Gān Dèng Yǎn
With thanks to Robert B. and Sean Ross for introducing me to this game and sharing the results of their research into its origins and variants.
- Players and Cards
- Outline of the Game
- Playable Combinations
- The Deal
- The Play
- Scoring and Winning
- Other web sites
This game is said to have originated during the early- to mid-2010s in Shudi in the Sichuan province of southwest China. Although it clearly belongs in the group that I have called "climbing games" and is inspired by classic games of this type such as Zheng Shangyou, Da Lao Er and Dou Dizhu, it has some unusual features.
The most striking novelty is that a combination can generally only be followed either by a combination that is of the same type and exactly one rank higher or by a special combination (a set of Twos or a bomb). This clearly accounts for the name of the game "Gān Dèng Yǎn", which means to watch helplessly or to look on in despair. It comes from the novel, “Ordinary World”, by Lu Yao: “When they know that the water has reached our village, they can only stare!" This feeling of anxiety and helplessness occurs frequently in the game. When one person plays a modest combination, often the other players are unable to respond even though they hold quite good cards.
A second innovation is that unlike many Chinese card games, this game is played with quite small hands - initially just five cards - and that further cards are drawn from the undealt part of the deck after each trick. Because of this the game can move quite fast - some deals are over rather quickly, and it can pay to risk winning an early trick in the hope of a lucky draw that will enable you to dispose of all your remaining cards on your next turn.
Gan Deng Yan has quickly spread to most parts of China and we have the impression that the rules are still evolving. The websites listed in the reference section below mention quite a few variants, sometimes not fully explained, and at the time of writing (May 2020) it is too early to tell whether a new standard version will emerge. Meanwhile, the main description below is based on a fairly conservative form of the game from Wenshan in Yunnan province which Robert B learned from his student Yang Keyi. This is followed by a survey of the variants we are aware of. I would very much like to hear from any readers who are familiar with this game and can tell us more details of the different versions of the game, how they are developing, and which ones are becoming most popular.
Players and Cards
It is possible to play the game with as few as 2 players or as many as 6. An international pack is used, including two Jokers - 54 cards in all. The suits of the cards are irrelevant. Chinese decks come with one red and one black Joker, but when playing this game with a single deck, it's OK to use a deck with two identical Jokers.
The ordinary cards rank from Ace (high) down to Three (low) in the order A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3. Twos and Jokers have special properties.
- Twos are the highest cards when played singly or together in sets, and they can follow cards of any rank. However they cannot be used in single or multiple sequences.
- Jokers are wild cards that can represent any card needed to complete a combination, but as single cards they have no value.
Outline of the Game
The object of the game is to be the first to get rid of all of your cards by playing them in certain combinations to the table. If you cannot be first to play all your cards, then your aim is to have as few cards as possible when another player finishes.
The play consists of a series of 'tricks'. To begin a trick, one player leads a single card or a set of cards forming a legal combination. The other players in turn either play one or more cards or pass, and this continues as many times around the table as it takes until either someone plays their last card, which ends the play, or all players but one pass, which ends the current trick. At the end of a trick the played cards are set aside and everyone in turn draws one card from the deck, adding it to their hand. The person who played last to the previous trick then leads a card or combination to start the next trick.
To play the game it is necessary to know which cards and combinations are legal to play and which can follow which. There are ordinary combinations, which can be led and which can only follow combinations of the same type, and there are bombs, which can be led and can follow any ordinary combination or any smaller bomb.
- Single card
- Ordinary single cards rank from 3 (low) to Ace (high). They can be led, or they can played on a single card that is exactly one rank lower. A single 2 can be led or can be played on any ordinary single card. Jokers cannot be played as a single card with one exception (see “Jokers” below).
- Two ordinary cards of the same rank, such as 7-7 or Q-Q, can be led together or played on an ordinary pair that is exactly one rank lower. A pair 2-2 can be led or can be played on any ordinary pair.
- Three or more ordinary cards of consecutive rank and any mixture of suits (such as 4-5-6 or J-Q-K-A) can be led or can be played on a sequence of equal length that is exactly one rank lower. 2s cannot be used as a part of any sequence. For example 2-3-4 and K-A-2 are not valid combinations.
- Double Sequence
- Two or more pairs of ordinary cards consecutive rank (such as 3-3-4-4 or 6-6-7-7-8-8-9-9) can be led or can be played on a double sequence of the same length that is exactly one rank lower. 2s cannot be used as a part of any double sequence.
Bombs are a special type of combination that can be led or can be played on any ordinary combination or any smaller bomb. The types of bomb are ranked, from lowest to highest:
- Three cards of the same rank - such as 5-5-5. A 3-card bomb can be played on any lower 3-card bomb or any ordinary combination. The lowest is 3-3-3 and they rank in the same order as single cards up to A-A-A and then 2-2-2 which is the highest triplet bomb.
