Knüffeln - card game rules

Knüffeln

Introduction

Knüffeln is a North Frisian descendant of the medieval card game Karnöffel. Until recently it was known mainly from an article by J.F. Bernhard in the Schleswig-Holstein journal Die Heimat in 1924. Paul Eaton has discovered a second article on the game by Peter Grünberg, published in the same journal in 1938. Despite the prediction of these authors that the game would soon become extinct, it has survived to the present day and is still played in the region north of Husum, for example in the villages of Hattstedt and Bohmstedt. Paul Eaton has contacted players in these villages, and visited Bohmstedt early in 2020 to take part in a game. This page is based on his report of this research published in The Playing-Card in 2021 (see References).

The main description below is of the version of the game now played in Bohmstedt, as taught to Paul Eaton by Hans Feddersen, who maintains local interest in the game by running regular Knüffeln courses over 5 evenings leading to the award of a diploma. This is followed by notes on the differences in the version played in Hattstedt and in the early 20th century versions described by Bernhard and Grünberg.

Knüffeln is a four-player partnership game played for small stakes, in which the main aim is to win at least five of the nine tricks. There are two chosen suits (suits some of whose cards act as partial trumps), and the card ranking is similar to that of the Faroese (and formerly Danish) game Stýrivolt. While it is clear that Knüffeln and Stýrivolt are closely related, it uncertain at this point whether one of these games is derived from the other, or both from a common ancestor.

The Cards and their Ranking

Knüffeln is played with 48 French-suited cards, the Fives being removed from a standard 52-card pack of the North German (Berlin) pattern.

There are five permanent top cards, known as the five Old Ones (de fief Olen). In order from the highest downward they are:

  • the Two of Hearts (de Beste),
  • the Four of Clubs (de Wage i.e. Wagen),
  • the Eight of Spades (de Dulle),
  • the Nine of Hearts (Harten Ol),
  • the Nine of Diamonds (Ruten Ol).

Each of these cards can beat any lower Ole and any other card except that they cannot beat a chosen Seven that has been led to a trick.

The cards of the two chosen suits (gewählte Farben) are collectively known as ‘chosen cards’ (gewählte Trümpfe). First there are the beaters (Steker), most of which have special names and powers. In descending order, they are as follows:

  • Ace – a 'free card beater' (Frikortensteker), beats all lower chosen cards (except a chosen Seven led to a trick), all free cards and all unchosen cards
  • Jack – a free card beater, beats all lower chosen cards (except a chosen Seven led to a trick), all free cards and all unchosen cards
  • Six – Paas (pope), beats chosen 2s, 3s, 4s, Ks, Qs and 10s and all unchosen cards
  • Two – Twist, beats chosen 3s, 4s, Ks, Qs and 10s and all unchosen cards except Aces
  • Three – Drist, beats chosen 4s, Qs and 10s and all unchosen cards except Aces and Kings
  • Four – Veerhack (square) or Hackenbiter (ankle-biter), beats chosen 10s and all unchosen cards except Aces, Kings and Queens

Next in the chosen suits come the 'special trumps' (Sondertrümpfe):

  • Seven – Unbeatable when led. Worthless when not led.
  • Nine, Eight – free cards (Frikorten) – when led they can be beaten only by a chosen Ace, Jack or Ole. When not led they are worthless.

Bringing up the rear are the chosen cards with no trump powers:

  • King – cannot beat anything but useful to lead as it can only be beaten by a chosen 2 or higher
  • Queen – cannot beat anything but useful to lead as it can only be beaten by a chosen 3 or higher
  • Ten – only useful for exchanging with a trump turn-up

The only really valuable card in the unchosen (nicht gewählte) suits is the Ace which can only be beaten by a chosen Six or higher and beats all cards of its own suit.

Unchosen Kings, Queens and Jacks cannot beat anything but are sometimes handy to lead as you need at least a chosen Two, Three or Four respectively to beat them.

All other unchosen cards (like the chosen Tens) are effectively duds, having no ranking even among cards of the same suit. The only way a dud card can win a trick is if it is led to the trick and no one plays an Ole, a Steker or the Ace of the same suit as the led card.

The Players

The normal game is between two teams of two partners who stay together for the session and sit opposite one another.  There is a five-player version (described under 'variations' below) in which the dealer normally sits out so that partnerships are constantly rotating, but the dealer may look at the undealt stock and if the cards in it are good enough may elect to play a solo against the other four players.

