Tractor
拖拉机

I am grateful to Du Jing Yu for teaching me this game, and to Zachary Dexter and Joe Zeng for information on variants.

Introduction

This game is known in Chinese as tuo la ji (拖拉机) (meaning 'tractor') or bashi fen (八十分) (meaning '80 points'). It is an expanded version of sishi fen ('40 points') using two or more decks, and is related to zhao pengyou ('looking for friends'). All these games are collectively known as Sheng1 Ji2 (升级), which means "raise level" or "promote". Tractor is widely popular in China, especially in Shanghai and south of the Yellow River where it has practically displaced the older single deck game.

Players and Cards

There are four players in two fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other. A double deck of standard international cards is used, with four jokers - two red and two black. There are 108 cards in the deck altogether. (For versions with more than four players and more than two decks see variations.

The object of the game is to win tricks containing kings, tens and fives. Kings and tens are worth 10 points each, fives are worth 5 points each, and all other cards are worthless. There are 200 points in the pack in total.

Usually, the jokers, all cards of a particular suit and all cards of a particular rank are trumps. The highest trumps are the red jokers, then the black jokers, then the cards that belong to both the trump suit and the trump rank, then the other cards of the trump rank (all equal), then the remaining cards of the trump suit in descending order from ace to two. In the other suits, the cards rank from ace (high) down to two (low) omitting the trump rank.
For example, if sevens and clubs are trumps, the trumps from high to low are: red joker, black joker, club7, other sevens (equal in rank), clubA, clubK, clubQ, clubJ, club10, club9, club8, club6, club5, club4, club3, club2.
The cards in each of the other suits rank: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

Note that for the purposes of the play, the cards of the trump rank count as belonging to the trump suit, not to the suits marked on them. The jokers also belong to the trump suit.

In some deals there is no trump suit. In that case the only trumps are the four jokers, red jokers beating black jokers. The cards of all four non-trump suits rank from high to low: A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2.

Declarers and opponents: the scores and the objective

The scores of the teams are expressed as card ranks. At the start of the game, each partnership has the lowest possible score, which is two. By winning games, a partnership can increase its score to a higher rank: three, four, five and so on. Above ten come jack, queen, king and ace. The objective is to achieve a score higher than ace - the partnership that achieves this wins the game.

In each hand, one team are the declarers, sometimes known in Chinese as dang1 zhuang1 (当庄), and the other team are the opponents. (In a previous version of this page the teams were called "attackers" and "defenders", but it has become clear that some players use these words in the exact opposite sense to the one used here. Hopefully "declarers" and "opponents" will avoid ambiguity.) In the first hand, either team can by declarers, depending on who makes trumps. In subsequent hands, the team that won the previous hand are the declarers, and the other team are the opponents.

One member of the declarers' team is the starter, who has the advantage of taking the last cards in the deal, discarding some cards, and leading to the first trick. While the declarers try to increase their score, the opponents' objective is to take at least 80 card points, in which case they become the declarers for the next deal.

The deal and making trumps

Deal and play are anticlockwise. The cards are shuffled and stacked face down in the centre of the table. Each player in turn takes a card from the top of the pack, continuing around the table in anticlockwise until each player has 25 cards, leaving 8 cards face down on the table. The players look at the cards they take, adding them to their hands, but not showing them to the other players.

In the first hand the trump rank is two. In subsequent hands, the trump rank is equal to the score of the declarers' team (the team that won the previous hand). Trumps are made during the deal, by a player exposing face up on the table a card of the trump rank, or two identical cards of the trump rank, or two identical jokers. The trump suit is the suit of the exposed card. If identical jokers are exposed, there are no trumps (and the trump rank has no special status in that deal).

If you draw a card of the trump rank during the deal, you are not obliged to expose it immediately or at all. You may wait to see more of your hand, so that you can better decide whether you wish to make to make this suit trumps. You may hope that you will later pick up other cards of the trump rank, giving you a choice of suit. However, if another player exposes a trump before you do so, you can no longer make trumps by exposing a single card. After a trump rank card has been exposed, the trump suit can only be changed if another player exposes two identical trump rank cards. The suit of these cards then supersedes the first exposed suit. If a pair of identical trump rank cards has been exposed, the trump suit cannot be changed, but it can be eliminated by another player exposing a pair of identical jokers, so that there will be no trumps except jokers in that hand.