- Four of a Kind
- Four cards of the same rank - such as 9-9-9-9. A 4-card bomb, sometimes known as a hydrogen bomb, can be played on any lower 4-card bomb, any 3-card bomb or any ordinary combination. The lowest is 3-3-3-3 and they rank in the same order as single cards up to A-A-A-A and then 2-2-2-2 which is the highest 4-card bomb.
- Double Joker Bomb
- Two Jokers (one red and one black) with no other cards. This can be played on any other combination and nothing can follow it. (The colours of the Jokers matter only in the double deck variants described later. When playing with a single deck the Jokers can be identical and you need both of them to make this type of bomb.)
Jokers are wild cards that can be used represent any other rank including 2's, but only when combined with at least one other card. For example 6-Joker is a pair of Sixes, 2-Joker is a pair of 2's, a 9 and a 10 can be combined with a Joker to make a sequence of either 8-9-10 or 9-10-J and 9-9-Joker is a 3-card bomb of Nines.
Jokers cannot be played singly, with just one exception. If the player whose turn it is to lead has just one card (this can only happen if the talon is empty) and that one card is a Joker, then the player leads the Joker and wins immediately.
As in most Chinese games the cards are not really dealt, but taken from the deck by the players. We use the word 'dealer' to mean the player who shuffles the deck, takes the first card and leads to the first trick.
For the first hand of the game a player is chosen at random to shuffle the deck; from the second hand onward, the winner of the previous hand deals. The dealer shuffles the cards, gives them to the player to their left to cut, and stacks them face down in the middle of the playing surface. The dealer then draws the top card from the deck, looking at it but not showing it to the other players. The player to the dealer’s right does the same, then the next player, and so on counter-clockwise around the table until the dealer has 6 cards and each other player has 5 cards. The undealt remainder of the deck is stacked face down in the middle of the playing surface to form a talon from which cards will be drawn later.
The dealer begins by playing a card or any legal combination of cards to start the first trick. The person to this player's right plays next, and so on round the table for as many circuits as needed until all players but one pass in succession.
If the previous play was an ordinary combination, at your turn you must either pass (play no cards) or play one of the following:
- a combination of the same type and the same number of cards as the previous play that is exactly one rank higher, or
- a single 2 if the previous play was a single card, or
- a pair of 2's if the previous play was a pair, or
- a bomb.
After a bomb has been played, the next play must either be a higher bomb of the same type or a more highly ranked type of bomb. A player who is unable or unwilling to play either of these must pass. After a double Joker bomb has been played, no further plays are possible so everyone else must pass.
- If a single 4 is played, the next play can be a single 5 or a single 2 or a bomb. Nothing else is allowed - not a 6, not an Ace, not a pair of 5's...
- If a pair of 4's is played, the next play can be a pair of 5's or a pair of 2's or a bomb. Nothing else is allowed - not a pair of 6's, not a pair of Kings, not a single 2...
- if a sequence of 4-5-6 is played, the next play can be a sequence of 5-6-7 or a bomb. Nothing else is allowed - not a sequence 7-8-9, not a sequence 4-5-6-7, not a sequence 5-6-7-8...
- if a sequence Q-K-A is played, the next play can only be a bomb. There is no higher 3-card sequence, since 2's cannot be used in sequences.
- If a double sequence of 4-4-5-5 is played, the next play can be a double sequence of 5-5-6-6 or a bomb. Nothing else is allowed. Not 6-6-7-7, not 5-5-6-6-7-7, not 5-6-7-8...
- If a bomb of 7-7-7 is played, the next play can be any higher 3-card bomb such as 8-8-8 or K-K-K or any 4-card bomb such as 5-5-5-5 or a double Joker bomb.
If you cannot play or choose not to play, you must pass on your turn. Once all other players have passed after the last card or combination played, the trick ends. Each player, starting with the player who played last, draws one card from the talon and adds it to their hand. The cards played to the previous trick are cleared from the table and set aside face down. The last player to have played now leads any legal card or combination to begin the next trick and play continues as before.
If at the end of a trick there are not enough cards remaining in the talon for everyone to draw one, players draw in turn starting with the the person who played last to the previous trick, until the cards run out. The remaining players do not draw a card. After all the cards have been drawn from the talon, play continues with the cards remaining in the players' hands and no further cards are drawn.
The play ends immediately when a player sheds their last card. This may happen in the middle of a trick and often happens while there are still cards in the talon. The player who ran out of cards is the winner, and the scores are calculated.
Scoring and Winning
At the end of the play, the player with no cards receives one point from each other player for each card they still have in their hands. A cumulative total of each player's score can be kept, and at the end of an agreed number of deals the player with the highest positive score can be declared the winner, or if playing for stakes the players can settle up according to the number of points they have won or lost.
As mentioned in the introduction there are many variants of the rules, and it is not yet clear which of these may eventually become standard features of the game.
Some players use two packs (a total of 108 cards) when playing with a larger group of players, which makes it less likely that the talon will run out. For example two packs may be used with 4 or more or even with 3 or more players.
With two packs a red Joker and a black Joker are need to make a Double Joker bomb. Two Jokers that are both red or both black do not make a double Joker bomb, but you can still make a less powerful 3-card or 4-card bomb by combining them with a single card or pair. A player who holds two identical Jokers and nothing else will be unable to play them unless they have the lead.
