Biriba

This page is based on contributions from Alexandros Kouridakis, Tracey Skagias, Ömer Furtun, Marie Kinneary and Thanos Tsakonas.

Introduction

Biriba (Greek: «Μπιρίμπα») is one of the best known card games in Greece, and is also played in Cyprus. It is a member of the rummy family, somewhat similar to Italian Burraco and more distantly related to Canasta. The most usual and probably the optimal form of Biriba is for 4 players playing in two fixed partnerships, but it can be played by any number from 2 to 6 or even more. The four-player partnership game will be described first.

There are numerous variations of Biriba, some well-known and some obscure. Therefore when players meet for the first time it is common for each to be familiar with a different version and a discussion of the rules is needed before play begins. We try to present the most usual rules first, followed by a selection of alternatives that may be encountered.

Players and Cards

A deck of 108 cards is used, consisting of two standard international 52-card packs plus four Jokers.

Four players play in two fixed partnerships, each player sitting opposite their partner. The direction of play is anticlockwise.

Objective and Melds

The aim is to score points by melding sets of cards of equal rank and runs of consecutive cards in a suit. Cards are melded by laying them face up on the table where they remain until the end of the play. Sets and runs are laid down as columns of cards, with each card except the bottom one partially covered by the one below it. Each team has their own area where they keep their melds. Players can add further cards to their own team's melds, but not to those of their opponents.

  • A set consists of at least three cards of the same rank (for example three Nines). Duplicate cards are allowed, so a set can contain as many as 8 natural cards.
  • A run consists of at least three cards of the same suit and of consecutive ranks (e.g. heart10-heartJ-heartQ-heartK). For the purposes of a run, Aces may count either as lower than 2’s (e.g. diamondA-diamond2-diamond3) or above Kings (e.g. spadeJ-spadeQ-spadeK-spadeA) but never both at the same time (spadeQ-spadeK-spadeA-spade2-spade3  is not a valid run). Each run may only contain one Ace (that is to say, a run cannot have both one Ace below a 2 and another Ace above a King).

Jokers (μπαλαντερ) and Twos are wild cards. They can be used to represent any card needed to complete a set or run. Twos can also be used as natural cards ranking between the Ace and Three of their own suit. For example:

  • spadeA-clubA-Joker is a valid set containing a wild card
  • heart6-spade2-heart8 is a valid run containing a wild card
  • diamondA-club2-diamond3 is a valid run containing a wild card
  • heartA-heart2-heart3 is a valid run without a wild card

A set or run cannot contain more than one wild card. For example:

  • heart8-heart2-heart10-heartJ-heartQ-Joker-heartA is not a valid run as it contains two wild cards
  • clubA-Joker-club3-Joker-club5 is also not valid
  • clubA-club2-club3-spade2-club5 is a valid run, since the club2 does not function as a wild card in this case.

Once a card has been laid down as part of a run or set, it may not be moved to another run or set, nor may it be returned to the player’s hand. However, wild cards may freely be moved within a run of which they are a part. For example, if a team has a diamond6-Joker-diamond8-diamond9 run on the table and a member of the team acquires diamond7, they may insert the diamond7 into the run and move the Joker to form diamond6-diamond7-diamond8-diamond9-Joker. If a member of the team later draws a diamond4, they are allowed to form diamond4-Joker-diamond6-diamond7-diamond8-diamond9. Twos can also be moved, and in this case a wild Two can become natural or vice versa. For example, the run heart3-heart4-heart2-heart6-heart7, which contains a wild card, can be extended by adding a heart5 and moving the heart2 to make heart2-heart3-heart4-heart5-heart6-heart7, which does not contain a wild card. This run can then be further extended to heartA-heart2-heart3-heart4-heart5-heart6-heart7 (which does not contain a wild card) or to heart3-heart4-heart5-heart6-heart7-heart2-heart9 (in which the Two is now wild again).

A run or set consisting of at least 7 cards is called a “biriba” (Greek: «μπιρίμπα», plural: “biribas” / «μπιρίμπες»). “Biribas” score extra points, and are also required for a player to “go out” and end the round. To indicate that a set or run on the table is a “biriba”, its bottom card is usually turned sideways. A “biriba” containing no wild cards is called “clean”, while one containing a wild card is called “unclean” or “dirty”. A “biriba” run of 13 cards, the maximum length, is called a “full biriba”.