You can also make trumps by exposing a pair of identical trump rank cards even if no one has previously exposed a single card, and you can make no trumps by exposing jokers even if no one has tried to make a trump suit or if only a single card has been exposed. If you have already made trumps by exposing a single card, you cannot later change the trump suit yourself by exposing a pair, but you can use a pair to change a trump suit made by your partner with a single card if you wish to. If another player overrules your single exposed trump with a pair, you may in turn overrule their trumps by exposing a pair of jokers for no trumps.

In each deal, one member of the declarers' team is the starter. This player takes the last eight cards, adds them to his or her hand without showing them to the other players, and discards eight cards face down. It can be risky to discard valuable cards, because the point value (if any) of these discarded cards will be doubled (or possibly multiplied by a higher factor) and given to the team that wins the last trick - see scoring. The starter also leads to the first trick.

In the first deal, the player who shuffles and takes the first card from the pack is chosen at random. The player who finally makes trumps becomes the starter, and the starter's team are the declarers.

In subsequent deals, if the declarers won the previous deal, the new starter is the previous starter's partner. If the opponents won, becoming the new declarers, the starter is the player to the previous starter's right.

It sometimes happens that when everyone has taken their 25 cards, no one has yet exposed a card or cards to make trumps. This will happen when the players who have trump rank cards have few other accompanying cards in the same suit, and so do not want the suit as trumps. There is then a pause, to see whether anyone wishes at this stage to expose a trump. If no one wants to, the last eight cards are turned face up one at a time. If a card of the trump rank is found, its suit becomes trumps and no further cards are exposed. If all eight cards are exposed and contain no trump rank card, the trump suit is determined by the highest of these cards (not counting any jokers that may be there). If there are two or more equal highest cards, the first of these that was exposed determines the trump suit. The starter then takes the eight cards as usual and discards eight.

The above procedure applies in the second and subsequent hands, where the starter is known before the deal. It is extremely unlikely that in the first hand no one would expose a trump from their 25 cards, because by making trumps your team gains the advantage of being the declarers. If this did happen, the cards would be thrown in and the deal repeated.

The play

After discarding eight cards, the starter leads to the first trick. There are four kinds of lead, each of which will be discussed in turn below:

  1. any single card
  2. any pair of identical cards, played together
  3. a sequence of consecutive pairs of identical cards
  4. a set of top cards

Each of the other players in anticlockwise order around the table must play the same number of cards as were led, following suit as far as possible. Note that the jokers and the trump rank cards count as belonging to the trump suit. The winner of the trick is determined according to the rules set out below for each type of lead. The winner of each trick leads to the next trick, and may again lead a single card, pair, sequence of pairs or top set.

If an opponent of the starter wins the trick, any valuable cards (kings, tens and fives) that it contains are placed face up in front of one of the opponents. The remaining cards are placed face down in a waste pile in front of the starter's partner - keeping them well separated from the starter's discards, which are stored face down in front of the starter. If the declarers' team wins the trick, all the cards in it are placed face down on the waste pile in front of the starter's partner. In this way it is always possible to see by looking at the face up cards in front of the opponents how many points they have so far collected. The total number of card points collected by the opponents determines the result: the opponents win if they have 80 points or more.

