Date redacted: Oct. 30th, 1995
Redactor: Justin du Coeur
Other players: Steffan, Pryder, Richard, John
Reconstruction source: "A Welsh Card Game of the Tudor Era", by Brusten de Bearsul, in Y Camamseriad issue 2, Summer 1993. This describes a game from a letter written 1609 (which describes a game from the author's youth), apparently sent from Wales to Cornwall. This is coupled with a deck of the early 16th century, found in Wales, that seems to match the idea of the game. The deck comes from Bryncir in Wales, which we have arbitrarily adopted as a name for the game.
The game is described in reasonable detail in Brusten's article; since we have only that secondary source, I will keep this account practical, and refer the reader back there for more detail. Brusten makes a few guesses about details of the game in the last paragraph of his article; we played both with and without these guesses, and decided that they seem to be good additions.
The game uses a deck of 208 cards, comprised of four standard 52-card decks. The deck from Wales distinguishes between decks I, II, III, and IV, and Brusten's reconstruction uses that; we found that this makes the game interesting, and recommend using four distinguishable decks. (We used four poker decks with different backs, and chose an arbitrary ordering among them.)
The original deck used the following suits, worth specific point values:
The point values of the cards are:
Shuffle the deck, and deal 32 cards to each player. Each player makes "pairs" from his hand, where a pair is an exact pairing (eg, sevens of diamonds, not just sevens). We found that a typical hand contains between two and eight such pairs. These pairs are then scored according to the point values, with each pair worth the point value of the card (ie, a pair of sevens of hearts are worth seven). Aces are special: Brusten says that they are worth the same value as the highest pair of the same suit in the players hand. He didn't describe what happens when there are no other pairs in that suit; we arbitrarily decided that aces would be worth only 1 in that case. (On the theory that, if they had some particular value, that value would likely have been specified, but it seems unfair that they be worth nothing.) Once you have totaled these scores for the pairs, triple them to get the scores for the first round.
Set aside the pairs, and deal out one more card to each player for each pair they had. Make and score pairs again, as above, but doubling the scores instead of tripling them, and set them aside. At this point, Brusten suggests (not from the original) that you deal out another card for each pair made, then deal the remaining cards out. We played once without this, and twice with it (dealing out cards until there weren't enough to go around), and decided that it was a nice addition.
Now, the trick-taking part begins. Dealer leads initially. You must follow suit if possible; there is no trump; you may play any card if you cannot follow suit. Trick is taken by highest card; Brusten was unclear about whether one had to follow suit to take the trick, but we assumed so. If there is a tie (eg, two Queens of diamonds -- this is very common), then it is broken based on the ordering of the decks. (So, for example, we decided that Bicycle backs beat Bee backs, and Blue beat Red.) Winner of the trick leads the next.
Each trick is scored as follows. Winner gets points based on the value of the card that won the trick, as before (ie, Queen is worth 20). Again, Brusten said nothing about the value of aces -- we chose to regard them, once again, as being worth 1. To the value of the winning card, add points for the value of the suit, plus the value of any off-suit cards played. Each player who played off-suit loses the value of that off-suit card.
Game ends when someone runs out of cards. Winner is whoever has the most total points.
Very nice little game for five, and a bit subtler than it appears at first blush. There tends to be a wide disparity in points at the beginning -- not only do players with many pairs start way up on points, but having many pairs in the first round tends to lead to many in the second. (Since you are getting one more card for each pair made.) However, this balances later, because those players who make many pairs wind up with fewer cards (and, hence, less flexibility) in the trick-taking round. It proves to be rather harder to follow suit when you have made many pairs; consequently, you tend to lose points later. Being the person to run out of cards first is not an advantage.
The best strategy, unsurprisingly, seemed to be to hold onto valuable cards for as long as you could stand, and maintain as much suit breadth as possible. I won the last game by a hefty margin, by usually leading junk in my long suits when I was leading, for most of the game. The result was that I still had "power cards" late in the game, in a variety of suits, so I wound up losing few points, taking most tricks, and earning massive points from other players who could not follow suit. However, timing is very tricky, especially because players have uneven numbers of cards -- you have to keep an eye on how low everyone else is, to figure out when to get more aggressive. Both John and I were burned at least once by this strategy, due to waiting too long.
The game is fairly long, around twenty minutes or so. In a gambling environment, I would probably recommend a standard stake for just a single game; there is no need to play multiple games to declare a stake winner. (It is not clear, from Brusten's description, whether this was originally a gambling game; I would tend to infer not. But the Poulet Gauche is likely to play anything as a gambling game...)