Ninety-Nine, is a trick-taking card game designed by David Parlett, with rules freely available on his website. Parlett is best known for designing Hare & Tortoise (Hase & Igel in the German editions), the first boardgame to win the Spiel des Jahres award. His first love is card games, though. He has written several books about them, and Ninety-Nine is just one of over a dozen games that use a deck of standard playing cards which Parlett has shared with the public on his website.
I want to point out that I have only played Ninety-Nine with three players. While Parlett offers variants for play with two, four and five players, the three player game is the original, and I feel it is the most interesting form of the game. I have no interest in trying the variants for other numbers of players.
Ninety-Nine is played with a standard deck of playing cards, stripped to leave the Ace through Six in each suit, plus one Joker, creating a thirty-seven card deck (there is also a variant, which I have not played yet, which does not require the Joker). At the start of each hand, twelve cards are dealt to each player. The thirty-seventh, and last, card in the deck is turned over to indicate the trump suit, with an occasional hand being played with no trump.
After looking at their hands, the players each choose three cards from their hand, and place them face down on the table. These three cards indicate, via the cards’ suits, a bid of how many tricks each player intends to win during the coming hand. A club bids three tricks, a heart bids two tricks, a spade one trick and a diamond or the joker bid no tricks. The values of the three cards are summed, for a player’s total bid of between zero (three diamonds) and nine (three clubs) tricks. There are also special bids that I will cover momentarily.
After all players have made their bid, nine tricks are played with the cards remaining in each player’s hand. Players must follow the suit that leads a trick if they can, with high trump, and then high card of the lead suit, winning the trick. The joker is the lowest card in the deck. After the ninth trick, players score one point for each trick won, plus bonus points based on taking exactly the number of tricks the player bid at the start of the hand. If all three players take the number of tricks that they bid, they all gain 10 bonus points. If two of the three make their bid, each gains 20 bonus points. If only one player manages to take the number of tricks indicated in her bid, she scores 30 bonus points.
Additionally, one player each hand may make one of the special bids, which increase the number of points at stake. If a player declares after placing his bid cards on the table, he reveals his bid cards for that hand. When a declaring player makes his bid, he scores 30 bonus points on top of the points scored for taking tricks and making the bid. If he fails, however, the other two players each score 30 bonus points.
A truly confident player can reveal — play the hand with her bid cards and her hand face up for all players to see. If a player that reveals makes her bid, she scores 60 bonus points. If she fails, the other two players each score 60 bonus points.
Parlett suggests two possible game end conditions that the players can use when playing Ninety-Nine. The first is to play nine hands, with the highest score after that point winning. The second is to play mini-games to 100 points, with the first player to win three mini-games winning the set. The first of these lasts about 45 minutes once you understand the game, and is suitable as a meaty filler or a middleweight game. The second option can actually take quite a while, especially with players that do not like taking risks. I would only recommend it for those times when you feel like spending an afternoon or evening playing cards with friends.
Although I have glossed over a couple of details, it should be obvious that the rules to Ninety-Nine are extremely short. A quick wave with a typesetting wand will easily get the rules onto one side of a letter-sized page, and they can be explained to others in a couple of minutes. They are rather unconventional in a couple of places, though, so it may take a few hands to completely grasp them.
As a member of the Oh Hell! family of trick-taking games, distinctive for putting the onus on predicting an exact number of tricks taken rather than taking as many tricks as possible, Ninety-Nine is not entirely unique. Making bids is even more important in Ninety-Nine than it is in other games in this family, though, thanks to its bidding and scoring systems. Simply winning a large number of tricks is clearly of secondary importance — barely more than a tiebreaker — so tension remain high throughout most hands. Coming up with a reasonable bid, choosing which cards to use in the bid while trying to shape your hand, and making sure that you do not go over your bid all create tension.
The decreased emphasis on winning a large number of tricks also makes drawing lucky, powerful hands much less important. In many trick-taking games, a strong hand will either let you score more by taking more tricks (as in Hearts), or allow you to bid high more often, giving you more control over your scoring opportunities. In Ninety-Nine, the player that makes his bids, including taking smart risks on declaring or revealing is easily the favourite to win. This depends on a player’s judgement, not having a strong hand.
The one place where lucky hands <em>can<em> still come into play is the special bids, declaring and revealing. Making a declare or reveal bid requires having a hand that only contains clear-cut winners and losers, making the number of tricks you will take easy to predict. A player who is dealt this type of hand more often than the others has a real advantage. The border between a sure-thing and a risky bet is fine, however, and the penalties for failure are as steep as the rewards for success.
The declare and reveal mechanics also allow risktakers to express themselves without risking one opponent being unfairly targeted. They also work well as a catchup mechanic, keeping trailing players in contention late into the game.
As I mentioned in the opening, I have not played with any number of players except three. While a similar game of equal quality might be crafted from non-traditional decks of cards with five or more suits, using a standard deck of cards with more players would reduce players ability to make sensible decisions. The deck would have to be enlarged, flatteningthe power curve of the deck. More cards would be in the “marginal winners” and “marginal losers” categories, which, in turn, would make bidding and shaping your hand more difficult. Of course, this will be less important to people that are okay with higher levels of chaos. Still, I see no reason to play Ninety-Nine with any number but three, since Cribbage fills the traditional card game niche extremely well with two or four players.
Ninety-Nine has replaced Sticheln as my favourite trick-taking game, although they complement each other nicely, since Sticheln is better with four or five players than it is with three. It is also, surprisingly, a close competitor for my favourite middleweight game for three.
The steady, unrelenting stream of difficult decisions raise Ninety-Nine above simple games like Oh Hell! and Hearts. It puts as much of a premium on judgement and skill as any game of its complexity. Ninety-Nine is an elegant, underappreciated masterpiece, suitable for any sort of gamer, not just casual card players. Anyone that does not hate trick-taking games as a category should at least give Ninety-Nine an honest try.
I had wanted to try out Ninety-Nine for some time before I managed to get it to the table. During that time, I expected it to be a good, but not exceptional game. I seriously underestimated it, and I am now eager to try out some of David Parlett’s other card games, to see if he has any other overlooked gems lurking on his website.
Make sure that you do not make the same mistake.