Barbu

The following description was originally provided by Nick Wedd. John McLeod made some revisions and added the information at the end on variations, based on contributions from Mark Brader, David Smith and others.

Introduction

Barbu is a skilful card game for four players. It uses a standard 52-card pack as for bridge or poker, ranking as usual from highest to lowest A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 in each of the four suits. In the course of a session, each player will play each of the seven contracts once, so that there are 28 hands played in all.

The initial declarer is chosen at random. For the first seven hands, this player will be declarer. The cards will be dealt by the player on declarer's right, and cut by the player opposite to declarer. After this declarer has done her seven contracts, the player on the original declarer's left will be declarer for seven contracts, and so on, until everyone has done her seven contracts. In each of these contracts, each player is playing for herself. Declarer chooses the contract, but there is no reason for the other players to cooperate against her. The rules about doubling, however, are asymmetrical with respect to declarer (see below).

The word "barbu" is French for "bearded". In some packs, the king of hearts is shown with a beard, and the contract in which the object is to avoid taking this card is also sometimes known as "barbu". The game Barbu has existed in France for some time in a simple form where the different games are just played in a fixed sequence (no choice of contract and no doubling). The more elaborate modern version described here was developed by bridge players and was a favourite of the Italian "Blue Club" bridge team.

The Seven Contracts

There are five "negative" and two "positive" contracts.

In negative contracts, there are no trumps. The declarer leads to the first trick. Players must follow suit if possible - a player who cannot follow suit may discard any card. The winner of a trick leads to the next. In certain contracts there are restrictions on what card may be led to a trick. The negative contracts are:

  • No Tricks (Losing). Each trick scores -2 points to the player winning it. The total score for the contract is therefore -26.
  • No Queens. Each queen scores -6 points to the player winning it in a trick. The total score for the contract is therefore -24. After a queen is played, it is kept face up in front of the player who won the trick, so that everyone can see which queens have been taken by whom. When the fourth queen is played, the play ends at the end of that trick, as there are no more points at stake on that hand.
  • No Last Two. The last-but-one trick scores -10 to the player winning it, and the last trick scores -20 to the player winning it. The total score for the contract is therefore -30.
  • No Hearts. Each heart scores -2 points to the player winning it in a trick, except for the ace of hearts, which scores -6. The total score for the contract is therefore -30. It is forbidden for a player to lead hearts unless she has nothing but hearts in her hand. Hearts won in tricks are kept face up in front of the winner of the trick until the end of the play, so that everyone can see who has taken which hearts.
  • No King of Hearts (Barbu). The king of hearts scores -20 to the player winning it in a trick. The total score for the contract is therefore -20. It is forbidden for a player to lead hearts unless she has nothing but hearts in her hand.

The positive contracts are:

  • Trumps. Declarer chooses a trump suit. The declarer leads to the first trick. Players must follow suit if possible. A trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if it contains no trump, by the highest card of the suit led. A player who can legally head a trick by playing a trump is obliged to do so. (This means that if trumps are led, players are obliged not only to follow suit with a trump, but to play a higher trump than any so far in the trick if this is possible. It also means that if a side-suit is led, a player who is void in that side-suit is obliged to head the trick with a trump unless it already contains a trump higher than any in her hand, in which case she can play anything.) The winner of a trick leads to the next. Each trick scores +5 points to the player winning it. The total score for the contract is therefore +65.
  • Dominoes (Fantan). Declarer chooses a starting rank. For example if the starting rank is to be 5, she says "dominoes from the five". The object is to get rid of all one's cards before the other players. Each player in turn, starting as usual with declarer, must, if possible, play an acceptable card face upwards to the table. Acceptable cards are those of the chosen rank, also cards of the same suit and adjacent rank to one already played. Note that every suit must be started with the rank chosen by the declarer - for example in dominoes from the 5, the holder of club7 cannot play it until club5 and club6 are in place, even if spade4-spade5spade6-spade7 have already been played. A player who cannot play, having no acceptable card, indicates this (perhaps by rapping on the table) and the turn to play passes on. In particular, declarer may have no cards of the rank she chooses, in which case she begins the play by passing. The played cards form a layout with the four cards of the starting rank in a column in the centre, and the other cards of their suits built up in sequence on either side. Play continues until all four players have played all their cards. As usual, aces are high and twos low, so the last card played will be either an ace or a two.
    Example: A chooses dominoes from the nine and plays the 9 of hearts, B plays the 9 of spades, C plays the 10 of spades. Playable cards for D are now H8, H10, S8, SJ, D9, C9. If D has none of these she must pass.
    The first player to go out scores +45. Play continues between the other three players, and the second scores +20. The last two players continue playing and the third to go out scores +5 and the last scores -5. The total score for the contract is therefore +65. This contract is sometimes known as Fantan.

