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This page describes Skitgubbe, a popular Swedish game for three players, and some related games played in Norway and Finland. All the games of this group consist of two phases. In the first phase you collect cards by winning tricks, and in the second phase you try to get rid of your cards by beating cards played by other players. The last player left holding cards at the end is the loser.
It is likely that this group of games originated in Finland. The Finnish game Myllymatti is mentioned in several 19th century newspaper articles. Myllymatti seems to be the direct ancestor of Swedish Skitgubbe, which is also sometimes known as Mjölnarmatte or Mas.
Players, cards and deal
The game is best for three players, but it is also possible for two or four to play. A standard 52 card pack, without joker, is used. The cards rank in the usual order: A (highest) K Q J T 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 (lowest).
Deal and play are clockwise. Each player receives 3 cards. The rest of the cards are laid face down in a pile on the table (stock).
Object of the game
Skitgubbe has two phases. In the first phase players collect cards for the second phase. In the second phase the object is to get rid of one's cards as fast as possible. The last player left with cards in hand is the loser and becomes the skitgubbe.
Play in the first phase
The first phase consists of tricks of 2 cards. The player to dealer's left leads first. Any card can be led and the player to the left of the leader plays any card to complete the trick. At this stage the suits have no significance and there is no requirement to follow suit. Each player draws a card from the stock immediately after playing, so that each player always has a hand of three cards so long as there are still cards in the stock. Whoever played the higher card wins the trick, places the two cards face down in front of himself, and leads to the next trick. If the player who led wins the trick, he leads again and the same two players are involved in the next trick.
If the two cards played to a trick are equal it is called a stunsa (bounce); the cards are left on the table, the two players each draw a card from the stock and the same player leads again. This continues until one of the players wins the trick and takes all the cards played, including the cards from the tied tricks.
In this first phase, the second player to a trick is under no obligation to try to beat the card led. If a low card is led the second player may wish to play lower and give the trick to the leader, for it is important to collect strong cards in the first phase of the game, so gain an advantage in the second phase.
Throughout the first phase, when it is your turn to play and there is still more than one card in the stock, instead of playing from your hand you may turn up the top card of the stock. If you turn a card from the stock you must play it - you may not put it in your hand.
The last card from the stock determines the trump suit for the second phase. The player who has to draw this card takes it but does not add it to his hand but keeps it face down until the first phase is over.
When the stock is exhausted, the play continues as long as possible with the cards players have in their hands, ending when the player whose turn at is has no card to play. At this point, if some players have cards left in hand they expose them for all to see, and keep them for the second phase. If the final trick of the first phase was incomplete, the players take back the cards they played to it and keep them for the second phase.
Play in the second phase
The players have now divided the 52 cards between themselves, but the cards are probably not divided equally; some players have more cards than others. The player who drew the trump card leads. The object is to get rid of one's cards as fast as possible. In the unusual case where a player manages to collect no cards at all in phase one, they have no cards to get rid of and they do not take part in phase two.
Now you must either beat the previous card played or pick it up. A card may be beaten by a higher card of the same suit, and a non-trump may be beaten by any trump. It is never lawful to duck. If you cannot or do not wish to beat the card in front of you, you must take it up into your hand. If this was the only card on the table, it is then the next player's turn to lead to a new trick. If there is more than one card lying on the table and you cannot beat the last card played, it is only this last card which you must take up into your hand. It is then the next player's turn to beat the card which was underneath it.
Leading or playing to a trick is called “läggning” in Swedish. Picking up cards is usually called “plocka” [pick] or “supa” [drink, booze].
A trick can end in two ways.
- The number of cards in the trick is equal to the number of players who were in the game when the trick began. In this case, the cards in the trick are set aside out of the game: dompleting a trick in this way and setting it aside is called “avstick” in Swedish. The player who played last (and therefore highest) to the trick leads to the next trick unless their hand is empty. If a player completes a trick by playing their last card, the player to their left leads to the next trick.
- All the cards played to the trick have been picked up, leaving the table empty. In this case, the player to the left of the player who picked up the last card leads to a new trick.
