Cucù

Introduction

Cucù is an Italian game suitable for a large group of players played with a special pack of 40 cards. In principle the rules are very simple. Everyone is dealt one card, and has one opportunity to exchange it with their right-hand neighbour in the hope of getting a better card. After all exchanges the player holding the lowest card loses a life. To add variety to the play, some of the cards have special powers and the interaction of the effects of these cards can lead to more complex results.

Special cards for Cucù have been made since the early 18th century and the earliest known packs come from Bologna, although similar games using the ordinary 4-suited pack existed earlier than this and continue to be played.

Over time the special Cucù cards came to be used for other games as well, for example the trick-taking games Cucco and Zifuli, which came to be better known than the original game. Nevertheless a direct descendant of the original Cucù is still played in Campli and Montorio in the province of Teramo, as described in detail in a book by Nicolino Farina: Cucù Antico Gioco di Carte (Campli Nostra Notizie, 2010).

The first game described on this page is the version of Cucù played at Campli according to the rules in published in Nicolino Farina's book. It is clear from the book that there are many local variants of this game. As an example, this page also describes the version known as Lu Stù played at Montorio al Vomano.

Players and Cards

There can any number of players from 2 to 20 and a full pack of 40 Cucù cards is used. Deal and play are anticlockwise.

From the highest card, the cuckoo (XV) down to the I the cards are identified by Roman numbers. The top five cards from XV down to XI also have pictures (cuckoo, hunter, horse, cat and inn), names and special powers which will be described later. Below the I comes the nulla (0), followed by the bucket (-1), the mask (-2) and the lion (-3). These low pictures have no special powers. According to Nicolino Farina's book, in Campli the lion card was originally known as 'Cacaccio' and showed a man defecating, but nowadays the publishers of the cards evidently prefer to show the lion with the coat of arms. Finally there is the Matto (fool), which by itself ranks equal to the lowest card in play. However if two players have Matti, they become high cards as explained below.

cucùbumsaltgnaftavernaXVIIIIVIIIVIIVIVIIIIIIIIII0secchiamascheronecacacciomatto

Seating and Stakes

At the start of the session seats may be allocated by dealing each player one card face up from a shuffled deck. In order to avoid ties, especially with a large group of players, it may be more convenient to use for this just half a pack (20 cards) containing one card of each rank. The player who receives the highest card is the first dealer, the player with the second highest card sits to the dealer's right, and so on in descending order anticlockwise around the table. So the player who was dealt the lowest card will sit to dealer's left.

At the start of a game each player pays an agreed stake to the pool and is issued with three tokens. The loser of each hand loses one of their tokens. In some circumstances two or more players may lose a token or a player may lose more than one token. A player who still has their original three tokens is known as a virgin.

The game ends when all but one player is eliminated and the final player collects the pool. A player who has lost all their tokens is eliminated from the game unless they choose re-enter by buying three new tokens. Re-entry is only possible if there is still at least one virgin in the game.

If another game is to be played, the winner of the previous game is the new first dealer, and any new players joining the group sit to the left of this dealer.

Dealing and Exchanging

The player to dealer's right shuffles the whole 40-card pack and the player to dealer’s left cuts. In this game, cards are dealt from the bottom of the pack. the dealer will deal just one card to each player in turn, starting to the right and going around the table anticlockwise, but after each card is dealt there is a pause for any exchange or other effects to take place, and for the player who was dealt a card to decide what to do.

So the dealer begins by dealing one card face down to the player immediately to his or her right and waiting for this player's decision. The player looks at the card without showing it to the other players and decides between two possibilities:

  • To keep the card, by saying "sto bene" (I'm fine).
  • To try to exchange the card with the next player, by saying "passo" (I pass).

If the player chooses to keep their card, the dealer deals the next card to the next player - the player to the right of the one who just spoke - and this player has the same two options, to keep the card or try to exchange it.

If a player asks to exchange, we will call this player the 'exchanger' and the next player, who is about to be dealt a card, is the 'target player' of the exchange. The dealer deals a card to the target player and if this new card is a X or lower, the target player must pass it face down to the exchanger and receive the exchanger's card face down in its place. The target player now looks at the card received from the exchanger, without showing it, and chooses between the usual two options:

  • To keep the card received from the exchanger.
  • To try to get rid of the card obtained from the exchanger by exchanging it with the next player.

Examples

  • Player A is dealt a II and since this is a rather low card chooses to pass it. The next player B is dealt a VI and has to give to A, receiving the II in exchange. Player B will probably now opt to pass on the II to the next player C.
  • Player A is dealt a II and chooses to pass it. The next player B is dealt a bucket (secchia), gives it to A, and is happy to receive the II in exchange. In this case B will keep the II, knowing that it is not a losing card because the bucket that A now has is lower. This situation is known as "passo e arresto" (pass and stop). Now the next player C will be dealt a fresh card and decide whether to keep it or try to pass it.

