Guan Dan
掼蛋

This page is based on information from Shi Ji.

Introduction

Guan4 Dan4 is a Chinese card game whose name means throwing eggs. It is said that the second character was originally 弹, which is also pronounced 'dàn' and means bombs or grenades, referring to the bombs in the game, but the less violent interpretation now prevails. The game is closely related to Zheng Shang You and other climbing games, but distinguished from them by the process of promotion introduced from Sheng Ji games such as 100. Guan Dan originated in Huaian, Jiangsu Province and is probably the most popular climbing game in Jiangsu, Anhui and other provinces nearby. There are often tournaments broadcast on local TV channels.

The popularity of this game can be attributed to several features. Most of playable combinations are restricted to 6 or fewer cards, so that games proceed at a moderate pace and it is difficult for a player holding some lucky combinations to win suddenly, though it sometimes happens. There is a great variety of possible combinations of cards which makes the game more balanced than some other climbing games, and the wild cards give rise to even more possibilities. All these features make for a game of significant strategic depth.

Players, cards, levels and objective

Four players are divided into two partnerships with partners sitting opposite each other. A double deck of standard international cards is used. There are 108 cards in the deck altogether including four jokers, two red and two black.

The basic rank of the cards is, from high to low, red joker, black joker, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, (A). This will be called the natural order of the cards. When forming sequences, aces can be used as low cards, below the 2.

Deal and play are counterclockwise, and the objective is to play all your cards before the other players (and to help your partner to do so). The team of the player who is the first to run out of cards wins the hand, and the order in which the other players finish determines the amount by which the winners are promoted. A team's score is expressed as a level. There are 13 levels, corresponding to the card ranks from 2 up to A (ace). Both teams start at level 2, the winners are promoted to a higher level, and the objective is to win on the highest level A.

In the second and subsequent hands, the winners of the previous hand are the declarers and their level determines the level of the hand. Cards of the rank that is equal to the level of the hand have special powers in the play. These will be called level cards.

  1. For most purposes, level cards rank above the aces and below the black jokers instead of in their natural position. This will be called the level order of the cards.
  2. The level cards in hearts are wild cards. They can be used to represent any card except a joker.

The first hand is always played at level 2, so the level order from high to low is red joker, black joker, 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 and both twos of hearts are wild.

If for example, the declarers are on level 8, the level order is red joker, black joker, 8, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2. Both eights of hearts are then wild.

The deal

In China, cards are usually drawn from the deck by the players rather than dealt by a single player. After the shuffle and cut the deck is placed face down in the middle of the playing surface, usually spread slightly, and players take turns to draw single cards from the top of the deck. Chinese players consider this method easier than Western style dealing when there are a lot of cards in the deck, but it may be easiest to use whatever method the players are most accustomed to.

For the first hand of the game, a player is chosen at random to shuffle the deck. The player to the left of the shuffler then flips the top card of the deck face up and cuts the deck, so that on completion of the cut the face up card is somewhere in the interior of the deck. The player who shuffled then draws the first card, followed by the player to the right and so on anticlockwise round the table until all the cards have been drawn and everyone has 27 cards. The player who drew the face up card will begin the play.

From the second hand onward, the result of the previous hand determines who shuffles, who cuts, who draws first and who begins the play. The player who finished first shuffles, the player to the left of the shuffler cuts the cards (without turning any card face up) and the player who finished last draws the first card, followed by the others in counterclockwise order as usual. If the winning team in the previous hand finished first and second, the losers decide between them who should should draw the first card.

The play

In the first hand, the player who drew the face up card leads to the first trick, and this lead may or may not include the face up card. From the second hand onward, the first player is determined by the tribute paid for the previous hand (see tribute below), which in turn depends on the result of the previous hand.

The player who leads to a trick plays a card or combination of cards from his or her hand, the other players play or pass in turn in counterclockwise order, and the trick continues for as many circuits as needed until three players pass in succession.

There are seven types of ordinary playable cards and combinations, and there are special combinations called bombs. The player who leads to a trick can begin it with any ordinary playable card or combination or with a bomb. When a trick is in progress, on each turn a player has the following options.

  1. If the previous play to the trick was an ordinary card or combination, play a higher card or combination of the same type, or play any bomb.
  2. If the previous play to the trick was a bomb, play a higher bomb.
  3. Pass and play no card, if unable or unwilling to play. Passing does not prevent a player from playing cards at a future turn in the same trick.

