Couillon

Introduction

Couillon is a popular Belgian card game. Versions of it are also played in the southern Dutch province of Limburg and on the border of Luxembourg and Germany. The name "couillon" almost certainly derives from the Walloon word coyon (=testicle), which refers to the circles or balls that were traditionally used as part of the method of keeping score. However, in Flanders and Luxembourg, the name has been modified to the similar sounding Kwajongen and Kujong respectively. In the Netherlands it is known as Troeven (trumps), which makes it likely that it is related to the old game Trümpfspiel recorded in Strasbourg in 1637, which had the same card values.

Basic Game

This version is described in Le Guide Marabout de Tous les Jeux de Cartes by Frans Gerver (Verviers, 1966).

Players and Cards

A 24-card French suited pack is used, the cards in each suit ranking from high to low A-K-Q-J-10-9. If actual French or Belgian cards are used the indices will be 1-R-D-V-10-9, but note that versions of this game are also played in certain regions the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. Dutch cards have the indices A-H-V-B-10-9 and German cards have A-K-D-B-10-9. Be careful not to confuse the Dutch Queen marked with a V for Vrouw (lady) with the French Jack marked with a V for Valet!

The cards have point values: Ace = 4, King = 3, Queen = 2, Jack = 1, other cards zero. The total number of card points in the pack is therefore 40.

There are four players in fixed partnerships, players sit opposite their partner and between the two opponents. The partnerships can be decided by drawing cards from a shuffled pack: the players drawing the highest two cards play against those who draw the lowest two, and the player who draws the highest card deals first.

Deal and play are clockwise, and the turn to deal passes to the left after each hand.

Dealing and Making Trumps

The dealer shuffles the cards, has them cut by the player to dealer's right, and then deals them two at a time clockwise until everyone has four cards. There is a stack of eight undealt cards, and the top card of this is turned face up to show the proposed trump suit. Beginning to the dealer's left and going around clockwise, each player in turn has the chance to accept this suit as trumps on behalf of his or her team or to pass. As soon as it is accepted the play begins. If all four pass, the bottom card of the undealt part of the pack is turned up and its suit becomes trumps.

Play

Irrespective of who if anyone accepted the first proposed trump suit, it is the player to dealer's left who leads to the first trick.

Any card may be led. A player who has a card of the suit that was led must either follow suit or play a trump. A player with no card of the suit led may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump in it or, if it contains no trumps, by the highest card of the suit that was led. The winner of a trick gathers it, stores it face down in the team's trick pile, and leads any card to the next trick.

Note that you may trump even when you are able to follow suit. The only play that is illegal is throwing away a non-trump card of a different suit from the one that was led when you are able to follow suit.

Scoring

When four tricks have been played, the teams count the points they have taken, and the team with more card points wins the deal.tree

The score is kept using a diagram consisting of a vertical line crossed by five or seven horizontal lines - see illustration to the right. Ideally this is drawn on a chalk slate so that parts of it can be erased. The left side of the diagram belongs to one team and the right side to the other. The number of horizontal lines corresponds to the number of game points needed to win the match.

The winners of each deal win one game point, and can erase one line from their side of the diagram. However, if a team that accepted the proposed trump suit takes fewer card points than their opponents, they lose a game point, which is indicated by adding a loop-shaped mark known as a boucle or couille to one of the lines on their side. A line with a boucle requires two wins to erase it: the first win removes the boucle and the second the line itself.

In case of a tie, in which both teams take the same number of card points, no lines are erased. The tie is indicated on the slate by a circle which a stroke across it, known as craie dans le trou (chalk in the hole), and the next team that wins a deal erases two lines (or a line with a boucle) instead of a single line or boucle.

The first team to erase all their lines wins the match.

Variant

Marc Dewart reports that in Tongres, six cards each are dealt, two at a time. After four cards each have been dealt, the dealer's fourth card turned face up as the first proposed trump suit. After it has been accepted or not, the deal is completed. If all four players passed the first trump, the dealer's last card is exposed and players have the opportunity to accept its suit as trump. If all four pass again the deal is abandoned without score. The next dealer shuffles and deals.

Couillon Forcé

In this popular variant, also described in Gerver's Guide Marabout, the trump suit is always chosen by the player to dealer's left. The dealer deals two rounds of two cards to each player, and the player to dealer's left looks at his or her four cards, and may choose the suit of one of them to be trump, showing this trump card to the other players. The dealer then deals another round of two cards to each player.