Deal

The first dealer can be chosen by any convenient method. The dealer shuffles and the player to dealer's left cuts the deck. The dealer then deals 11 cards to each player, one at a time anticlockwise, starting to dealer's right. The player who cut then prepares two packets of 11 cards from the top of the remaining deck and sets them aside face-down, one on top of the other crosswise. These packets are called the “biribakia” (Greek: «μπιριμπάκια», singular: “biribaki” / «μπιριμπάκι»). The rest of the deck is placed face-down in the middle of the table to form the draw pile.

The top card of the draw pile is flipped face-up next to it to begin the discard pile. The suit of this card is known in Greek as κόζι (kózi) which is normally translated as "trump" although this is not a trump suit in the normal sense of the word. Biriba is not a trick-taking game and there is no question of cards of this "kózi" suit beating or capturing cards of other suits. Its significance is only that a biriba in this suit scores more than in the other suits, so "bonus suit" would perhaps be a better translation.

The turn to deal passes to the right after each hand.

Play

The player to dealer's right plays first and the turn to play passes anticlockwise. Each turn consists of the following three steps, which must take place in the order listed below.

1. Draw cards
The player must either draw one card from the top of the draw pile or pick up the entire discard pile and add it to their hand. Players are allowed to examine the contents of the discard pile whenever they need to during the game.
2. Lay down cards
This is the only optional step of the turn. The player may lay down any number of cards from their hand by placing them face-up on the table to form valid melds (sets or runs) as described above. One member of each team has an area in front of them where the team's melds are kept. A player may add a new meld or melds to their own team's area and/or extend melds that are already there by adding cards to make a larger valid meld.
A player may never take cards from a meld nor move cards from one meld to another. Players are never allowed to add cards to the meld area of the opposing team.
3. Discard a card
The final step of every turn is to discard one card from hand and place it face up on top of the discard pile. Note that if a player picked up a single card from the discard pile during the first step of their turn, they may not discard the same card (or an identical card ) during this third step. They may, however, discard a card they drew from the draw pile the first step of the same turn. Discarding a card marks the end of the player’s turn, and the next player to their right begins their turn.
In general, a player must always keep at least two cards in their hand at the end of step 2, one to discard at the third step of their turn and one to continue play. The only exceptions are:
  • When the player's team has completed at least one biriba and has not yet taken a biribaki. In that case the player may lay down their last card in a meld during the second step and immediately take a biribaki, or may keep just one card at the end of step 2, discard it as step 3 and then take a biribaki - see below.
  • When the player's team has already taken their biribaki, the player may keep just one card at the end of step 2 and discard that card to go out, ending the play - see below.

Taking a biribaki

On the first occasion that a player whose team has formed at least one biriba gets rid of their last card in hand, either by laying it down in a meld (in step 2) or by discarding it (in step 3), the player picks up the top biribaki of 11 cards and this forms the player's new hand.

  • If the biribaki was picked up during step 2 the player may continue laying down cards until they end their turn by discarding a card (step 3).
  • If the biribaki was picked up because the player discarded their last card in step 3, the player must wait for their next turn when they will be able to lay down cards in step 2 after drawing from the draw pile or taking the discard pile.

After the first biribaki has been taken, the second biribaki belongs to the opposing team. If they have completed at least one biriba, a player of that team may get rid of the last card of their hand, either by laying it down in step 2 or discarding it in step 3, and take the second biribaki as above.

Play continues normally after a biribaki has been picked up.

End of the play

There are two ways that the play can end.

  1. Most of the time, the play ends when a player “goes out”. This happens when a player whose team has picked up their biribaki discards their last card from their hand to end their turn. Note that such a player is not allowed to lay down their last card in a meld in step 2 of their turn. They must keep a card to discard at the end of each turn. When a player goes out, the play immediately ends.
  2. Rarely, the play may end before any player goes out. If the draw pile becomes empty, play continues as long as each player in turn wishes to pick up the discard pile. If a the player whose turn it is does not want the discard pile and the draw pile is empty they may declare “pass” and their turn is skipped. If all players pass consecutively, the play ends immediately, without anyone going out.

Scoring

At the end of the play, each team scores positive points for the cards in their meld area, and negative points for the cards remaining in the players' hands. Each individual card has a value as follows.

Rank Value
Joker 20
Ace 15
2 10
8, 9, 10, J, Q, K 10
3, 4, 5, 6, 7 5

In addition, bonuses and penalties are scored as follows.

