Rook – With the Special Bremner Variant

Time for Follow Up Tuesday! Wait? No? Curve Ball Tuesday?! Since yesterday we looked at worker placement as a mechanic and as we have Worker Wednesdays we are taking a detour today into a game that hold a special place in my heart. When telling a friend I was going to review this game he scoffed and questioned why, to which I simply told him; when something has worked for almost 110 years; it is worth looking at.

Every family should have a game; not meaning they should own at least one game, that is a given, but just as couples have a song a family should have a game. For my immediate family I think of that game as Scotland Yard, but for my extended family that game is Rook.

Released: 1906
Designers: George S. Parker and Grace Parker
Plays: 2-6 (more with the Bremner variant)
EPT: 45 minutes

I was first introduced to rook as a spectator. Many a Christmas, Easter, and any other excuse my family had for gathering; involved a few hands of Rook. Often the young folk would go off and entertain ourselves with Crossbows and Catapults or enjoying the outdoors while the older folk sat about the table and played Rook. Quickly some of our interest turned to the game being played about the table and we would watch intently as one of our uncles would laugh as he raked in hand after hand while another seemed downcast as he watched his score plummet. I did not know how the game played or what was happening but it looked fun.

Rook is a card game with four suits (colors) of cards numbered 1-14 and a single non-suited rook card. Players are partnered with the player sitting opposite them and are tasked to accumulate a total of 300 points between the partners. This is done by winning hands composed of point cards; 5, 10, 14, and the Rook while cards 1-4 of each suit are removed from play. While scoring each 5 is worth 5 points, 10s and 14s are worth 10 points and the Rook is worth 20; meaning each round there is a total of 120 points up for grabs. When dealing the dealer deals a card to each player followed by a card to the center of the table (called the nest or kitty), once the nest has 5 cards the rest are dealt just to the players.

Once all cards have been dealt the players analyze their hands then bid on how many points they think they can win in the round; starting at 70 and going until someone bids 120 or everyone but one player has passed, once a player passes they cannot bid again in the same round. Once the final bid has been chosen the high bidder adds the 5 cards from the nest to their hand then discards five cards from their hand to the nest before choosing the trump suit.

The player left of the dealer then begins play by playing any card from their hand into play, players take turns in clockwise order playing a card from their hand following the color/suit of the card that started the round or the Rook card. If a player does not have any cards of the led suit they can play any other card from their hand, including trump. After each player has placed a card the high card of the beginning color wins unless there was a Rook or trump played. If there were trump cards played the highest trump card wins; unless the Rook was played in which case the Rook always wins; the winner of the hand then leads play on the next hand.

Once all tricks have been played (players are out of cards in hand) the round ends and the teams tally their scores (whoever wins the last trick takes the kitty and any scoring cards that were in it – if the bid winner placed points in the kitty this must be declared before play begins); the bidding team must meet or exceed their bid to earn the points equal to their score cards; if they failed to meet or pass their bid they get their bids worth of points removed from their score – going negative if need be, the non-bidding team always gets points equal to their score cards; the first team to 300 points wins.

There are plenty of variants to the game, and while Rook is a great game as it is there is room for improvement. Let me thus introduce you all to the Bremner Variant, it is likely that we are not entirely responsible for the Bremner Variant and surly others have arrived to the same rules on their own, but it is composed of house rules we made on the spot and rules of necessity made to fix where the game breaks due to our meddling.

In the Bremner Variant; two Rook decks are used with one of the two rooks removed from play (this was done to accommodate groups larger than 6). Card are dealt to each player until all players have an equal amount of cards and the cards remaining undealt are fewer than the number of players; these cards then compose the Nest/Kitty (there will not always be a nest/kitty depending on the number of players). All cards 1-14 and the Rook are in play with duplicates of all cards except the Rook. Scoring cards are 1s, 5s, 10s, 14s, and the Rook with 1s scoring 15 points, 5s scoring 5 points, 10s and 14s scoring 10 points, and the Rook scoring 20; with duplicates this makes a total available score of 340 points per round.

Once all cards are dealt players bid on how many points they can take with a minimum bid of 100 points. The winning bidder gets to take the nest/kitty if there is one then discard an equal number of cards; again declaring if there are any points in the new nest/kitty. The winning bidder then declares trump and who his partner will be. The Bremner Variant, however, uses secret partners; this is done by calling a suit and number; whoever holds that card is your partner. Thus if I call Red 1 as my partner whoever is holding the Red 1 is on my team; I will not know who this is, however, until they reveal themselves by playing the called card. Since the variant plays with 2 decks there is a chance you could have 2 secret partners increasing your chances of hitting your bid, however, the dual decks also created a cancellation situation. If ever two twin cards are played they cancel each other out for the hand; if one player trumps in with a 8 trump and another player plays an 8 of trump in the same hand they are canceled and the next highest card is now winning the hand; this allows some fun strategy moments; where a partner will cancel another player’s card so their team can keep the scoring cards without having to play the best card available to them. We also utilize all the cards 1-14 and thus the low card is high rule applies in which the 1 acts as an ace; being stronger than the 14.

When our family gathers for Rook we traditionally hope to play to 1000 points but often must call the game at 750 due to time constraints and younger cousins demanding our attention. This last Christmas, however, we were able to induct another cousin into the fold as he is now old enough to appreciate the game and in a few years another should be old enough as well.

Growing up I recall attempting to play the game and finding it rather dull and longer than I wanted; thinking it lasted far too long for my developing attention span; as I became more adept at strategizing, reading the other players, and thinking through the probabilities of winning hands that I started to enjoy the game to the full.

The game’s use of hand management partnered with secret partners makes for a great experience that I love; there is a great deal of anticipation as you wait to know who will be on your team and who will be against you; the effort to hoard points for yourself until you know who you can trust and the utter joy or pain upon passing or failing your bid.

I find the game an emotional roller coaster; in a good way. I know some people who dislike the game due to the seemingly uncontrollable luck, such as when you have but one trump card which happens to be the card called out as a secret partner, or the innate opportunities for people’s competitive edges to shine through. I can understand these people trepidation towards the game; but it will always hold a place in my heart and on my shelf; and I will always recommend playing with secret partners when the game hits the table.

The game has limited art; which as a fan of minimalism I enjoy while it also keeps the focus off the cards and on the mental element of the game, the mechanics are few but masterful and the game plays fairly quickly (unless you are playing with people who are prone to analysis paralysis). For these reasons I give the game 7.5 out of 10.
Visuals – 1.75 // 2
Skill/Luck – .75 // 1
Pacing – 1.5 // 2
Theme/Immersion – 1 // 2
Mechanics – .75 // 1
Fun Factor 1.75 // 2

Visit us again tomorrow while we take a look at another worker placement game; this time Russian Railroads! Until then you can find us on social media;
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