Suppose there are 3 players; player A has led and player B has beaten A's card. If C now beats B's card, C puts aside the cards and leads to the next trick; but if C does not beat B's card but picks it up, it is now A's turn to beat the card showing on the table (which is in fact A's own lead). If A does this, and then B beats A's card, it is B who has completed the trick; B sets aside the three cards and leads to the next trick. Another possibility is: A leads, B beats A's card, C picks up B's card, and A picks up his own card. It is now B's lead.
Note that as players run out of cards, the number of cards in each trick reduces. If there are three players, one of whom runs out of cards during a trick, that trick still requires three cards to be completed (or all its cards to be picked up), but the next trick will require only two cards.
For example suppose there are 3 players: A, B, C. A leads his last card, B beats it, C picks B's card up, B beats A's card again, and now C beats B's card. The trick is now over, and C leads to the next trick. As there are now only two players, the new trick will have only two cards. Another example with three players: A leads; B beats with his last card, C picks this card up, and A picks up the card he led. It is now C's lead and the next trick will be complete with two cards.
A player who gets rid of all his cards can draw a sigh of relief, for he is not the loser. The loser is the player who is left with the last card in his hand, and is called "Skitgubbe" (or "Mas" or "Mattis"). Skitgubbe is an insulting word meaning a disreputable or offensive old man; Mas and Mattis mean fool.
All Players play to Each Trick in Phase One
Sten Helmfrid describes a version of Skitgubbe which he learned in the 1980's, in which the major difference is that in phase one all players play to each trick. Although this version is seldom mentioned in the literature of the game, his research indicates that it is now at least as widespread as the version with two-card tricks in phase one described above. This form of the game can be played by from 2 to 6 players, though it is best for 3 or 4. It has numerous variants, described below.
The dealer deals the cards clockwise one at a time until each player has three cards and then stacks the rest of the pack face down to form the talon. The player to dealer's left leads to the first trick, and the other players play in turn clockwise around the table. The suits of the cards do not matter. Each player at their turn may play any single card or any two or three cards of equal rank. Immediately after playing to the trick, each player draws replacement cards from the top of the talon so that they have three cards in their hand again.
The trick is won by the player who played the card or cards of the highest rank. If more than one player has played cards of the highest rank, these players play again, each playing any one card or two or three equal cards, in the same order as before and again replenish their hands. The one of these players who then plays the highest rank wins. If the trick is still not settled, the players who played the highest rank the second time play to the trick again, and so on if it happens again. The players continue to draw cards from the talon to replace any cards that they play, so that everyone always has a three-card hand. Playing a card of the same rank as the highest rank that has already been played to the trick, to create a tie, is called making “motlägg”.
When the trick, including any potential tie, has been settled and the players have replenished their hands from the talon, each player has one more opportunity to add further cards to the trick of the same ranks as any cards that are already there. This is called sluffing and does not affect who wins the trick. Players then replenish their hands from the talon so that they again have three cards. It is allowed for a player to sluff cards of more than one rank, but a player who has sluffed cards and drawn new cards to replace them is not allowed to sluff any further cards in that trick.
Any player who is due to play to a trick, either initially or to resolve a tie, has the option instead of playing a card from hand to draw the top card from the talon and immediately play that card to the trick. This is called “taking a chance” or “daring”. A player who takes a chance may not change their mind on seeing the card drawn from the talon, but must play this card.
The winner of a trick takes all the cards that have been played or sluffed to the trick, stored them in a pile next to them, and leads to the next trick. The trick play continues in the same way until the talon is exhausted.
The player who draws the last card from the talon must not look at this card or play it to a trick. Instead it is placed face down in front of the player who drew it, separate from the cards this player has won in tricks. Play continues as before, except that players no longer draw cards to replenish their hands after playing. When a player is due to play to a trick (to lead, or play to the trick for the first time or to resolve a tie) but has no card to play, phase one immediately ends. If the last trick that was begun is incomplete, all players take the cards they played to the trick back into their hands.
When the first phase is over, the player who drew the last card from the talon turns the card face up. The suit of that card becomes trump in the second phase of the game. All players pick up all cards in their pile of won tricks and combine them with any cards that may remain in their hand or have been retrieved from the last trick. The player who drew the trump indicator card from the talon also picks up that card.