Alternatively, if the trump maker cannot decide on the trump suit on the basis of four cards, perhaps having one indifferent card of each suit, the dealer deals two more cards to the trump maker and turns one of them face up, and the suit of this card is trump. The dealer then completes the deal by dealing a pair of cards to each of the other players.

The play is as in the basic game, except that there are six tricks, with no cards out of play. Scoring is as in the basic game: the non-dealing team get a boucle if the dealer's team score more points, since it is always the non-dealers who make trumps.

Couillon with the Mit'

The version of Couillon played at Malmedy, as taught to us by Marc Dewart and described in his book Anciens Jeux de Cartes à Malmedy et ses Environs (Royal Club Wallon, 2004) is a version of Couillon Forcé with five cards dealt to each player. The Mit' is the Queen of Spades, which may be promoted to become a trump ranking between the ace and king if announced by its holder. The teams and the first dealer are traditionally chosen by dealing cards one at a time face up to the four players until a Jack appears. Whoever receives this first Jack is the first dealer, and further cards are dealt to the other three players. Whoever receives the second Jack is the first dealer's partner, and the players take their seats accordingly.

Deal

The dealer shuffles, the player to dealer’s right cuts, and then the dealer deals the top three cards to the player to his or her left.  This player chooses the trump suit for the hand on the basis of these three cards.  When trumps have been announced, the dealer continues by dealing a batch of three cards to each of the other players, in clockwise order, then four cards face down to one side, and finally a batch two cards to each player.  Now each player has a hand of five cards, and there is a talon of four cards face down, which remain unused and unseen until the next deal.

If unwilling to choose a trump suit having seen three cards, the player to dealer’s left may ask instead for the dealer to complete the deal: three cards to each of the other players, four to the talon and then two cards to each player. In this case the top card of the last two cards dealt to the player to dealer's left is turned cards face up, and the suit of that card is trumps.

Play with Mit', Kontra and Re

Five tricks are played, under the same rules as the basic game. The player who holds the spadeQ may declare it by saying "Mit'" before playing to the first trick. If it is declared, the spadeQ becomes the second highest trump, ranking below the Ace and above the King. Its value remains 2 card points. It does not have to be played to the first trick, but can be kept for later. It can be played to a trump lead, and must be played to a trump trick if the player holds no other trumps. Leading the Mit' requires the other players to follow with trumps. If the Mit' is not declared, it remains an ordinary spade, ranking between the King and the Jack.

Declaring Mit' not only promotes the card, it also increases the score for the winners of the deal. If Mit' is declared, either member of the opposing team can further increase the score by saying "Kontra" or knocking the table, and if this happens, either member of the Mit' team can increase it again by saying "Re" or knocking again. All this happens before the holder of the spadeQ plays to the first trick.

It is often in the interest of the holder of the Mit' to strengthen his or her hand by declaring it, but with a weak hand it is sometimes better to keep quiet to avoid giving an extra point to the opponents if they win.

Scoring

Scoring is in “rôyes”. This is a Walloon dialect word meaning “lines”, which reflects the original method of scoring on a slate, but nowadays in Malmedy the scores are written down as numbers. Each team begins with 13 rôyes, and at the end of the deal the teams subtract or add rôyes as follows.

Event Score
Winning the deal: taking more card points than the other team. Winners subtract one rôye
Winning all five tricks (dobe or vole) Winners subtract one extra rôye
Mit’ declared Winners of the deal subtract one extra rôye
Kontra (knock) after Mit’ declared Winners of the deal subtract one extra rôye
Re (second knock) after Mit' and Kontra Winners of the deal subtract one extra rôye
The dealer's team wins the deal The non-dealing team adds one rôye

So it is in theory possible to subtract as many as five rôyes, by winning all the tricks in a deal where Mit', Kontra and Re were declared.

If the deal is tied, both sides having exactly the same number of card points, then in private games neither side scores.

The first team whose score reaches zero (or less) wins the game.

If the non-dealers lose all the tricks, the player who chose trumps is said to be "bourgumêsse" (mayor).

Tournament rules

In a tournament, a fixed number of deals is played, after which the players change position to play with a different partner and different opponents. If a game is tied, both teams subtracts one rôye. Individual players add up the total number of rôyes their side scored during the tournament, and the player with the lowest total number of rôyes is the winner.

