Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chase the Pig

I was surprised to find that Wikipedia currently lacks an entry for the card game 拱豬 (Gong Zhu). This four-player trick-taking Hearts-like game is often played by my relatives on my mother's side, and I assume it's relatively well-known amongst the Chinese.

John McLeod maintains a page describing various rulesets for Gong Zhu (in particular the variants involving exposing cards sound highly intriguing to me), but none of them exactly match the one I was taught. For posterity I'll record my family's rules here.

For the first deal, the player with the seven of spades leads the first trick. The lead can be any card, not necessarily the seven of spades. In subsequent deals, the player that took the Queen of Spades in the previous deal leads the first trick. This player is sometimes nicknamed "The Pig". As in Hearts, there are no trumps, and the winner of the trick leads the next trick.

Why the seven of spades and not the two? Because another card game popular amongst my aunts and uncles involved building sequences starting with seven, and the first card played in that game had to be a seven. They adopted this rule for consistency.

My family always played a predetermined number of hands (e.g. 4) and the winner was the player(s) with the highest total score, but the more standard convention seems to be that one keeps playing until someone has a total score of -1000 or lower, and then the player(s) with the highest score is the winner. (I'm guessing they did this because when playing for stakes, payoffs occur more frequently with this scheme.)

The values of the cards are as follows:

  • Jack of Diamonds, or goat (羊): +100
  • Queen of Spades, or pig (豬): -200
  • Ten of Clubs: doubles your score, unless you have won no other cards in which case it is worth +50
  • Hearts: two to ten are worth minus their pip value, except for four which is worth -10. The Jack is -20, Queen -30, King -40 and Ace -50. The other cards are worth nothing.

I was taught a couple of mnemonics for the Four of Hearts being -10. Firstly, 4 is an unlucky number amongst the Chinese (I was told this is because the word for 4 sounds similar to the verb "to die" in Mandarin, and also in other variants of Chinese), so that's why its penalty value is worse than it should be.

Secondly, the word for 4 and the word for 10 in Mandarin sound similar. If you know a Mandarin speaker, get them to say "44 is 44" to hear for yourself!

If a player wins all the hearts, then the values of the hearts are reversed in sign, that is, they are positive instead of negative, and it can be checked that they are worth 200 points in total. Furthermore, if that same player also wins the pig, the pig is now worth +200 points.

If you win every card with a value, then you receive 100 points for the goat, 200 for the sheep, 200 for all the hearts, and finally your score gets doubled by the Ten of Clubs, giving a total of 1000 points. This is is the best possible score. The worst possible score is -796, when all but the Jack of Diamonds and Two of Hearts is taken.

Naturally, the name of the game refers to the practice of leading low spades in an attempt to flush out the pig: eventually the holder of the Queen of Spades may be forced to play it and take the trick.

Comparison with Hearts

I prefer this game to Hearts. There is something special about every suit in this game, whereas in Hearts, the clubs and diamonds tricks feel like filler. Winning the Jack of Diamonds is always good, and winning the Ten of Clubs sometimes helps, so even if you're not going for all the hearts there is something to do.

I never liked the Hearts rule preventing players from "breaking into" hearts, and I'm glad that Gong Zhu is free from this restriction.

Scoring is more complicated as each heart has a different penalty value. However I found after several hands I enjoyed the less trivial mental arithmetic, even missing it when playing Hearts.

Generally, I feel the game experience is richer because there are more important cards than Hearts, yet the additional complexity is not overly random nor overwhelming. In contrast, while playing Hearts if I'm not trying to shoot the moon, my play feels almost forced, as my only goal is to avoid the Queen of Spades and as many hearts a possible. Sometimes I can choose who to penalize more by playing in a certain way, but this aspect of the game is limited and unrewarding.

Even when shooting the moon, the strategy is often clear, a drawback that I feel is exacerbated by the prohibition on breaking into penalty cards.

I'm ambivalent about the Hearts convention of passing three cards before the game starts. Sometimes it's extremely helpful since some people I've played with are rather predictable, allowing me to mold hands which I can easily shoot the moon with. On the other hand, this does reduce the challenge, and in general getting extra information about opponent's hands detracts from the game experience.

The internal conflicts are more intense and exciting. I can feel my greed fight my fear. Do I save high cards to win the goat? What if this causes me to wind up with the pig and/or a bunch of high hearts as well? Do I go for the double? It's 50 points on its own, but how sure am I that I won't pick up any hearts later on?

Other Fun Card Games

I recall being enthralled when introduced to playing cards as a child. Nothing but fifty-two bits of pasteboard, yet the possibilities are legion. Games of pure skill. Games of pure chance. Games that fell in between, and it seemed that a game existed for any given skill/luck ratio. And they can be played almost anywhere, with any number of people, even alone. Such power, and I could hold it in one hand. Merely shuffling and performing sleights at once soothed and inspired me. To this day I often carry a pack of cards on my person.

One of my well-loved books from my childhood was "The Book of Games" by Richard Sharp and John Piggott (ISBN 0883653893). I read it cover to cover countless times, though not necessarily in order, marvelling at the illustrations and fascinated by the history. I tried out many of the games within, goading whoever was around me to learn their obscure rules so I could play.

(I took offence to one sentence however: in the entry on Mah Jong it describes the Chinese as "devious". I don't think they're inherently better at games than other races!)

If only the internet and Wikipedia existed back then! I was frustrated by rules they omitted, not to mention the games they left out. Sometimes the descriptions were too concise due to space limitations. Today the rules of just about any game with some following are at one's fingertips, and one can sometimes even find free programs for an instant opponent, instructor and umpire. Unfortunately, this came after my heaviest gaming days (at least, games that don't involve computers!), so the games below are mostly from the above book.

Though I'll mention card games of many species, some bias will be noticeable since I'm fond of lightweight teamless trick-taking games. Player ability varies wildly in some circles, making partner selection problematic in games such as bridge and canasta.

If there are four players, I almost always enjoy playing Hearts and Chase the Pig. Big Two is another favourite.

When there are three players, Knaves is a good choice if I'm in the mood for something like Hearts. It is also a no-trump trick-taking game with penalty cards, but also gives one an incentive to win as many tricks as possible. Sergeant Major is an entertaining diversion for three, especially for those newer to trick-taking games. My friends and family found David Parlett's Ninety-nine refreshingly unique and challenging. (We played the original rules, as described in The Book of Games.)

I never found two-player card games appealing, though I feel like I could if I dedicated more time to them. In particular, I feel like I should like Cribbage, Bezique and Piquet. I've tried some novel two-player games described in "The Pan Book of Card Games" by Hubert Philips, but never grew attached to them.

For five players or above, I'd play poker, or in a less serious crowd, Bartog.

Also, Napoleon is a five-player trick-taking game whose gimmick is the existence of a secret partnership: the identity of highest bidder, Napoleon, is known, but his secretary is determined by the holder of a particular card that is not revealed until played during a trick. Thus it is a two-versus-three game where initially no one knows the composition of the teams.

I had forgotten the details of this game. But thanks to Google, I rediscovered this old friend, and learned a lot more. Apparently, my parents left out at least half the rules when they taught it to me. Also, it seems Napoleon is a popular Japanese card game.

As for patience/solitaire for one, I'd recommend downloading a program like PySol and exploring.