Spades and the Appeal of Trick-Takers

I’ve played Spades more than any other game the past two years. It’s become our go-to game on those nights when we’re too exhausted to learn something new or struggle over something complex. We’ve argued over Spades. We’ve fallen into fits of buckled-over laughter. We’ve spent half an hour on a single hand because we got distracted by good conversation. Spades is a comfort game for us, a place of refuge and familiarity.

The curious thing about Spades (and indeed most trick-taking games) is that, by modern hobbyist game standards, it’s not particularly good. One of the distinguishing features of the eurogame revolution is that it placed more emphasis on player decisions mattering. Eurogames stood in contrast to primarily luck-determined games like Sorry or Monopoly. They didn’t get rid of randomness (that’s a myth), but relative to the popular games of the time they gave players much more agency. Spades frontloads one important decision each round. Beyond that you’ll probably get a couple of non-trivial choices during the actual trick-taking. Most choices are resolved through extremely simple heuristics.

Yet it persists, and we’re currently in the midst of a trick-taking mini-revival. Proof? Look at games like Joraku, Marshmallow Test, Cat in the Box (which is going to be a hit when the Bezier edition drops), Tournament at Avalon, Shamans, Dealt!, The Fox in the Forest, The Crew, Brian Boru, and the Stick’ Em reprint. Many of these newer trick-taking games, like The Crew or Brian Boru, amplify the number of tricky (heh) decisions and should be applauded for that. So why does my group keep returning to Spades? It’s casual, dramatic, and has space to breathe.

I’ll explain how it works first, as I know that trick-taking, while very popular in many areas of the globe, is foreign to others. I’ve seen people lament that they’ve never gotten an adequate explanation of how this genre of game works, causing them to feel like they’re on the outside looking in, so I’ll suspend my “don’t explain the rules in full” policy for their sake.

The Rules

Spades is one of the simpler trick-taking games, played with a standard deck of cards. It requires four players. Each round (or “hand”) the entire deck is dealt out, giving each player 13 cards in hand. After the bidding phase (which I’ll explain in a bit) the person to the left of the dealer begins the first “trick” by playing any non-spade card face up on the table. Each other player, in sequence, chooses a card of the same suit from their hand and similarly plays it face up to the table. After each player has played their card, whoever played the highest valued card (aces being the highest value, followed by king, queen, etc.) in that suit “wins the trick” and collects the four played cards in front of them to indicate that. They then begin the next trick by selecting a card from hand. Repeat 13 times. 

Three additional rules: 1. If you do not have a card in hand that matches the “leading suit” (the suit of the first card played in that trick), you may play any card from your hand. 2. A spade will always “trump” a non-spade. If a spade is played in a trick, the highest spade played will win that trick, no matter which suit was the leading suit. 3. A player may not lead with a spade unless spades have been “broken”, or played in a preceding trick that hand.

Spades, as a game, shines with its bidding and scoring system. It’s played with two teams of two, with partners seated across from each other. After receiving cards each hand there’s a bidding phase, starting with the person to the left of the dealer (an assignment which rotates each hand). Each player evaluates their hand of cards and calls out how many tricks they think they can win that hand. The sum of each team member’s bid becomes the “team bid” they’re collectively going for. So if I call two tricks and my partner calls four, we’re trying to win six tricks between us; the specific distribution doesn’t matter. If, at the end of the hand, a team meets or exceeds their bid, they receive points: their bid x 10 plus any additional tricks x 1. So if a team bids six and takes seven tricks that hand, they receive 61 points. If a team fails to meet or exceed their bid, they lose points equal to their bid x 10.

A couple of additional complications: someone can bid “nil”, which means that they are betting that they, individually, will win zero tricks that hand. Their partner can bid any number and their bids are separate. If the individual who bids nil successfully takes no tricks, their team gets 100 points (and, if they fail, lose 100 points). Their partner’s bid scores in the normal manner. A player can call for a “blind nil”, where they bid nil without looking at their hand of cards. This is a bold gambit that will gain or lose their team 200 points. Tricks taken in excess of the bid are called “bags”. As noted above, they’re recorded as individual points. Each time a team, over the course of a game, takes 10 bags, they lose 100 points. Games typically end once a team reaches 500+ points. Highest score wins.

The Appeal of Spades

Bidding is a delightful analytical and psychological game. You can get a decent idea of how many tricks you’re likely to pull in from a quick perusal of your hand: high spades, aces, and 4+ spades in hand will tend to win, plus a bit more. It’s that fuzzy bit that gets interesting. You’ll rarely have a hand that’s clearly begging for a particular bid. Often it’ll signal three, maybe four tricks. Which one you go for is not only a matter of risk assessment but of psychology, as it will influence which way everyone else hedges in their bids. Someone bidding nil skews the calculations in intriguing ways, as are apparent underbids. If you’re sitting on a three trick hand but everyone else is only bidding two, who is miscalculating? Can you take advantage of this to push your bid up?

Honestly, most of the game is about the bid. The trick-taking itself usually has a couple of key inflection points, but the rest is casual; breezy. The problem with games without many interesting decisions is that they often drag on. Shorter, snappier games allow for more uncontrollable moments. Spades is punctuated by little surprises as the cards are tossed onto the table. Seeing how the cards play out provides a small Skinnerian lift. Figuring out who likely holds certain key cards can help when you’re confronted with a tricky situation.

But even if you’re partaking in a bit of card counting, there’s space in Spades to relax and enjoy the company of others. Most hobby games are designed for concentration; if you take some time to chat with an opponent about their day you’re negatively affecting the play experience. The game grinds down to a halt as people go long stretches of time without taking a turn. Spades, and most trick-takers I’ve played, aren’t so mentally taxing that you can’t hold a conversation while playing. You don’t need to narrate your turn. The card you play says everything that needs to be said. Indeed, with Spades and many other team trick-takers, it’s actually against the rules to discuss strategy with your teammate. The game facilitates off-topic conversation. It’s delightful.

Spades isn’t entirely chill, however. There are genuine moments of drama, typically around nil bids, that contrast beautifully with the low-key vibe of the rest of the game. Sometimes a nil bid falls into your lap (see the picture at the top of this review for a great example). Sometimes they’re a calculated risk. Because teammates cannot consult each other with words, they must communicate through play. When you’re trying to keep your partner from acquiring tricks, you can’t just play the highest possible card each time. You’ve got to consider sequencing, and track those situations where they’re free to lay down their highest card in a suit to get a sense of what their hand is like. The opposing team has to, through play, communicate if they’re going to try to force the nil bid to go bust or allow it to succeed and avoid taking unnecessary bags. Trick-taking, in these delightful moments, becomes a dance. The conversation will simmer down, words replaced by cards. Communication hasn’t stopped, it’s only changed languages. 

Trick-taking is centuries old. It started in China and moved westward, branching off and forming into individual games, each with a unique character. But there’s a cadence to the entire genre, a feeling difficult to replicate outside of it. Spades is my traditional trick-taker of choice at the moment. Throughout high school and college it was Hearts. The Crew captivated me, Cat in the Box delighted me, and Brian Boru looks like it might fulfill the cross-genre potential set by Joraku. But as much as I see fascinating developments in stretching the boundaries of this genre, I love returning to humble, familiar Spades. It’s gaming comfort food.

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2 thoughts on “Spades and the Appeal of Trick-Takers”

  1. Exactly. A pleasure to hear a modern “hobby” gamer identify why more casual games are so rewarding. I think if I had created the same review it would have been twice as long and not covered any additional ground.

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