Dame de Make

The Queen of Clubs is known as the Dame de Make. A popular variant is to play that this card is always a trump, ranking immediately above the King of trumps. Unlike the Mit', it is not declared and does not affect the score. If the Mit' is declared it ranks between the Ace of trumps and the Dame de Make, so if hearts are trumps and the Mit' is declared, the trump suit from high to low is heartA-spadeQ-clubQ-heartK-heartQ-heartJ-heart10-heart9 and the black suits have only five cards each.

Six Players

The players form two teams of three, each player sitting between two opponents. The cards are dealt two at a time, so that each player has four. The player to dealer's left makes trumps, either choosing the suit of one of his first two cards, or asking for one of his second two cards to be turned face up to determine the trump suit.

Six players can alternatively play with a 32-card pack, ranking A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7. The 8 and 7 are worth no points. In this case the deal and trump making are done in the same way as in the four-player game.

Eight players

The players form two teams of four, each player sitting between two opponents. A 32-card pack is used and each player is dealt four cards. The player to dealer's left either chooses one of his first two cards as trump, or asks for one of his second two cards to be turned face up to determine the trump suit.

Other Variants

Some play that if the team that made trumps declares the Mit' and loses, they add two rôyes to their score rather than one. The logic is that by declaring Mit' they were trying to win two rôyes they should lose the same amount if they fail - "ot'tant de coyes que rôyes".

Rarely the game is played with the red queens as permanent trumps as well as the Dame de Make. In this case the ranking order is Ace-(spadeQ)-clubQ-heartQ-diamondQ-K-(spadeQ)-J-10-9-8, the spade Queen taking the higher position if Mit' is declared, and the lower position if spades are trumps and Mit' is not declared.

Kwajongen

In Flanders, the name Couillon has been transformed into the similar sounding Flemish word Kwajongen which means a young ruffian. Kim Ieven describes a version played in Opglabbeek in the province of Limburg.

As in the basic game, four players play in fixed partnerships with a 24-card pack. The dealer deals two cards face down to each other player, one card face up to himself, then again two cards face down to each other player and three cards face down to himself. The dealer's face up card shows the first proposed trump suit. Starting from the dealer's left players may say 'play' if they accept this trump suit or 'pass' if not.

As soon as someone says 'play' the play begins. If all four players pass, the cards are thrown in and the next player shuffles and deals.

The player to dealer's left leads to the first trick and unusually, in this version of the game, players must follow suit if able to. A player who is unable to follow suit must play a trump. A player who has no cards of the suit led and no trumps may play any card. Note that you cannot trump when a non-trump is led unless you are unable to follow suit.

Each team begins with 10 points. The score sheet is known as a "tree", even though the score is recorded in numbers rather than by erasing lines. The team that takes more card points subtracts one point from its score, or two points if they won all four tricks. If the team that made trumps fails to take more points than the other team, they must add one point to their score. A team that wins all four tricks subtracts two points instead of one. [I am not completely sure what happens in this version when the teams have equal numbers of card points. From Kim Ieven's description it seems that the team that accepted trumps should add one point, but the other team does not subtract anything.]

If all pass, no one accepting the trump suit, the next time a team wins they will subtract an extra point - two points rather than one for winning or three points if they win all four tricks. If there are two or more consecutive pass games, the next winners still subtract just one extra point - the points for pass games do not accumulate.

As usual, the first team to reach a score of 0 points or less wins the match.

Kujong

This game, played on both sides of the Luxembourg-German border, was described to me by Thomas Junk from Daleiden in the Eifel district of Germany. Again the name is evidently based on the sound of the French name Couillon, and in this case in the local dialect it means "cowboy" (a boy - jong - who herds cows - ku).

As usual there are four players in two fixed partnerships, and a 24-card pack is used, the card values being A=4, K=3, Q=2, J=1. Deal and play are clockwise, and the turn to deal passes to the left after each hand. The dealer deals a batch of three cards to each player, and the player to dealer's left chooses the trump suit. Then the dealer completes the deal with another batch of 3 cards to each player.

The Queen of spades is the Mit, and as in Couillon with the Mit the holder can declare it before playing to the first trick, thus increasing the score for winning the game. If declared, the Queen of spades becomes the second highest trump, between the Ace and the King. In this version, however, there is no Kontra or Re.