If one or more players have fewer than five cards in their hand after this, they receive all so-called 'shit cards': cards with ranks from two to five. In this case, all players (including those with fewer than five cards) discard all twos, threes, fours and fives from their hands (including the 2, 3, 4 and 5 of trumps). These 16 cards are shuffled by one of the players who had 5 or more cards, and then dealt one by one to the players who are due to receive shit cards, in the same order that the players received cards in the initial deal. In the unusual case when more than two players receive shit cards, one or more players may receive one more of these cards than the others.
There is a theoretical but very remote possibility that after this redistribution process some player will be left with no cards. For this to happen a player would need to have at least 5 cards at the end of phase one, all of which were 5 or lower, and to achieve this they would have had to win at least one trick with one of these low cards. Sten Helmfrid says this has never been known to happen, but if it does, the player who achieves this feat will not have to play in phase two and will be safe.
Variants: deal and first lead
- Two-card hands. Some play that only two cards (not three) are dealt to each player and phase one is played with two-card hands.
- Exposed trump indicator. The bottom card of the talon is turned over immediately after the deal and slipped in face up under the talon, crosswise so that the rank and the suit are still visible. Hence the players know from the outset which suit will be the trump in the second phase. The turned card is in all other respects treated as the bottom card in the talon when this is hidden, and the first phase is still played without a trump suit.
- Lowest card or loser leads. Some play that in the first deal the holder of the lowest card dealt leads to the first trick of phase one (in case of a tie the leader is the first of the tied players in clockwise order beginning to dealer's left). In subsequent deals the loser of the previous deal (the skitgubbe) leads to the first trick of phase one in the next deal.
Variants: trick play and sluffing
- Unlimited sluffing. Any player may sluff cards at any time after the first card was played to the trick until the trick pile has been claimed and turned down. The sluffed cards are placed on top of the trick pile and do not affect who wins the trick. A player who sluffs cards must always draw the same number of new cards from the talon. Cards can be sluffed even after a tie when players are playing to the trick pile for the second time, and players may sluff further cards after sluffing and replenishing from the talon. A player who plays to the trick and sluffs at the same time must of course specify which cards are played and which are sluffed. A winner of a trick who does not want to collect any more sluffed cards must physically take the trick pile and store it face down as fast as possible before players have time to contribute further cards.
- Sluff must match own card. Players may only sluff cards of the same rank that they themselves have played. This can be done at any time after the player has played to the trick. A player who draws more cards of the same rank that they have already played or sluffed may also sluff these cards and draw new ones from the talon and sluff again if it happens again. If there is a tie, the players who play again may sluff more cards of the rank they played the second time (but can no longer sluff the rank they played the first time).
- Tied ranks beat unique ranks. If the same rank is played by two or more players, these cards beat all cards of ranks that have only been played by one player. A player that plays the same rank as another player thus creates a tie even if the rank is lower than the highest rank in the trick so far. If there are several ranks that have each been played by more than one players, the highest of these ranks beat the other tied ranks. The players who played the cards that head the trick play to the trick again in the usual manner to break the tie. When cards are played a second time to the trick, ranks that are played by several players in the second turn again beat other ranks that are only played by one player. When this variant is played, players should only be allowed to sluff cards of the rank that they played themselves.
- Compulsory ties. A player who can create a tie must do so. If you play the usual rule that the highest rank wins, then a player who has one or more cards of the highest rank so far played to the trick must play one or more of these cards. If you play this variant with ties beating unique ranks, then a player who can play one or more cards of a rank that has already been played to the trick must do so, unless a tie already exists for a higher rank (in which case the player cannot create a tie and may play any card). A player who could create a tie with cards of more than one different rank must play the highest of those ranks.
Variants: end of phase one
- End phase one when talon is empty. Some play that when a trick is completed after a player has taken the bottom card from the talon, phase one ends at that point. No new trick is begun with an empty talon. (It is convenient to use this variant when playing with unlimited sluffing). Some play that after a new trick is begun with an empty talon only if everyone has at least two cards.
- Incomplete trick dealt to players. If phase one ends with an incomplete trick when a player has no card to play at their turn, the players do not take back their cards. Instead, the dealer shuffles the cards in the incomplete trick and deals them one by one clockwise, starting with the player on the left (in this deal, some players may receive one card more than the others).
