One of the best purchases I’ve made—at least, if we define best as “gotten the most use out of for the price”—only cost me $5.99, and it can fit in my pocket. It’s a little card game called Canasta Caliente.
I know, I know—isn’t that a game for old people? That’s what I thought, too. I thought it belonged to the category of old-people card games, along with Bridge and Pinochle. And perhaps it does. But I do love Pinochle…
How It Works
The object of Canasta is to have the most points. The game ends when at least one player or partnership reaches five thousand points. The game can be played with two to four people. In the two- or three-player game, the players are on their own; the four-player game is a partnership game.
The Canasta deck is really two decks of regular playing cards. The cards are divided into four categories: natural cards (4-Ace, eight of each), wild cards (big and little wilds, four big/eight little, which only differ in point value), stop cards (four in the deck), and bonus cards (four in the deck). Each card has a point value that counts toward your score if played and against your score if held in your hand. The Caliente variant also features two Caliente cards, but my wife and I don’t like it, so we don’t use these. In my opinion, it’s hard to improve upon vanilla Canasta.
The game is played in hands. Each player is dealt eleven cards at the start of a hand. Players immediately play any bonus cards and draw cards to replace them. Once every player has played bonus cards, the dealer turns over the top card of the deck to form the prize pile. (Yes, this is a “discard pile,” as in every other rummy variation. But the title “prize pile” fits for Canasta.)
A player’s turn consists of 1) drawing a card, 2) melding cards, 3) discarding a card. Players may either draw the top card of the deck or the top card of the prize pile. If a player chooses the top card of the prize pile, it must be played immediately. Once the top card is played, the drawing player picks up the rest of the prize pile, adding it to his hand. This is a good thing because it is the only way to increase your hand size in the four-player game.
After players have drawn a card/taken the prize pile, they may meld cards. Cards are melded in sets of at least three. Sets can contain natural and wild cards, but there must always be more natural than wild cards in a set. The first time a partnership melds in a hand, they must meet a meld threshhold. If a team has 0-1495 points, their first meld must add up to at least 50 points. If a team has 1500-2995 points, their first meld must add up to at least 90 points. If their score is 3000+, their first meld is 120 points. Only one player in a partnership must meet the starting meld; once one player in the partnership has melded, both players may meld freely.
There are a few additional rules that govern drawing from the prize pile. If a team has not yet met their starting meld, the only way a player on that team can draw from the prize pile is if the card drawn can produce a natural set (i.e., no wilds). So, for example, normally if I saw a 5 on top of the prize pile, I could take it if I had another 5 and a wild in my hand or if I had a set of 5s in my partnership’s play area. But if my team hasn’t melded yet, I can take the 5 only if I have two 5s in my hand, making a natural set. A player must also be able to meet the first meld requirement with other sets from his hand in order to take the top card of the prize pile (in the 5s example, I would need 35 more points between other sets in my hand).
After a player has drawn and melded any cards he wants, he must discard a card (exception: when a player goes out, it’s not necessary to discard). If a player discards a natural card, the next player has the opportunity to pick it up. If a stop card, the next player must draw from the draw pile. If the player discards a wild, the pile is “frozen.” When the pile is frozen, the conditions for drawing from the prize pile revert to what they were before a team played its first meld. Freezing the pile is what really makes Canasta exciting (and tense). It feels like hot potato every time a player discards. Will the next player be able to pick up the pile? The frozen pile, as it builds up (which it will inevitably do while frozen), feels more and more like a ticking time bomb—and you hope it explodes on your turn.
I mentioned that picking up the prize pile is a good thing, the reason being that it is the only way to increase your hand size. Increased hand size = increased chances of picking up a frozen pile. Freezing the prize pile can effectively eliminate players from a game. If I notice I have six cards in my hand, my teammate has about the same, and my opponents are down to three or four cards, that is the perfect time to freeze the pile. Fewer cards means fewer chances of having sets that match the top card on the prize pile. Also, if a player has fewer cards in his hand, the chances of him discarding a card you want is greater—he’ll have fewer cards to choose from when he discards (as he must do).
A round is over when one player goes out, but in order to go out, his team must have at least one canasta (set of seven cards). Once a player goes out, points are tallied and added to the running score. Players score bonus points for going out first (100 pts.), having canastas (300 pts. for each canasta containing a wild/500 pts. for each natural canasta), and for their bonus cards (100 pts. per bonus card, 400 extra points for having all four bonus cards—this rarely happens). Players score the face value of cards in their play area. Players score negative points for the cards in their hands. After the points have been tallied, if no team has reached 5000 points, play continues for another hand, with the deal passing to the left.
Canasta may seem like a lot of rules, but once you play a hand or two, it all feels natural. The draw, play, discard flow makes the game easy to recognize; the “prize pile,” freezing the pile, and playing for canastas makes the game fresh and fun. As I mentioned, the game can be played with two regular decks of cards (if the decks have jokers), but I think this is a game worth buying the boxed version for. The cards, according to the package, have a “Latin flair,” which adds to the ambiance of the game. I also like the packaged version because it has the point value of each card printed on it. This makes scoring easy for newbies (and even for us more experienced folk). There are also helpful player aids included and the Caliente variation (which lets you draw back up to your maximum hand size and rewards poor playing) should you choose to use them.
I like Canasta so much because it is easy to learn, fun to play, and fosters good conversations. It is a game that does not require excessive strategizing, so players can talk as they play. The ability to freeze the pile adds significant tension to the game, making a good game great. The tension added isn’t a panicked tension, but the tension I imagine gamblers feel while sitting at the slot machine. “Pull the handle—maybe this will be my chance!” There is a fair amount of strategy, but there is also some guesswork and luck. I like this balance because while strategic/experienced players have the upper hand in Canasta, it is not guaranteed that they will win. And with the first meld thresholds, the game is evenly balanced. If a team takes an early lead, the other team is normally able to catch up a little. (Melding 120 pts. in a four-player game is a huge disadvantage; my sister and I took an early lead one game and lost tremendously because of the punishing first-meld threshold.)
I like the four-player game better than the two- or three-player game because it forces you to manage your hand size. If I meld my cards, I show my partner what I have, and she may be able to build on it, but then it’s unlikely that the player who discards before I take my turn will discard what I want. Melding also hurts my chances if the prize pile is frozen. Should I discard a wild to freeze the pile, even though wilds are a precious commodity? Should I discard a card I want in order to throw other players off the scent? Keeping cards in my hand doesn’t let others know what I have, but the cards also count negative if anyone goes out. Is it worth the risk? The four-player game is more strategic because each turn you don’t pick up the prize pile is zero-sum: draw one, discard one. (The two-player game [and the three-player game, according to our house rules]allows a player to draw two cards instead of one.)
The rulebook for Canasta Caliente has some holes (or some silences, rather), but they are nothing that a few house rules can’t fix. My sister and brother-in-law have added spice to this game by buying a hot pepper necklace that the winner of the last hand gets to wear. While this isn’t necessary to gameplay, it does make the game that much more fun. My wife and I have yet to add this to our game, but only because hot pepper necklaces are hard to come by in these parts.
As I mentioned, I count Canasta Caliente—purchased on a whim when I worked at Target—one of the best cost/benefit purchases I’ve ever made. My cards are worn and falling apart, but it is still just as fun as ever, and each time a friend gets married, I seek this out as my go-to gift (or at least one of them) because it is an excellent two-player game, even if four-player is better. I can’t recommend Canasta highly enough. Old person game or not, you will enjoy it—I can almost guarantee it.
A version of this review originally appeared on Tongue Fried Goat.