  • If a player went out, that player's team adds a bonus of 100 points.
  • A team that did not pick up their biribaki incurs a penalty of 100 points subtracted from their score and the cards in their biribaki do not count against the team.
  • If a player picks up their team's biribaki at the end of a turn (after their last card) but the play ends before their next turn, their team incurs a 100-point penalty but the cards in their unplayed biribaki do not count against the team.
  • Bonuses are scored for all melded biribas as follows:
    Type of biriba clean dirty
    run of 7-12 cards in plain suit 200 100
    set of 7 or more equal cards 300 150
    run of 7-12 cards in the bonus ("trump") suit 400 200
    full biriba (run of 13) in plain suit 1000 500
    full biriba (run of 13) in bonus ("trump") suit 2000 1000

Further deals are played until at least one team's exceeds 5000 (or whatever target score is agreed before the game - see variations). Note that is necessary to have more than the target score to end the game, so if the target is 5000 a team will need at least 5005 points to end the game. The team with the higher score wins the game. If the scores are equal another hand is played to break the tie.

Six players

Three decks of cards are used including 6 jokers - total 162 cards. The players form three teams of two players, partners sitting opposite, so that if the teams are A, B and C the players will sit around the table in the order A, B, C, A, B, C.

The dealer deals 11 cards to each player as usual and the player to dealer's left creates three biribakia of 11 cards, one for each team.

The rules of play and the scoring are exactly as in the four-player game.

Five players

Three decks of cards are used including 6 jokers - total 162 cards. The player to dealer's left creates three biribakia: the first contains 18 cards and the second and third 11 cards each.

Each hand begins with the players playing as individuals. This continues until one player is able to take the first biribaki of 18 cards. From this moment onwards, the player who took the first biribaki plays alone and the other four form two teams of two, opponents sitting alternately. In other words, if the players in order around the table are A, B, C, D and E and player A is the first to take a biribaki, then for that hand B and D play together as a team and C and E play together. As usual the second and third biribakia go to the first player on each team who is able to meld all the cards in their hand, the team having made at least one biriba.

In the first phase of the game, until a player is able to take the first biribaki and thereby determine the partnerships, no melds are put down. Each player's turn consists of drawing the top card from the draw pile or taking the discard pile and then discarding one card. After the first biribaki has been taken, players draw, meld and discard as in the four-player game. There would in any case be no advantage in putting down meld before the partnerships are known, because this would simply give away information about what the player was collecting.

When the hand is scored, the lone player scores their points as usual, while each of the teams calculates its point score and divides it equally between the team members, each team member scoring half the team score.

Three players with partnerships

Two decks are used (108 cards). The player to dealer's left creates two biribakia: the first containing 18 cards and the second 11 cards.

The players play initially as individuals and do not meld. A turn consists of drawing the top card of the draw pile or taking the discard pile and then discarding one card. This continues until a player is able to meld their whole hand (except possibly for a discard) and take the 18-card biribaki. From this point onward the other two players become partners, and all players can meld as usual. The 11-card biribaki is taken by the first of the partners who is able to meld all the cards in their hand, the team having made at least one biriba.

When the hand is scored, the lone player scores normally while each of the partners scores half the amount scored by their team.

Two players

The rules are the same as in the four-player game, but the players play as individuals. Two decks (108 cards) are used, with two biribakia of 11-cards each.

In this game there is no advantage in putting down melds until either you are able to take your biribaki or you fear your opponent is about to go out and you want to score points for cards on the table rather than a penalty for cards in your hand. Therefore players tend to hoard cards. Some players consider this undesirable, so in the two-player game it is common to play the rule variation described below in which the discard pile can only be taken if at least one of the cards in it is immediately put down on the table as part of a meld.

Other rules and scoring are as in the four-player game.

Three players as individuals

The rules are the same as in the four-player game, but the players play as individuals throughout. Three decks (162 cards) are used, with three biribakia of 11-cards each.

Like the two-player game, this game is often played with the rule variation that the discard pile can only be taken if at least one of its card is immediately melded. This is to avoid the tendency of players to hoard cards.