The cards higher than X - the XI, XII, XIII, XIV and XV - are special cards. If the target player of an exchange is dealt a special card the target player does not give it to the exchanger but announces it as described below, and the effects of the special card take place. This is known as an arrest (arresto).

Note that if the first player is dealt a special card, or if the next player after a player who chooses to keep their card is dealt a special card, there is no special effect since no one has tried to exchange with the special card. The lucky player who was dealt the special card does not make any announcements but usually just keeps the card (since it is a good one), and it is the following player's turn to be dealt a card.

The dealer is the last person who receives a card. If the player to dealer's left asked for an exchange this is resolved in the usual way. The dealer can then either keep the card he or she was dealt or received or can exchange it for the next unknown card from the bottom of the deck. If the dealer exchanges and the card from the deck is a special card it has no effect - the dealer simply takes the card in exchange without arrest or penalty.

Of course no one, including the dealer, is allowed to look at the bottom card of the deck during the cut and deal.

Special Cards

XV Cucù (cuckoo). When a player tries to exchange a card with the XV, the holder of the Cucù shows it and the exchange does not take place. A player who holds a Cucù never loses a token; however the player who tried to exchange with the Cucù does not suffer any special penalty.

XIV Bum or Tuff ('bang' - hunter with a gun). If a player tries to exchange with the XIV, the target player shows it and mimes firing a gun at the exchanger. The exchanger keeps their card and immediately loses one token.

XIII Salta or Cavallo (horse). If a player tries to exchange with the XIII the target player exposes the card and imitates the neighing or the hooves of a horse. The exchanger must then try to exchange instead with the next player in turn. If the target player holding the horse is the dealer, the dealer keeps the horse and the exchanger receives the top card of the pack in exchange for their card without danger of arrest.

XII Gnaf (cat). If holding the XII the target player shows it and imitates the sound or gesture of a cat. The exchanger immediately loses one token. In addition if the exchanger received their card in an exchange from another player, the previous exchanges are now reversed until this card returns to its original owner. If it jumped over a horse it jumps back over the same horse on its return journey.

XI Taverna (Inn). When a player tries to exchange with the Taverna the target player (innkeeper) does not show the Taverna but says “fermatevi aliquanto” (will you stop for a while?). The exchanger may now either just keep their card or reply “pagherai se null?” (will you pay if it’s a zero?).

  • If the inkeeper agrees, both players keep their cards, and if the player who was trying to exchange has a nulla and it loses, the inkeeper has to pay a token in place of the guest.
  • If the inkeeper does not agree, the Taverna has to be exchanged for the exchanger's card, and the former innkeeper can then decide to keep this card or try to pass it on in the usual way.

Dead card

If a player loses their last token as a result of trying to exchange with a XIV (Bum) or a XII (Gnaf) they cannot lose an additional token when the cards are compared at the end of the play. Therefore a card belonging to a player who has already lost their last token is considered dead ('carta morta') - it is not exposed and cannot count as the lowest card.

Conversation

Players may say anything they wish during the game, hoping to get some idea of what cards the other players hold. No one is obliged to reveal any information or to tell the truth.

The Result

After everyone has been dealt a card and had a chance to try to exchange it, all players who still have at least one token expose their cards. The holder of the lowest card loses one token. If two players tie for lowest card then they lose one token each. A player who loses their last token is eliminated from the game, unless there is still a virgin in the game and the player without tokens chooses to pay to re-enter, as described below.

The Matto

If one player has a Matto (fool), it counts as being equal in rank to the lowest card(s) in play. Both the owner of the Matto and the owner(s) of the lowest card(s) lose a token. There is one exception: if there are only two or three players in the game, and only cards are a Matto and one or two cuckoos, the player with the Matto loses a token and the cuckoos do not.

If two players each have a Matto, the two Matti become the second highest cards in the deck with a value of 14½. In other words they lose only if no one has a card that is XIV or lower.

Two cuckoos

In a two player endgame if both players have cuckoos (XV) neither of them loses a token and the game continues.

Re-Entry

So long as there is at least one virgin in the game a player may re-enter the game by paying an amount to the pool and receiving three new tokens. A player who re-enters after being eliminated does not count as a virgin. The cost of re-entry for first player who is eliminated is equal to the initial stake. For each subsequent player who is eliminated the cost doubles, even if the pervious player who was eliminated did not exercise their option to re-enter. Nicolino Farina's book does not explain what happens if more than one player is eliminated in the same deal. I suggest that the player nearest to the dealer's right is considered to have been eliminated first and decides first whether to re-enter, followed by any others, for whom the cost will be greater, in anticlockwise order.

