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Game Design Essentials: 20 Real-World Games

August 12, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 15 of 21 Next

14. Contract Bridge

Cultural game

Type: Four-player trick-taking card game

Depth: Very high

Designed by: Harold Stirling Vanderbilt

Luck factor: Moderate

Description: Four players, in teams of two, first bid to determine "trumps." The winning team then attempts to win a minimum number of tricks while the other side tries to stop them. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? But read on...

Play Summary

Two teams, or partnerships, of two players each sit alternating around a table. In the game's lingo, each seat has a name, North, East, South, and West in order. Thus, North and South are partners, and so are East and West.

13 cards are dealt out to each player, forming their hand. When play begins, each player plays one card, starting with the winner of the last trick. The player with the "best" card for the situation wins the trick. The best card is either the highest-value of the first suit laid down for that trick, or if a trump suit is played by anyone, the highest-value card of that suit. Each trick is one card from each player, so there's 13 tricks in a hand. The basic goal is to win as many of those tricks as possible.

But which suit is the trump suit? Before main play begins, but after everyone has looked at their hands, there is a phase called the auction. Starting with the dealer and going clockwise, each player offers a bid, a vow to win a minimum number of tricks in the action to come.

There are three types of bids. The primary type takes the form of a number and a suit, like: 1 Heart, or 3 Spades. The actual number of promised tricks are the number plus six, so respectively these bids are promises to win: seven tricks if trumps are Hearts, and nine tricks if trumps are Spades. A later player cannot bid lower than the current highest bid; if he chooses not to contest the bid, he passes, by saying, simply, "Pass."

(The suits have differing values: Clubs < Diamonds < Hearts < Spades < No Trump. No Trump is special; if wins bidding there is no trump suit that hand.) Bidding goes around until there are three consecutive passes. The uncontested bid then forms the contract, its promise is the one that counts (prior bids are forgotten), its suit becomes trump, and play may begin.

Instead of a bid or passing, a player may alternatively choose Double as a bid. This signifies that the player is fairly sure the other team cannot make the amount they have bid, and amounts to a dare for double points. The current bid leader, if he is sure that he can make the bid, may choose to redouble, increasing the stakes still further. If any other bids than passes are made then Double state is voided, and ordinary bidding resumes. Because of this, sometimes players will actually use Double bids as a way of signifying hand information to the other player. More on that in a bit...

When one player of a team wins bidding, he begins play by laying down the first card. But when his teammate's turn comes around, instead of playing he sets his cards face-up on the table, and may then leave if he likes. He is the dummy for this round; his teammate decides which cards from his hand are played. This is the only time in Contract Bridge when it is legal to have a look at another player's cards in hand, whether he be opponent or teammate.

The team who won bidding are the declarers, and the team who lost are the defenders. If the declarers make their bid and win the requisite number of tricks, they earn points according to a system that has made grown men weep. If they fail, then the defenders win points according to a different, usually lower-valued chart.

There are three play units in Bridge, the hand, the game and the match. A game is made of one or more hands; it ends when a team gets 100 total points below the line, which are only scored for making contracts. All other points go above the line. When game is won, the winning team gets his below-line points put above the line; the other side loses his below-line score.

It's possible for a team to win game but lose overall; a side that wins a hand but doesn't have enough points to win the game is said to be vulnerable and has increased bonuses and penalties; there are huge bonuses for winning slams, that is 12 or 13 tricks in a hand; winning declarers earn extra points for tricks above their bid but it's not as much as if they had bid higher; and the scoring subtly encourages teams to bid slightly above their expectations since the penalty points the other side will win are dwarfed by the potential bonuses. Whew!

One of the most surprising things about Contract Bridge is how seriously players take the nature of the game being one of limited information. It is an offense to communicate with your partner. Everything you know about the state of the game is supposed to be deduced entirely through the cards that have been seen before, the contents of your own hand, and the contents of the dummy hand. During the game, serious players demand silence.

One advanced technique is to use specific bids during the auction to communicate information about your hand to your partner, but even this technique is regulated; if such conventional bidding is used, it is demanded that the system be known to their opponents.

What can we draw from this game?

Bridge is highly interesting for being a game of great depth, while also of relatively low player agency. The only decisions you make in a game are in the bidding round and in which cards to play each trick. The limited scope for action actually helps the game; your opponents are similarly constrained, and knowing this aids one in deducing the contents of their hands.

The "dummy" rule is unique. The declarers are helped because they have complete knowledge of their hands, but they're hurt because the defenders also know half of their cards. It is an interesting asymmetry, which is part of what elevates Contract Bridge above other trick-taking card games.

The importance of the auction phase cannot be overstated. It's not a betting round as in poker; it has the power to actively affect the game through its deciding of the trump suit. Often this means if either side wins with a low bid, they'll be able to make their contract with the added push of having sympathetic trump.

While a game of great skill, Contract Bridge is still ultimately a card game and thus vulnerable to lucky deals. The most enthusiastic Bridge players get together and play tournaments involving a form called duplicate bridge, which is one of the scariest things I've ever heard of.

Most of the above applies, except players gather together into tables of four each. Each table gets four identical hands of cards, dealt ahead of time by the tournament organizers. They record how they did in each hand, and afterward compare scores with those of other tables. In this way they effectively eliminate the role of luck in the game. Designers seeking to preserve the benefits of randomness in their games while lessening possible lucky bias should study this system.

Article Start Previous Page 15 of 21 Next

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