Tuesday, 19 July 2011


Plays: 2Px1.5.

I have never been a big fan of traditional card games or card games that can be played with a standard deck of cards. I'm not a particular fan of trick-taking games like Bridge, Wizard, or climbing games like Big 2, Fight the Landlord (Dou Di Zhu / 斗地主), or set collection games like Gin Rummy. I think it's because of their inherent abstract nature. They definitely don't lack in strategy, but they are games which I tend to play when I am with non-gamers, when it's Chinese New Year holidays (sometimes involving some gambling), when going on trips with friends etc. When I'm in a boardgamer mode, I tend to prefer boardgames with boards, or card games which have more theme and are, well, not so traditional, e.g. Race for the Galaxy. Haggis is a climbing game by a small publisher, designed for 2 or 3 players. Popular climbing games like Tichu and Big 2 are 4-player games. Fight the Landlord is a 3-player game. Haggis seems to be quite well received. When I found out that the 2-player version can be played using a standard deck of cards, I decided to give it a try.

The Game

Haggis is played over a number of hands, in which you try to score as many points as possible. First player to reach 350pts wins. At the start of a hand, everyone is dealt 14 cards, and you try to get rid of all cards in your hand. When only one player has cards left, a hand ends and scoring is done. You score points for cards won (but only some cards have point values), for undealt cards, and for number of cards remaining in your opponent's hand (5pts each). You also score (or lose) points based on a bet you have placed at the start of the hand, after looking at the cards you have been dealt. Betting is optional.

Haggis is a climbing game, which means whenever someone starts a trick by playing a card or a combination of cards into the centre, he determines the combo type, and everyone else must play cards in this combo type. Players take turns playing higher combos, until all but one passes, and this player wins the trick and claims the cards. He then gains the right to start the next trick. There are only two types of combos, but each have some variations: (a) sets are cards with the same number value, (b) sequences are basically straight flushes - i.e. running numbers of the same suit. You can play sets of sequences, e.g. 7 and 8 of one suit together with 7 and 8 of another suit.

Then there are bombs, which break the rules about following the same combo type when playing cards into a trick. Playing bombs let you ignore the combo type. There are different ways to make bombs - 3, 5, 7, 9 all of different suits, 3, 5, 7, 9 of the same suit, and various combinations of J, Q, K. Although bombs are powerful, if you win a trick with a bomb, you win the rights to start the next trick, but the cards go to your opponent. So this is a little dilemma to consider.

One thing unique about Haggis is everyone starts with a J, Q, and K, the 3 highest cards. They can be used to make bombs. They can also be used as wild cards. This reduces the element of luck. You always have J, Q and K, and it's up to you how to best make use of them.

The Play

I managed to convince my wife Michelle to try this out with me. I was surprised that it turned out to be a very funny session. It was funny mainly because this game was new to both of us, and there were very many discoveries made on how to play our cards. There were many interesting ways to use the J, Q and K. There wery many interesting tactics that we discovered as we played. We had many unexpected twists of fate, when a hopeless hand suddenly became hopeful, as well as when a leading hand suddenly stalled and got overtaken. The laughs were mostly because of our inexperience, and not because of the nature of the game itself; but I can say the game does allow you to be quite creative. Also since you are guaranteed the J, Q and K, you have much freedom to plan how to play your hand. The game is quite strategic too because you know your opponents have their own J, Q and K. It's tricky to plan when and how to use them, to use them as wild cards, or to save them to be used as bombs. You always need to take into account how many of these three cards your opponents still hold.

Similar to Fight the Landlord, it is important to plan for how to go out (use up your cards), and it is also important to adapt to how your opponents are playing their cards. Sometimes you need to switch plans halfway, breaking up powerful combinations that you have been planning to play. Going out seems to be usually better, since you will score 5pts per card that your opponent is holding, but there will be times when in-game scoring (i.e. capturing cards) is more important.

Card counting definitely helps, but in each hand there are a few cards left undealt, so you can never be 100% sure what cards your opponents have.

Despite the laughter, Michelle wasn't very interested in the game, so we aborted our second game halfway.

The Thoughts

Although no expert and no big fan of traditional card games, I enjoyed Haggis. When I first played Fight the Landlord, it felt refreshing because the only climbing game I had been familiar with at the time was Big 2. Fight the Landlord introduced some new concepts, and I felt it also introduced more freedom to be creative with your card play. Haggis gave me the same feeling. Bombs were not a new-to-me concept this time, but the availability of jokers was, and the fixed J, Q and K was. The game feels very strategic to me and it seems skill plays a big part (I'm not saying this just because I won). The pre-dealt J, Q, K being very powerful cards put every player on close footing. Even if you get many low cards, the JQK give you much flexibility to make good combos. Fans of traditional card games definitely should give Haggis a try.

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