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Thirteens

Contributed by Bob Meyers

Object of the Game

To outscore all opponents by taking tricks that can be made into scoring melds. 50 is a reasonable game no matter how many players.

The Gimmick

The primary goal is, without trumping, to capture a trick full of cards that can be combined into melds that each add up to thirteen. Failing that, the astute player will grab pairs or 3-card straights, which score lesser values. Capturing a trick itself scores points. The joker trumps, if used, can be powerful tools to gain the lead and catch points, but taking them in tricks does detract slightly from one's score.

Number of Players

3 to 6. More players increase the influence of chance, and it gets rather silly when you get to double digits. 4-5 is ideal, though 3 and 6 are still very enjoyable, with 7 a good option for those oddly-sized groups.

Teams

None. All players play for themselves.

The Deck

A standard deck, optionally with one to two jokers added. Aces are high. The game is better with jokers, which serve as trumps. When attempting to meld cards, the A is one pip, 2-10 their respective pip values, J 11, Q 12, and K 13. Jokers cannot be melded and do not have a pip count. The ideal deck for a balanced game will have at least one joker and just enough to make the cards divide unevenly, though the exact number can be left to the players' preference.

The Deal

All cards are dealt as evenly as possible to each player, with the remainder set aside, e.g., with 5 players and one joker in the deck, each player gets 10 cards, with 3 set aside. Dealing responsibility passes to the left for each new hand, just as in most major card games.

The Setup

The cards set aside are flipped face-up one at a time, and the first card flipped over is of the "starter suit", which the player to the left of dealer must lead after the flipping ends. All the leftover cards will be taken by the player who wins the first trick, and the pip counts of these cards do not matter when determining the winner of the trick. If a joker were flipped as the first card, there is no starter suit. Also, if no cards are left over (if the deck divided evenly among all players), there is also no starter suit.

The Lead

Eldest hand (player to left of dealer) leads first. If during setup extra cards were flipped, eldest hand must lead the "starter suit" that was first flipped, if they have any of that suit. If there is no starter suit, or if eldest hand has no cards in the starter suit, they have complete freedom of play. Subsequent tricks may be led with complete freedom.

The Trick Play

As in most major trick-taking games, play proceeds clockwise. Players following the leader to a trick must follow suit if possible, otherwise they may trump or discard. If a joker were led, the other players may play any card they wish.

The Trick Winner

The highest ranking card of the suit led takes the trick unless trumped by a joker. The first trump played to a trick wins that trick. Jokers do not outrank each other in any fashion.

The Melding Play

The trick winner immediately attempts to create melds with the cards won in that trick (which, for the first trick, includes those "extra" cards from the beginning). The player sets these melds on the table in front of them for all other players to see. The following combinations of cards can be made into melds:

These melds are left in place until the end of the hand. They may not be recombined in any way, even of the player takes more tricks later.

More on Melding

Suit is never considered for a meld. Cards may be from any of the 4 suits. A card can only be in one meld, e.g., if K-Q-J-6 were a captured trick, the winner of the trick must decide between the K-Q-J straight or using the K as a thirteen. Multiple melds can be made from the same trick. An example is 3-3-3-10. Only one pair may be scored, but the remaining 3 can be combined with the 10 for a thirteen.

End of the Hand

After all players play to the last trick, each adds up their meld points and tricks. Any player not taking a trick has "gone null" and takes 3 points instead of 0. Players taking a negative or zero score due to jokers are stuck with it. The first player to 50 or a prearranged number is the winner. The player to left of dealer shuffles and deals next if no one has won the game yet.

If two or more players reach the target number in the same deal, the highest score wins. If two or more players are tied in first place, continue playing until the tie is broken. (This means that third place could catch the first two tied at 51 and still win! This keeps more players interested longer.)

Scoring Summary

There is a minimum (tricks + 12 - 4*jokers) points per hand available (12 comes from the 4 kings which are automatically thirteens if scored rationally), with the average extra points for 4 players being 4 thirteens per hand, and 3-6 single-point pairs or straights.

