What’s the value of a game that gives you space to chat with your friends while you play? I pondered this while talking with my friends about football during a game of Dealt from Katja Stremmel and AMIGO. Dealt fits into that class of card game that works just as well at a lazy evening in the pub as it does at a game convention. I recall my dad teaching me Hearts when I was young, a game he played every day at lunch as a diversion from the frequent monotony of work. I like to think of myself as the kind of person who spends their free time with sophisticated and intellectual pursuits, but I find myself drawn to activities that let my mind wander aimlessly. Lately, when I’ve been fortunate enough to be around people (thanks COVID), games like Dealt have scratched that itch.
Dealt fits somewhere between a trick-taking game and what I’ve learned is called a “climbing game”. A brief foray into some BGG discussions has informed me that some people are very persnickety about card game classifications–I quickly ran in the opposite direction of that conversation. Essentially you’re given a hand of cards, and like in a trick taking game every unit of play has each player laying down a card in turn order. Whoever placed the highest ranked card wins the trick.
Except that’s not it at all. Winning a trick here is only important insofar as it gives you priority to lead the next trick. And you don’t have to play only one card–instead you can play a set or run of up to three cards–if they are adjacent in your hand. Here brings the game’s most novel twist: you are not allowed to adjust the order of your cards once you pick them up. Dealt isn’t the first game to implement this trickery (Bohnanza predates it at the very least), but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
Your only goal is to get rid of all of your cards as quickly as possible, and each hand gently pushes you to find the optimal sequence of plays to shed your cardstock liabilities as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, as often seems to happen with games, your opponents are determined to mess up your plans. The most interesting tool at their disposal is a “draw 3” card, which evokes memories of Uno with my sister on the living room floor as a kid. Here the card only inflicts its punishment on the person who wins the trick, and you can always remove yourself from a trick by drawing one of your two reserve cards.
A further wrinkle: sometimes you want those three cards because they can fix an otherwise terrible hand. Any new cards added to your hand can be put anywhere in the mix. At the right time that penalty can be a mere temporary setback as it sets up a dominating string of double- and triple-card discards. Other times it will introduce more chaff to an already hopeless situation.
Dealt is cleverer than your typical card game with these kinds of twists on familiar situations. Consider the strategic question of whether you should try to control tricks by playing your strongest card combos at the beginning, hoping to force another person to draw both of their reserve cards (putting them on the precipice of defeat if they can’t contribute to a trick once more), or if you should try to get rid of the bad stuff while you have the opportunity to do so at the start.
If everyone takes the latter path, then only the people with the very best two and three card plays will be safe as they trump the people whose best cards can’t compete. If you’re burdened with mediocre prospects then a shake-up might be (apologies) in the cards. Dealt is one of those games where there’s only a single loser, so you just need to figure out how to doom one other person to survive, and a quick and nasty early attack might do the trick.
Ultimately, like many good card games, Dealt is about trying to navigate as best you can the chaos of a shuffled deck of cards. It’s not a grind, but a series of light push your luck decisions that don’t get in the way of the important part of a relaxing game of cards: chatting with your friends.