- Number of cards needed to avoid shit cards. The minimum number of cards required to avoid receiving the shit cards varies. There are reports of limits of six, seven and ten cards. It is advisable to adjust the limit according to the number of players: the more players, the lower the limit. Some play that the minimum number of cards required to avoid receiving the shit cards is equal to the rank of the card that determines the trump suit. The rank of the aces for this purpose is 14, king 13, queen 12 and 11.
Playing sequences in phase two
This version is described by David Parlett and Dan Glimne, and also in Sten Helmfrid's article with many variants. In the second phase, as an alternative to playing a single card it is possible to play a sequence of two or more consecutive cards in the same suit. A card or sequence is beaten by any higher card or sequence in the same suit. Any non-trump card or sequence is beaten by any trump card or sequence. The length of the sequences is immaterial. For example a lead of 5 could be beaten by a sequence 7-8-9, which could in turn be beaten by a sequence Q-K, or by a single 3 if spades are trumps.
A trick is completed when it contains as many plays as there are players at the beginning of the trick, each card or sequence counting as a single play. A player who cannot or does not wish to beat the card or sequence played by the previous player must pick it up. In this version, it is important in phase two to keep the successive plays to a trick separate rather than piling them up, so that players can clearly see how many times the trick has been played to, and which cards must be picked up if the previous play is not beaten.
Variants: playing and picking up sequences
- Pick up joined sequences. According to Sten Helmfrid, the usual rule is that a player who cannot or does not want to beat the top card in the trick pile must pick up the top card and all cards in sequence from that card in suit, even if cards in the sequence have been played by different players. For example, if A leads the three of clubs, B plays the six and seven of clubs, C plays the eight, nine, and ten of clubs, and D cannot beat the last card; then D must pick up the entire sequence from six to ten (but not the three, because it is not part of the sequence). As usual a trick is complete when there are cards from as many plays in the trick pile as there were active players when the trick started, but in this version a player sometimes picks up several plays at once. For example, suppose that four people still have cards left in their hand. A leads, B and C both play to the pile, and D chooses to pick. Let us further assume that the cards from B and C form a sequence. D must then pick both B’s and C’s cards, and only the cards from A’s play remain in the trick pile. It is again A who plays to the trick, and A must beat his own cards from the lead. If then B and C both play cards to the trick, there are cards from four different plays in the trick: A’s lead, A's second play to the trick, and B’s and C’s second play to the trick.
- Pick up from the bottom of the trick pile. Some require a player who cannot or does not wish to beat the previous play to pick up cards from the bottom of the trick pile rather than the top, in other words to pick up the lowest cards in the trick. As with picking up from the top of the pile there are two versions of this rule: the requirement may be either to pick up just the bottom play or top pick up the bottom card and all cards in sequence with it.
- Forced pickup. The version played by Sten Helmfrid in the 1980's featured forced picking. If a player picked up cards, all the following players in clockwise order were forced to continue to pick until the trick pile was empty. The player to the left of the player who picked the last card(s) then led to the next trick.
- Complete suit. Some play that if a player completes a 13-card sequence from two up to ace in one suit, the trick is thereby completed. The player sets the cards aside and leads to the next trick.
This version, played in Borås, was reported by Bengt Green. In the second phase, as well as a trump suit, there is a mot-trumf (anti-trump) suit. Anti-trumps have no power over any other suit, but cannot themselves be beaten by trumps.
- In some circles, anti-trumps are the other suit of the same colour as the last card of the stock.
- Thomas Franzén describes a variant known as "Skitgubbe med elektriska klöver" (Skitgubbe with electric clubs) in which the anti-trump suit is clubs unless the last card of the stock is a club, in which case clubs are trumps and spades are anti-trumps. The anti-trumps are called "electric" to suggest that they would give you a shock if you tried to trump them.
Two Player Game
If there are only two players, phase two of the game is rather unsatisfactory since each player knows exactly what cards the other holds. One solution is to play with an 'avstickshög', which is a separate draw pile of (say) 12 cards which is set aside face down at the start of the deal and not used in phase one. In phase two each time a player sets aside a complete trick, the players draw one card each from this extra pile. The player who played last to the trick is first to draw, and then the other player draws. When the pile is empty, the game continues with the cards in the players’ hands. If a trick is completed in which either player plays the last card from their hand while there are still cards left in the pile, the game is not over. Each player draws a card and the play continues. However, if a player leads their last card and the opponent picks it up, the opponent loses even if there are still cards in the pile. If the pile is empty, the game ends when either player plays their last card, and their opponent, who still has a card, loses as usual.
