Malilla

With thanks to Monico Molinar and to several anonymous correspondents who contributed information about this game.

Introduction

Malilla is a point-trick game for four players in fixed partnerships. It is popular in Mexico, and comes from Spain, where it is nowadays often known as Manilla. It is closely related to the famous French game Manille which was popular in the 19th and early 20th century and remains popular in parts of Belgium. I have sometimes seen Malilla spelled as "Malia", which would have a similar pronunciation, since the "ll" in Spanish is pronounced like an English a "y", whose sound would almost disappear in this word. The name Malilla refers in the Mexican game to the Seven, which is the highest card. The game is sometimes known as Malillas ("sevens" - plural).

Mexican Malilla is traditionally played with the Spanish 40-card pack, but some players who have brought it from Mexico to the United States nowadays use 40 cards from the French suited 52-card pack, which is more familiar there. In North America, Spanish cards can be obtained from TaroBear's Lair.

Players, Cards and Points

There are four players in fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite. A 40-card pack is used. The traditional Spanish pack has suits of Cups, Coins, Swords and Clubs and the cards in each suit are King (sometimes labelled 12), Horse (11), Jack (10), 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, Ace. If preferred, the game can be played instead with an Anglo-American 52-card pack, from which the 8's, 9's 10's (and jokers) are removed.

The high cards have point values, the aim being to win these scoring cards in tricks. The ranking of the cards from high to low and the scoring values in every suit are as follows:

CardValue
Seven (or "Malilla")5 points
Ace4 points
King ("Rey")3 points
Horse ("Caballo") or Queen2 points
Jack ("Sota")1 points
Six0 points
Five0 points
Four0 points
Three0 points
Two0 points

So there are 15 points available in each suit. In addition one point (known as "la negra") is awarded to the winners of each of the 10 tricks, so there are 70 points in the game in total.

The Deal

Malilla was originally played counter-clockwise, and in Spain it is still played this way. It's likely that it is normally played counter-clockwise in Mexico too, but I would be grateful if someone could let me know whether this is the case. Most of my information comes from players of Mexican descent in the USA who nowadays play clockwise.

The first dealer is chosen at random by drawing cards - high card deals. Thereafter players deal in turn. The dealer shuffles the cards and must allow an opponent to cut before dealing out all the cards, one at a time. When playing counter-clockwise, the player to dealer's left cuts and the first card is dealt to the right-hand opponent. If the game is played clockwise, the dealer's right-hand opponent cuts and the deal starts to the left.

The players look at their cards, and must not show them to any other player. The exception is the very last card dealt, which belongs to the dealer. This card is dealt face up for all to see, and its suit is the trump suit for this hand. Since this is also the bottom card of the portion that is cut from the top of the deck during the deal, the player who cuts or the dealer may also show this card before the deal.

If the turned up card has a point value (i.e. it is a seven, ace or picture card), the dealer's side immediately scores that number of points as a bonus. (There is an exception if the dealer's side is already close to winning the game - see scoring). After everyone has seen the trump and the bonus if any has been recorded on the score sheet, the turned trump is placed in dealer's hand.

The Play

The player to dealer's right (if playing counter-clockwise) or left (if playing clockwise) leads to the first trick. Any card may be led, and players must follow suit if possible. Each trick is won by the highest trump in it, or if no trumps are played by the highest card of the suit led. The winner of the trick leads to the next trick. Each team keeps the tricks they have won in a single pile.

There are some restrictions in the play:

  1. If the card that is currently winning the trick was played by an opponent, you must beat this card if possible (subject to the requirement to follow suit).
  2. When unable to follow suit, you are not allowed to discard a seven (malilla) of a non-trump suit if that suit has not previously been led.

So the possible cases when playing to a trick are as follows:

  1. If your partner is winning the trick, you may play any card of the suit led. If you cannot follow suit you may play any card except a seven of a non-trump suit that has not been led.
  2. If your opponent is winning the trick with a card of the suit led:
    1. If you can play a higher card of the suit led you must do so.
    2. If you have no higher cards in the suit led, you may play any of your lower cards of that suit.
    3. If you have no cards of the suit led you must play a trump if you have one.
    4. If you have no cards of the suit led and no trumps you may play any card except a seven of an unled suit.
  3. If a non-trump suit was led and an opponent is currently winning the trick with a trump:
    1. If you have any cards of the suit led you must play one of those cards (not necessarily a high one).
    2. If you have no cards of the suit led, you must play a trump higher than the one that is winning the trick if you can.
    3. If you have no cards of the suit led and no trumps sufficient to beat the currently winning trump, you may play any card except a seven of an unled suit. (You do not have to play a trump in this case.)

Note that is is always legal to lead a seven (as the first card of a trick), even if that suit has not previously been played.

Note also that if a player discards a card of a non-trump suit - say a club - on a lead of a different suit, that does not permit the 7 of clubs to be discarded later. This is only allowed after clubs have been led to a trick.

