Pick Your Poison

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 yourself.

Number of Players: 5-7 is optimal, although the game can handle 3-8 people easily. (But see Variants below.)

Equipment: 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: But that's not all. A game consists of a number of rounds, and 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.

Before Play: 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 Deal: The dealer deals out as many cards as they can so that every player has the same amount and there are cards left over. A handy chart for card counts is below:
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; see Reneging below.

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.

The Play: 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.

The Tally: 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: 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, below.)

Reneging: 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:
Variants: 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 include: If you have any other clever ideas, please let me know!

Endnote: 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...

Back to the card game rules index.

Last Updated: 2007.03.13.2013