My lunch group at work has played a lot of games, but we mostly gravitate towards trick-takers and Magic. As a result, and because I got bored playing Spades and Rook all the time (see below) I've accumulated a number of good and unusual trick-taking games, and thought I would write them up.
You won't find Tichu here because I don't like climbing games much.
will always play
These are all great for one reason or another.
Spades and Rook
I wouldn't mention these except to note that we have modified both of these traditional games extensively so they are much crazier.
Was Sticht - 4 player
First you draft what contracts you are going to try to make (take exactly 2 tricks, the most tricks, the least, etc). Then each round you draft your hand while trying to deduce what trump is. The dealer, who knows what trump is, has to prevent someone else from making their bid while doing it instead, which is pleasingly hard to do. Cardplay is standard. Surprisingly easier to play than it sounds, with a good balance of luck and skill.
Mu - 4-6 player but best with 5
Learning this is a bit of a challenge (the iOS app helps) but it really isn’t as complicated as it seems. The bidding system is what makes this game; you bid cards from your hand and whoever wins gets to pick one of the trumps based on what she played and a partner based on what everyone else played. The runner-up gets to pick the other trump and can't be partner. This makes bidding very exciting once it gets going, although we've toyed with forcing everyone to bid at least one card to give it a boost. Groups that are more aggressive with bidding won't need this. Cardplay is pretty straightforward, really this is about the bidding.
Cosmic Eidex - 3 player
This game is insane and probably my favorite in the genre. The game is absolutely as complicated as it seems - cards are worth different point values whether it's a trump hand or no-trump hand, and no trump even has top-down and bottom-up varieties. You can trump at any time...except when you can’t. Overall you're vying with the others to be closest to zero points or closest to 100 without going over (lots of mental arithmetic). And then there's the special powers which is where the Cosmic comes in. Every game you get a special power which can vary from the mild yet occasionally powerful (change the direction of play twice per hand) to the completely game-changing (whoever gets the black jack loses this round, nothing else matters). It's definitely not for everyone and I love it.
Tekeli-li - 4-6 players, best with any
This game is on the keeper list because it’s ridiculous and yet stays fun to play. This is a game where the loser will become “frighteningly havocked”. Gameplay involves trying to go nil (take no tricks) as much as possible, which is one of my group’s favorite things to do in a trick-taking game. The game stays interesting for four reasons I can think of. One, the high cards in each suit can cancel each other so they are no longer taking the trick, which adds just enough of a wrinkle. Two, there is a “long trip” card which causes the trick to last one extra card from each player. Played at the right time this causes great reactions. Three, the person to the left of the trick winner leads, which is infuriating and fantastic. Finally, the hands you think are the best are usually the worst and vice versa, which is entertaining. Still, of the games at this tier this is the one closest to dropping down to the next. I don’t think I could play this every day.
once in a while
Sticheln - any number
aka "the pain game" - so named because you want to avoid your pain suit and take everything else. Cleverly you can play any card but everything other than the lead suit is trump, so you often don't want to. With lots of players (inevitable with our group) you learn the gotcha plays very quickly and it becomes rather rote with only one pain suit, so we of course up it a notch to multiple pain suits, some of which are picked randomly or are hidden or both. This has the side effect of making it somewhat random. We keep a low score sheet with this to make it more entertaining (no one cares who actually managed to score positively).
Trump, tricks, game - 3 or 4
Stupid name aside, this is a neat game that requires a different approach. The cards you take every round are your cards for the next round; however the suits that are worth points also change from round to round. There's also a bonus the last round for each suit which is unfortunately always the same, and randomly the suit that is worth the most at the end always seems to be the suit worth points in the last round as well, which spoils the endgame a bit. Still, there's a nice balance between trying for immediate scoring and shooting for a large endgame bonus. After about a week of this I'm sated for awhile, so I guess there's something missing, but I can't think what.
The Hobbit - 3-5
Worth a laugh now and then because it's short, has player elimination, and features the world's most useless dwarf. What to play is pretty apparent most of the time but it's still fun to assign damage, especially when a player has to do so randomly and inevitably kills his own team off. Stupid Thorin. May have run its course after about 10 games.
ok but something is missing
Pala - 3-5
The draw here is that the suits are different colours and you can meld them together like the colour wheel to change the suit of the trick. Which is almost really cool, but by the rules as written it doesn't really happen as much as I'd like. If you lead a primary colour, everyone has to follow suit and not meld, which means by the time you can meld more than half your options are gone. I want to change that rule but I don't think others are interested enough to try it. We've only played the going nil version of the rules, so I don't know if the other version works better.
This still gets play at lunch, so it does have its fans.
The descriptions I read of this made it sound right up my alley, where every card value has a special ability and the goal changes from round to round. In practice though we found every hand playing out similarly and the whole thing repetitive and a bit tedious, and it didn't have the humour or cleverness of Tekeli-li.
The players determine, from various goal cards they play, what trump, scoring, and other possible rules are in effect every round. Crazy! Limitless possibilities! But ultimately not that exciting. Because the rule cards have to effectively be standalone, they really can't be all that complicated, and it turns out that the occasional perfect craziness of 3 great rules interacting is offset by the more usual mundanity of 2 of the rules barely interacting and the 3rd just being there, or effectively clobbering one of the others. Possibly a handcrafted set of more interesting rule choices would make this great, but I haven't put the effort in yet.
The Bottle Imp (Flaschentueful) - 3-4
It's kind of sad to put this here because I like the way it ties to the story and the little wooden bottle it comes with, and to an extent the gameplay. It's just that it feels like there's one correct way to play and once you figure out the strategy...there's nothing more. It's the same puzzle every time.
needs more play
Victory and Honor - 4 player
I like this game a lot. You play three simultaneous tricks, your cards have different and interesting abilities without being overwhelming, and ultimately you're trying to take cards that fit well with what your partner has taken. The learning curve is steep and I think really that's the only reason this hasn't gotten more play.
Day of the Dead - 4 player
Had to mention this of course. Thanks Frank! My wife and I played this several weeks in a row with the same couple and really enjoyed it. I like the powers each number has (compare to Chronicle which has much less interesting powers) and the theming tied into the scoring. Need to bring it out with the lunch group and see if it gains traction.
You Suck (a tick taking game. hyuk) 2-6
It's fun just having this game on a shelf at work.
Positive initial impressions but it hasn't come back out. Playing multiple simultaneous tricks is neat. I'm not sure if the various special powers you can earn are interesting enough, but they might be fine.
I got this because there were somewhat positive mentions here on F:AT. Holy fuck this game is terrible. It is incredibly convoluted, much more so than even Cosmic Eidex because it adds a ton of completely bizarre and annoying chrome, made worse because the rulebook has insane terminology and buries necessary rules in obscure places. In addition, there’s some component problems - a good number of the tokens are indistinguishable, even at close range. When we finally struggled through a game, there just was very little point to all of it. The extra chrome bogged the game down in uninteresting ways and it seemed to be very easy to get into broken states. After one play I was willing to give it another go but no one else was.
would like to try
The Dwarf King seems like a light take on Barbu, which I've always wanted to try anyway.
I've waffled on getting Die Sieban Siegal (also published as Zing!) for ages but now that I've typed it up I think Was Sticht may be better anyhow.
ebbes, in which you don't know what trump is until partway through the trick, sounds good.
Njet! mucks with bidding in potentially agreeable ways.
Trick of the Rails may be too much train game.
And finally, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (aka Twilight) has piqued my interest forever but unfortunately not enough to get it and now it's basically out of print except in Germany.
And of course anything anyone mentions that sounds cool.