Brus is a distant descendant of the medieval game Karnöffel, in which the eccentric ranking of the 'chosen' suit has been extended to all four suits and augmented by some extra 'beating cards' at the top of the ranking order. This page describes the version of Brus that is now played in Denmark, and also the Icelandic version Brús. A very similar game from North Friesland is described on the Bruus page, and the related game played on the Swedish island Gotland will be found on the Bräus page. The Greenlandic game Voormsi is also closely realted.
The 36-card deck is divided into beating cards (stikkort) that can take tricks and ordinary cards that cannot take a trick except when one of them is led. The object of the game is to score points by winning the majority of tricks and by 'risking' high cards during the game.
Players and Cards
Danish Brus can be played by 4 players in two fixed partnerships, partners sitting opposite each other or by 3 players each playing for themselves ('Solo Brus'). Deal and play are clockwise.
A 36-card pack is used, which is made by discarding all the 10's, 2's, 3's, 4's and Jokers from a standard international pack.
There is a ranking of suits: clubs is the best suit followed in order by spades, hearts and diamonds.
The highest beating cards are the three honours. In descending order these are:
- The Jack of clubs, known as called Spids (which means 'spike' or 'tip').
- The King of hearts, known as Brus.
- The Eight of spades, known as Galhund ('mad dog').
The remaining beating cards, in descending order, are:
- The four Nines, called bisper (bishops)
- The four Aces, called præster (priests)
- The three Jacks (other than the Jack of clubs), called degne (deacons)
- The four Sixes, called peblinge (schoolboys)
Within each group, these cards rank in suit order. So the complete set of beating cards in order from highest to lowest is:
J K 8 9 9 9 9 A A A A J J J 6 6 6 6.
The four Sevens, known as hedninge (heathens) or frikort (free cards) have a special property. If a Seven is led to a trick, it cannot be beaten by a beating card. A Seven that is led can only be beaten by a higher Seven or by the King of clubs, known as korsfareren ( the crusader) or stodderkongen (the vagabond king). The King of clubs beats all Sevens when a Seven has been led, but it can then be beaten by the King of spades, known as mester Erik (formerly a nickname for the devil) or Kristian Andersen (a common Danish male name with no special meaning). If a Seven is led and the K and K are played to the same trick in that order, then the K wins the trick.
If anything other than a Seven is led to a trick, Sevens and black Kings are worthless, and the King of spades is worthless unless a Seven was led to the trick and the King of clubs was played before the King of spades.
Other cards - the King of diamonds, the four Queens, three Eights other than spades and the four Fives - are always worthless. They cannot win a trick unless they are led to a trick and no beating card is played to the trick. These cards are sometimes known as skidt (trash) or vejrmøller (windmills) since they beat nothing except the air.
The first dealer is chosen by any convenient method, for example by drawing cards from the shuffled pack (lowest deals). The turn to deal passes to the left after each hand.
The dealer shuffles the cards and deals a batch of three cards to each player in clockwise order, beginning with the dealer and ending with the player to dealer's right. The remaining cards are placed face down on the table as a stock.
The dealer leads to the first trick and the other players play in turn. There is absolutely no requirement to follow suit or to beat cards previously played to the trick: a player may play any card to any trick.
- If the first card played to the trick is not a Seven, the trick is won by the highest beating card in it, if any are played. If no one plays a beating card, the first card played to the trick wins it.
- If the first card played to a trick is a Seven, and the King of clubs is not played to the trick, then the highest Seven played wins the trick.
- If the first card played to a trick is a Seven, and the King of clubs is played to the trick, then the King of clubs wins unless the King of spades is played after the King of clubs. If a Seven is led and the Kings of clubs and spades are played to the trick in that order, the King of spades wins.
When the trick is complete, each player in turn, beginning with the player who won the trick, draws a card from the stock so that everyone has three cards again. The winner of the trick then leads to the next trick.
When the stock is empty, play continues with the cards remaining in the players' hands.