The scores are cunningly chosen so that the total over seven hands is 0.

Doubling

After the contract has been chosen (including announcement of the trump suit in Trumps and the starting rank in Dominoes / Fantan), each player in turn, starting on declarer's left, has one opportunity to double. A player may double all, some, or none of the other players. Declarer, however, is restricted in that she may only double players who have doubled her.

In each series of seven hands, each player is obliged to double declarer at least twice.

In the two positive contracts, the other players may only double declarer, not each other. Declarer may double those who have doubled her, as usual.

When doubling a player who has already doubled you, it is conventional to use the word "redouble". When making every possible double and redouble, it is conventional to use the word "maximum".

A double is, in effect, a side-bet between the two players involved about which of them will do better than the other. When you are deciding whether to double another player, the only issue is whether you expect to score better than her.

Scoring

The doubles are recorded on the score sheet as they are made. Doubles of declarer are ringed, to make it easier to ensure that each player makes her compulsory two doubles of declarer.

At the end of a hand, it is scored. First of all, the points won or lost by the players are written down. Then the effects of the doubles are calculated pair by pair, for each of the six pairs of players:

  1. If neither of two players has doubled the other, there is no side-payment.
  2. If only one of a pair of players has doubled the other, the difference between their raw scores is calculated, and this difference is added on to the score of the one who did better and subtracted from the score of the one who did worse.
  3. If each of a pair of players has doubled the other, the difference between their raw scores is calculated and doubled, and this difference is added on to the score of the one who did better and subtracted from the score of the one who did worse.

For example, here is a score-sheet, with two hands already played and scored.

On the first hand, Anne was declarer and chose No Queens. Her choice of contract was written "Q" in the left column.

Beth (with a good hand for No Queens) began the doubling by saying "maximum" to double everyone else. This was recorded in Beth's column as a letter "X"; and was ringed to indicate that it includes a double of declarer. Then Cath doubled Anne and no-one else (she believes that the outcome of No Queens is unpredictable, so she might as well make a double of declarer). This was recorded as a letter "A" for Anne, with a ring round it as Anne is declarer. Then Diana passed (having a poor hand). Then Anne redoubled Cath (but not Beth, who seems from her behaviour to have a strong hand). This was recorded as a letter "C" for Cath.

In the play, Diana captured two queens among her tricks, and Anne and Cath captured one each. This was recorded as -6 to Anne, -6 to Cath, and -12 to Diana.

Then the side-payments were calculated. These are shown here in color, for the sake of this explanation (normally, of course, they would all be written with the same pencil).

  • A/B. Beth has doubled Anne, but Anne has not doubled Beth. So there is one double between them. Anne scored -6 while Beth scored 0, So Anne pays 6 to Beth. This is shown in red.
  • A/C. Anne and Cath have doubled each other, so there is a double side-payment between them. However they both made the same score of -6, so there is no side-payment.
  • A/D. Neither Anne nor Diana has doubled the other, so there is no side-payment.
  • B/C. There is one double between them, and the score difference is 6, so Cath pays 6 to Beth. This is shown in green.
  • B/D. There is one double between them, and the score difference is 12, so Diana pays 12 to Beth. This is shown in blue.
  • C/D. There are no doubles between them, so there is no side-payment.

Then the totals were calculated, and written into the totals column for each player.

