President. Scum. Pondscum. Rich Man-Poor Man. Super 2 Peasant.
Perhaps you’ve heard of or played one of these games with a standard deck of cards. The game in which you must get rid of all your cards first; the winner becomes the “president,” “King,” or “Rich Man,” the loser becomes Pond Scum. The winners are rewarded with better hands next time around, the losers are dragged even further into the dirt by giving away their best cards. Of course, there’s always the chance that there will be a Revolution, switching everyone’s position, turning the losers into the winners.
Enter The Great Dalmuti, a card game by one Richard Garfield (yes, that Richard Garfield) in the same spirit of the games mentioned above, but with a specialized deck of cards that changes things up a bit.
How It Plays
In case you aren’t familiar with this style of game, here’s how it works.
Much like many card games, players sit in a circle. The game is played in rounds; each round is played in a number of “hands.” The deck contains cards numbered 1-12 (each number corresponding to a “rank” – Cook, Seamstress, Stonecutter, etc. all the way up to Dalmuti), plus two special “Jester” cards.
The first player can play any number of cards; however, they must all have the same name/number – so you could play 4 Seamstresses (7’s), but not 2 Seamstresses and 2 Cooks (9’s).
The next player must play the same number of cards; again, these cards must all be the same type/number. However, the number must be at least 1 lower than the last played set. So, if one player plays 3 Knights (6’s), the next player must play three 5’s, three 4’s, or three 3’s. If they cannot play the same number, or they do not have a lower number, they must pass. In addition, a player may choose to pass, even if they can play, should they want to save their cards for later.
Here’s the rub though; each type of card has a number of cards in the deck equal to the number on the face of the card. So there are 10 Shepherdesses (10′), 6 Knights (6’s), and only 1 Great Dalmuti (The all-powerful 1 card, obviously). In addition, the “Jester” card is a wild – worth 13 on its own, it can be played with any other set to automatically match the number of that set. This means that you are much more likely to have a large set of 9’s or 12’s, which makes it harder for other players to top that set, and if you ever get a chance to play first you can get rid of a lot of cards in a row and have 2 chances to start in a row.
This is where the custom deck comes in handy; as playing with a standard deck of cards leaves each number with a maximum of 4, decreasing the possibility of large sets and leaving all numbers equal. The Dalmuti deck balances things out a little, swaying the power away the better, cards exclusively.
(A side note here – in the variations listed above that I’ve played with a standard playing card deck, higher numbers were better; however, 2’s were used as special cards, in which a single 2 could defeat any set, regardless of how many cards were in that set. And then Jokers were truly all-powerfully, defeating any set in addition to a 2. In this version, there is no “All-powerful” card written into the rules, although we usually house-rule that the Dalmuti card can be used to defeat any set, regardless of its size. Because, c’mon. Great Dalmuti.)
When everyone has passed, the central pile is cleared; and whoever played the last set of cards get to start the next hand. The goal is to get rid of all your cards first; the player who empties their hand before everyone else becomes the Greater Dalmuti (or just the Great Dalmuti), the 2nd player is the Lesser Dalmuti, followed by merchants (depending on how many players you have), with the last 2 players being Lesser Peon and Greater Peon.
When the next round starts, players must rearrange their order of rank, starting from the Dalmuti, in clockwise order. Then, you have a “taxation” – the Greater Peon must give his 2 best cards to the Great Dalmuti, while the Great Dalmuti gives any two cards back; the Lesser Peon and Dalmuti exchange cards in the same way, except only 1 card instead of 2. The Greater Peon always deals out the cards, and the Great Dalmuti always starts the first hand of each round.
However, if someone happens to be dealt both Jesters, they can call out a Revolution, which cancels the taxation phase. If that someone happens to be the Greater Peon, a Greater Revolution happens and all ranks are immediately reversed! The Greater Peon becomes Great Dalmuti, the Lesser Peon becomes Lesser Dalmuti, and Merchants (if there are any) switch around (because turn order has significance).
(Side note; in standard-playing-card version, the Jokers are often used as the key to a Revolution; however, since Jokers are considered the best card, a Greater Peon must pass his away if he only has 1. In Dalmuti, the Jester is worth 13 alone, so during taxation it is considered the worst card; therefor the Peons can keep their hands on the Jester if they only get 1.)
The game can be played for as many rounds as you like; no scoring is needed (although optional rules for scoring are included), as it’s generally just a game you play until you get tired of it. The game seats a recommended 4-8 players, but you can stretch it out a bit for 9 or 10, and you can always buy a second deck, mix ’em together, and play with up to 16 people.
