The Games I Play, and the Lessons I Learn: Game 003 Spades

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about Spades, and why it was on the outskirts of the tabletop hobby. At boardgame meetups, I never see anyone playing classic card games, and when I see new people come in asking to play them, regulars scoff and say “ we don’t play those here.” I get wanting to play the newest games, or even challenging newcomers to try something outside of their wheelhouse, but I think that on some level, gamers don’t perceive games like Spades as part of the hobby.

Until recently, I was also guilty of that, but a random train of thought made me change my perspective. It’s no secret that I don’t enjoy cooperative games. For me, it’s way too easy to become a passenger while other players decide what the best move is for each person. I tried thinking of co-op games I did enjoy, usually thanks to limited information, and Spades came to mind. Sure, it’s not all the players versus the board, but it is a game where you have to successfully cooperate with another player in order to beat the other team.

For anyone who hasn’t played Spades, here’s a quick breakdown: Spades is a four player game, where players partner up. All 52 cards of the Poker deck are dealt so that each player has 13 cards. Before the round starts, partners must estimate how many hands, known as books, they can win on their own, and then agree on how many books to bid on total. During the game, each player will play 1 card, with the goal of playing the highest card in order to win that book. Spades are the trump suite, hence the name of the game. The goal is to win exactly as many books as you bid on, as your score will suffer if you over or under bid.

You work with limited information, because you only know the cards you have in your hand and the cards played on the table. The rest of the game requires you to trust and observe your partner very carefully. You have to figure out when they’re bluffing, or when they want you to pick up their cues on what to play.

You also need to understand your partner’s strengths and weaknesses, because if they have a habit of overestimating how many hands your team can win, you have to reign them back. To me, having a partner creates a deeper sort of cooperation that requires more thoughtfulness because both players have so much independence, but still need to work towards the same.

Spades is just as much a part of tabletop gaming as any other game, but it was hard to reconcile it as such because it was so engrained in my childhood. In my community, growing up, it was more of a rite of passage than a game. My parents, who rarely, if ever played boardgames, would play Spades.

My teacher, who would have nothing to do with us when we played Yu-gi-oh, would play Spades with us on field trips. Before I knew what game mechanics were, I was adept at trick-taking and bidding. Now, as a designer, I’m breaking down all the things I never stopped to think about when playing Spades. The divide isn’t just a mental one, it’s a practical one as well.

I asked my coworker if she knew how to play Spades, and she said yes and that she’d been taught by her father. I asked if they played boardgames, and she said they owned Battleship and Monopoly but that was about it. When I mused aloud that it was interesting how families that didn’t play boardgames would play card games, she said “ You can play 20 different card games with one deck, but it’d be too expensive to buy 20 boardgames just to try them out.”

There’s something to be learned from the tension, versatility, and player interaction in Spades. For me, I found the inspiration for my next game. I also found reinforcement that every game has something to teach you, if you’re open to it. I think it’s important to revisit games of your childhood, or games that you’ve moved away from. The distance of years may make it easier to see those games in a new light, and perhaps, inspire you in your future endeavors.