Our extended family sometimes like to play cards, though it is a long way from the truth to suggest they are game-players in the same way I am. My job is to introduce the game, explain it, and lead it to make sure they all get it. This extends through the classic games like Blackjack that we play every time – and every time I need to explain it as if it is a totally new experience. That’s fine: not everyone lives for games, though they do enjoy the social experience every now and then.
As a vaguely socially engaged man, my brother in law thinks that he likes poker. All media tell him poker is the only card game to play. When we play Blackjack he tries to bluff on the grounds that he thinks he’s playing poker, and is astounded every time that at the end of the deal he has to show his hand totalling 27 and that somehow failed to win.
So I thought I’d try to actually teach him and the rest of the family to play real poker. This failed spectacularly and quickly. The order of winning hands was completely mysterious to them all, old and young. I had to print out a sheet showing the hierarchy of value and this sheet was studied more often that the actual cards. The news that the picture shows a pair of Queens doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have actual Queens, a pair of any two cards would do, was received with complete mystification. Then came the bidding. Who has to see who? How much do I have to put in? Everyone forgot where they were, who’s turn it was, and how much and why they had to add money to the pot. Returning again to the hand hierarchy sheet before trying to decide what to do next.
For game players this is no problem because there is a determination to figure the game out, getting better at it next time. The goal being to gradually build up understanding of the basics and then add the complexities of strategy and really get to the meat of the game. But this is a family situation, and these people have no drive to master a game. They just want to sit down and play something in which they are in the action at once over a bottle or a glass. They want a game in which the young can feel like they are engaged and the old can feel they are being clever. They want something that works out of the box and does not tax their brain, with lots of colour and movement, that doesn’t trouble them with clever-clever big blinds and small blinds and rivers and straights and flushes and other secret society code words that mark the genuine ‘insider’.
I had to do something because if I had to explain one more time that you cannot bluff in Blackjack and that Blackjack is not Poker, or had to try to run through a hand of Poker again, I think I might have gone mad.
Since I am a game player and a Renaissance history fan I knew that Poker is an evolution of games from that earlier era. Brag and Commerce are the most obvious ones, and so I knew I could come up with a simpler alternative that should satisfy the groups’ needs.
Remember the game in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels? That’s Brag. It is a three card grandparent of Poker.
My version runs like this: three card deal. Ignore straights and flushes. You are just looking for tree of a kind, two of a kind or highest number. Ignore the traditional 333 being the highest – just call three aces the highest and roll down. Three cards dealt to each player, and three face up cards in the middle (the Bastard Brag variant). Each player can swap out one of their cards for one in the middle, or they can swap all three cards (but not two), This keeps going around until someone declares they are happy with their hand. The remaining players get one last chance to swap. Then the cards are locked in and the betting starts. All you need to do in Brag is bet at least as much as the person before you to keep going.
Say for example, say Frank bet 10, then to stay in Harry would need to bet 10. John wants to fold so he throws out his cards and is out. Peter wants to be in and increase the bid for he bets 20. Now back to Frank who has to bet 20. Now if everyone stays in and just pays the 20 when it gets back to Peter he must pay 20 again, because that’s what the last person played. In this way bidding can go on and on, and will do so until the players drop out. When there are only two players left this continuing cycle of bidding can keep going until someone quits, or a player can ‘call’ by bidding exactly double what the other player last bet. Then cards are shown. If the challenger’s hand is better than the challenger’s, then he wins, but if it is equal to or worse than, he loses. Winner takes the pot.
And it seemed to work. Everyone could remember that three of a kind was better than a pair. Next time I hope to introduce straight flushes and straights, but I am alert for the eye-rolls that attend any ‘new rules’.
But even with that success we were left with the basic problem of Poker. It is the quintessential American game, and one sees the design philosophy through American board games. It is a winner takes all game. Players get knocked out and are no longer part of the game. This is more than just a game philosophy, it is a political and religious viewpoint. More than this, it is a right pain in the arse for family games. The purpose of a family game is to have a game with the whole family. Once a player is knocked out, and this will usually be the youngest first, they are disengaged, bored, disheartened: less likely to want to play next time. And this impacts the chances of getting to play again. The most effective way of making people want to play is to give them the feeling that they are actually playing and succeeding for as long as possible. Sure, you might declare a winner at some stage, but then again you might not. This is Euro games design philosophy. Something my friend Richard would probably label Socialism. This is success measured by making sure everyone has a good game, rather than success measured by destroying everyone else’s evening.
In a family version of Poker, or my version of Brag, this is compensated by the winner of the pot spontaneously compensating the player that just got wiped out as a ‘loan’. There is no expectation of repayment. It is a bribe to keep playing and not throw a huff. And if games are just models of the real world, and a game that involves risking money is a model of the economy, and if American business practices are the dominant practices, and if the world economy is screwed because of the dog-eat-dog bloated debt situation, then… well I’m not sure. It’s just an interesting thought.