The Deal and Exchange

The dealer shuffles and the player to dealer's right cuts. The dealer then gives 9 cards to each player in 3 packets of 3 cards, before placing the rest face down as the stock and turning the next two cards face up for trumps. The suits of these cards determine the two chosen suits. If they are of the same suit, a third card is turned and, if necessary, a fourth. If four turn-ups in succession are of the same suit, the cards are thrown in, reshuffled and dealt again by the same dealer. The remaining cards are not used but placed face down, half covering the two (or more) turn-ups.

The dealer checks the card on the bottom of the undealt stock. If it is an Ole it is shown to all players and a player with the Queen of the same suit may exchange it for the Ole. If no-one has the Queen because she is ‘sleeping’ in the stock, a player with the King of the suit inherits this right to exchange it for the Ole. If an Ole on the bottom of the stock taken in exchange for a Queen or King, the dealer then looks at the next card on the bottom of the stock, which is shown and exchanged in the same way if it is also an Ole. Up to three Olen from the bottom of the stock can be exchanged in this way.

Any player who holds the Ten of a chosen suit may exchange it with the card of that suit that was turned up when determining the chosen suits (or any of the two or three cards of the first chosen suit if more than one was turned up). However, if a Queen or King of a chosen suit is obtained in exchanged for a Ten, that Queen or King cannot be used to obtain an Ole of the same suit from the bottom of the stock: this kind of double exchange is not allowed.

The Play

Forehand (left of dealer) leads to the first trick. Any card may be led and each of the other three players in clockwise order play a card of their choice to the trick. The player who wins of the trick leads to the next trick, and the play continues similarly until one team has won 5 of the 9 possible tricks. In this game there is absolutely no restriction on which card may be led or played at any point: there is no requirement to follow suit or to beat previously played cards.

The winner of the trick is determined as follows.

  • If an Ole (heart2, club4, spade8, heart9, diamond9) or a beater in one of the chosen suits (A, J, 6, 4, 3, 2) is led, the trick is won by the highest Ole or beater that is played.
  • If a Seven of a chosen suit is led it wins the trick irrespective of what cards the others play: it cannot be beaten.
  • If a Free Card (an 8 or 9 of a chosen suit that is not a Ole) is led, it wins the trick unless it is beaten by an Ole or a chosen Ace or Jack.
  • If an unchosen Ace is led it wins the trick unless it is beaten by an Ole or a chosen Ace, Jack or Six.
  • If any King is led it wins the trick unless it is beaten by an Ole or a chosen Two or higher beater, or by the Ace of its own (unchosen) suit.
  • If any Queen is led it wins the trick unless it is beaten by an Ole or a chosen Three or higher beater, or by the Ace of its own (unchosen) suit.
  • If any other unchosen card (Jack or lower) or a chosen Ten is led, it wins the trick unless it is beaten by the Ace of its own suit or by a chosen Four or higher beater or by an Ole.

If the card that is led to a trick is beaten, that card can in turn be beaten by a later player's card, according to the same rules. A consequence of this is that in the winner of the trick sometimes depends on the order in which the cards were played, not only the first card but also the other players' cards.

Example. The chosen suits are hearts and spades, the players are South, West, North and East, and South leads a small diamond, the 4.

Case 1. S:diamond4, W:spade3, N:diamondA, E:club8. West plays a beater, only a small beater but big enough to beat any Queen or lower. This beater can be beaten only by a higher beater or an Ole (not by the unchosen Ace) so West wins the trick.

Case 2. S:diamond4, W:club8, N:diamondA, E:spade3. North's Ace beats the 4 of its suit and can only be beaten by a chosen 6 or higher. East's chosen 3 is not high enough for this so North wins the trick,

The deal is won by first team to win 5 tricks. If a team wins the first five tricks in a row, they have achieved a Jann, and receive a larger payment. Alternatively, they can elect to try to win even more by leading a card to the sixth trick, which commits them to try to win all nine tricks, known as a 'march' (Durchmarsch). However, once committed to the march they forgo any winnings for the Jann and must win every trick to succeed; if they continue after the fifth trick and fail to win all 9 tricks they have lost and must pay their opponents what they would have won for the march.

Drehen und Sehen

A player on lead may play the first card of the trick face down to the table, which is known as drehen (turning). This is an offer to raise the game value. The opposing team may accept the challenge by picking up the card (aufnehmen), exposing it (sehen - seeing) and playing to the trick, in which case the game value increases by one basic stake. Alternatively they may ‘run’ in which case they fold and concede the deal to the side that played the down card, in which case they pay the amount that the deal was previously worth.

