How many times have you played a trick? No, not that kind of trick—the trick-taking game kind.
Trick-taking games are among the oldest traditional games still enjoyed today. Euchre, Hearts, and Spades all fall under this genre of game. They are widely played around the world. Their core premise is simple: play cards from a hand in a series of rounds, called tricks, to determine a winner. The winner is usually rewarded by “taking” the cards played in a trick. These simple and intuitive rules are the core of trick-taking, though how they are implemented varies widely from game to game.
Recently, I’ve found myself attracted to trick-taking games after demoing Nerial’s Card Shark (2022), an excellent game where the gameplay is driven by playing cards and tricking people. It made quite an impression on me. Card Shark with its quaint set-pieces and emphasis on card play elicited nostalgia in me for traditional card games that I didn’t know I had. After finishing Card Shark’s demo, I wanted—no, I needed—to feel real cards in my hands and experience the exhilaration of playing games that are as much luck dependent as they are skilled-driven.
As game design has become more sophisticated, or rather intricate, luck in tabletop and card games is increasingly treated with derision. Designers and players find the need to mitigate luck as much as possible—if not flat-out remove it from games. Trick-takers serve as a bastion for players wanting uncertainty and for designers to experiment with drawing cards at random. There is joy in the draw, and trick-tackers are a citadel built for lady luck. Under their spell, I bought a few modern trick-tacking and other adjacent games: Scout (2019), Cat in the Box (2020), Maskmen (2014), and Fox in The Forest (2017). I immersed myself in these games and ruminated on how they compare to traditional trick-takers that only require a standard fifty-two cards deck.
While down the trick-taking rabbit hole, I happened upon Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table a witty, quirky, and thoughtful YouTube channel created by Taylor Reiner. If trick-taking games are a citadel for Lady Luck, Taylor has become the maven crier of the citadel. He teaches all how to play, facilitates discussion, and elucidates on various topics relating to trick-taking and game design more broadly. After watching most of the videos on his channel, I reached out and interviewed Taylor. We discussed Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table, trick-taking games, and his view on game design, among other things. Below is an excerpt of our conversation edited for clarity, flow, and readability.
Taylor began our conversation with a quick introduction. “I’m Taylor. This feels like a Nardwuar opener that I should elaborate on [laughs]! But funnily enough, my channel has loads of different ‘hosts’ so… who I am is poignant.”
Taylor has plenty of experience with trick-takers. Though immensely popular among casual players (“non-gamers”), they are surprisingly a niche genre within the tabletop hobby and their popularity is growing. Within this niche, Taylor is prolific as a creator whose work is insightful and charming. Taylor understands that when teaching others to play a game, the basics matter. “The definition of a trick-taking game is one that changes from person to person. There is a lot of greyness in the term that allows for interpretation… in general, it’s usually a type of card game where everyone usually plays a card to the center of the table… Someone wins and takes the trick… Lots of usually’s in there, and lots of twists to this formula, but this is the base of many trick-takers”.
Taylor has reviewed and taught over one-hundred games on his channel. His response to what led him to create Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table is practical and unpretentious. “I love watching How to Play videos—Rodney Smith is a god—and I learn best through video. I would be deep into this trick-taking rabbit hole, and I would notice there are no videos on these games. I was always miffed that I would have to actually read rules. So, I decided that I would be the person to help out others like me. The irony is that now I read loads and loads of rules [laughs]!” Also important to the creation of the channel is a formative class that he took in high school about making videos. “…It was one of the best classes ever! I think making videos is just a perfect creative medium for me.”
Modern trick-taking games can be difficult to wrap one’s head around due to the sheer number of them released each year. In 2022 alone over a hundred and twenty trick-takers were released according to Board Game Geek, the largest source of English language table-top game content on the internet. Nevertheless, Taylor still takes time for older games. “I find heavier trick-taking games are always a blast to return to like Mu (1995) and Vira (1818)”.
Taylor describes that one of the best experiences he’s had while playing a trick-taker is “shooting the moon” in Hearts. “… I remember doing this early with some parents at a game during high school and the table-wide acknowledgment of accomplishment is always the best feeling any time that happens”. “Shooting the moon” is a notoriously difficult feat to pull off. In Hearts, you want to have the fewest points at the end of the game. However, if a player wins the ‘bad’ cards, the hearts and Queen of spades, they “shot the moon”. As a reward, they subtract twenty-six points from their score. Needless to say, in a game where points are bad, subtracting them from one’s score is a great thing.
