I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about traditional card games recently, driven by the fact that I'm working on two games that are based on traditional cards, Wozzle and Wiccage, a companion game for the former that is based on Cribbage (and some other stuff). Not only that, but I've been thinking about Foresight a lot recently as well, as I'm trying to get it into print through a print-on-demand service. So cards have been on my mind.

In thinking about traditional cards, I thought about games that I've enjoyed in the past and played a lot. Bridge and Pinochle were big parts of my high school experience, driving a lot of get togethers with my friends, and I'll always think of those games fondly. For that matter, I met my future wife over a game of Bridge one day in college. I also used to play a fair bit of Hearts, including a variant that a friend and I called "Progressive Heart Disease" for two that we used to play over lunch in high school (not to mention Heartburn). And Cribbage was the family game growing up, which is what led me to try working on a variant of it in the first place. There are more games that I've played and enjoyed of course, most of them probably familiar to people reading this. But there's one that probably is not.

At some point, one of my friends learned a card game from his mother, who picked it up from someone else, and we gave it a try. It was a relative rarity for us, a three-player trick-taking game, and rather than playing a Bridge variant that we had been playing that we'd dubbed "Falling Off Bridge", this new game quickly became our go-to three-player game. It turns out that it wasn't entirely novel to our group, as I did find a page describing something that's close (especially the variant mentioned), but it's not exactly the same, so I thought I'd spell out how we played what we called 9-2-5.

How to play

9-2-5 is played with a standard 52 card deck. Cut for seats, with the high cut becoming the dealer and the low cut sitting to their left. Deal 16 cards to each player. The dealer now declares a trump suit (or may call no-trump), picks up the remaining four card (called the kitty), discards any 4 cards, and then makes the first play. In 9-2-5, each player has a fixed contract: the dealer must make 9, the next player 2, and the last player 5. You must follow suit if possible, but are free to make any play if you cannot. Record scores for each player for how much they went under or over (negative scores are possible). The deal then rotates to the left, changing the contract each player now must make - the former dealer now must make 5, the previous 2 player is now dealer and must make 9, and the previous 5 player must now make 2.

After the first hand, things get interesting. Players who went over get to "bleed" players who went under. There's a strict order to things, which is:

  1. Deal out the 16 card hands and 4 card kitty.
  2. The dealer now calls trump or no-trump.
  3. Starting from the player with the current highest contract who went up last hand, they give cards to player(s) who were down equal to how far they went up. So, if I made 2 extra tricks, I'll hand out two cards to other players - to one person or possible to both people. Those player(s) now hand back the highest card(s) from the suits that match the ones I gave them. They may end up giving the same cards back. If I gave them more than one card in the same suit, they must give me back that many cards from that suit. In short, this process cannot change the suit distribution of either hand, just the ranks. You hand out all your cards before you see any come back.
  4. The other positive player from last hand, if any, also bleeds equal to the tricks they went up.
  5. Finally, the dealer picks up the kitty, discards any four cards they want, and then leads the first trick.

Continue playing until someone gets to +15 or someone gets to -15, with the highest score winning. If there's a tie, play another hand.

What makes it great

There are several differences in the way we played the game compared with the link above. The order of operations is more interesting, allowing for bigger swings in the scoring. In addition, adding in no-trump provides another option, one which can often really mess up a player who just had a big hand.

But here's why I think this game is particularly great: the balance between the different contracts is really nifty. The 9 contract gets a ton of advantages, but even if you have a great hand, you're going to rotate into the most difficult contract (the 5) which caps how well you'll do. The 2 contract has a different mission: you want to try and pile enough positive points that you can rotate into 9 and then light the world up, so you can try and gain some positive momentum past 5. And the 5 player is trying to keep their head down, not get pummeled too badly, and just survive. But even if the 5 gets lit up, you're the 2 next, which limits how much damage you can absorb.

And it's this last point that's particularly crucial. Since your damage in the 2 slot is capped at 2, you're never going to be bled more than 2 cards as the dealer. Add in calling trump and pulling the kitty, and you can always turn the ship around in that slot. The ebb and flow of scores in 9-2-5 can be fascinating, with unsteady equilibriums suddenly collapsing in a rush to the finish. It's in many ways like the pattern of one of my favorite two-player games, Roma, which can also feature that unsteady knife-edge followed by a rush to decision. All of that flows from the 9-2-5 order, instead of the 9-5-2 ordering. We also tried various other contracts, like 8-3-5, 9-3-4, 8-4-4 (terrible!), but this variation works the best.

Anyway, if you're looking to try a three-player card game and want to try something a little different, give this one a go. And if you do, let me know what you think!