A team may turn (drehen) whenever they are on lead, including when leading to the first trick, and may do this as many times as they have the lead. For example with a basic stake of 10 cents, if the North-South team turns twice, East-West accepting each time, this increases the stake by 10 cents twice. The cost of the game will be 30 cents paid by each loser to each winner. If East-West had 'run away' on the second turn, they would have had to pay only 20 cents each (10 cents for the basic game plus 10 cents for the first turn that they accepted). In a closely fought game it is possible that both teams will turn. In an extreme case a game won by 5 tricks to 4 with a turn on every lead would cost 1 euro (10 cents for the basic game plus 90 cents for the accepted turns).

If a team's turn is accepted and they go on to win a Jann or even a march, the payment for the accepted turns is added to the payment for the Jann or march. For example a team that wins the first 5 tricks when their opponents have accepted 2 turns will win €1.20 - one euro for the Jann plus 20 cents for the turns. However it will generally be a mistake to turn if your cards are good enough for a Jann, because your opponents are likely to end the play by running, and you will win only 10 or 20 cents for the abandoned game rather than the euro you could have won for your Jann if you had not turned. Also a team would never turn while attempting a march, as the opponents could then end the play by running, causing the march to fail.

Communication

Unlike most card games, an integral and essential part of playing Knüffeln is communicating with your partner to work out the strength of your hands and the tactics to be used, while bluffing and misleading your opponents. However, cards may not be named directly. In the games that Paul Eaton played in Bohmstedt, it was acceptable for a player to half-expose a card to partner without letting go of it and ask whether to lead it. This was done in full view of the opposition.

Here are some examples of comments, questions and suggestions that may be heard during the play.

  • “Are you old?” (bist du alt?) = “have you got an Ole?”
  • “Can you also take any tricks?” (Kannst du ock wat hollen?) = the “also” could be a bluff.
  • “Can you?” (kannst du?) = “can you take this one (win this trick)?”
  • “Can you meet me?” (du kannst mich treffen?) = “can you play the Ace of the same [unchosen] suit as my card here” (showing card)
  • “Have you something suitable?” (hast du was passend?) = “Can you beat that card efficiently - for example with a trump card that is just a rank or two higher?”
  • “You go first, I’ve got an Ole” (du mußt erst, ick schall oldsch) = “play low, I’ll play an Ole”*
  • “I’ve got a beater and two leaders” (hab’ einen Stecher und 2 Ausspieler) = “I’ve got a high beater (A, J or 6) and two leaders (7s, 8s, 9s or unchosen Aces).”
  • “I’ve only got two Puzers” (hab’ nur zwei Puzer) = “I’ve only got two low beaters (2s, 3s or 4s).”
  • “I’m feeling poorly” (ick bin nich recht to Huus) = “I haven’t got any decent cards” * (lit. “I’m at home and unwell”)
  • “[Let it] come” (kommt) = “Leave it to me” or “I can take it”, in which case the partner will usually take the opportunity to play a dud.
  • “Let it run” (laufen lassen) = ditto
  • “[I can] definitely” (ich kann ganz sicher) = “I’ll win this for certain”
  • “I can’t do anything” (ich kann nichts) = “I can’t play a strong card.”*
  • “I can’t, you must play a beater!” (kann ik nich, mußt en Steker speeln!) = self explanatory
  • “I can improve on that a bit” (ich kann etwas verbessern) = “I can beat that by a small margin”
  • “I can only help you once” (ich kann dir nur einmal helfen) = “I only have one decent card”*
  • “I’ll make 2 tricks for sure ” (ich mache zwei Spiele sicher) = “I’ll definitely win 2 tricks“
  • “One for the Jann!” (een vör de Jann!) = on winning the first trick.
  • “Who can, eh?” (wer kann de?) = “who can beat that?“
  • “A sign of weakness!” (ein Schwachheitszeichen!) = said e.g. if an opponent’s first lead is a 7.*
  • “They play that up on the heath in bad weather!” (dat spelen se up de Heide bi Regenwedder!) = “That’s such a bad lead!”
  • “We’ll play on” (wir spieler weiter) = “We’re going for the march”
  • “I’m turning one over” (ich dreh ein um) = “I’m playing one face down as a bid to raise the game stake” (see drehen und sehen)
  • “We’re folding“ (wir schmeissen) = “We’re conceding the game”

The statements above may be true but some of them, especially those marked with an asterisk (*) may alternatively be a bluff to mislead the opponents. Untrue statements should be used with caution as they may also mislead your partner.