A player who has two or three cards of the same nominal rank may lead them together to start a multiple trick to which everyone must play the same number of cards. When leading to a multiple trick, an honour may be combined with worthless cards if their nominal ranks are the same - for example a player could lead 8+8 or K+K+K. To beat a set of two or three cards a subsequent player must beat each of the individual cards in the set. The cards used to beat do not have to be nominally equal. A subsequent player can then beat the currently winning cards in a similar way.
Example. 8+8 could be beaten by K+A which could in turn be beaten by J+A which is unbeatable because the Spids is the highest card. 7+7 could be beaten by K+7 which could be beaten by K+7.
After a multiple trick each player in turn draws the same number of cards that they played to the trick. If there are not enough cards in the stock for everyone to replenish their hands to three cards, the remaining cards of the stock are distributed equally among the players.
The play ends when a team (in the four-player game) or a player (in the three-player game) has taken five or more tricks (counting multiple tricks as two or three), thereby winning the hand.
If you have the Brus (K) or Galhund (8) in your hand you can say 'I risk it' when you play it. Note however that an honour can only be risked if it is possible that it may be beaten. You cannot risk the last card played to a trick, and you can only risk if there is a higher honour that has not yet been played and which you do not hold.
If you win the trick you score one point, but if the card is beaten (smacked) by an opponent the player or team who beat it scores one point. A player who beats a risked Galhund with the Brus can also the risk the Brus, and thereby score 2 points if the Brus wins - one for beating the risked Galhund and one for successfully risking the Brus. However, a player is never required to risk an honour: the player could simply accept the 1 point for beating the risked Galhund and not risk the Brus.
If a player risks the Galhund, an opponent beats this with the Brus and risks that too, and a third player beats both cards with the Spids, that player scores 2 points for beating two risked honours, anfd the player of the Brus scores nothing.
At the start of the game, each team (or each player in the three-player game) receives 12 tokens, for example matchsticks, representing points. A point scored is represented by discarding a stick. The aim is to discard all your sticks into a pot in the middle of the table.
- The player or team that wins each hand (the first to take 5 tricks) discards one stick.
- If one team or player wins the first five tricks their opponents are rabundus (bankrupt). The winner(s) have 'stormed the castle' and discard two sticks instead of one.
- A player or team who successfully risks an honour or who smacks a risked honour discards one stick.
In a three-player game, if each player wins four tricks no one discards a stick. However, an extra stick is discarded by the next player who wins a hand by taking five tricks.
The player or partnership that first gets rid of all 12 sticks wins the rubber and the losing side pays one unit per stick they have left (each loser pays one of the winners). In a three-player game each of the losers pays the winner for each stick they have left.
Cards and Play
Some groups include 10's in the pack and omit the 5's. This is purely a matter of tradition: the 10's or 5's are worthless cards and it makes no difference to the game play which of these cards are used.
Some play that if the first three cards of a trick are 7, K, K in that order, then the fourth player can beat the K by playing an honour. If this is to be allowed, it must be agreed by the players before the game.
Traditionally the cards are not played to a pile in the middle of the table, but kept in front of the players. When a trick is complete the winner turns the winning card to indicate who won the trick.
There are quite a few variant rules and scoring systems.
- Many do not allow a card to be risked after all the cards have been drawn from the stock.
- Some allow the Brus or Galhund to be risked even if it is discarded on a trick that it cannot win, for example when it is played on a Seven that was led, or on a lead of two or three cards along with a card that is not a beater. In that case the risk succeeds unless the next player 'smacks' it by discarding a higher honour on the same trick.
- Some do not allow a card to be risked if the points gained for success would be enough to win the game.
- Some play that when a player beats the Galhund with the Brus and risks the Brus, this risk scores 2 points if successful even if the Galhund was not risked. If the partner of the Galhund player beats the Brus with the Spids, some play that this is worth 3 points for the 'oversmack' if either the Galhund or the Brus was risked or 4 points if both were.
- Some allow the K to be risked for a point when used to beat a Seven (under the usual conditions that this is not the last card of the trick and the following opponent could have the K).