The player to dealer's left leads to the first trick. As usual players able to follow suit may either do so or trump, and players unable to follow suit may play any card.

kujong scoreThe score sheet begins with either 9 or 5 vertical strokes for each team. Winning hands entitles a team to cross out strokes, the first team to cross out all their strokes wins the game, known as a "cow", and the first team that wins two cows wins the match. Thomas Junk writes that to win a match, a team must win at least one regular (9-stroke) cow and one short (5-stroke) cow. I think that in practice this must mean that the first two cows of a match are played with 9 strokes, and if each team wins a cow, the deciding cow is a short one with just 5 strokes. When a team wins its first cow, it marks this by drawing a tail at the end of its scoring area.

At the end of the play, the team that has more card points in tricks (21 or more points, since all the cards are in play) crosses out one stroke, plus an extra stroke if the Mit was declared (by either team), plus an extra stroke if they won all six tricks. If the team that chose trumps loses, they have to add one stroke. I am not sure what happens if the card points divide 20-20. Presumably neither team scores. In the diagram of a regular cow in progress, team A has added two strokes and crossed out 5 while team B has crossed out 3 strokes. So the teams are level, each needing 6 more strokes to win the cow.

Troeven

This game, which is popular in the southern Dutch province of Limburg, was described by Harry Tiggelovend in The Playing-Card volume XXIV, No 6. The name Troeven simply means "trumps".

troeven scoringIt is played with a 32-card pack, ranking A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7 in all suits with the same values A=4, K=3, Q=2, J=1 as in Couillon. As usual there are four players in fixed partnerships. The dealer shuffles and the player to the right may cut. The dealer then deals four cards to the player to his left and waits for this player to announce the trump suit, which may be a suit which he does not hold in his hand. Then he deals the remaining cards clockwise, four at a time, so that every player has eight cards. The player who named the trump suit makes the opening lead. Players who can follow suit must do so or trump; player who cannot follow suit may play any card.

The scoring diagram is similar to the one used in basic Couillon, with seven horizontal strokes, which are thought of as branches on a tree. The team that takes more card points can cancel one branch on its side, which is done by adding a ball to it. If the team that chose trumps loses, they must add one branch to their side. In case of a draw, there is no score, but the first team that wins a hand after one or more drawn hands cancels two branches instead of one. The first team that cancels all their branches wins.

In the diagram, the left-hand team has added one branch and erased one, while the right-hand team has erased two branches and needs just five more to win.

Three players

It is possible, though unusual, for three people to play Troeven. There are two versions.

Version 1. One player is replaced by a dummy player. The dummy is dealt a row of four face down cards with a face up card on top of each. One player permanently partners the dummy and the other two form a team. In the play, the dummy's partner plays its cards in turn. Only the face up cards are available to play, according to the usual rules of play. At the end of each trick, any face down card which has been exposed by playing the card that was on top of it is turned face up. When it is dummy's turn to choose trumps, the dummy's partner chooses on the basis of dummy's four face up cards, before looking at his own hand.

Version 2. The two black sevens are removed from the deck to form a 30-card deck. There are no partnerships and no dummies. Scoring is kept using three trees, each with five (not seven) branches on one side only. [Harry Tiggelovend does not explain this game fully. Presumably ten cards are dealt to each player, maybe five at a time, with the first player choosing trumps on the basis of the first five cards. Probably only the player with most points is entitled to cancel a branch.]

Two Players

Again there are two versions.

Version 1 is a popular children's game. Each player is dealt two rows of four cards face down. Then the non-dealer gets four face up cards in a row on top of his top row of four cards, and must choose trumps. After this, a row of four face up cards is placed on top of the dealer's top row, and then the players get four more face up cards on top of their bottom rows. So after the deal, each player has an array of eight face up cards, each with a face down card under it. In the play, each player plays from the face up cards of his layout. After each trick, any face down cards that were exposed are turned face up. The rules of play and scoring are the same as in the four-player game.

Version 2 is less common. The dealer deals four cards to his opponent, who chooses trumps, then four cards to himself and four more cards to each. The remaining sixteen cards are stacked face down. Each trick consists of two cards, and so long as there are cards in the stack there is no requirement to follow suit. After each trick the winner draws the top card of the stack and the loser the next card. When the stock is exhausted, the usual rules of following suit or trumping come into force for the last eight tricks. Scoring is the same as in the four-player game.