1. Leading a single card
Any single card may be led. If a trump is led, the other players must play a trump if they have one; anyone who does not have a trump may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump played; if several equally high trumps are played then first played of the equal trumps beats the others and wins the trick if no higher trump is played.
If a non-trump is led, the other players must play a non-trump of the same suit as the lead if they can. Any player who is unable to follow suit in this way may play any card. If no one plays a trump, the trick is won by the highest card of the suit led; if equal cards are played, the first played beats the other. If any player plays a trump, the trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if there are several equal highest trumps, by the first of them that was played.
Examples. Suppose that fives and diamonds are trumps.
  • The heart5 is led. This is a trump, so each of the other players must play a diamond, a five or a joker if possible. If the cards played to the trick are heart5, diamondQ, diamond10 and spade5 in that order, the player of the heart5 wins the trick, since this was played before the equally high spade5.
  • The heart7 is led. This is not a trump, so the other players must play hearts (other than the five) if they can. If your only heart is the five, you may play it on this trick, but you are not obliged to; you are unable to follow suit with a non-trump heart, so you may play any card. If the cards played to the trick are heart7, spadeJ, spadeJ, heart10, the ten wins, since it is the highest heart that was played.
2. Leading a pair of identical cards
Any pair of identical cards can be led, but note that they do have to be identical, not just equal. For example if nines and spades are trumps, you can lead diamond9-diamond9, but heart9-club9 would not be a legal lead.
When an identical pair of trumps is led, each of the other players must play an identical pair of trumps if they have them. Those unable to do this must still play two trumps if possible. A player who holds only one trump must play this with any other card. A player who has no trumps plays any two cards (there is no obligation to play a pair). The trick is won by the highest identical pair of trumps played - unpaired trumps cannot win, even if they are higher.
When an identical pair of non trumps is led, anyone who has a pair of identical cards in the same suit must play such a pair. Those who have no such pair can play any two cards of the suit led. If they only have one card of the suit led, they play that together with any other card. A player who has no cards of the suit led can play any two cards - there is no obligation to play a pair in this case. The trick is won by whoever plays the highest identical pair in the suit led, unless some other player, having no cards of that suit, trumps the trick with a pair of identical trumps. If a pair of identical trumps is played to the trick, the highest pair of identical trumps wins. If two players were to play equally high pairs of trumps - for example heart9-heart9 and diamond9-diamond9 when nines and spades are trumps - then the first played of these pairs would beat the other. It is not possible to win the trick with two unpaired trumps.
Examples. Suppose that threes and hearts are trumps.
  • North leads clubJ-clubJ; West has no club pair and plays clubA-clubQ; South has only one club and plays club4-spade10; East, whose clubs are 10, 10, 7, 6, 3, would like to play two worthless low clubs, but must follow with the pair club10-club10. North wins the trick, since West's unpaired clubs cannot beat a pair.
  • North leads diamond5-diamond5, West beats this with diamondK-diamondK, South, having no clubs, trumps with heart2-heart2 and East, who has nothing but trumps, plays heart8-heart7. South wins the trick since East's trumps, though higher, are not a pair.
3. Leading a sequence of pairs
If the player whose turn it is to lead has two or more consecutive pairs of identical cards in the same suit, they may be led as a group. If fours and diamonds are trumps, the following are examples of sequences of pairs that can be led:
  • club8-club8-club9-club9. Two consectutive pairs are known as a tractor, after which the game is named.
  • spadeJ-spadeJ-spadeQ-spadeQ-spadeK-spadeK. Three or more consecutive pairs are named after various other vehicles. Unfortunately I do not know what names are used, except that five consecutive pairs are a tank.
  • heart3-heart3-heart5-heart5. When fours are trumps, threes and fives become consecutive.
  • diamondA-diamondA-spade4-spade4. This is a valid tractor because four in a suit other than diamonds is the next rank above ace.
  • heart4-heart4-diamond4-diamond4. These ranks are also adjacent when fours and diamonds are trumps.
  • diamond4-diamond4-[black joker]-[black joker]
  • [black joker]-[black joker]-[red joker]-[red joker]
The following would not be valid leads:
  • spade5-spade5-spade7-spade7. Ranks not adjacent (six missing).
  • club8-club8-heart9-heart9. Different suits.
  • heart4-heart4-heart5-heart5. Not adjacent: fours are trumps; fives are not.
  • diamond3-diamond3-diamond4-diamond4. Not adjacent: fours are high trumps; next rank above three is five.
  • club4-club4-spade4-spade4. Ranks are equal, not adjacent.
When a tractor or a longer sequence of adjacent pairs is led, the other players must each play an equal number of cards, following suit in the same way as to a single pair.
If the lead is in trumps, the other players must play identical pairs of trumps as far as possible, even if the pairs are not consecutive. If they have no more trump pairs, they must play unmatched trumps. If they have fewer trumps than the number of cards that were led, they must play all their trumps, together with other cards of their choice, to make up the required number of cards. The non-trumps do not have to be in pairs. The trick is won by the highest set of consecutive trump pairs of the same length as the lead - other trumps, paired or not - have no power.
If the lead is in a non-trump suit, the other players must follow with the same number of cards, playing identical pairs (not necessarily consecutive) in the suit that was led as far as possible, and then if necessary playing further cards of the led suit to make up a number of cards equal to the number led. Having run out of the suit led, they may other cards of their choice, not necessarily pairs. The trick is won by the highest set of consecutive pairs of the same length as the lead in the suit led, unless some player who has none of the suit led manages to trump with an equally long sequence of consecutive pairs of trumps, in which case the highest such trump sequence wins.
Example. Kings and clubs are trumps.
  • West leads heart3-heart3-heart4-heart4. South's hearts are J, 10, 10, 8, 6, 5, 5 and South is forced to follow with pairs: heart10-heart10-heart5-heart5. East and North do not have heart pairs and follow with unmatched cards. West wins the trick because South's pairs, though they are higher, are not consecutive.
4. Leading a set of top cards
It is legal to lead any collection of cards of a suit (or of trumps), which can be a mixture of single cards and pairs, provided that there are no cards of that suit remaining in play that could beat any of those single cards or pairs. For example, with fours and clubs as trumps:
  • heartA-heartK-heartK is a valid lead, since there is only one other heart ace at large so the K-K is unbeatable in hearts.
  • If one ace, one king and both jacks of spades have been played, then spadeA-spadeK-spadeQ-spadeQ-spade10 is a valid lead (there is no outstanding spade to beat the 10).
  • If one ace and both kings of diamonds have been played then diamondA-diamondQ is a valid lead.
  • If one ace and one king of hearts have been played, heartA-heartQ-heartQ-heartJ is not a valid lead because the jack could be beaten by the outstanding king.
When a set of top cards is led, the other players must follow as far as possible with cards of the same suit. If the lead contained pairs, then the other players must include at least that number of pairs in the cards that they follow suit with, if they are able to. If they do not have sufficent cards of the suit led, they make up the required number of cards with any cards of any other suits.
The player who led to the trick will win it, unless the lead is in a non-trump suit and some other player, having no cards of the suit led, makes a play consisting entirely of trumps, including as many pairs of identical trumps as there were pairs among the cards led. In that case the trumps win. If more than one player manages to play an appropriate combination of trumps, and the lead included a pair, then whichever of them played the highest trump pair wins (in case of a tie the first played would win as usual). If the lead contained no pairs then the highest single trump played by those who play nothing but trumps wins the trick; in case of a tie for highest trump, the set of trumps played first would win.
Examples. Sixes and spades are trumps. One ace and one king of clubs have already been played.
  • North leads clubA-clubQ-clubQ, West trumps with spadeA-spade5-spade5, South overtrumps with spade2-spade7-spade7 and East plays three clubs. South wins with the higher trump pair.
  • North leads clubA-clubK-clubQ, West trumps with spade2-spade7-spade7, South overtrumps with spadeA-spade5-spade5 and East plays three clubs. South wins again because the spadeA beats the spade7 - pairs are now irrelevant since no pair was led.
  • North leads clubA-clubK, West trumps with spadeA-spade3, South has no clubs and spadeA and spadeQ but these two trumps will not beat West's, because only the highest trump is compared, and West's spadeA was played first.
If a player attempts to lead top cards and it turns out that another player (even the leader's partner) can beat any the single cards or pairs with higher cards of the same suit, then the player who led incorrectly must withdraw the lead. The card or pair that can be beaten must be led, and the other player must beat it. Also as a penalty, for each card that has to be withdrawn, 10 card points are transferred from the team that led incorrectly to the other team.