In addition, other optional rules are included, such as the aforementioned scoring, smaller decks for fewer players, merchant trading, and of course a bunch of meta-rules like appropriate seating (Great Dalmuti gets the La-Z-boy, Peons get the floor) and other perks (Greater Peon must fetch Great Dalmuti snacks, drinks, etc).
If the game sounds a little unbalanced… that’s because it is. Yes, it’s true – one you reach the position of Great Dalmuti, it’s pretty easy to stay there. The initial first play, the extra Good cards (and the ability to ditch 2 unwanted cards), the comfy chair – it all adds up in your favor. And exactly the opposite for the poor ol’ peon. Yes, this is not a fair game, it has no “catch-up” mechanic, it rewards the winners and punishes the losers.
Fortunately, the game is still fun. For some reason; it doesn’t really make any sense. Why is it fun to be stuck at the bottom and have your best cards taken from you? I don’t know. But it is.
Maybe it’s the challenge. The long-term strategy of moving up one step at a time. If I can just get out of the peon-ship, I’ll have a better chance next round. There’s something exciting about managing your crappy hand just well enough to pull out of last place. You really feel like you accomplish something even if you only move up 3 steps.
The Dalmuti deck makes this a whole lot more possible than playing one of the standard-playing-card-deck variations. The nature of the deck – with the possibility of having large sets of the higher numbers, unbeatable by the lower numbers which just don’t have enough cards to match the set – means that waiting til the key moment can provide you with an opportunity to drop your whole hand in a matter of a couple rounds. Sure, the Dalmuti will probably go out before you even get a chance to play cards, but if you hold on to your best card until the right moment you can move up a couple spots, which is all you need to do to feel successful. Eventually, you’ll steal away the ultimate power, but right now, you just gotta get out of the dregs.
The oh-so-useful Jester cards are also a little more peon-friendly than the Jokers of the playing-card version. Peons don’t have to give them up to their Dalmuti counterparts if they get them, and they can turn a formidable set into an impassable one.
Perhaps, if you haven’t played this or any of the variations, my talk about impassable sets doesn’t really make sense. Allow me to run past the strategy for you: the key feature of winning is getting rid of your cards – not necessarily winning hands. Now, winning hands is helpful – it allows you to go first, and get rid of your worst cards that you can never play because everyone else keeps playing lower numbers before it even gets to you. Winning multiple times in a row really helps you ditch a lot of cards, but you don’t necessarily have to have the best numbers to win. If you have, say, eight 11’s, the chances of anyone else having 8 of anything (which is impossible without Jesters once you hit the 7s’s), not only are you going to win that hand, but you’re getting rid of 8 cards. Therein lies the strategy of “waiting” – lets say your best card is a 6, but you have large sets of cards higher than that. Well you might be able to play your 6 early, but someone can probably top it. If you wait until most of the lower, better cards are played, you can use that 6 to win first play, then play your large sets (hopefully holding on to the lead) and ditch the rest of your hand real fast. It doesn’t matter if people can beat the last card you play, you’re still out. So, holding on longer may mean allowing other people to go out before you even play, but it may make the difference between staying Greater Peon and moving up to be a merchant.
Perhaps another feature that keeps this game enjoyable is the reverse-elimination. I don’t like elimination games, but this is one example where it works okay. Since the winner goes out first, they get to enjoy the glory of their victory, while everyone else gets to… keep playing. And strategizing. By the time it gets down to the last 3-4 players, it usually lasts only a few more seconds. Then the next round starts, and there’s a new chance for better cards, a chance for Revolution, all the possibilities you can dream of.
Though there exists rules for scoring, I’ve never played it that way. It just doesn’t need it. The fun of the game is in trying to improve your position (or just basking in the glory of your Great Dalmuti-ness). Although, one of the scoring variations awards the Dalmuti extra points if the corresponding Peon goes up in status – which could make things somewhat interesting.
The game is pretty spite-free. Everyone is just trying to go out as fast as they can, and there isn’t really an opportunity to specifically target other players. The one case where spite might exist is in the taxation phase, but with the nature of the deck even the “bad” cards the Dalmutis pass down often just bolster the sets the Peons have.
I don’t really know why Dalmuti is fun. I think the packaged Dalmuti deck is much better than the playing-card version, with the heavily stacked deck and Jesters making a big difference in options for the peons. But the dichotomy of power still exists, and yet when this game comes out, it often lasts for dozens of rounds, sometimes going on for an hour or two. Perhaps it brings out the “one more turn” syndrome, just one more chance to change your fate, since rounds are short. I don’t know. But with a pretty low price point, colorful cards and an excellently designed deck, Dalmuti is a favorite.
(Trivia: though the picture for each number is the same across that number, each image has one element changed from all the rest in its number, whether an added prop or a modified color. See if you can spot the differences!)