Obscure note: it is conceivable, though very unlikely, that you might reach a situation where you had no option but to discard a seven of an unled non-trump suit. For example this would happen on the last trick if you were dealt an entire suit and were neither the dealer nor the player leading to the first trick. If it ever happens that you have nothing left but sevens of unled non-trump suits, then it must be OK to discard one.

Scoring

When all ten tricks have been played, each team counts the value of cards in the tricks they have won, plus one point for each trick they won. The results of the two teams should always add up to 70. The team with more than 35 points scores the difference of their point total from 35 and the other team scores nothing. If each side has 35 points there is no score.

Example: North and South's cards plus tricks total 43 and East and West have 27. North and South score 8 points for the hand while East and West score nothing.

Each team's cumulative score is recorded on a score sheet. The first team to achieve a cumulative score of 35 points or more wins the game.

It has already been mentioned under "The Deal" that if the dealer's last card, which is turned up to show the trumps suit, is a jack or higher, the dealer's team immediately scores that number of points - added to their cumulative score on the score sheet. An exception occurs if that bonus would be enough for them to win the game. In this case the bonus is not scored immediately. The cards must be played first and the hand scored. Only after that, if the points won in play are not enough for a win by either team, is the bonus added, allowing the dealer's team to win.

Example: the score is 33 points each. The dealer's last card is a king, and the 3 points for this would give the dealer's team 36 points, which would be enough to win. But first the cards must be played. The non-dealers get 37 in the play, which is a score of 2 points. They add these 2 points first, and win the game with 35, and the dealer's bonus is of no use. But if the opponents had taken only 36 points in the play, their cumulative score after adding their one point for this would be only 4. The dealer's team would then take their 3-point bonus for the king and win.

There are two special kinds of win:

  • If a team wins all 10 tricks, this is called a capote or caputin. Since they have all 70 points, they score 35 and win the whole game in a single deal.
  • If a team reaches a cumulative score of 35 points (over several hands) while their opponents still have zero, this is called a zapato (shoe).

It seems that there is no extra reward for a capote or a zapato - these are simply names used to describe these impressive ways of winning.

Etiquette and Irregularities

If there is any irregularity in the deal, such as the dealer forgetting to offer the cards to be cut, the wrong number of cards dealt, or a card (other than the dealer's last) turned face up, then the deal stops. The cards are collected, and it is the next player's turn to deal.

The penalty for any irregularity in the play is to lose the whole game. Irregularities include:

  • playing a card out of turn
  • failing to follow suit when able to do so
  • failing to beat the opponent's winning card when able to do so
  • discarding a seven of a non-trump suit that has not been led

The word for making such a mistake is renegar (to renege).

One correspondent writes that in order to exact such a penalty, an opponent must challenge the incorrect play. Play stops and tricks are examined to prove whether the alleged irregulatity actually occurred. If there was no irregularity, then the team that made the incorrect challenge loses the game. However, I do not like this rule. It seems to provide an incentive for a losing team to play wrong cards deliberately in the hope that the opponents will not dare to challenge.

Some play with strict rules of etiquette, that no one other than dealer may touch the cards during the deal until the deal is complete, and from that moment until the end of the play no one may talk. The penalty for infringement is loss of the game.

Variations

Some play that at the start of the game, one player shuffles and places two cards face down. A member of the opposing team chooses one of the cards. If they choose the higher card they score 5 points and get the "mano" - the right to lead to the first trick in the first deal. This process is known as "albur". The losers of the "albur" will deal the first hand. The winners' 5 points compensates for the dealer's advantage of turning a card for trumps and possibly scoring a bonus for it.

An uncommon variation is that the person cutting the cards has the option of merely tapping the deck rather than cutting. This would require the dealer to deal out ten cards at once to each player. This option can be used if the player who cuts sees (or suspects) that the card on the bottom of the deck is not a point card. They would rather have this card turned for trumps than cut and risk giving the dealer a bonus for the new bottom card.

Apparently some play that a player who is dealt seven or more cards of a suit may suggest to partner that the hand should be abandoned. If partner agrees, the cards are thrown in and redealt.

Some players do not observe the prohibition on discarding a malilla (7) of a suit that has not been led.

Manilla (or Malilla) in Spain

In Spain Manilla is played with 48 Spanish cards (including eights and nines of each suit). It is the nine rather than the seven that is the highest card: the cards rank from high to low 9-1-12-11-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2. The 9 (Manilla) is worth 5 points, the ace (1) 4 points, the king (12) 3 points, horse (11) 2 points and the jack (sota) (10) 1 point. 12 cards each are dealt so there are 12 tricks, bringing the total number of points in a deal to 72. The winning team scores the difference of their points from 36 and the target score for winning the whole game is 40 points.

The Mexican rule against throwing a non-trump Malilla before the suit has been led has no equivalent in the Spanish game. If you are unable to follow suit, and either your partner is winning the trick or an opponent is winning with a card you cannot beat, you are free to throw any card, including a 9.