Roller Derby

Contributed by Neal Lyons

Roller Derby is a four-player card game inspired by Spades, Hearts, and Euchre. Giving a nod to the sport of the same name, this card game also derives its name from its most distinctive trait – a pair of dice is rolled before each hand is played, and the Roller (or “jammer”) often has the most decisive influence in determining the outcome of each hand. The purpose of the dice roll is to generate a broad range of strategic and tactical situations, keeping the game exciting and unpredictable and never feeling like the play has degenerated into some sort of automated monotony.

Getting Started

Players: Four, divided into partnerships of two.

Cards and Dice: A standard, 52-card deck is used. The cards rank, from highest to lowest, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Also, two six-sided dice are used. [See the optional “Jokers for Sale” variant description at the end to learn how to add two Joker cards to the game.]

Setup: Players may choose partnerships (teams) and seating by general agreement, or by drawing cards or rolling dice or any other method so long as all players agree that the method is fair. The choice of first dealer, shuffling, cutting, etc., may be determined likewise. Preferably, the dealer should shuffle and the player to the right of the dealer should cut. Partners sit across from each other. At least one player should have a pen and paper for keeping score.

Game Length: Players should reach an agreement on whether to play a Short game (four deals) or a Long game (eight deals).

Objective: After playing a set number of deals, the team with the highest score wins. Teams score points by winning a predetermined number of tricks.

The structure of this game differs from many trick-taking games, in the sense that the teams alternate roles between offense and defense for a set number of rounds. The Dealer’s team plays the defensive side, while the Roller’s team must try to score as many points as possible. (Using terms from the sport of roller derby, the Dealer’s team would be the “blockers” and the Rollers team would be the “jammers.”)

How to Play

Each deal consists of three simple phases. Once all the phases have been completed, the role of dealer rotates clockwise and the phases repeat.

1. The Deal and the Roll: All cards are dealt, one at a time, clockwise, starting with the player to the dealer’s left.

The player to the left of the dealer is the Roller, or “Jammer,” and rolls both dice after the deal. The sum of both dice determines the number of tricks that the Roller’s team must try to win from that deal – no higher, no lower. If the dice show a three and a four, then that partnership must try to win exactly seven tricks by the time that all the tricks are played. After the Roll, the dice stay in front of the Roller as a persistent indicator of the target number of tricks.

2. The Exchange and the Declaration: Each player selects three cards to exchange with his/ her partner, being careful not to expose the cards to the opposing team. The Roller’s team (jammers) exchanges first, then the Dealer’s team (blockers). The passed cards should be fanned out or separated during the exchange so that it is evident that only three cards are being exchanged. Also, the exchange between partners must be “blind” – a player cannot look at the received cards before choosing which cards to give. One of the purposes of the exchange is for the partnerships to share information about each other’s hand – no information may be shared verbally.

After both teams have made an exchange, the Roller chooses which suit will be the trump, the most powerful suit. This is the “Declaration.” Alternatively, each team has the option, once per game, to play the hand in “All or Nothing” fashion, which overrides the dice roll. In that case, the Roller declares “All or Nothing with . . .” and names a suit as trump, and then the Roller’s team must either win all of the tricks or none of the tricks. Note that a successful “All or Nothing” bid scores 150 points, while failure results in zero points.

3. The Derby and the Tally: Playing the Derby begins with the Roller and proceeds clockwise, with each player laying down one card. Each subsequent card must follow the suit of the card led – if a player cannot follow suit, she/he may play any card. The four cards played constitute a “trick.” The trick is won by the highest trump played, or, if no trump was played, by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of each trick leads the next trick. The Derby continues until all thirteen tricks have been played. However, if the deal is being played “All or Nothing,” the Derby ends as soon as the bid fails, in the event that both teams have won a trick.

After the Derby ends, the Roller’s team (jammers) counts the number of tricks that were won and compares their total to the dice roll. This is the “Tally.” If the team met the dice roll exactly, they earn 100 points. Any number of tricks above or below the dice roll deducts 10 points each from the maximum of 100. For example, if the Roller’s team was supposed to win seven tricks but instead won nine, then that team scores 80 points for that deal (because the difference of two tricks deducts 20 points from 100). If the Roller’s team was supposed to win eleven tricks but instead won six, then that team scores 50 points. As stated before, a successful “All or Nothing” bid scores 150 points, while a failed “All or Nothing” bid scores zero.

