Mustamaija

This page is based on information from Ruurik Holm and on Anthony Smith's translation of the chapter on this game from the book "Marjapussissa Porvooseen" by Pekka Ranta (WSOY, Porvoo 1993). It is related to the article I wrote for the July/August 1998 edition of "The Playing-Card" (journal of the International Playing-Card Society).

Introduction

The Finnish game Mustamaija is generally thought of as a children's game, though the tactical play is sufficiently interesting that adults can also enjoy playing it. The name translates roughly as "Black Maria", but its only relationship to the British game of Black Maria (a variant of Hearts), is that in both games the aim is to avoid being given the queen of spades.

Mustamaija is not a trick taking game like hearts - it is a beating game of the multiple attack type. There is no winner, only a loser of each hand. The loser is the player who is left holding the mustamaija (spade queen) when all the other players have run out of cards.

Players, cards and deal

There are from two to six players, and a standard 52 card pack is used.

Deal and play are clockwise. Five cards are dealt to each player, one at a time. and the rest of the cards are put face down to form a talon from which cards will be drawn.

There is a trump suit, which is determined by turning the top card of the talon face up. This is done immediately after the player to dealer's left has led one or more cards, but before this player draws from the talon for the first time. The turned trump card is put face up underneath the remaining talon cards so that it is partly visible; it will be drawn as the last card of the talon. Usually it is agreed that spades cannot be trumps. If a spade is turned it is put back in the middle of the talon and the next card is turned up for trumps.

The play

At any time during the game one player is the attacker, and player to the attacker's left is the defender. At the start of the game, the attacker is the player to the dealer's left. The attacker leads one or several cards of the same suit, putting them face up on the table. If this leaves fewer than five cards in the attacker's hand, the attacker must draw sufficient cards from the top of talon so as to have five cards again.

The defender may beat some or all of the led cards, by playing better cards on top of them. A card can be beaten by a higher card of the same suit, and any non-trump card can also be beaten by any card of the trump suit. However, the queen of spades is an exception: she is powerless to beat any other card, but if she is led (alone or with other spades) she cannot be beaten, not even by a trump.

The beaten cards are set aside in a face down discard pile, along with the cards that were used to beat them. Any cards that were not beaten must be picked up and placed in the defender's hand. It is never compulsory to beat a card just because you can - if you do not wish to beat a card that the attacker has led you are always allowed to pick it up instead. If after beating and/or picking up, the defender has fewer than five cards, the defender's hand must be replenished to five cards by drawing cards from the talon.

If as defender you manage to beat every one of the cards led by the attacker, you become the new attacker and the player to your left is the new defender. But if you picked up any of the attacking cards, you miss your turn to attack; the new attacker is the player to your left and the new defender is the next player after that.

The endgame

When the talon runs out of cards, the play continues in a similar way, except that no cards are drawn to replace played cards. At this stage of the game, an extra rule comes into effect: the number of cards led by the attacker must not be more than the number of cards in the defender's hand.

As the players run out of cards, they drop out of the play. If the player whose turn it is to attack has no cards, the privilege of attacking passes to the next player in turn who still has cards. When all but one of the players have run out of cards, the last player who is still holding cards is the loser.

Since the "mustamaija" - the queen of spades - can neither beat nor be beaten, she must remain in the game, and will always be found among the loser's cards at the end. The loser is therefore sometimes known as "mustamaija".

Variations

The 1982 edition of "Kottipelit & Pasianssit" by Ilmo Kurki-Suonio describes a different version in which each player is dealt only three cards, so that 2-8 players can take part. A card is not turned for trump. Instead there are two options:

  1. Diamonds are always trumps.
  2. There are intially no trumps, but if anyone has a king and queen of a suit other than spades in their hand, they can declare them and that suit then becomes trumps.

Strategy

In the first part of the game, it is desirable to collect a lot of trumps for the end game. To maximise your chance of getting any trumps that may be in the stock, you generally lead the whole of your longest suit to the next player, so as to draw as many cards as possible to replenish your hand.

Another consideration when leading is to note what cards the player to your right has picked up. It is good to keep higher cards in the same suits, so as to beat these cards when they are eventually led to you.

In the endgame, if you cannot lead the whole of the suit you want to get rid of, because the next player does not have that many cards, you lead the smallest ones. Then when you later lead higher cards of this suit, the smaller cards you led before cannot be used to beat them.

Often a five card suit, which no one can entirely beat, circulates around the table. When this is led to you, it is worth beating some of the smaller cards if you can, so that your hand is not so large after picking up, and you have a chance of reducing your hand below five cards on your next turn and drawing from the talon.

If you manage to beat all but one card of a lead with higher cards of the same suit, it is worthwhile getting rid of the last card with a trump, so that you can lead next.

The aim in the first phase of the game is to build a good position for the end game. If you have the spadeQ you should not lead her too early, or she will travel all round the table and you will eventually be forced to pick her up again. The right time to lead the spade queen is when you judge that the game will end before she comes back to you.

In the end game, the fewer suits you have in your hand the better. It is worst of all to have a few cards in each suit, as it is then very hard to get rid of all your cards.

Note: When you are leading in the first phase of the game, you are not allowed to add any further cards to your lead once you have started replenishing your hand. Some players may try to add to add further cards of the same suit newly picked up from the stock to the cards which they have already led, but continuing the lead in this way is forbidden.

Exercises

Problem 1 (easy)
There are two players left in the game and clubs are trumps. It is your lead and your cards are clubA,3 spadeQ heart6,5. How do you play these cards?
Answer 1
 
Problem 2 (slightly harder)
Again there are just two players left in the game and you have the lead. Clubs are trumps. Your opponent has only one card left and you know it is the ace of trumps. Your cards are: club5,3 spadeQ,5,4 heartA,9,8,7,6 diamond3. How do you play?
Answer 2