Finally, the total value of the contract was written into the check-sum column at the right, and a check made that the total of the four players and the rightmost column added up to 0.

On the second hand, Anne chose No Hearts. Beth and Cath passed, Diana said Maximum, and Anne redoubled Diana. Anne took no hearts, Beth took 6 points worth, Cath took 20 points worth, and Diana took 4 points worth. The side-payments were calculated and added up as described, and the check-sum was checked. Note that the five figures in the right column for each player and for the check-sum are running totals.

Andy Christensen has provided a preprinted score sheet.

Advice on Skilful Play

No Hearts and No King of Hearts are generally best bid on hands with many hearts. This is because the rules forbid the leading of hearts. A hand with long hearts will be short in the other suits, and will thus get more opportunities to discard.

In No King of Hearts, a player who holds the King, and is confident of not taking it herself, will be influenced by the doubling on where she dumps it. It can therefore be possible for a player with a very poor hand, who did not double, to cooperate with declarer in dumping the King on a player who did double. (This assumes that declarer holds the King.) One way of cooperating with declarer is by returning the suits which she leads.

To bid No Last Two, aces can be as valuable as twos. A very poor holding is 9 8 7 6: you can be confident that the other players will not lead this suit for you.

The total score for No Tricks is 30, but this is in effect the smallest contract, as the tricks tend to be spread around. It is therefore a suitable hand to keep to last, as playing it with an unsuitable hand is rarely a total disaster. In playing No Tricks, ingenious sacrifice plays (such as are skilful in ramsch and other negative games) are not appropriate. It is better to keep your head down and avoid each trick as it comes round.

No King of Hearts only scores 20, but is really a big hand. This is because the penalty of 20 all comes in one lump.

Trumps can sensibly be left to the last hand, as you can be sure of being dealt a hand with at least four trumps in it. Do not bid Trumps for the first hand of your seven unless you expect to win at least seven tricks. From a trump holding of e.g. A J 10 9 6 5 3 the lead of the jack can be effective: there is a good chance that this will force the play of both the queen and the king, because of the trump-overtaking rule.

In dominoes, aces and twos are liabilities. A "block" like 765 can be powerful, in a suit in which the 4 3 and 2 are not held. Holding the specified rank is not necessarily a good thing: with an ideal hand such as 568, 5689, 689, 689 the best choice of rank is the 7.

Over seven hands, declarer can expect the best score, closely followed by the player on her right. The player on declarer's left can expect the poorest score, as she must make her doubles before hearing those of the other players.

It is bad to leave a compulsory double to the last hand of a seven, unless this hand will be something small (No Tricks, or maybe No Queens). It is particularly bad to be obliged to double a positive contract.

In view of the advice in the previous paragraph... Suppose it is the sixth hand of the seven. Declarer chooses No Tricks, leaving Trumps for last. A player doubles declarer only. Declarer should recognise that this is a desperation double, and redouble it (if it really came from a good hand, the doubler would have doubled the other players as well).

If you have a hand which is very good for several contracts, it is best to choose one which will induce some doubles. For example, consider a hand which can guarantee taking no tricks, and has a heart void. If you bid No Last Two, say, probably no-one will double you. But if you bid No Hearts, you will likely get a double from an opponent: at least one of them must hold at least five hearts, which is normally a strong holding in this contract.

Variations

Deal, Declaration and Lead

Some play that it is the dealer that chooses the contract. The first lead is still made by the player to the left of the dealer (so that the dealer plays last to the first trick), except in dominoes, in which the dealer starts.

Doubles and Redoubles

Some people only allow players to double declarer, not each other, and if the declarer redoubles, she must redouble everyone who doubled, not just some of them.

No King of Hearts (Barbu) and No Queens

Some do not prohibit heart leads in Barbu.

Some require players to play the King of Hearts and Queens in these contracts at the earliest safe opportunity. Thus you are not allowed to save your penalty card to give to a particular opponent, which protects players from being victimised but also reduces the tactical possibilities.

Trumps

Some do not require players void of the suit led to trump (or overtrump) in this game. A player who has no card of the suit led can play any card.