Taylor muses, “I feel like trick-taking as a genre is the best distillation of evaluating a situation and making a plan. And when that plan goes well, there’s nothing like it… The genre just forces you to react and mix with the people. Often, the gameplay becomes second nature quickly, so you are more present with people. When I think of great experiences playing trick-taking games, often it’s trick-taking and talking because there’re so effortless together”.
Taylor’s knowledge and insights stem from both playing many trick-takers and being a game designer who creates within the genre. I asked, as a designer what does the process of creating a game look like for him? He answered with enthusiasm. “I’ve taken a variety of approaches to my games. Some have been theme-driven, while others have started with a twisted idea. I mostly love seeing if something that sounds fun can work. I have this in my videos, but a hook of a game is very important to me. That elevator pitch of sorts. So, I try to have an interesting hook then deliver on that. For Short Zoot Suit, I had a hook of valuing off-suiting. This is when the players are out of a suit of cards in their hand—like no diamond suit. I hadn’t seen this before and wanted to try to value that skill”.
He declares “the deck in a trick-taking is huge… It can easily make or break your game. So many of my designs ruminate on that a while. Sometimes, designing for a standard deck [fifty-two cards] is nice because all of that work is done for you [laughs]”. When designing he also focuses “on is that all hands can work. I love when players don’t feel like the luck of the draw can make them lose. So, I include incentive switching, player-defined end states, and hand/trump cultivation often in my games. I love twists on the genre now. It’s kind of like that thing where, when you dig deep into anything, the subversions are what draw you”.
Still on the topic of design, the conversation steers to the challenges of creating trick-taking games that are specifically for two players. “I think some big problems for two-player trick-taking is the perfect information. Sometimes they become too mathy or calculated if the design doesn’t obfuscate the deck. Also, less cards in the trick can feel shallow at times. The zero-sum nature of two players can often feel rote if one player knows that the other is just going to take everything [win all the tricks]”. Taylor lists a few two-player trick-takers that this well “…recent standouts have been Jekyll vs Hyde (2021), Sail (2023), Claim (2017), Woo (2017), Hotdog (2022), and Fox in the Forest”. He explains that what makes these games stand-outs is that they are “amazing at adding a twist to make hands feel unpredictable…[They] all-handle predictability in different ways [through the clever use of] powers, cards cut from play or the deck, [and] player’s changing game state”.
Modern tabletop board gaming (I include card games in this category) as a hobby is predominantly based in Europe and the United States. However, in recent years there has been a growing movement of card games designed in East Asia. This should be of no surprise since playing cards originated in 9th-century China (Wilkinson, “Chinese Origin of Playing Cards”). On the topic of this trend, Taylor highlights how many of the great trick-taking games of the past few years are being designed in Japan. “Japan has a love for small tweaks that really blow minds and turn things on their head”.
“Taiki Shinzawa is one of the gods of recent trick-taking design”, Taylor says. “His [games] are always ones to be excited for—even if they don’t hit the heights—they’re always interesting”. Shinzawa is a mainstay in Taylor’s Trick-Taking Table. Taylor even dedicated an entire month covering his work.
Taylor continues the conversation by sharing his admiration for other designers. “Günter Burkhardt has some interesting designs as well. His Potato Man is a perfect example of clean twists on the genre… Sean Ross also has a bunch of wonderful games that have modern takes on traditional design. Some really slick stuff”.
Taylor notices that designers “will only make one or two trick-taking games. Finding a designer who’s made a lot more is tough. Also, there’s a super strong indie scene brewing now with some amazing designers pushing out a ton of designs that is very exciting”. The tricking-taking indie scene is something that Taylor is a part of and some of his games might see release this year. In the United States, the Portland Game Collective is a community of designers, artists, and players making waves. The collective helps designers develop their games through their Discord server and is releasing games via crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter.
A Mecca of sorts for fans and aspiring designers is the Tokyo Game Market held twice every year. This is a place that Taylor has gone to several times. He hopes to return to it this fall. Some of the most creative and influential modern trick-takers make their debut in the market. Maybe Taylor will debut his games there?