This game is a direct descendant of Karnöffel, one of the oldest card games known. Karnöffel was referred to as early as 1426 and was the subject of a many sermons and satirical writings in the following centuries. It may appear that most of its dreadfulness lies in the level of anarchy of the play - you can play any card you like to each trick, and can talk as much as you like about what cards you have and what you want your partner to do. In the 15th century what was apparently more shocking was the anarchic card order, taken as symbolising a disruption of the status quo, with the king being beaten by low cards, the Pope (6) beaten by the Under-knave, and special privileges given to the Devil (7).
The modern game of Kaiserspiel (often known as Kaiserjass, though it is not really has nothing to do with Jass games) is played in a small area around Stans and in the Engelberg valley, in Canton Nidwalden, south of Luzern in Switzerland. Of the surviving members of the Karnöffel family, this is the closest to the original game. The cards used are similar to the standard Swiss Jass pack, but the suits contain 3, 4, and 5 and not 8 or 9 (all the 8's and 9's should be removed from the pack before playing).
(Note: according to text accompanying the Kaiserspiel cards published by Leon Schnyder for the Stiftung Schweizer Wappen und Fahnen, Kaiserspiel is still played with 48 cards in some places in the cantons Obwalden, Uri and Luzern)
The game is played with fixed partnerships; when there are four players you sit opposite your partner as in Bridge. It is also possible for six to play; the partnerships then consist of teams of three, sitting alternately.
Each team elects its captain, and the scoring slate is placed on the table between the two captains.
The Object of the Game
The game is of the trick taking type, with trumps, but trumps had not been invented in their modern form when this game was developed, so they behave rather oddly. By the time the play of the hand starts, each player will have five cards, and the object is to win three of the five tricks. The value of the hand depends on how much betting there has been, and the winners score some number of points. The first side to get to an agreed number of points (often 101) wins.
Four suits, Shields, Flowers, Bells and Acorns, each containing 10 cards: King, Ober, Under, 7,6,5,4,3,2, Banner. The twos of the pack are the same cards which are used as aces (also known as sows) in other Swiss games, but they really are twos.
The four banners normally become part of the trump suit, and are referred to as Kaisers (not to be confused with Kings). They are promoted from the side suits by announcing "Kaiser" (see below).
The side suits rank: King (highest), Ober, Under, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 (lowest)
The trump suit can be divided into five groups. The illustrations shows the trump suit arranged in order assuming that shields are trumps.
- The highest trumps are the king-beatersThe banner of bells (Mugg) is the highest, followed by the 5, Under (Joos), 6, 2, and banner of flowers (Blass), in that order. These cards can beat all non-trump cards (except the 7 of the trump suit) and all lower trumps.
- Next are the Ober-beaters, which rank 3, Banner of shields. They can beat all non-trump cards other than kings - i.e. from the Ober downwards - and all lower trumps.
- Below the Ober-beaters are the Under-beaters, ranking: 4, banner of acorns (Wydli). They can beat all non-trump cards other than kings and obers - i.e. from the Under downwards - and all lower trumps.
- The King ("Fuil") and Ober of the suit chosen as trumps are not themselves trumps, but form a little suit by themselves.
- The seven of the suit chosen as trumps is also not a trump, and is best regarded as being a separate suit on its own. It can only win if it is led to a trick, and if it is led it can only be beaten by the Joos (The Under of the trump suit, normally the third highest trump). The Joos may then be beaten in turn by one of the top two trumps.
Example: If shields are trumps, and the ober of flowers is led, this can be beaten by the 3 of shields (ober-beater), which can in turn be beaten by the king of flowers (because flowers were led), which in turn could be beaten by the 6 of shields (king-beater). On the other hand if the 3 of shields is led, this cannot be beaten by the king of flowers, nor even by the king of shields (which is not a trump). When a trump is led it can only be beaten by a higher trump.
