds and clubs) and four spades with the Jack being the highest. Therefore I estimated I might be able to take four tricks. The bidding went around the table with everyone estimating the performance of their hands.

Since there are a total of 13 tricks, if one were to bid 13 and successfully take all of them they would receive 130 points. In this particular round, I bid 4 tricks while Larry bid 2. This gave us a combined bid of 6 tricks. When we finished the round, we had taken all 6 tricks, so we received 60 points. If we had not taken all of our tricks, we would have received -60 points. If we had taken 7 tricks, which is one beyond what we had bid, we would have received what was called a sandbag for a total of 61 points. Each sandbag is worth one point a piece, but if you get ten sandbags, you lose 100 points. Finally, if a player were to bid zero, it is called going nil. If a player successfully takes zero tricks while going nil, they will receive 100 points, but -100 if they fail.

In the first trick, everyone plays the lowest club in their hand. If the player does not have a lowest club, they may play any card. Whomever won the trick using the highest ranking card then leads the next trick. A spade cannot be played to lead a trick until a spade has been played in regular play to take a trick. When this occurs, spades are said to have been “broken.” A player may not play any card with a suit that is different from the suit that was led unless that player has no cards with the leading suit. Play continues until all 13 tricks have been won by a team. After the end of the 13th trick, the scores are recorded and play continues until a team reaches or surpasses 500 points thereby becoming the winner.

Our first round was fairly non-eventful. Both sides met their bids. They bid 7 tricks while we bid 6. We were confident everyone knew how to play by the rules. It was time to take it to the next level. In the second round they overbid in order to take more from us. When both team bids add up to 13 or less, both teams have the opportunity to be winners. But when the sum of all bids is higher than 13, someone has to lose points. Unfortunately for the opposing team, we made our bid which pushed their score negative.

In order to pull their score back up, one of our opponents went nil. She almost succeeded, but was forced to take the last trick which left them over 100 points negative. When a team is over one hundred points below their opposing team in Spades, the team is able to make a special bid called a blind nil. A team must announce they are going blind nil before any cards are dealt out by the dealer.

Once blind nil had been announced in our game, the dealer would shuffle the cards and then deal one card to each player who was participating in the blind nil. The player who received the lower of the two cards was called low. This would be the person working their darndest to take zero tricks in the next round. The player who received the higher of the two cards was called high and would bid as normal and would do everything they could to help their teammate take zero tricks. I am not sure what we would have done if both cards had come up with the same number value on them. Maybe we could have played War and drawn again, or allowed the players to then choose who would be high and who would be low.

Once the high and low player was determined, the dealer would once again shuffle the deck and deal out the cards as normal. The player designated as low would look through their hand to find their two worst cards for going nil (official rules is actually three cards I believe) and pass those cards to their teammate. Their teammate would then choose out of their hand the best two cards to use for going nil and hand them back to the teammate playing low. Play would then continue normally.

My partner and I continued to play fairly conservatively, continuing to receive points in moderation and a fair number of sandbags along the way as we attempted to set our opponents. The details of our opponents’ gameplay was a little fuzzy for me, since for the next three or four rounds they went double nil each round, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. Somehow the score right before the final round wound up with us both being roughly one hundred points from victory.

My eyes widened when I saw the score sheet. I was kicking myself for not going nil when I had received a hand with no spades in it. I decided to play it safe while I thought we were far ahead in points since I had an ace of diamonds. As it turned out though, while the other team needed points, our greatest danger would be to get too many sandbags and lose the points we already had that were necessary for victory. We entered that round with six sandbags, received two, and exited the round victorious. Larry makes a point of telling people that as a team we’re still undefeated champions. Time will tell. Maybe we’re just that good, or maybe we just quit while we were ahead.