Balls, a 3-player trick-taking card game

I’ve been looking for a great three-player trick-taking card game for a while. I designed Ambition, a four-player trick-taking card game, back in 2003. I believe Ambition’s one of the best playing card games out there, but it scales quite poorly. It works best with exactly four players, but not well with three. So, if nothing else, I need something to play when a fourth for Ambition is unavailable.

Skat I found appealing in concept, but loaded with a bit of cruft. I wanted to improve it or, better yet, develop a brand-new three-player trick-taking card game. Throughout December 2010 and January 2011, I spent much of my spare time play-testing a brand new (and, in my opinion, quite good) game of cards. It’s called Balls, and the rules can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Balls, a 3-player trick-taking card game

  1. Rating tens above kings seems to add additional confusion without additional value. It doesn’t affect the probabilities of success in any way. I know it’s traditional in skat-type games, but I think it’s a tradition more (fitly) honored in the breach.

    Also, the scores should be recalibrated to make them easier to compute. This also makes them larger numbers, but I don’t think that’s a problem.

    “Open Nil” is referred to but not explained.

    • “Open Nil” is “Open Void”. Sorry. I removed the term “Nil” when I split “Zero” (contract to take 0 points) from “Void” (contract to take no tricks at all). That “Open Nil” was referred-to is a mistake on my part. Let me fix that.

      In practice, the point values don’t seem to be that bad. Keep in mind that in most rounds, there’s a fairly successful declarer who’s taken 5 to 7 of the tricks, meaning that Defenders took 3-5 between the two of them, or two each on average. Two tricks is six cards, only 3-4 of which will be point cards: it’s just not a lot of adding for a Defender. Unless you care to “check-sum” it, you don’t need to total the Declarer’s points; just count what he didn’t take and subtract it from the total (in positive games, 64).

      A-10-K I kind of “fell into”. When I design a game, the original first cut is always more complicated than the final game, because even though it’s tempting to add features, good design requires that you cut them away and make the game simpler. The original game had A-10-K because it had a bunch of weird features, most of which I’ve trimmed. Honestly, I agree that A-10-K (in non-Misere games) seems like a spleen (by which I mean a slightly annoying vestigial feature.) But it actually works and removing it would make the game slightly worse.

      Here’s why it actually works. The 4-0-2-3-2-0-4 point values (by decreasing rank) work well. It’s symmetrical. It makes sense. Arbitrary? Of course, but all point-value schemas for point-trick games *are* arbitrary by definition. Now, consider that the point cards now are A, K, Q, J, and 8. Aces, faces and eights– it’s easy to remember that. Only three rules and two (aces and faces) go together. The first step in counting points is separating point cards from non-point cards. Not hard to do that when the splitting rule is so simple.

      Now, let’s say I drop the 10 to its default position, because I considered doing this, while leaving the same point values. Now, the point cards are: A, Q, J, 10, 8. Aces, faces except kings, tens and eights. More rules, more to remember. Counting takes a bit longer, and the point values feel more arbitrary. (Of course, they are arbitrary; this is always true in a point-trick game. But they shouldn’t feel arbitrary, if you catch my drift. It’s a 101 design principle that making the rules feel less arbitrary makes them easier to remember and makes the game more fun.)

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