The four banners have fixed positions in the trump suit, irrespective of which suit is selected. However, they can only be used as trumps if they are declared during or at the end of the deal, before play starts. The procedure is described in the section on the deal, below. Any banner that is not declared becomes a worthless card that cannot win a trick. If an undeclared Kaiser were led to a trick, the card played by the second player would determine the suit of the trick.
Variant: Some play that an undeclared Kaiser reverts to its nominal suit, becoming the lowest card of that suit, effectively a card below the two. This makes a difference, in that with this variant you can help your partner to win a trick with a king by leading the Kaiser of the same suit.
The game is played anticlockwise.
The first dealer is selected at random, normally by dealing one card to each player; whoever gets the lowest card deals (in plain suit order, ignoring any banners). The first dealt of two equal cards counts lower. For later hands the deal passes round to the right.
Dealer shuffles, then the player on her left cuts, showing everyone the bottom card (it's easy for dealer to sneak a look, so it's fair for everyone to see it). If the bottom card is a banner, the shuffling and cutting is repeated.
The dealing procedure is a little complicated, because at certain points during the deal betting can take place, based on the cards the players have so far received. Also the trump suit is determined by the deal.
Dealing the first card and determining trumps
Dealer deals one card face up to the player on her right, and one card face up to her partner, and then pauses to see if any betting takes place. If either of the cards showing is a banner, it must be converted into a Kaiser immediately, otherwise the chance to do so is lost.
The dealer then deals a face up card to her left hand opponent and finally to herself, followed by another short pause for betting and announcing Kaisers.
Now each player has one face-up card. The suit of the lowest of these cards, in plain suit order, determines trumps. For example if the dealer deals 6 of shields, under of acorns, 5 of bells, king of shields then bells are trumps.
If two equally low cards are dealt, then the first of the two which was dealt determines trumps. So if the cards are 2 of acorns, 4 of shields, under of shields, 2 of flowers, then acorns are trumps.
Banners are ignored for the purpose of determining the trump suit. So if the four cards are Banner of flowers, King of bells, Banner of shields, Banner of acorns, then bells are trumps.
The rest of the deal and the discard
Two more cards each are dealt face down to the first two players, after which there is a pause for betting and announcing Kaisers. Then two cards are dealt face down to the other two players, followed by a pause for betting and announcing Kaisers.
It is not necessary at this point to announce Kaisers as they are received; if the player wishes this can be delayed until after the end of the deal.
Then another four cards each are dealt to each player, in two rounds of two at a time, without pauses for betting, so that each player has seven cards including their face up one. The face up cards are taken into their hands by the players, and each player then discards any two of their seven cards face down, leaving a hand of five. Modifications for six players. The above applies to the four player game. If there are six players, the deal consists of one card face up to each player (with a pause after every two cards), then two face down to each (with a pause afetr each pair of players), and the last part of the deal consists of dealing just more two cards each, so that every player has five cards. There is no discard.
Further Announcement of Kaisers
There is now a round of announcements: each player in turn anticlockwise beginning with the player to dealer's right can announce any further banners they wish to promote to Kaisers. Since there is an opportunity for the opponents to resign the hand after each Kaiser it is important to do them one at a time. When each player has done all of their Kaisers they say "Done mine" and the turn to announce Kaisers passes round to the right.
At the start of each hand, the value of that hand is four points. Announcement of a Kaiser has the effect of increasing in the score for the winners of the hand, if the opponents accept. Each time a Kaiser is announced, the captain of the team announcing it makes a mark on the slate, indicating whether she wishes to raise the score for the hand by one point or by three. The opposing captain then either says "fold" in which case the hand ends and the side which said "Kaiser" scores whatever the hand was worth before the announcement or says "accepted" in which case the hand continues. When announcing a Kaiser, the holder does not have to reveal its suit - thus when deciding whether to accept, the opponents do not necessarily know whether it is a high or a low trump.
Immediately after an offer to raise the stakes by one point for a Kaiser has been accepted, the captain may increase the offer to three, and the opponents have another opportunity to accept or give up. As soon as anything else has happened the opportunity to increase the bet from one to three is lost.