In some situations, a player who has only one token may deliberately try to lose it (by keeping a low card) so as to be allowed to re-enter at an advantageous price.

Sharing the re-entry fee

When the cost of re-entry becomes high, a player who loses their last token may seek to share the cost of re-entry with other eliminated players or spectators. In case of a win the pot will be shared in proportion to the amounts contributed to the re-entry fee. The re-entering player keeps their place at the table and takes responsibility for making pass/keep decisions on behalf of the syndicate.

All players re-enter

If the remaining players have just one token each and they all lose their tokens, then all players, including those who were previously eliminated, automatically re-enter the game with three tokens without paying any more to the pool. None of them count as virgins, so players eliminated after this can no longer pay to re-enter. There are a number of ways this free re-entry can happen. The most obvious is when there are just two players with one token and they have equal cards (not cuckoos), or one of them has a Matto. Another way is when one or two players lose their last token in an arrest and the remainder have equal cards. In the most extreme case there could be five remaining players whose cards are (say) I, XII, II, XII, Matto. The first and third players try to exchange and lose their tokens to the cats, and finally the dealer, knowing that the two players whose cards are not dead both have cats, does not risk drawing a lower card but keeps the Matto and ties for lowest, causing all the players to re-enter.

Note that this is a type of situation in which a player might choose to exchange a special card. For example suppose there are four players A, B, C and D in the game. The first player A, who has only one token, tries to exchange, the second player B has a horse (XIII) so the first player jumps this but is then shot by the third player C who has a XIV. Now if the fourth player (dealer, D) has a cat (XII), then knowing that A's card is dead and B and C have higher cards, D will exchange with the deck in the hope of getting a XIV or XV which would be safe, or failing that at least a XIII or Matto which would share the loss with B rather than losing alone.

Agreement between the last two players

When only two players remain in the game they may agree before the deal that if one of them is eliminated, instead of giving the whole pool to the winner they will divide the pool between them in some agreed proportion - for example 50% each or 60%-40% or 30%-70% etc. The proportions will be influenced by the number of tokens each player has and whose turn it is to deal, since the dealer has the advantage of being able to exchange without risk of arrest. In the event of an agreement, the last two players must still continue the game until one of them loses their last token, so as not to deprive the other players of the chance that they will both be eliminated at once allowing everyone to re-enter. During an endgame when there is an agreement to share the pool, the non-dealer is obliged to exchange if dealt a card that is lower than V.

Lu Stù

Nicolino Farina's book includes rules provided by Graziano Di Luigi and ing. Dino Mazza for this version of Cucù played at Montorio al Vomano. There are several differences from the Campli version described above, and many more dialect names for the cards and situations.

The names for the picture cards and the phrases for announcing an arrest in Montorio are:

  • XV (cuckoo): Lu Cill
  • XIV (hunter): Lu Bum
  • XIII (horse): Lu Cavall, La Salt - announced by saying "zumb" (jump)
  • XII (cat): La Gnaf - announced by saying "Gnaf, cart'arrit" (cat, card goes back)
  • XI (inn): La Tavern, La Cas - announced by saying "tingh la Cas, che mi dai in cambio" (I have the inn, what will you offer me for an exchange?)
  • NULLA: La Null
  • SECCHIA: La Sacchj, Lu Callarutt
  • MASCHERONE: Lu FFu, La Lambratt, Lu Rattachjul
  • MATTO: Lu Matt

The tokens are not given out at the start of the game, though everyone is assumed to begin with three. Virgins have no physical tokens, but are issued with the appropriate number of tokens when they lose one or more tokens or gain a token (which is also possible in this version of the game).

If there is a tie for lowest card, only the player earlier in the playing order loses a token.

If one player has a Matto there are two losers: the holder of the Matto and the holder of the lowest of the other cards or the earlier of two equal lowest cards. It is said that the Matto "paga e fa pagare" (pays and makes you pay). If two players have Matti, these become the highest cards (better than a cuckoo) and both these players gain one token, while the holder of the lowest of the other cards (or the earlier of two equal lowest) loses a token.

If there are a lot of players, making it likely that both Matti will be in play, the extra tokens may cause the game to go on form a long time. To speed up the game, players may agree to temporarily remove one of the two Matti from the pack.

Three of the special cards - the the XI (inn), the XII (cat), the XIV (hunter) and the XV (cuckoo) have somewhat different effects in Lu Stù.