Mas with turned up trump
This variation (described in Kortoxen) has a different first phase. After three cards have been dealt to each player the next card is turned up and placed face up crosswise under the stock, to determine the trump suit.
The first phase consists of two-card tricks as in ordinary Skitgubbe, but in this version the second player can only beat the led card by playing a higher card of the suit led, or playing a trump if a non-trump is led. If the second player cannot or does not wish to beat the lead he must pick it up, and it is the next player's turn to lead.
As long as there are cards in the stock, you must draw a card from the stock as soon as your hand contains less than three cards. However, it is possible to have more than three cards in your hand, because sometimes you pick up a led card. If after playing a card you still have three or more cards in your hand you do not draw from the stock.
A player who at any stage has a hand of three trumps and no other cards is allowed to show these three trumps, store them face down for the second phase, and draw a hand of three new cards from the stock.
As long as the turned up trump remains on the table, any player who at any stage has the two of trumps can exchange it for the turned up trump.
When someone has to draw the last card of the stock (which is a face-up trump, usually the two by this time) to replenish their hand, the first phase ends as soon as the current two-card trick is completed. Players keep any cards in their hands, along with cards they have won in tricks for the second phase.
The player who drew the final card (face-up trump) from the stock leads to the first trick of the second phase, which then proceeds exactly as in ordinary Skitgubbe.
This Norwegian game is similar to the Swedish Skitgubbe variant in which all players play to each trick in phase 1.
- It is possible for more than three people to play. One correspondent says that the number of players is 'almost unlimited', but with more than about eight it probably becomes unwieldy.
- In phase 1, all players play to the trick. If there is a tie for highest card, all players involved in the tie play another card to the trick - either from their hand or from the stock - and the highest of these new cards takes the trick. If there is a tie for highest among the new cards another card is played, and so on. So far as I know, there is no sluffing.
- When the stock is exhausted in phase 1, play continues without drawing until the player whose turn it is to play to a trick has no card to play. This can happen at the start of a trick, in the middle of a trick, or when playing more cards to a trick to resolve a tie. When a player has no card to play, all players who still have cards in their hands show them face up on the table and add them to the cards they collected during phase 1. If the final trick of phase 1 was incomplete, players also take back the cards they played to this trick and add them to their hand for phase 2.
- In phase 2, sequence plays are usually allowed, but some play that a sequence must contain at least three consecutive cards of the same suit. A player who cannot or does not wish to beat the previous play must pick up the lowest card or sequence in the trick - that is the one that was played earliest.
- Any players who end the first phase with no cards in their hands are called "Blåmattis" (Blue Mattis). These players take part in the second phase and, having no cards, at their first turn they must pick up the lowest card of whatever trick is on the table at the time.
- Some play with the custom that the loser of the game has to wear an ugly hat, the so-called "Mattishaetta".
Some play that anyone who is Blåmattis (without cards) at the end of phase one loses immediately.
Some play that in phase one tied ranks beat unique ranks. If any equal cards are played to the trick, even if these are not the highest cards, all players of equal cards play another card. The player of the highest of these new cards takes all the cards unless the new cards include equal cards, in which case the players of the new equal cards play again, and so on.
This variation of three-player Norwegian Mattis, played in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, was contributed by Mark Reed. It features several of the Swedish variants described above: all play to tricks in phase one, with compulsory ties and sluffing. Phase two is played with joined sequences picked up from the bottom of the trick pile.
- All three players play to a trick, not just two.
- If, when it is your turn to play, you possess a card equal in rank to the highest card yet played on the trick, you must play that card, thus forcing a bounce (tie). A bounce may occur between more than two players; only those players who played the bouncing cards participate in the bounce resolution, although other players may slough (see below).
- Any player, once after playing to a trick and before that trick is taken by anyone, may play ("slough") additional cards to the trick, provided that the cards being sloughed are equal in rank to a card already played to and losing the trick.
- If any player has fewer than six cards at the end of phase one, then all players collect from their hands the cards of rank two through five, plus the six of the trump suit (referred to collectively as the "dreck"), and divide them up randomly and as evenly as possible among those players with too few cards. (If by removing the dreck from his hand, a player drops below six cards himself, he does not then become eligible for dreck, but enters the second phase with the smaller hand. This does not happen often.)