Scoring

The result depends on the number of card points won by the opponents.

If the opponents won the last trick, the eight cards discarded by the starter are exposed. If the starter's discard contains any kings, tens or fives, the opponents score twice the value of these cards if the last trick was a single card trick. If the last trick was a multiple trick, then the value of the discards is multiplied by twice the number of cards led to the last trick. For example if the last trick is a tractor trick (four cards) and the opponents win it, they will score eight times the value of any cards in the starter's discard. Any points that the opponents score for the starter's discard are added to the points that they won in tricks during the play, as represented by the cards that are face up in front of them.

If the declarers won the last trick, the opponents just win the point value of the cards that they won in tricks, which are kept face up on the table.

The possible results are given in the following table.

Opponents' card pointsResultNext starter
0Declarers' score increased by three ranksStarter's partner
5 - 35Declarers' score increased by two ranksStarter's partner
40 - 75Declarers' score increased by one rankStarter's partner
80 - 115Opponents become declarers; no change in scorePlayer to starter's right
120 - 155Opponents become declarers and go up one rankPlayer to starter's right
160 - 195Opponents become declarers and go up two ranksPlayer to starter's right
200 - 235 *Opponents become declarers and go up three ranksPlayer to starter's right
* Although there are only 200 points in the pack, it is possible for the opponents to have more than 200 points by scoring for points in the talon. It is even conceivable, though unlikely, that they might have 240 or more points, in which case they go up a further rank for each increment of 40 points.