If three consecutive players pass, the trick is over and the player who played the last card(s) to the trick leads to the next trick.

A player with no card left in hand passes every opportunity to play. If the player whose turn it is to lead has no cards left, the lead passes to that player's partner. The play continues until both players of one partnership have run out of cards.

Any player who has 10 cards or fewer must declare on request exactly how many cards he or she still holds.

Ranking of cards and playable combinations

There are seven types of ordinary play.

i) Single cards
Single cards are ranked in level order. A wild card played as a single card is equal in rank to a level card. For example at level 6, a wild heart6 is equal in rank to a spade6: neither beats the other.
ii) Pairs
A pair consists of two single cards with the same rank. Pairs are ranked in level order, in the same way as single cards. Note that two black jokers or two red jokers can make a pair, but a black joker and a red joker cannot be played as a pair. A wild card can be played with any card except a joker to make a pair. If the two wild cards are played together, they form a pair equal in rank to any pair of level cards.
iii) Triples
A triple consists of three single cards of the same rank. Triples are ranked in level order, in the same way as single cards. No triple of jokers is possible, so the highest triple is a set of three level cards, which can only be beaten by a bomb.
iv) Full houses
A full house consists of a triple and a pair and is ranked by the triple in level order, regardless of the rank of the pair. Therefore for example 8-8-8-K-K cannot follow 8-8-8-5-5 because the triples are equal. Since jokers cannot form a triple, the highest full house is one with a triple of level cards.
v) Straights
A straight consists of five single cards which are consecutive in natural order and are not all of the same suit. An ace can be used as a high card ranking next above the king or as a low card ranking next below the two. Jokers can never be used in a straight, and level cards take on their natural numerical position. For example at level 7, 7 comes between 6 and 8 in a straight, not above the ace: 6-7-8-9-10 is always a straight, whereas 6-8-9-10-J is never a straight. Straights are ranked by their highest ranked single cards in natural order, so the highest straight is 10-J-Q-K-A and the lowest is A-2-3-4-5 (ranked as 5). An Ace cannot be used in the interior of a straight: K-A-2-3-4, Q-K-A-2-3 and J-Q-K-A-2 are not allowed. Wild cards can be used as usual. For example at level 7, diamond3-spade4-heart7-club6-spade7 could be played as a straight ranked as 7, and it would be beaten by 4-5-6-7-8.
vi) Tubes
A tube consists of three consecutive pairs in natural order. Pairs of level cards take on their natural numerical position in tubes, in the same way as in straights. Pairs of jokers can never be used in a tube. Tubes are ranked by their highest ranked pairs in natural order as the same way as straights. Aces can be high or low. The lowest tube is A-A-2-2-3-3, ranked by the 3-3 and the highest is Q-Q-K-K-A-A, ranked by the A-A. K-K-A-A-2-2 is not allowed.
vii) Plates
A plate consists of two consecutive triples in natural order.. Triples of level cards take on their natural numerical position in plates, in the same way as in straights. Plates are ranked by their higher ranked triples in natural order as the same way of straights. A-A-A-2-2-2 is the lowest plate, ranked by 2-2-2 and K-K-K-A-A-A is the highest plate, ranked by A-A-A.

Bombs

There are nine types of bomb ranked from lowest to highest: quadruples, quintuples, straight flushes, sextuples, septuples, octuples, nonuples, decuples, four-joker.

A quadruple, quintuple, sextuple, septuple, octuple, nonuple, or decuple consists of respectively four, five, six, seven, eight, nine or ten cards of equal rank. Bombs consisting of sets of equal ranked cards are ranked within their types in level order in the same way as single cards, with bombs of level cards ranked highest since there are not enough jokers to make these types of bomb. So for example at level 9 the highest quintuple bomb is 9-9-9-9-9, the second highest is A-A-A-A-A and the lowest is 2-2-2-2-2.

A straight flush consists of five consecutive cards of the same suit in natural order. As with straights, aces can be high or low and jokers cannot be used. Like straights, flushes are ranked by their top cards in natural order so that the lowest straight flush is A-2-3-4-5 and the highest is 10-J-Q-K-A, irrespective of the level.