XI. When a player tries to exchange with an inn, the innkeeper says "make me an offer" and the exchanger can propose some compensation for the exchange such as a sum of money or a share of the pool in the event that the exchanger goes on to win the game. If they can agree on a deal, the inn is exposed and exchanged for the exchanger's face down card, and the game continues with the former innkeeper deciding as usual whether to keep the exchanged card or try to pass it on. If no acceptable offer is forthcoming, the innkeeper exposes the inn and says "fatt nu bicchijr" (have a drink) and keeps the inn. In this case if the exchanger turns out to have a Null (zero) and it is a losing card, the innkeeper pays a token in place of the exchanger.

XII. A player who tries to exchange with a cat (XII) immediately loses a token, and unless they are the first player they must then try to exchange instead with the player to their left, even if they did not receive their card in an exchange. The reverse exchanges go back around the table until the card that encountered the cat reaches the player to dealer's right or a card higher than X.

  • If a reverse exchange encounters a horse (XIII), the horse is jumped and the card is exchanged with the next player to the horse's left (unless the horse is held by the first player to the right of the dealer in which case the reverse exchange is simply arrested).
  • If a reverse exchange encounters a XII or XIV the reverse exchanger immediately loses a token and the exchange is arrested. However, an attempted reverse exchange with a cat does not trigger a new set of exchanges.
  • If a reverse exchange encounters a cuckoo (XV) it is arrested without penalty..
  • If a reverse exchange encounters an inn (XI) that was not exchanged before, the exchange is arrested without penalty. There is no opportunity for a new deal and the innkeeper does not pay if the arrested reverse exchanger loses with a Null. If a reverse exchange encounters an inn that was exchanged, the exchange is reversed and the reverse exchanges continue. There is no new deal and despite the reversal, the compensation deal for the original exchange remains in force.

XII, XIV. A player who has only one token and tries to exchange with a XII or XIV loses their token and is immediately eliminated from the game, unless there is still a virgin and they pay the cost to re-enter. The card of the eliminated player is placed on the bottom of the deck and does not take part in the final comparison of cards.

It is possible for a player who "pij na gnaffat" (takes a penalty for encountering a cat) may lose two tokens in quick succession). They lose a token for the cat, and then if the player to their left also happens to have a XII or a XIV they lose a second token when they try to exchange with that player. If that doesn't knock them out of the game, they may even lose a third token in the same deal if it also turns out that they have the lowest card.

XV. A player who is dealt a cuckoo (XV) is not completely safe in this version of the game. If there are no cards in the game other than cuckoos and possibly Matti, the first cuckoo is the lowest card and loses a token.

If only two players remain and they have equal cards, then the non-dealer's card is the first lowest and this player loses a token, even if the cards are cuckoos. If both players have Matti, then both gain a token and the non-dealer also loses a token. It is said that the non-dealer "n llev e n matt" (neither gives nor receives).

If there is still a virgin in the game a player who is eliminated can pay to re-enter and acquire three new tokens. A player who has three tokens as a result of re-entry or after losing and gaining tokens is no longer a virgin. The cost of re-entry for the first player who re-enters is equal to the player's initial stake paid to the pool. The cost is doubled for each successive player who re-enters. If a player who is eliminated chooses not to re-enter this does not double the cost for subsequent eliminated players (unlike the Campli game). A player may share the cost of re-entry with other eliminated players or spectators and divide any winnings in the same proportions: in this case the player who re-enters retains the same place at the table and has the final responsibility for all decisions.

As in Campli, if there is no winner because the last two surviving players lose simultaneously then everyone automatically re-enters the game without payment, but there are fewer situations of this type than in Campli because a player who has only one token and suffers a bummata or gnaffata (loses a token for trying to exchange with a XII or XIV) is eliminated immediately rather than at the end of the deal. So for example in a two player game where each player has one token, if the non-dealer has a low card and the dealer a XIV, the non-dealer will be eliminated and the dealer will win. The dealer also wins if both players have equal cards. The only way that both can lose their tokens is if exactly one of them has a Matto. Another possibility occurs with three players. Suppose they each have one token, the first has a bucket (-1), the second a hunter (XIV) and the dealer a Matto. The first player tries to exchange as is eliminated by a bummata. The second and third players keep their cards and both lose their tokens simultaneously, and everyone re-enters free.

As in Campli, the last two surviving players can make a deal on how to divide the pool between them, but must complete the game to make sure that one of them wins, because if both are eliminated simultaneously everyone will still re-enter free.

Other pages

Franco Pratesi has written an article on The Italian Game of Cuckoo discussing the history of the game and including in an appendix a set of rules for Cucù (or 'Lu ttuffe') as played in Campli.