Gems and Driftwood: Comparing Designer Games to Folk Games


I learned two card games last night, both from Asia, featuring a deck of suits and ranks, but that's pretty much where the similarity ends.

Parade designed by Naoki Homma and is a very clever combination of line-drafting and evasion-type trick-taking. The game features a simple deck of cards in six suits with 11 ranks each.

On your turn, you place a card from your hand at the end of the parade. The rank of the card you play represents the number of consecutive cards in the parade you may ignore, but after that point you must collect any cards of equal rank, lesser rank, or the same suit.

If you collect the most of a suit at the end of the game, you can turn those cards face-down. Score points equal to your rank, plus 1 point per face-down card. Player with fewest points wins.

It's easy to learn and interesting tactics emerge within a few turns.

Tichu supposedly a folk game from China translated and popularized in Europe sometime between 1970 and 1990. If that all sounds a bit murky, it's because tracking down the lineage of Tichu is a bit difficult. BGG lists Urs Hostettler as the designer, yet all marketing materials for the game say it's played by millions of people in China. According to this thread, it's based on actual popular "climbing game" genre which include games like Mao, Zhen Shangyou, and Big Two. The Westernized version combines elements of the whole genre into a single game.

Regardless of its origins, the game is played thusly: In a standard four-player game, facing players are partners trying to get the best score together. On your turn, you play a single card, pair of identical ranks, three pairs, trio of identical ranks, full house (trio+pair), or five or more cards with a consecutive sequence of ranks. Thereafter, each player may play that same type of set, beating the value of the previously played set; or may pass instead. The game ends when one team has run out of cards or if only one player is left with cards. Score points for specific cards.

Fairly straightforward, right? But there are several idiosyncratic elements, including several special cards with unique values, triggering their own multi-step orders of operations. There are also special sets called "bombs" which will beat any trick, regardless of the current set of the trick. And there are also special bets called "Grand Tichu" and "Tichu" which are their own thing.

I've tried to learn Tichu several times, several ways, but it's only after playing four times in-person at a special teaching event that I almost got it. This got me thinking about the differences between folk games and designer games.

Folk Games
...are like driftwood. They're refined by natural forces of nature over time to become unique, lovely objects of beauty.
  • Usually passed on via oral tradition, thus no single designer credit except the occasional historical anomaly in which one person popularizes the game to mass audiences.
  • Usually very old, though with some unique exceptions in recent history.
  • That combination of age and oral tradition means there are usually numerous localized variations with small tweaks to the basic game, though at times giving the game a totally different name.
  • Generally free or very cheap, playable with ubiquitous components like dice, cards, or a ball (in the case of sports).

Designer Games
...are like gems. They're deliberately crafted by one person or a small collective. Just as beautiful, but by design.
  • Usually passed on by commercial products, in a box or book, sold in a store. These days, often also taught via video tutorials.
  • Usually very new, most having only been designed in the past 100 years. (This also contributes to our ability to identify a single designer in the first place.)
  • Though there may still very well be house rules for a designer game, there is still technically one authoritative arbiter of the game, be it the publisher or the designer.

I'm curious about your thoughts about the difference between designer games and folk games!



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