A four-joker bomb consists of two black jokers and two red jokers and is the highest ranked bomb.

A bomb can be beaten by a higher bomb of the same type, or by any bomb of a higher type. So for example at level 4, A-A-A-A is beaten by 4-4-4-4 which is beaten by 2-2-2-2-2 (the lowest quintuple bomb) and the highest quintuple 4-4-4-4-4 is beaten by the lowest straight flush A-2-3-4-5 of a suit.

Wild cards can be used in the making of any type of bomb except a four-joker bomb. In fact nonuple and decuple bombs can only be constructed with the help of wild cards, and since there are only two wild cards in the game, within a hand there can be at most two nonuples or one decuple.

Wild cards

As explained above, there are only two wild cards: the level cards in the heart suit. So in for example in the first hand, which is always at level 2, the two heart2 are wild. Wild cards can be used in place of any cards needed to make up a combination except for jokers. If wild cards are played as single cards or as a pair of wild cards they rank as level cards, above the ace and below the black joker.

Anyone who plays a combination that includes wild cards must declare what cards they stand for. Two wild cards can stand for different cards in one combination. There may be a choice - for example at level 4, heart4-heart4-club8-diamond8-spade9-club9 could be played as a tube 7-7-8-8-9-9 or a tube 8-8-9-9-10-10 or a plate 8-8-8-9-9-9.

Scoring

The first player who runs out of cards wins the hand on behalf of his or her team. Play continues until the other member of the winning team also runs out of cards. If the second member of the winning team finished second it is a 1-2 win, if third it is a 1-3 win and if fourth it is a 1-4 win.

The winners of a hand become the declarers of the next hand and are promoted to a higher level. The losers the opponents.

  • A team that wins 1-4 goes up one level.
  • A team that wins 1-3 goes up two levels.
  • A team that wins 1-2 goes up four levels.

Note that unlike many other promotion (Sheng Ji) games, when the opponents win they are immediately promoted by the full amount as well as becoming the declarers. For example if the declarers are on level 5 and the opponents are on level 3, and the opponents score a 1-4 win, the opponents become the declarers and are promoted to level 4.

In order to win the game, a team has to score a 1-2 or 1-3 win as declarers on the top level A (ace). Level A is subject to a number of special rules.

  • It is not possible to be promoted past level A. If a team wins and their promotion is sufficient to take them to level A or higher, they become the declarers on level A.
  • If the declarers are on level A and score a 1-2 or a 1-3 win they win the game. This is the only way to win. If the declarers on level A score a 1-4 win, they remain on level A and the game continues.
  • If the declarers lose on level A, they become the opponents and the winners become declarers and are promoted as usual.
  • If the opponents win a hand while on level A they do not win the game, even if it is a 1-2 win. They simply become the declarers on level A, and will have the opportunity to win the game if they win the next hand 1-2 or 1-3.
  • If a team have been declarers three times on Level A without winning, after the third unsuccessful attempt they are demoted back to the lowest level - level 2. They may be the declarers or the opponents at level 2 depending whether they won 1-4 or lost. If they lost the opponents are promoted as usual as well as becoming declarers.
  • If the declarers lose on level A, and the very last play by the opponent who finishes first consists entirely of aces (a single ace, a pair of aces, a triple of aces or a bomb of aces), the declarers are demoted to level 2. The opponents become the declarers and are promoted as usual .

Second and subsequent deals: the tribute and opening lead

From the second hand on, after drawing and before playing, the player or players who finished last in the previous hand have to pay tribute. A player pays tribute by giving his or her highest ranked single card other than a wild card face up to a member of the winning team.

If the previous hand ended with a 1-2-win then each of the losers (now the opponents) pays tribute. The player who finished first in the previous hand gets the higher ranked of the two tribute cards, and player who finished second gets the other. If the two tribute cards are of the same rank then the winners can decide between them which should take which card - in some cases a player might prefer one suit to another. Then in return, each of the winners (now the declarers) gives an unwanted card face up to the opponent from whom they received tribute. However, if each of the opponents holds one red joker or one of the opponents holds two red jokers, the tributes are cancelled.

