Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Dou Di Zhu 斗地主

I recently visited Hong Kong, on a business trip. I extended my stay to meet up with old friends, and we played a lot of games. We played through the night. The last time I stayed up playing games the whole night was in 2003, and it was also in Hong Kong, and it was also with Ah Chung and Ben. That time, the game was The Settlers of Catan, and I hadn't become a boardgame hobbyist yet. It happened soon after that though.

One of the games that I liked the most was, surprisingly, not one that I taught my friends (who are not gamers), but one that Ben taught Ah Chung and I. This is a very popular card game in China, which uses a standard card deck, and is strictly for 3 players. It is called Dou Di Zhu / 斗地主, which means fighting the land lord or land owner. This is probably a phrase or term people use during the cultural revolution, when the communists went against the land owners. The game has a cooperative element, because two players play against one. It is very much a gambling game - it is designed to be very addictive and it really tempts you to raise the stakes. It plays with your greed, your recklessness, or maybe your timidity.

Here's how the game plays. It has some similarity to Big 2 / 锄大D. All cards are dealt out to all 3 players (including the 2 jokers), except for three. The winner of the previous hand has the opportunity to be the landlord. He looks at his cards, and decides whether he wants to be the landlord. If he does, he shows the 3 leftover cards to the other 2 players, and then takes them into his hand. If he doesn't, he passes the 3 leftover cards to the player on his right, who then has the opportunity to become landlord. If no one wants to be landlord, the cards are reshuffled, and for the next hand the stakes are automatically doubled.

Once the landlord is decided, the other 2 players will play against him. Let's say the default stake (注) is $1. In a normal hand, if the landlord wins, he earns $1 each from the other players. If he loses, he pays $1 each to the other players. So, obviously to be landlord means you win big, or lose big.

The basic structure of the game is like Big 2 / 锄大D, i.e. it's a climbing game. The start player plays a card or set of cards, the next player can play a stronger card/set of the same type, or pass, and this repeats until a player plays a card/set that cannot or will not be beaten. The winner of this trick then starts a new trick by playing a card/set. The objective is to get rid of all your cards.

The possible sets in Dou Di Zhu are different from Big 2. Suits have no meaning. 2's are also stronger than Aces, but the two jokers are the strongest, with the coloured joker being stronger than the other. Here are the possible sets:

  • Single cards.
  • Pairs. You can play multiple pairs as a set, as long as the numbers are in sequence, and you have at least 3 pairs, e.g. 44556677.
  • Triplets. You can attach an additional card to a triplet (e.g. KKK4). You can play multiple triplets (e.g. 444555, or 444555666). You can also attach extra cards to these (e.g. 44485553666J).
  • Fours. These are bombs (will be explained later). You can attach an extra card to these, but they will then become less effective bombs, and they do not double the stakes.
  • Straights. Minimum 5 cards, but they can be as long as you want them to be.
  • Double Jokers. I mention this separately from pairs because this is the royal bomb.

No flushes or straight flushes, since suits do not matter. We did not play full houses, but I'm not sure what the formal rules say (if there are any in the first place). Ben says usually full house is not played because it is too easy to make.

Now, bombs. Bombs can be played no matter what type of set is being played in the current trick - pairs, triplets, straights etc. It overrules the type. And very importantly, when a bomb is played, it doubles the stakes. If another bomb is played later in the same hand, the stakes are doubled again, and so on. Bombs are powerful, but you may not always want to play them. If you don't think you are going to win the hand, then it is better not to bomb, because it will only make you lose more. Bombs are not common. Not all games will have bombs, and even for those that do, they may not get used. From the games that we played, we had one game with 4 bombs, but that's extremely rare. It's probably because Chung and I are new. Ben says with veterans at most he has seen 3 bombs.

Dou Di Zhu is very interesting in that it's a 2 vs 1 game. The partnership play is interesting, because you need to guess your partner's intentions, and try to cooperate. Of course, you are not supposed to share information of your cards, or give directions to each other. You should only communicate through card play. You do not need to win yourself. If your partner wins, you win too. Well, there is a little difference. If you win, for the next hand you get first chance to be the landlord. This can be a consideration.

In Dou Di Zhu, the destination is more important that the journey. You win, or you lose. If you lose, it doesn't matter how many cards you have in your hand. You will not be penalised more, or less, depending on the number of unplayed cards. So there is a lot of planning ahead required. You need to plan how to get rid of all your cards. If it looks bleak, then you might as well give up and try to help your partner win (assuming you are not the landlord).

I like the big sets that you can make in Dou Di Zhu. When you have 8 cards remaining, most people don't expect you to be able to play all in one go. This is possible if you plan well. I like the excitement of the bombs. In fact I got so excited over them that I have been using them a bit too recklessly, hurting instead of benefiting myself and my partner, thus earning screams from Ben.

There is some card counting required if you want to play well. At least you should try to remember the big cards. Ben's guideline is to remember J, Q, K, A, 2, and the Jokers. There is, of course, luck in the game, but there is much strategy and room for innovative play and interaction depending on how your opponent(s) and partner play. So I am happy that Ben taught us this game. Very good for when you have exactly 3 players. Maybe this was why it was invented - Big 2 needs exactly 4 players.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great write up... recently a few of us stumbled upon a free to play dou di zhu game. you can play with real players. it is at I think.