Note: if a beatable card is led to a trick and the player due to play last to the trick says nothing, it can be taken as an indication to their partner that they can win the trick.

Scoring

The game is normally played for small stakes and each member of the losing team pays one member of the winning team at the end of each hand. Typical stakes would be:

Basic game 10 cents
Each accepted drehen 10 cents
Jann (first 5 tricks) 1 euro
Durchmarsch (all tricks) 3 euros

Variations

Five-Player Knüffeln

The role of dealer rotates clockwise as normal and most deals are played with the dealer sitting out. Thus the partnerships change each time. The dealer deals the cards in the usual way to the other four players, and turns cards to determine the two chosen suits.

In the five-player game there is no chance to take the bottom card of the stock in exchange for the Queen or King of the suit if it is an Ole. Instead, the dealer may look at the whole stock, which usually has 10 cards but may have only 9 or 8 if two or three cards of the first chosen suit were turned. The dealer may elect to play alone against the other four players using the stock cards as a hand. The player second to the right of of the dealer leads to the first trick, so that the dealer plays third to this trick, with two opponents playing before the dealer and two after the dealer.

The dealer needs at least four tricks to win, and is paid by each of the four opponents if successful but pays each of them if unsuccessful. The dealer's opponents win if they take five tricks before the dealer manages to win four. The payments are as usual: 10 cents for the basic game plus 10 cents for each accepted turn. The result will always be known by the end of the 8th trick - if the dealer has not won 4 tricks by this time, the opponents must have their 5. Therefore it does not matter that after the 8th trick the dealer may have 2, 1 or no cards left over depending how many were in the stock.

If the dealer wins the first four tricks in succession or the opponents win the first five tricks, that counts as a Jann, worth 1 euro. In either case, the team that makes a Jann may choose to continue playing and attempt to win all the trick for a march, worth 3 euros. In the case of a march, a dealer who takes a 10-card stock will have a card left over at the end which is not played. A dealer who takes an 8-card stock has no card to play to the 9th trick, but in this case can win a march by taking just the first 8 tricks.

The four defenders will naturally cooperate to prevent the dealer winning and are allowed to communicate as normal over their cards and tactics. However a major difference from the four-hand game is that there are no cards in the stock, so there is less uncertainty about who has which cards. The dealer will naturally be listening to the chat and will plan accordingly.

Note that if there are any chosen Tens in the stock, the dealer can exchange them for the turned up cards in the same way as the other players. If the bottom card of the stock is an Ole the dealer keeps it: no other player can take it.

Modern Knüffeln (Hattstedt variant)

Paul Eaton obtained a description from Johann Carstensen of the version of Knüffeln played in Hattstedt. It differs from the Bohmstedt version in a number of details.

  • There is no Drehen und Sehen, although some earlier rules from the Hattstedt archives by P. Appeles dated 1984 indicate that Drehen and Sehen were allowed at that time.
  • Cards of the unchosen suits rank within their own suit from high to low A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 4 3 2. A card of an unchosen suit can beat any lower card of its own suit, but cannot beat any other card.
  • A Jann is worth twice as much as the basic game, and a march (Durchspielen) is worth four times as much as the basic game.

Early 20th century versions

The descriptions by Bernhard (1924) and Grünberg (1938) do not give complete rules, but contain enough information to show that the game has not changed very much over the last century. Some differences in the early 20th century versions are as follows.

  • In Bernhard's description, the 48-card pack includes the 5 of each suit rather than the 10, and it is the Fives that can be exchanged for the indicator cards of the chosen suits. In Grünberg's version it is the 10's rather than the 5's that are used, as in the modern game.
  • The cutter places the bottom three cards of the stock face up on the table, and if any of these are Olen they can be exchanged for the Queens of the same suits (or the Kings if the Queens are 'sleeping' in the stock).
  • In the unchosen suits a higher card can beat a lower card of the same suit, as in the modern Hattstedt game.
  • According to Bernhard, the leader to the trick may drehen (turn, or lead face down) as a proposal to raise the stake only after their team has won two tricks, and if accepted the team may drehen again they have won four tricks.
  • The game may be scored on a slate on which a 'ladder' is drawn, consisting of four parallel lines crossed by a line down the middle dividing the slate into two halves. A team that wins a basic game (5 tricks) erases one 'rung' from their side of the ladder up to the centre line. A team that wins the first five tricks (Jann) erases two rungs instead of one. The winners also erase one extra rung for each accepted drehen. The first team that manages to erase all the rungs on their side of the ladder wins the game and the losers mark a 'Knüppel' (maybe a blob?) on their side of the slate to represent the loss. If a team erases all their rungs at once, by means of a Jann and two drehen, their opponents suffer a double loss, marked as a 'Brille' (double blob).
  • As an alternative, Grünberg gives a scale of payments: 5Pf for a basic game, 1Pf extra for each accepted drehen, 10Pf for a Jann and 20Pf for a march.