- Play is as described under the Sequences variant, with one exception: when a player cannot play to a trick, he picks up the entire lowest unbroken sequence on the table, even if it was played by more than one player. This may remove more than one play from the table and thus extend the trick even further.
This Finnish game is probably the ancestor of all the games on this page. According to research by Cristian Seres and others, it has been played since the early 19th century and probably originated in the western part of Finland, known as Österbotten or Pohjanmaa, where it is still played. On this Helsingin yliopistomuseo page you can see (in the fourth picture) people playing Myllymatti on a boat-trip between Vihti and Lohja in 1907.
Myllymatti is very similar to the basic Swedish game of Skitgubbe described above.
In the first phase, only two players play to each trick. The player to dealer's left begins and plays with the next person clockwise. If the first player wins the trick these two players continue to play until the second player wins. If the second player wins a trick, he/she in turn starts to play tricks with the next player.
In the second phase, only single cards can be played, not sequences. As usual a complete trick consists of as many cards as their are players; the player who completed it sets the cards aside and leads to a new trick. When a trick is incomplete, a player who cannot or does not wish to beat the previous card played must pick up that card and add it to their hand, and it is the next player's turn to play.
This game is rather similar to the Norwegian game Mattis. The Finnish word koira means 'dog', and according to some accounts the loser, as a penalty, has to bark like a dog.
Koira can be played by from three to around eight players.
In the first phase, all players play a card to each trick. If there is a tie for highest card, the players involved in the tie play again, and continue to play cards until the tie is broken.
After the stock has run out, play continues without drawing. If some players run out of cards, the others continue playing tricks, skipping the players who have no cards in hand, until all the cards have been played. If a player runs out of cards while resolving a tie, the played cards are shuffled and distributed equally between the face down piles of the players involved in the tie.
In the second phase, sequences can be played. A player who is unable or unwilling to beat the latest play must pick up the lowest card or sequence from the trick.
Some play that in case of a tie for the highest card in a trick in phase one, the players involved in the tie take the cards they played back into their hands. The other cards in the trick are then arranged in ascending order and dealt to the players involved in the tie one card at a time so that they are distributed as evenly as possible. This deal begins with the last player who played a tied card so that this player gets the lowest card, and continues counterclockwise.
Example with 7 players: A - 2, B - 8, C - J, D - 5, E - J, F - J, G - 4. C, E and F take back their jacks and the other cards are arranged in the order 2-4-5-8 and dealt out to these three starting with F. So player F gets the 2, player E gets the 4, player C gets the 5, and player F gets the 8.
Some play that in phase two a trump played on a non-trump immediately ends the trick. The player of the trump puts the cards aside and leads to a new trick.
Some play that in phase 2 only single cards and sequences beginning with a 2 can be played. Without the 2 of a suit you can only play single cards.
Some play the when picking up from a trick, only the lowest card is taken. If the lowest (oldest) play to a trick is a sequence, only the bottom card of the sequence is taken. For the purpose of determining whether a trick is complete, a sequence counts as being in play until all its cards have been removed.
Note that the distinction between Myllymatti and Koira is not an absolute one. There are people who play with various combinations of rules from both games, and sometimes the two names are used interchangeably.
The original version of this page was based on four sources of information:
- E. Werner and T. Sandgren: Kortoxen (Helsingborg 1975)
- David Parlett: Shedding Games (Games and Puzzles No 4: July 1994)
- A letter from Dan Glimne (1996)
- A translation by Anthony Smith from the Norwegian book: I and U Schenkmanis "Cappelens Kortspillbok" (Cappelens Forlag a.s., 1987), which is based on the Swedish books "64 Kortspel" (1982) and "54 Kortspel" (1984).
It has since been revised and expanded on the basis of contributions from several players including Thomas Franzén, Bengt Green, Markku Jaatinen, Eyolf Østrem, Mark Reed, Cristian Seres and Stephen Smith.
In 2022 it was further revised using information from a pair of detailed articles on the history, rules and variants of Skitgubbe by Sten Helmfrid, published in 2021 in Kartofilen, the journal of the Swedish playing-card society.