If the previous hand ended with a 1-3-win or a 1-4-win, then the player who finished last (who will be an opponent in the case of a 1-3 win but a declarer in the case of a 1-4 win) pays tribute to the player who finished first. Then the player who finished gives an unwanted card to the last player face up in exchange. If the last player holds two red jokers, then the tribute is cancelled.

In all cases the card given in exchange for tribute must be different from the tribute card.

The opening lead

From the second hand on, it is the player who pays the higher ranked tribute, or in the case of a 1-3 or 1-4 win the only tribute, who begins the play by leading to the first trick. If the two opponents paid equal ranked tributes, they agree between them who should play first in the new deal. If no tribute was paid (because the players liable for tribute held both red jokers), the player who finished first in the previous hand leads to the first trick in the new hand.

Strategy

Since this is a partnership game, the aim is not only to get rid of your own cards but also to help your partner. To do this effectively it is important to know who has the better chance of winning. If you have a good chance to win yourself, you can play a similar strategy to that of individual climbing games, in which you eliminate low unmatched cards at an early opportunity, keeping only strong combinations. But if your hand is worse than your partner's it may be better to sacrifice your own chances of winning to help your partner. A hand that contains two or three bombs but is otherwise weak can be useful for this. You help your partner by bombing the opponents' strong combinations if partner is unable to beat them, and then leading cards that are favourable to your partner.

You can make some deductions about the strength and nature of other players' hands from the cards that they lead or play to a trick.

  • Leading a low single card, pair, triple, or full house to a trick is usually a signal that the player has some high cards of the same kind. The player plans to use these high cards to regain the lead, thereby controlling the game, or at least to force the opponents to use a bomb to take control. However, sometimes this kind of lead may indicate that the player has a good chance to finish if he can just get rid of these cards, or sometimes he is just trying to help his partner.
  • Leading a tube or plate is usually a means to drive out an opponent's bomb.
  • A player who leads a sequence is taking a considerable risk that the opponents may beat it with a higher sequences. it is likely that the player has no other good lead, or it may be that the sequence is just an efficient way to dispose of some otherwise useless cards, leaving the player with very good combinations.
  • A player who bombs any sort of combination definitely dislikes this type of combination. If he plays a very high card or combination on a very low card or combination, he is unlikely to hold intermediate combinations of this type unless he is playing high to block the next player and thereby help his partner.

From observations like these you can build up a partial picture of what type of combinations each player likes and dislikes. Then you can help by leading combinations that your partner likes and your opponents dislike.

Having the right to lead first is a considerable advantage. Some players estimate that it is worth slightly more than a red joker. Therefore the tribute rule is not as unbalanced as it may appear to be.

There is a practical application of this if you are on level K, your partner has finished first and one of your opponents has finished second. Now you are certain to be declarers in the next deal at level A, and you may be in a position to choose whether to finish third or last. The choice is quite close. If you finish last you give your highest card to your partner and get the lead. If you finish third, your partner will get a high card from the opponent who is last, but to compensate for that he gets the lead instead of you.

Variants

Scoring

  • Some play that only a 1-2-win wins the game for the declarers at Level A: if they only manage a 1-3 or 1-4 win they remain declarers at level A.
  • Some play that a 1-2 win promotes a team by only three levels, not four.

Tribute

  • Some play that the card returned by a player receiving tribute must be ranked 10 or lower.
  • Some play that after a 1-2 win, if the two tribute cards are of the same rank, they are mixed face down, and each winner takes one of the cards at random.
  • Some play that after a 1-2 win, if the two tribute cards are of the same rank, it is chosen at random which of the losers should lead first.

Play and combinations

Some require a player to say how many cards he or she holds only if holding 6 cards or fewer.

A few groups play with aces high only. These players do not recognise the low straight A-2-3-4-5 or the low tube A-A-2-2-3-3 or the low plate A-A-A-2-2-2 as valid combinations.

Some do not recognise nonuple or decuple bombs as valid. Some do not allow septuple or octuple bombs either. This makes little substantial difference since these combinations are very rare.

In some variants, if set of cards including a wild card is a valid combination with the wild card standing for itself, then the wild card must stand for itself. For example at level 4 the combination heart4-heart4-club5-diamond5-spade6-club6 can be played only as 4-4-5-5-6-6, not as 5-5-6-6-7-7 counting the wild cards as 7's and not as a plate 5-5-5-6-6-6 counting the wild cards as a 5 and a 6.