Pick Your Poison
is a trick-taking card
game meant to be a little more light-hearted than Oh Hell! despite
having just as much (if not more) strategy involved. Like Oh Hell!,
it scales nicely to fairly large crowds, and games can last as long
or as short as you like.
Pick Your Poison was invented by me, Phil Bordelon, but it's hardly
a fully original game; you will see lots of inspiration from other
trick-taking games throughout. It's meant to be a tasty amalgam
that goes down smoothly.
And then, of course, it kills you. But, hey, you picked the poison
Number of Players
is optimal, although the game
can handle 3-8
people easily. (But see Variants
: One standard French-suited 52-card deck and a
pad of paper to keep score. Also, perhaps, a writing utensil,
although blood could be used in a pinch.
The Core Conceits
: As described above, Pick Your Poison is
a trick-taking card game. The devil is in the details, however,
and here the details are the poisons
, or the different
actions you may take in each hand. There are three different
ways you can play a hand:
- Stand Pat: You get one point per trick you take,
with no bonuses or penalties;
- Bid: You bid an exact number of tricks that you
want to take after looking at your hand. You get one point
per trick you take, two bonus points if you make your bid
exactly, and two penalty points if you fail to make
your bid exactly. (Yes, this is Oh Hell!-style
- Blind Bid: You bid an exact number of tricks that
you want to take without looking at your hand.
You get one point per trick you take, four bonus points
if you make your bid exactly, and two penalty points if
you fail to make your bid exactly.
But that's not all. A game consists of a number of rounds
each of those rounds has a number of hands
. These rounds may
limit how many times you can pick each poison, and will always force
you to pick each one at least once! So you must balance your choices
with the knowledge that you will have lost an opportunity to use that
type of bid later.
: Decide how many rounds will be played, and what each
round will consist of. The canonical round is four hands, where every
player is required to pick each of the three poisons once each and can
pick any of them one more time
. Note that a player can choose what
order they pick the poisons in
; it's up to the scorekeeper to make
sure everyone meets the requirements for each round.
Alternate rounds that work well are five hands (each poison once, two
different poisons one more time each) and six hands (each poison twice).
From experience, a six-hand game will last roughly forty-five minutes,
so you can let that be your guide as to how you want to form each round
and how many of them there are.
Along with deciding how many rounds are played, designate a scorekeeper.
Keeping score for Pick Your Poison isn't particularly difficult, but it's
not trivial either, and requires some attention to keep track of all of
the bonuses and penalties.
Lastly, flip cards to see who deals first. (We usually flip for the
first Ace, but use whatever random method you prefer.)
: The dealer deals out as many cards as they can so that
every player has the same amount and there are cards left over
handy chart for card counts is below:
- 3 players: 17 cards each, 1 card left over
- 4 players: 12 cards each, 4 cards left over
- 5 players: 10 cards each, 2 cards left over
- 6 players: 8 cards each, 4 cards left over
- 7 players: 7 cards each, 3 cards left over
- 8 players: 6 cards each, 4 cards left over
The dealer then flips one of the left over cards face-up. This card
determines the trump suit
. This card is not
part of the
dealers' hand, and should remain face-up throughout the rest of the
hand in full view of all players.
Picking the Poison
: Each player, starting with the one to the
dealer's left, picks their poison.
If a player has picked their hand up from the table, they cannot
bid blind! This is important and inviolate.
If they look at
their cards when they should be forced to bid blind, they have reneged;
If a player picks either Bid
or Blind Bid
, they must also
state how many tricks they plan on taking. The scorekeeper should write
all poisons and bids down.
: Pick Your Poison follows the bog-standard rules for most
trick taking games (Oh Hell!, Spades, Hearts, Whist, Ninety-Nine, and
so on): The player to the left of the dealer leads the first trick, you
must match suit if possible (otherwise play anything), highest trump
card takes if one is played, otherwise the highest card of the suit led
takes, and the winner of a trick leads the next one.
: After all tricks in a hand have been played, the score
is tallied per player, with appropriate bonuses and penalties. A handy
chart is provided here for your convenience:
Passing the Deal
- All poisons: +1 point per trick taken
- Stand Pat: +0
- Bid: +2 if the bid is made exactly, -2 if not
- Blind Bid: +4 if the bid is made exactly, -2 if not
: Deal passes to the player with the lowest
score, unless that player just dealt, in which case it goes to the
player with the next-lowest score.
If there is a tie in any of
these positions, the deal goes to the person nearest the last dealer's
left. This is not
how deal typically passes in a trick-taking
game, which is why it's in big bold letters.
Why is it like that, you ask? Dealing is actually a significant
advantage in Pick Your Poison, as there are no forced bids like in Oh
Hell!, and the dealer has heard everyone else's choice of poison. Giving
the deal to the player with the lowest score hopefully helps them get a
better score, and keeping the deal from staying in one place keeps from
disadvantaging the person to the low-scoring player's left too much (and,
similarly, giving the person to their right too much of an advantage).
At the End
: Once the determined number of rounds have been played,
the player with the highest score wins. (Or, of course, you can play for
more rounds. Or even mix them up; see Variants
: There are two basic ways to renege in Pick Your Poison;
one is endemic to almost all trick-taking games and one is particular to
the game. Both carry the same penalty: a player that has reneged loses
four points immediately.
The two reneges are:
- A player doesn't follow the lead suit when they still have cards of that
suit. If no one else has played, the player should pick the card up
and play correctly, otherwise play should simply continue on.
- A player looks at their hand even though they must bid blind. They
still must bid, and will receive the standard two-point penalty if they
do not make their bid, but will receive no bonus points for making the
: The easiest variant is built-in to the rules: rounds are
player-defined. They can even be mixed up in a single game; one could do an
Oh Hell!-esque progression, with a round of six, then five, then four, then
three, then back up the ladder to six. Or whatever you please. Other variants
- Dual-Deck Poison: Shuffle two decks together. This game would
probably be best for 7-12 people. An important choice is whether
a second identical card is higher or lower than its duplicate if played
in the same trick; both choices have their own distinct flavour. (This
particular variant has not been tested, but should almost certainly
- Limitless Poison: There are no rounds. Players may choose
whatever poison they like in each round, and play is to a particular
score. Be prepared for daredevils who constantly bid blind. And make
If you have any other clever ideas, please let me know!
: We've been putting Pick Your Poison through the wringer two
or three times a week for the last month or so, and it's stood up surprisingly
well. It's got enough luck that you can blame the Universe when things don't
go your way, but there's enough skill that a good player will almost always
do better than a bad one, and a good but meek player will almost always lose
to a good and aggressive one.
Just remember to be suspicious of anyone handling the beverages at the table
when you play...
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