- Some play with automatic risking: a card that can legally be risked always counts as risked when played.
In some circles, a player who leads 3 cards at once whistles and scores 1 point, regardless of whether the three cards are beaten by an opponent or not.
Some play that at the end of a game, the winners receive a fixed payment in addition to an amount per stick that the losers have not discarded.
Instead of using sticks, it is common to score by drawing a 'comb'. Each team takes one side of the comb and erases or crosses out one cross stroke on their side for each point that they win. When a team has erased the whole of their side of the comb they have won the game. In the diagram below the upper team have so far scored 6 points and the lower team 3.
In a three-player game a triangle is drawn with cross strokes on each side. Each side of the triangle belongs to one player.
The number of points needed to win the game may vary. For example some play for 9 strokes/sticks rather than 12. Some play for 20 sticks/strokes in the version with automatic risking.
Brus with 4-card hands
Brus is often played with 4 cards a hand which makes it possible to lead 4 cards together and more likely that three cards will be led.
Brus with no stock
In this variant all the cards are dealt at the start: 9 cards each in the four-player partnership version or 12 cards each if there a three players each playing for themselves.
In this variant there are no windmills - all the ordinary cards become low beating cards and rank below the Sixes in descending order: Fives, Eights, Queens and Kings (lowest). This change reduces the element of luck.
In this version, a player or team that wins all 9 or 12 tricks scores 2 points. The extra point is called a jan stick because the opponents are jan.
In the 3-player version you have to take more tricks than either of your opponents to win the game but you still receive the bonus for taking the first 5 tricks even if you don`t win the game. If two (or three) players are tied (6-6-0, 5-5-2 or 4-4-4) the game is annulled and no one gets any points. Obviously it is sometimes in a player's interest to create a tie rather than winning the game, in order to annul the points that an opponent would have scored for risking and taking the first five tricks.
Brús in Iceland
Brús is played in northern Iceland in the valley Svarfaðardalur, especially in villages Dalvík and Grenivík. Preferably there´s a bottle of brennivín (strong liquor) at hand and the game is played all night. A Brús championship in is held annually on the last weekend in March as part of the cultural festival Svarfdælsk March.
Brús is a 4-player partnership game fairly closely related to Danish Brus. It is played with a similar 36-card pack and the ranking of the high cards is the same, but the Sevens and black Kings have no special properties in Iceland - they are just ordinary cards. Also there is no option to lead more than one card to a trick.
As in Denmark, the basic aim is to win 5 of the 9 possible tricks, thus scoring a point. Additional points are available for various feats such as risking the King of hearts, the second highest card. The score is recorded on a comb with just 5 rungs, and the first team to reach a score of 5 points, erasing all 5 rungs on their side, wins the game.
There are many local traditions, jokes and poems associated with this game. Several of them can be found in the sources listed under acknowledgements.
Players and Cards
There are four players, partners sitting opposite each other. Deal and play are clockwise.
The 2's, 3's 4's and 5's are removed from a standard 52-card pack leaving 36 cards. The rank of the top 18 cards (the beating cards) from the highest downwards is:
J K 8 9 9 9 9 A A A A J J J 6 6 6 6.
The other 18 cards - the Queens, the Tens, the Sevens and the remaining Kings and Eights - are all equally worthless: they cannot beat any other card.
The dealer shuffles and offers the cards to the right-hand opponent who must cut the pack. The cut card (which becomes the bottom card of the pack) cannot be either of the highest two cards - the J and the K. If either of these cards is cut, the dealer's team immediately scores a point and the shuffle and cut must be repeated. Losing a point in this way is considered extremely shameful among the farmers of Svarfaðardalur. I am told that the term for it is the same as if you had failed to fertilize your cow. It is even more humiliating if a top card is cut twice or more times in a row, losing a point each time, before the cards can be dealt, and such occasions become part of the oral history of the valley.
After the cards have been cut successfully, the dealer deals a batch of three cards to each player and places the remainder face down as a stock pile (bunkan).