Fantan (Dominoes)

Many people play Fantan with the Ace low, so that each suit ends with the King at one end and the Ace at the other.

Some play that the first card played by the declarer determines the starting rank. This means that doubles are announced before the start rank is known, and that the declarer cannot choose a rank that she does not have.

Donald B. Lagosz-Sinclair suggests reducing the Fantan scores to 30 / 20 / 10 / 0 (with barbu valued at -15) since otherwise they have a disproportionate effect on the result.

Extra contract - Ravage City

No trumps. Rules of play as for other negative contracts. Whichever player takes the most cards in any one suit scores -36. If there is a tie between two players (probably each has most cards in a different suit), each scores -18; if three players tie each scores -12; if all four tie, all get -9. Some play Ravage City with a lower score -24 (-12 for a two-way tie, -8 for a three-way tie, -6 for a four-way ties).

If you play with Ravage City there will obviously be 32 deals - 8 for each declarer - rather than 28. The scoring schedule for the other contracts will need adjusting to preserve the zero sum feature.

Scoring

There are a number of different scoring schemes possible. One common one is to score -15 for taking the King of Hearts in "No King of Hearts" and +40/+20/+10/-10 for dominoes.

Some schemes lose the zero sum of the scores, which is a pity as a zero sum is very useful for checking, and makes it easier to convert the result to money won or lost. For example Mark Brader contributed the following scoring system: Barbu: -25 for the heart king; Fantan: first out +40, second out +20, third out 0, fourth out -20; No Hearts: -12 for the ace, -4 each other heart; No last two: -10, -20; Losing tricks: -5 per trick; No Queens: -15 per queen; Ravage city: -36 divided between losers, Trumps: +5 per trick. The total is -684.

Any scheme can easily be made zero sum without affecting the balance of the game by adjusting all four scores in Dominoes (Fantan) by the same amount (in fact you might have to change some by 1 more than others due to rounding effects).

Here is a description of Barbu [zipped MSWord file] contributed by David Smith of Cambridge, MA, USA - it has slightly different scoring from the description on this page, and includes further material on strategy.

Three-Player Barbu

Noel Leaver, Don Lagosz-Sinclair, Mark Brader and David Smith have contributed versions of Barbu for three players.

Barbette

Warren Chang has developed Barbette, a shortened version of Barbu that takes only 16 deals rather than 28 or 32.

Buckhaven High School version

Barbu is often played in France with only 32 cards. The version formerly played at Buckhaven High School, Fife, Scotland is a development of this form, with several additional features. Scott Geissler has contributed his rule book for Buckhaven High School Barbu in the form of a Microsoft Word Document.

Other Barbu Web Pages

Jeff Goldsmith's San Francisco Barbu page includes a number of variations and alternative scoring schedules. He has also published a strategy guide.

Here are Ethan Bradford's Yale Barbu rules and a scoring spreadsheet for this variant, which automatically calculates scores from input of the game, doubles and number of penalty cards etc. taken.

Patri Friedman also offers an Excel spreadsheet for Barbu scoring.

Here is an archive copy of Tom Carmichael's Barbu Page which gave rules in English.

Jean-François Bustarret has a Barbu page with rules in French. The game is for 3 to 5 players and the scoring and set of contracts is somewhat different. The points are negative and the scores are:

  • No tricks: 5 points per trick
  • No hearts: 5 points per heart
  • No queens: 20 points per queen
  • Barbu (no king of hearts): 80 points
  • Salad: all the above penalties count at once
  • Tricks: -5 points per trick
  • No first or last trick: 40 points for the first; 40 points for the last
  • Domino: -50/-25/0/25/50 (5 players), -50/-20/20/40 (4 players), -40/0/40 (3 players)
There is no doubling. There is also a version given in which only the first five contracts are played, in a fixed sequence.

Barbu software and on line games

Shireen Mohandes and Andy Bowles run an Online Barbu page with rules, bidding competitions, online games and tournaments and a ladder. Online games use Graham Hazel's Barbuwin program.

From the Tams11 lobby you can obtain an Windows Barbu game that can be played on line against live opponents.