Strategy

Several bits of wisdom:

  1. Obviously, the quickest way to win is to collect multiple thirteens each hand, and the easiest way to get a thirteen is to win a trick with the King. When leading, if you hold the King and the suit in which it resides has not yet been lead, do everything you can to get rid of the Ace. Then, when you get the lead again, simply flop the King out and listen to everyone else groan. Mind the Jokers, though, if you pursue this strategy, because the Joker pays for itself when capturing a King, since the player doing so scores both for the King and for the trick.
  2. The Jokers really lend a unique character to the game. Since there are much fewer trumps (1-2, depending on how many are added) than in games such as Spades or Bridge (where 13 trumps are in play in place of the normal suit), their usage is vital. Often, you will only have one joker, and perhaps as often, you will have none. If you have one trump and someone else has trump as well, you must decide whether to try to take a bunch of points (if you have a good hand, with high cards and few suits) or go null (if your hand stinks, with low cards and many evenly distributed suits). It may pay for you to wait until another trump holder plays their trump on your void, then unceremoniously dump the trumps and watch your opponent take their lumps. Then, if you can avert taking tricks, you can get away with the three points for null. This is not bad at all, if your hand stinks and you have no prospect of taking 4 to offset the joker and 3 more to replace the null you could've had. If you decide to go for points, of course, you may either trump a high-scoring trick, or save your trump for last and attempt to set up to run in 1-2 suits with the rest of the tricks after trumping. This requires getting rid of all other trumps and also getting rid of all of the stoppers in the suit you intend to run. Trump is both a blessing and a curse in this game, and this contributes to play balance.
  3. Setting up to take the last several tricks (because your hand only has winners remaining) is the most sure-fire way to get lots of points. Just remember that everyone else will be trying to do the same in suits you don't have, so watch what gets led in the midgame. Also remember that jokers can foil this plan in a hurry. Save a joker if you can, but don't pass up a thirteen to do so if you're trying to score.
  4. Melds are always face up, which can give you a hint if you've forgotten what high cards have been played or what suits are left with few cards. You can always deduce the number of trumps left by seeing how many jokers are face up on the table.
  5. During the early and middle parts of the hand, you really want the player to your left to have the lead. Players will try to hand off the lead early to get the good run at the end, so you may be able to keep ducking under that player's leads, or force them to play really low cards to give up the lead. As the last player to the trick, you have maximum flexibility to take the trick if it has points, dump a threatening joker, complete a null hand, make a thirteen out of everyone's attempts to dodge the trick, or simply make voids and pitch losers to set up your final run.
  6. Some important card combinations to consider in a suit are:
  7. Going Null: Determining whether to go null or not depends on the number of players and their skill in scoring meld points. If playing with 4 players, there are 13 tricks, and at least 4 thirteens from kings, for 25 points available, minimum. Your fair share of that total is 6.25, much higher than 3. In general, in the 4 player game, it pays to go for melds, especially when you take into account that when you go null, the 25 points will now divide among three people, since you are not taking tricks. In the 6 player game, the minimum averaged per player is only 4.167, but more cards on a trick lead to more melds for points, so the minimum is not often achieved. In short, going null is a failsafe against a horrible hand. It in itself is not a way to win the game, unlike Spades, for example. This necessitates competition for points, making it harder for one or two players to run away with it all each hand, without making skillful point-capture play useless, as it would be if one could simply dodge all tricks and take a huge amount of points.

Variant

When play testing the three-player version it was discovered that it becomes much more exciting if a fourth dummy hand "contributes" a card to each trick.

Changes for this variation: When playing with three players, deal four hands instead of three. The fourth hand does not belong to any player; rather, it is a "dummy" hand that cannot take any tricks. Before the lead to each trick, a card is flipped face up from the dummy by the leader to that trick. This card cannot take the trick, nor does it compel the leader to play from the card's suit, like the "starter" card does. It is taken with the rest of the cards by the winner of the trick, who may use the card just as the other three for melding purposes, as though four people played to the trick. It is possible in this way for the ace of clubs to be flipped by dummy onto a two, three, and seven of clubs, and thus taken by the trick winner (who played the seven) for a thirteen. It is also possible for a joker to be flipped up, which will make players scramble to avoid taking the trick!

This variant adds a fourth card to the trick each time, and makes it much easier to meld than with three cards. Larger numbers of players than four will find it easier still to meld, with ridiculum setting in after the seventh player, though the null option becomes very inviting at this point, since there are much fewer tricks.


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Last updated 29th March 2006