Example. North and South are the declarers with a score of 7 and East and West, the opponents have 10. South is the starter. If E-W take 60 points, N-S increase their score to 8 and North is the new starter. If E-W take 85 points, the scores stay at 7 for N-S and 10 for E-W but E-W become the declarers with East as starter. If E-W take 160 points, again E-W become the declarers with East as starter, but E-W's score is also increased by two ranks to 'queen', so that queens will be the trump rank in the next hand.

As already mentioned, the winners of the whole game are the first team whose score goes above the rank of ace.

Variations and related games

Game with three decks
Tractor can be played with three decks including three jokers of each colour. Each player draws 39 cards and the starter takes an additional six cards and discards six. There are then 300 points in the game; the opponents need at least 120 points to win, and each 60 points above or below this is an extra level: for example with 180 to 235 points the opponents become declarers and go up a levels, but if the opponents get 5 to 55 points the declarers go up two levels.
A single card exposed in the deal to set trumps can be overruled by a pair of identical cards of the trump rank exposed by a different player, and this in turn can be overruled by a triple (which could be created by the first player adding two identical cards to the card first exposed, or could be a completely new triple). As in the two-deck game, you can't overrule your own trump directly, but you can overrule your partner. There is no no-trump option (exposing jokers) in this version.
As well as single cards and pairs it is possible to lead triples of identical cards; also you can play tractors consisting of sequences of triples or sequences of pairs. When a triple is led, players must follow with triples of that suit if possible; players with no triple must play a pair if possible. When a tractor of any shape is led, players who have a similar shaped tractor in that suit must play it; failing that a shorter tractor. For example if a sequence of three pairs is led, a player with two consecutive pairs in that suit must play it, along with another pair in that suit if held, or failing that any two other cards of the suit.
20 points per rank
Some play that each 20 points (rather than 40 points) in the play increases the winners' score by one rank. The opponents still need 80 points to become the declarers, but with 100-115 they also gain a rank, with 120-135 two ranks and so on. When the opponents have 60-75 points the declarers gain a rank, but when the opponents have only 40-55 points the declarers gain two ranks and so on.
Compulsory levels
It may be specified that certain scores, such as king and ace, cannot be skipped. So a team whose score should go up by several ranks, according to the card points they have won, cannot go past any of these compulsory levels. For example, if you play that 10 cannot be skipped, your score was 9, and you win in such a way that your score should go up three ranks, you score in fact goes up to 10, not queen, and you play the next hand with tens as trumps.
Short game
A game can last quite a long time, especially if there are many close deals where the opponents become declarers with no change in score. It can be shortened by playing until a team reaches some lower rank, such as seven, or (perhaps better) by starting at a higher rank, such as seven, instead of at two.
The hook
Some play that when jacks are trumps, if a team wins the last trick with the jack of the trump suit, capturing a jack belonging to the other team, then the team whose jack is captured has their score reduced to two. This variation is called "the hook" because of the hook shape of the English letter "J" on the jack.
Tractors skip played ranks
Some allow a tractor to skip ranks of which all the cards have already been played. For example if no one has any spade6's left then spade5-spade5-spade7-spade7 becomes a tractor, and even spade5-spade5-spade9-spade9-spadeJ-spadeJ becomes valid if there are no 6's, 7's, 8's or 10's of spades remaining in play.
Using a joker to change trumps
If, during the deal, a player flips a pair of trumps, but another player wishes to change it, he can expose a pair of trumps and a joker. This in turn can be overruled by a pair of trumps and a pair of jokers. Note that overruling always requires a pair of identical trump rank cards - you cannot use a single trump rank card with one or more jokers for this purpose.
Six players
Six players can play tractor, in two teams of three, sitting alternately. In the deal each player takes 17 cards and there are six extra cards for the starter, who discards six. When the declarers win, the next starter is the partner sitting two places to the right of the current starter. The other rules are identical to the four-player game.
Looking for Friends
The related game Zhao Pengyou (Looking for Friends) can be played by five or more. The partnerships are not fixed but are determined by cards called by the trump maker, who also takes the last cards and starts the play. A detailed description can be found on the Zhao Pengyou page.
Variations in the play
I suspect that there are many slight variations in the rules of play, especially the exact types of leads allowed. The alert reader will notice some differences between the rules of play on this page and on the Zhao Pengyou page. I was taught these games by two different players, and the differences may represent possible variations in both games, rather than a systematic difference between the two games.
Single deck game - 40 points
Sishi Fen (40 points), also known as Bai Fen (100 points) and by various other names is a four player fixed partnership game, similar to Tractor but played with a single deck. It is probably the game from which Tractor was developed - see the Bai Fen page for a description.