The trick-taking genre is believed to be among the oldest genres of Western card games, and developments and new games in the genre coincide with modifications of various cultural playing card decks. The tarot deck, originally developed in Italy and distributed throughout Europe by the 1500's, is believed to have introduced the concept of trump cards to the games. Other cultures used subsets of the tarot, in the process often removing the dedicated trump suit and instead featuring "dynamic trump" where one of the four common suits was promoted to trump. The German-suited deck used for Skat is an example.
Most trick-taking card games played with the familiar Anglo-American deck descended from the game Ruff and Honours, a simple "race"-type game where the object is to take as many tricks as possible. This game evolved into Whist, from which the majority of current trick-taking games was derived. One notable exception is Pinochle, derived most directly from a trick-and-match game called Bezique with the auctioning element borrowed from Skat (which shares common elements with Whist variants but is generally considered in a different lineage).
All trick-taking games use the concept of a trick. For each trick, one player will have the lead, the right and obligation to play the first card of the trick. The others play in order according to their physical position, typically clockwise in games originating in English-speaking countries, counter-clockwise in games from some other countries (notably in Latin-speaking Europe, e.g. Italy, Spain, and France). During each trick, every player in turn puts one card from his or her hand into play. Once each player has played a card, the trick is evaluated to determine the winner. The played cards are turned face down and removed from play: typically the winning player or partnership takes them, but in duplicate play, as at Bridge tournaments, the face-down cards remain in front of each player so the hand remains together for reuse.
Playing last to a trick is often an advantageous position, because the last player can react to the other players' decisions and can compute exactly the outcome of the trick for each of his possible plays. However, leading can be advantageous as well, since in most games the suit of the card led must be "followed" or matched by all other players, if able.
In some games, such as Bridge, the lead to the first trick (the opening lead) is made by the player next in rotation after the contractor, so that the contractor plays last to that trick. Other games feature a fixed initial lead: in Hearts as commonly played in North America, the player holding the 2♣ must lead it on the first trick. Subsequently, the lead for each trick is made by the winner of the preceding one.
Many sub-families of trick-taking games exist. These families are generally distinguished by their objective as it relates to taking tricks, as well as their scoring systems which reflect that objective.
Some point-trick games contain features of both positive and evasion games. For instance, while in Hearts the general object is to avoid penalty cards, if a player can take all penalty cards, a substantial bonus is awarded. Likewise, the Omnibus variant of hearts awards 10 positive ("anti-penalty") points to whomever takes the Jack of Diamonds. Alternatively, in 500, while most rounds are positive, in misère rounds, the aim is to lose all tricks. Similarly, in Spades a player or team can bid "nil" or "zero", and the player then gets a substantial bonus or penalty for succeeding or failing to lose every trick.
As far as scoring goes, trick-taking games are usually classified as either:
The method of point-trick scoring is slightly different for many Tarot games and other European trick-taking games; while most games played in the U.S. equate "card points" of captured cards with "game points" recorded on the score sheet, many European games make a distinction between the two. Most often the minimum goal or contract is defined by a set number of card points, and players wager game points in an auction that they will be able to meet the set contract.
Many trick-taking games contain a trump suit. Cards in the trump suit outrank all others. If trump is played to a trick led in another suit, the highest card of the trump suit (rather than the highest card in the led suit) wins.
Trump may be static or dynamic. Static trump is featured in Spades, where the spade suit is always trump, as well as many tarock games where a separate trump suit (in addition to the other four) is featured. When trump is dynamic, as in Contract Bridge and some forms of Pinochle, it is usually declared by the winner of the auction, the right to choose trump being an incentive for players to bid; or in some games, such as Oh Hell and the original form of Whist, it is determined randomly by exposing a card (in this case it's as if the trump was static, but it adds some psychological variety to the game and makes it more difficult to cheat while dealing the cards if the trump suit is only chosen in the end of the deal).