  • Exact number of tricks = 100 points
  • One trick above or below goal = 90 points
  • Two tricks above or below goal = 80 points
  • Three tricks above or below goal = 70 points . . . etc.
  • Successful All or Nothing = 150 points
  • Failed All or Nothing = 0 points

In the extremely unlikely event of a negative score, a zero should be granted, instead. The Dealer’s team does not score points, but merely tries to minimize the points won by their opponents, by forcing the Roller’s team to overshoot or undershoot their goal. After the Tally, the deal rotates clockwise and the teams switch roles. The game ends after the set number of deals have finished (four or eight deals), at which point the scores are totaled and the team with the most points wins. If there is an insurmountable point difference (greater than 150) between the two teams right before the final deal, then the game may be concluded without the last deal being played.

Managing Irregularities

Players should decide upon universal penalties for breaking game rules – the most common rule violation happens when a player fails to follow suit in spite of being able to do so. For most games, a fifty point penalty may suffice for these sorts of errors. However, in the interest of friendly sportsmanship in a casual game, the team that would gain the advantage should be free to reduce or waive the penalties that would be incurred by their opponents. Other mishaps, such as botched shuffling and dealing, can also be remedied at the discretion of the players. Casual games can permit a fair number of honest gaffes, while more competitive environments may require a new deal in various situations. In either case, the players should implement whichever rules they deem appropriate for themselves, to best serve their enjoyment of the game.

Variants

Enthusiasts of the sport of roller derby may wish to play the game in a counter-clockwise fashion, in homage to the norms of the sport. Also, given the unpredictability of the dice rolls and their propensity to create wildly disparate odds, some players will inevitably wish to amend the rules of the game to diminish the role of chance – see, for example, the “Jokers for Sale” and “Roller’s Privilege” variants. On the other hand, players who prefer the craziness of those random situations situations may lean more towards variants like the “Dodecahedron.” In any case, the main hope is that the game will accomplish one objective: fun.

“Jokers for Sale” Variant: In this variant, after the Roller declares the trump suit, the Roller may then choose to “purchase” one or two Jokers at the cost of 9 points each. (Jokers may not be purchased for an All or Nothing bid.) After purchasing one or two Jokers, the Roller discards the same number of cards face down on the table. Jokers serve as high or low wild cards for any suit, and they can rank higher than the ace or lower than the deuce. The Roller announces the value of the Joker when playing it in a trick – for example, “highest club” or “lowest diamond.” Both Jokers may share the same value. However, Jokers may not be used to break the rules of the game – for example, if the trick was led with a spade and the Joker player has cards of that suit, then the Joker must follow suit, as well. If the Joker holder cannot follow suit with a non- Joker card, then the Joker may serve as any suit. The cost of the Jokers is deducted from the score when when the score is tallied. Be sure to separate the Jokers from the pack before the next shuffle and deal.

“Dodecahedron” Variant: This variant is not for the faint of heart. Instead of using two six-sided dice, a single twelve-sided die may be used. This variant has two significant consequences. First, the lowest possible roll decreases from two to one. Second, and most importantly, the odds of rolling various numbers changes dramatically, making extremely high or low rolls as common as the middle numbers. (With two six-sided dice, a roll of seven is most common, having a 16.7% probability, while rolls of two or twelve each have only a 2.8% probability. With a dodecahedron, all rolls are equally likely, with each roll having an 8.3% probability.) This can make the game pretty crazy, perhaps too crazy, but adding the “Jokers for Sale” variant to this one can help to tame it a little bit.

“Roller’s Privilege” Variant: This idea was suggested by John McLeod from the pagat.com website. In this variant, during the exchange of cards between partners, the Roller has the privilege of looking at the three cards given by the Roller’s partner before selecting which cards to give in return. The Roller may even return one, two, or all of the partner’s original cards. An additional note: this variant, like the “Jokers for Sale” variant, affords the Roller’s team greater accuracy in meeting the challenges presented by the dice. When altering the game rules, one of the best means of coping with difficult rolls is through enhancing the Roller’s available options, as this “privilege” does.

[Legal Disclaimer: Do not use this game design as the basis for any product to be sold, without the consent of the inventor. Do not falsely claim credit for the invention of this game. This game design is intended to be freely distributed and played by anyone who wishes to do so.]