In addition, a team captain may at any time say Spieldrei ("play three"), adding a further three points to the value of the hand. The opponents can choose to fold if they do not wish to continue that hand. Once one side has said Spieldrei during a hand and it has been accepted, it is then the prerogative of the other side to say Spieldrei proposing to increase the value by a further three. If this is accepted the side which bet originally can Spieldrei again, and so on. However a side may never Spieldrei twice in succession without an intervening Spieldrei from the other side (this is analogous to the doubling cube rule in Backgammon).
The player to dealer's right leads to the first trick. The rule of play is simple - you can play any card you like to each trick. Cards are usually played face up in front of the player, rather than to the centre of the table. The highest card of the suit led wins unless trumps are involved. The winner of each trick leads to the next.
If a non-trump is led, and a trump is played which is of sufficient power to beat the highest card of the suit led, then the highest such trump wins the trick. The same applies if the Fuil or Hiratä (King or Ober of the suit designated as trumps) is led, as these cards are not themselves trumps.
If a trump is led (a king-beater, an ober-beater or an unter-beater), the trick is won by the highest trump played. It cannot be won by a non-trump.
If the seven of the trump suit is led it wins unless someone plays the Joos. If someone does play the Joos then it wins unless it is subsequently beaten by a higher trump.
Quite often, a player will put an irrelevant or worthless card on a trick, either because his partner is already winning it or because he doesn't want to win it (or can't). In this case it is normal to play one's card face down. When playing a banner face down you are obliged to say "Kaiser", but not to say which of the banners you are discarding.
At the beginning of the session, the slate should be blank apart from a line across near each end. Each side's captain registers the score in ones, fives, nines or tens as shown.
When the first Kaiser is announced a long stroke across the middle of the slate is made, with a little hook at the end. If the first bet is a Spieldrei the long stroke doesn't have a hook.
Any further 3 point Kaisers or Spieldrei's are registered as a crossing line across the long stroke. One point Kaisers are registered as a short line, coming up to the long stroke on one side but not crossing it.
In the illustration, the value of the game in progress is: 4 points for the slate, plus 3 for the first Kaiser (hook), plus 3 for the second Kaiser (line crossing the hook), plus 3 for a Spieldrei (another line crossing the hook), plus 1 for the third Kaiser (announced as a "small one") (line not crossing the hook), for a total of 14.
There is a system of communication to enable partners to plan their play and decide when it is appropriate to bet. Most of the important cards have signals associated with them, and players are allowed to use these signals to try to tell their partner which cards they hold when the opponents are not looking. Normally the captain will only signal kings (so that her partner knows which suits to keep when discarding two cards), while the other player will attempt to signal all of his good cards, so that the captain can direct the play.
It is legal to signal cards you do not hold in order to confuse the opposition, but you are not allowed to depart from the code of recognised signals. It would be illegal to have secret arrangements with your partner about other unofficial signals or about which of your signals are going to be lies.
The allowed signals are:
Mugg (banner of bells) puff up one cheek Five of trumps wink Joos (under of trumps) put out your tongue Other king-beater shrug your shoulder Low trump (ober-beater make sign with finger or under-beater) as though writing Seven of the trump suit Silently mouth the word "seven" King of flowers wrinkle your nose King of shields look to the side King of acorns look up King of bells look down
The above account of Kaiserspiel is based on some games played in Stans in 1978 in which John McLeod took part and on the papers Der Nidwaldner Kaiserjass und seine Geschichte by Rudolf von Leyden and Der Kaiserjass, wie er heute in Nidwalden gespielt wird by Hansjakob Achermann, both published by the Historische Verein Nidwalden in Beiträge zur Geschichte Nidwaldens, volume 37, Stans, 1978.
In North America, Kaiserspiel (Kaiserjass) cards can be obtained from TaroBear's Lair.
The English description given above was written by Matthew Macfadyen and Kirsty Healey, and revised by John McLeod.