In some games, certain special cards are high trumps regardless of the actual trump suit. For example, in skat, jacks are the highest trump regardless of the jack's suit. Euchre uses the red or black jacks, depending on trump suit, as the highest trumps (known as Bauers), and in fact the Joker was invented to replace the Bauers to make them more distinctive; the name of the card is a mispronuncation of the German spelling of the game's name, "Juker".
Some games have more than one trump suit, such as Stortok, in which there are two trumps, with one superseding the other. Other games have no trumps; Hearts for instance has no provision for a trump suit of any kind. Though trump is part of Contract Bridge, teams can make bids that do not specify a trump suit, and if that is the winning bid then there is no trump suit for that hand (making such a contract is regarded as harder to accomplish).
Most trick-taking games feature systems of requirements regarding what cards players are allowed to play. A common feature is the requirement of following suit where players must follow with a card of the suit led, if able. In some games with a trump suit, players are required to ruff (play a trump card) if they are unable to follow suit but able to play trump.
These requirement systems are ordered lists of instructions where players must follow the "top" instruction they can satisfy. For example:
The last instruction on each list is always "play any card", by necessity. Each trick must contain one card per player, and hence a player unable to satisfy any other instruction is at liberty to play any card at all. Most often, such a card cannot win the trick, however many games allow players to play trump cards at their discretion instead of requiring such play if able; in such cases the "any card" may be a trump.
These requirement systems constitute "honor rules" in that violations cannot be detected when they are committed; players follow them "on their honor". However, other players use these rules to infer the absence of certain cards in the player's (hidden) hand, and will detect the irregularity when such a card is played later. This violation of the game's rules is known as a revoke or renege. Reneging is usually considered quite a serious offense, and the breach is severely penalized.
In some trick games--typically ones in which players are not penalized for winning tricks, and there is no requirement for trumping or following suit when possible--players may slough, or play a card face down. A card so played is incapable of winning the trick; but sloughing has the advantage that the other players cannot see what card is played.
As this form of sloughing has the potential to be used to cheat in most games (i.e. playing a winning card face-down to avoid taking an "overtrick" or a trick containing penalty points) and is thus not allowed, sloughing in the vernacular more often refers to simply discarding an off-suit card on a trick, particularly one that could be dangerous to that player if kept. This form of sloughing is important in evasion games and in some contract games where "overtricks" are penalized; in Oh Hell, for instance, a player who cannot follow suit may elect to discard a card that would win if played to follow suit later, thus reducing the chance that the player will "bag", or take more tricks than needed. This is common in Hearts, where high-value cards (especially Spades and Hearts) are dangerous as they increase the chance of winning a trick with penalty points.
If trumps have been played in the trick, the player who played the highest-ranked trump card wins the trick. Otherwise, the highest card of the suit led wins. Cards that are neither trumps nor of the suit led, or which are played face down in games which permit this, never win a trick.
If the deck used in the game has no duplicate card values, which is most common, the previous rule always unambiguously determines the winner of a trick. However, some games, such as Pinochle, use several decks shuffled together. In these games, there may be several equal winning cards in a trick; such games then use other rules to break ties. Common rules include:
A common additional rule to reduce these occurrences is that a player cannot play a card tying the current high card unless they would renege or fail to overtrump by making any other play.
In some trick-taking games, such as Hearts and Oh Hell, players compete as individuals. In others, such as Bridge and Spades, they operate in two-player partnerships. Pinochle can be played with or without partnerships, generally depending on the number of players. In Bridge the partner of the contractor or declarer is called dummy and does not participate in the play, dummy's hand being fully exposed after the opening lead, and declarer playing the cards from both hands at their respective turns. Most partner games have fixed partnerships, where players seated opposite each other are always partners, but some have temporary partnerships, changing every round, such as Skat. Some games with temporary partnerships are played one-against-two or even one-against-three.
Many trick-taking games contain an auction (or bid) that represents a player's confidence in her own (or her team's) trick-taking ability. These bids result in contracts for some or all players, or agreements to take a certain number of tricks or points. In some games the winner of the auction declares trump.
In most games, a more difficult contract results in more points for tricks taken. Failing to meet the contract is called being set and results in a penalty.
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