There is the possibility that a player may have more than 4 equal cards or more than 2 Jokers, which raises the question of whether larger combinations such as 5 of a kind or 3 jokers might be used as some type of bomb. However, in the descriptions we have seen there is no trace of such a rule. A bomb always contains a maximum of four equal cards or two unequal Jokers, as in the single deck game.
Play and Combinations
Some play that a triplet is an ordinary combination, sometimes known as an airplane, not a bomb. In this case a triplet can only follow a triplet that is exactly one rank lower, except presumably for a triplet of 2's, which can be played on any triplet of ordinary cards.
If triplets are not bombs, some allow sequences of triplets, such as 3-3-3-4-4-4-5-5-5, as ordinary combinations. Like a double sequence, a sequence of triplets cannot include any Twos, and can only be followed by a triplet sequence of the same number of cards that is exactly one rank higher or by a bomb.
Some do not allow sequences (or double sequences) to contain more than three ranks, in which case 5-6-7 and 5-5-6-6-7-7 are valid but 5-6-7-8 and 5-5-6-6-7-7-8-8 are not.
Some do not allow a Joker to represent a 2, so 2-Joker is not a valid combination in this case.
Some do not allow a player to lead a single Joker even if it is their only card. Instead the turn to play passes to the next player to the right.
Some require players to announce when their hand has three or fewer cards.
Some play that a deal cannot be won if there are more than five cards remaining in the talon. If there are more than five cards in the talon at the moment a player sheds their last card, play continues and all players, including the one who ran out of cards, must draw a card at the end of the trick and continue playing.
Some allow an ordinary combination to be followed by either a combination of equal rank or a combination that is one rank higher. For example a 6 can be followed by a 7 or by another 6. A pair 4-4 can be followed by another 4-4 or by 5-5.
Some play that each Ace remaining in a losing player’s hand doubles, trebles, or quadruples the number of points that player must pay to the winner. For example, playing that Aces double the score, if Willow plays her last card and goes out, when Curtis has four cards his hand: 6-8-J-A then Curtis must pay 8 points to Willow (4 cards multiplied by 2 for the Ace).
Some play with additional multipliers: there are 'public multipliers' which increase the amount received by the winner from all opponents, and 'private multipliers' which affect only one opponent of the winner. So each loser's payment will be (remaining cards) × (product of all public multipliers) × (product of that player's private multipliers). Depending on the multipliers allowed, this can potentially result in huge scores, which should be taken into account when agreeing the basic stake. Also it is probably sensible to agree a maximum payment per hand, or play for 'table stakes' in which a player cannot lose more money or chips than they have on the table.
One possible schedule is:
|Public multipliers for
during the deal
|each triplet bomb||×2|
|each 4-of-a-kind bomb||×4|
|each double Joker bomb||×8|
|Private multipliers for
in loser's hand
|each bomb||as above|
Using this schedule a player who was caught holding 3-3-3-3-A-Joker when two triple bombs had been played would have a public multiplier of 4 (2×2) and a private multiplier of 16 (2×2×4), which multiplied by 6 remaining cards would give a total of 384 times the basic stake to be paid to the winner.
Some play that a triplet or 4-of-a-kind bomb that includes jokers is a “soft bomb” with a public multiplier of 2, while a 3-card or 4-card "hard bomb", formed without Jokers, carries a public multiplier of 4.
In the game from Wenshan originally learned by Robert B there are only positive points for the winner, equal to the total number of cards held by the losers, and no negative scores for the losers. So in this game if you are not going to win it is just as desirable to help the other players to reduce the number of cards in their hands as it is to reduce your own hand. There is just a single overall winner - the player who has the most positive points after an agreed number of deals.
Other web sites
https://baike.baidu.com/item/干瞪眼/63808 - description in which triplets are ordinary combinations, losers pay double if holding an Ace, and Jokers cannot represent Twos.
http://www.gametea.com/news/201807/7111.html - archive copy of a description with soft and hard bombs giving public multipliers 2 and 4 respectively. Triplets are bombs. There is also a double for a condition known as 'spring' (春天) which may perhaps be when a player has not managed to play any cards, or maybe when no one other than the winner has played an cards.
https://m.91y.com/help/guize/340.html - description with multipliers of 2 for a triplet bomb, 4 for a hydrogen bomb and 8 for a double joker bomb. As well as 'spring' there is a condition 'haochun' (豪春) which brings a multiple of 8, but we have not been able to understand what this is.
http://ttrek.net/干瞪眼、五十k、变色龙- archive copy of brief descriptions of three games: Gan Deng Yan is the first. Triplets are not bombs; sequences are limited to at most three ranks.
http://public.qipai007.com/gamerule/226.html (archive copy) - like several of the above pages this seems to have originated as documentation for a computer version of the game. Public multipliers are 2 for a 3-card bomb, 4 for a hydrogen bomb or double Joker bomb, 2 for 'spring'.