Variations

No sets allowed
A common variation is only to allow runs of consecutive cards in a suit to be melded. Sets of equal cards are not valid melds. The reasoning behind this is that the inclusion of sets makes the creation of runs much harder without using wild cards. A player who holds both copies of a card can use them together in a set and thereby hinder the formation of a run in that suit. The game without sets rewards players who correctly judge which suit runs to build and makes full biribas more likely. Allowing sets results in a more aggressive game in which players can use these melds to destroy the opponents' chances to acquire the cards they need for their runs.
Meld required to take discard pile
Some play the variation that a player can only take the discard pile if they immediately put at least one card from it on the table in a meld, either in a new set or run or added to an existing meld on the table.
This variation is often used in the two-player game and when three players play as individuals, since otherwise players would be reluctant to put down meld, resulting in a less interesting game with little interaction between the players. This is not an issue in partnership games where partners share their meld. If a player has a partner it is in their interest to put down meld so that their partner can add to it, and they can coordinate their efforts to complete biribas.
Biriba not required to take biribaki
Some allow a player to take a biribaki as soon as they are able to meld all or all but one of their cards. The player (or their team) does not need to have melded a biriba in order to do this. At least one biriba is still required before a player can go out.
Target Score
Different targets can be agreed depending on the length of game desired. 5000 or 3000 are the most usual targets, but the game is sometimes played with other targets such as 2000, 2500 or 3500.
Minimum initial meld
Some require that the first meld put down by a team must contain cards whose total value is greater than a certain minimum amount. The player putting down the first meld for the team can use more than one set or run to achieve this value. The minimum value depends on the team's current cumulative score. There are many different schedules in use by different groups, depending also on the target score for the game. For example:
Target 5000 points
Cumulative scoreMinimum initial meld
up to 14950
1500 - 299575
3000 - 3995 100
4000 or more 120

Target 3000 points
Cumulative scoreMinimum initial meld
up to 4950
500 - 99575
1000 - 1995 100
2000 or more 120

Target 2000 points
Cumulative score Minimum initial meld
up to 1245 0
1250 - 1745 75
1750 or more 150

Target 5000 points
Cumulative score Minimum initial meld
up to 1995 0
2000 - 2995 75
3000or more 90

Target 3000 points
Cumulative score Minimum initial meld
up to 995 0
1000 - 1495 75
1500 or more 90

Target 3030 points
Cumulative score Minimum initial meld
up to 1025 0
1030 or more 75

Target 5000 points
Cumulative scoreMinimum initial meld
up to 1495 55
1500 - 299575
3000 or more 95
Joker turned up
Some play that when a Joker is turned up to start the discard pile there is no bonus ("trump") suit. Some play that in this case the first player may either choose a bonus suit or elect to play without one. Some play that the first player takes the Joker, a second card is turned face up to determine the bonus suit, and the first player discards on top of this card at the end of their first turn.
Biriba without "trumps"
Some do not attach any significance or extra score to the suit of the card turned up to start the discard pile after the deal. Some play that no card is turned up after the deal. Instead, at the start of the play the first player draws the top card of the draw pile and may either keep it and continue the turn as normal or immediately discard it, draw a second card from the draw pile and then meld and discard as usual. This special process only applies in the very first turn after the deal.
Card values
Some players count Jokers as 25 points each rather than 20. Some count Twos as worth 20 points each rather than 10.
Biriba bonuses
There are many variations in the scores awarded for biribas of various types.
  • All agree that a basic biriba consisting of a run of 7-12 cards in a plain suit counts 200 if it is clean or 100 if it includes a wild card.
  • Some count a biriba of equal cards as the same value: 200 clean / 100 dirty. Others increase these values to 300 / 100 or to 300 / 150 for a biriba of equal cards.
  • In variants with no kózi (bonus, trump) suit there are of course no extra points for biribas in such a suit.
  • The score for a clean / dirty 7-12 card biriba in the kózi (bonus, trump) suit may be 400 / 200 or 600 / 300.
  • The score for a full (13-card) biriba in a plain suit in different variants ranges from 500 to 1000 if clean and from 100 (i.e. no extra score) to 500 if dirty.
  • The score for a full (13-card) biriba in the kózi (bonus, trump) suit in different variants ranges from 1000 to 2000 if clean and from 200 (no extra score) to 1000 if dirty.
  • Some score 1000 points for a full set of 8 equal cards when using two decks.
  • A rare variation is to award a special score for a biriba of Twos: 2000 points if clean or 1000 if dirty.
  • Another rare variation has no kózi (bonus, trump) suit and no extra points for full biribas.
Penalty for no biribas or no melds
Some penalize a partnership that does not form any biribas during a hand with an additional 100 points.
Some impose a penalty of 300 points in total for a team that has not melded any cards at all when play ends (in place of the penalties for not taking a biribaki and for no biribas).
Discard restriction in 3-player partnership game
The three-player partnership format is unique in that one partner plays immediately after the other. Some do not allow the first of these partners to discard a wild card so that the second partner can pick it up.

Alexandros Kouridakis recommends the variant where no sets allowed, the discard pile can only be taken if at least one card from it is melded, and full biribas in the bonus/trump suit count 1000 if clean and 500 if dirty.

This page is maintained by John McLeod, john@pagat.com   © John McLeod, 2020. Last updated: 19th February 2020

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