Knüffeln Glossary

Paul Eaton has put together the following glossary of terms typically used in Knüffeln. Where two words are given, generally the Low German (plattdeutsch) term is first.

abschmeissen = to throw (a card)
anticken, anstecken = to beat with a small trump
aufdrehen = to pick up (when opponents have played a card face down)
Brille = spectacles (scoring mark recorded by Bernhard)
bunk = talon, stock
buterwäält, buterwählt = unchosen
davonlaufen = run away i.e. fold
de fief Olen = the five Old Ones (top trumps)
Dörchspill = see Durchmarsch
Drein, Drehen = to turn i.e. play a card face down as a proposal to raise the stake
Drein un Seen, Drehen und Sehen = to turn and look (see Drein and Seen)
Drist = chosen Three
Dulle = Eight of Spades (one of the five Olen)
du kannst mich treffen? = can you play an unchosen Ace of this suit? (show card)
Durchmarsch ,Durchspielen = march or slam
Fehl-As = unchosen Ace
frech = cheeky
Frikort, Freikarte = free card i.e. chosen Eight or Nine
Frikortensteker, Freikartenstecher = free card beater (chosen Ace or Jack)
Hackenbiter, Hackenbeißer = ankle-biter (chosen Four)
Hartenool, Hartenole, Harten Ohl = Nine of Hearts (one of the five Olen)
Hönerledder, Hühnerleiter = chicken ladder, see Ledder
Hunde = dog (chosen Five)
ich dreh ein um = I’m playing one face down
Jann = a 5-0 win
jannen = to win 5-0
knickerig = geizig
kommt = I can take it
Knüppel = club or stick (scoring mark recorded by Bernhard)
laufen lassen = to let the trick run i.e. underplay so your partner can win it
Ledder, Leiter = ladder drawn on the slate for keeping score
lopen = to run i.e. to fold when a downcard is played
Magger, Macker = partner
Ole, Olle, Ohle, Alte = Old Man (one of the top 5 permanent trumps)
oldschen = to play an Ole
passend = said of the lowest 2 or 3 beaters able to win the played card
Paap, Paas, Pape = Pope (chosen Six)
Pott = pot
Puzer or kleine Stecher = small beater i.e. a chosen Two, Three or Four
Rutenool, Rutenole, Ruten Ohl = Nine of Diamonds (one of the five Olen)
Schiet = dud(s)
Seen = to look i.e. pick up the downcard and accept the raise
Seen un Drein, Sehen und Drehen = see Drein and Seen
Sprosse = rung i.e. of the ladder
Steker, Stechkarte = beater
Twe = Two of Hearts (one of the five Olen)
Twist = chosen Two
umdrein = to turn over
Veerhack, Viereck = square (chosen 4).
verweigern = to fold
Waag, Wagen = Four of Clubs (one of the five Olen)
Wääl = the chosen upcards
wäält = chosen
wir schmeissen = we’ll fold
wir spielen weiter = we’ll play on (to get a march)
zuwerfen, abschmeissen = to throw (a card)

References

Paul Eaton: Knüffeln: the Karnöffel of Frisia in The Playing-Card volume 49, No 4, pp149-157 (2021).

J.F. Bernhard: Das Karnüffeln (Knüffeln): Ein Friesisches Kartenspiel in Die Heimat, Monatsschrift d. Vereins zur Pflege der Natur- und Landeskunde in Schleswig-Holstein und Hamburg, Vol. 34 (Ed. Gustav Fr. Meyer, Kiel) pp70-72 (1924).

Peter Grünberg: Knüffeln in Die Heimat, Vol. 48 No. 1, Flensburg: Heimat und Erbe pp27-28 (1938).

This page is maintained by John McLeod, john@pagat.com   © John McLeod, 2022. Last updated: 17th April 2022

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