The player to dealer's left leads to the first trick. There is no obligation to follow suit: any player may play any card to any trick. A trick is won by the highest beating card in it. If all four cards in the trick are worthless, the player who led to the trick wins it. After each trick, each player in turn, beginning with the player who won the trick, draws the top card from the stock so that all players have three cards again. The winner of the trick leads to the next trick.
The first team that wins five tricks wins the hand, and the play ends at that point. The winners score one point, or two points for a 'jana' if the opponents have not taken any tricks. If the stock runs out before any team has five tricks, play continues with the cards remaining in the players' hands.
In Iceland, only the King of hearts can be risked, and there are two ways of doing this.
- A player who leads the King of hearts to a trick may 'risk the round' (voga rúntinn) provided that the Jack of clubs has not been played and the player who risks does not hold it. If the King wins the team of the player who risked scores 2 points, but if it is beaten by the J the opposing team scores 3 points.
- If the King of hearts is played as the second or third card of a trick, the player can risk it saying 'under you' (undir’ðig), again provided that the Jack of clubs has not been played and is not held by the player who risks. Since in this case there is only one opponent who can beat the King, the riskers score only 1 point if the King wins, and the other team scores 2 points if it is beaten by the next player's J.
It is never compulsory to risk. If the King of hearts is played without risking no extra point is scored for winning that trick.
The K cannot be risked in the first trick of a hand, nor by a team that needs only one more point to win the game.
When the K is risked successfully, at the end of the trick the player who risked must prove that the risk was legal by showing their other two cards to one of their opponents (some sources specify the left-hand opponent, others the right-hand opponent). A risker who forgets to do this is ridiculed and does not score any points for the risk.
If the K is risked illegally, the opposing team scores as though the King was beaten.
The score is recorded on a comb - a central line with five cross-strokes, something like this:
Each team takes one side of the comb and erases their end of one rung for each point scored. As explained above, points are scored for:
- the opponents cutting the J or K before the deal (1 point);
- the first team to win five tricks (1 point or 2 if their opponents have no tricks);
- successfully risking the K (1 or 2 points) or beating the K when it was risked (2 or 3 points).
The first team to erase all five rungs on their side wins the game. The number of rungs the losers failed to erase indicates the size of the win, and when, as often happens, the same people play a series of games, they will keep a running total of the results, sometimes over weeks or months.
Robbery. The last rung of the comb is called the 'robber'. As mentioned above, when a team has erased four rungs and only the robber is left, they are no longer allowed to risk the King of hearts. Also, if one team has erased four rungs leaving only the robber while their opponents have erased nothing, and then the opponents succeed in erasing all five of their rungs and winning the game, the team that failed to erase their robber rung are said to be 'hanged for the robbery' (hengja menn á ránni). The win is then worth 2 points rather than just 1 for the remaining robber rung, and this is a great embarrassment for the team that so nearly won and were then defeated.
Scratching. If one team erases all five rungs from their comb without their opponents erasing any, they score an extra point (6 points for the win rather than 5) and earn the right to scratch their opponents' heads for a while. This is the cause of much commotion and panic. There are stories of people running from village to village to escape being 'scratched' (klórara).
The section on Danish Brus is based on contributions from Jakob Sauntved and Anthony Smith, supplemented by the descriptions in two books:
- Spillefugeln, edited by Herman Dedichen (politikens forlag, 1952)
- Den Store Spillebog, by Erik Rønholt (L&R Facta, 2000)
The section on Icelandic Brús is based on a contribution from Árni Daníel Juliusson and sources collected by Paul Eaton, especially
- The document Spilum brús, dated 2007, which acknowledges the newspaper Norðurslóðar where it was presumably first published, and is archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20201011115902/http:/archive.is/IaqAF.
- The document Brús Spilareglur –svarfdælskar hefðir og siðir by Atli Rúnar and Jón Baldvin Halldórssonir (March 2014)
- Article Brús: Spilareglur og annar fróðleikur from the newspaper Norðurslóð, 23 Nov 1999