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The Great Dalmuti

Topics/tags: Games, rambly

Recently, I was musing about some experiences I had had with The Great Dalmuti, a card game my family enjoys. Somewhere along the way, I wrote

[I]t’s a great game. The rules are relatively simple. The strategy is more complex. You can play for five minutes, or for five hours. Plus, it reveals important societal concepts.

But I neglected to describe the game in any detail. In this musing, I attempt to rectify that flaw.

The Great Dalmuti is a card game by Richard Garfield [1], typically played by five or more players [2]. It uses one of the standard kinds of non-standard card decks: The deck consists of one 1, two 2’s, three 3’s, four 4’s, five 5’s, six 6’s, seven 7’s, eight 8’s, nine 9’s, ten 10’s, eleven 11’s, twelve 12’s [3], and two wild cards, called Jesters, that have a value of 13. It’s a trick-taking game.

In a round, the lead player plays a set of cards, all of which must have the same value. For example, you might play four 10’s, or three 5’s, or even one 12. The next player clockwise [4] has the option of playing another set of the same size, but with a lower value, or passing. They need not play, even if they can. The next player has the same option. Those choices continue around the table until you get back to the person who played most recently. For example, suppose we have six players and Addison plays four 10’s, Brady passes, Charlie plays four 6’s, Drew passes, Emerson passes, and Frankie passes. We are not yet done, because someone played after Addison, so Addison can play again. We’ll suppose that Addison Passes. Are we done? No. We haven’t gotten back to Charlie yet. We continue our situation by supposing that Brady plays four 5’s. Didn’t Brady pass before? Yes. However, as I said, you need not play, even if you can. Continuing, we’ll assume that Charlie passes, Drew passes, Emerson passes, Frankie passes, and Addison passes. Since we’ve come back to Brady, the round is done and Brady wins. Brady then starts the next round.

The first person to run out of cards in their hand wins the hand. The next person to run out of cards in their hand comes in second. The hand ends when only one person has cards left in their hand.

What happens if the winner of a round is also the person who ran out of cards? The next person clockwise [5] leads the next round.

Not too complex, is it? However, there are a few added complexities. One player is designated as The Greater Dalmuti and gets to lead in the first round. The player to their left [6] is designated as The Lesser Dalmuti. The player to the right of The Greater Dalmuti is The Greater Peon. And the player to the right of The Greater Peon is The Lesser Peon. At the start of each hand, the Greater Peon gives their two lowest cards to the Greater Dalmuti and the Greater Dalmuti gives two cards to the Greater Peon. Similarly, the Lesser Peon gives the Lesser Dalmuti their lowest card, and the Lesser Dalmuti gives the Lesser Peon any card they want. Do the Peons have to give up their jokers? Nope. Jokers have a value of 13, which makes them the highest-value card.

As you can tell, it’s hard to be a peon. Or at least it’s hard to win a hand as a peon.

To make things worse, the Greater Peon also has to deal and to collect all of the cards after each round.

What else do you need to know? Oh, you should probably know how the roles are designated. Usually, you draw cards for the first hand. But after that, the order in which you go out determines your role in the next hand. The first person to go out is the Greater Dalmuti. The second person to go out is the Lesser Dalmuti. The last player to go out is the Lesser Peon. And the player with cards left after the Lesser Peon goes out is the Greater Peon. Everyone else is a merchant.

So, after each hand, you rearrange where almost everyone is sitting. The Greater Dalmuti stays where they were. Everyone else moves so that they are sitting in the order in which they went out [8]. And then you start the next hand. That is, the Greater Peon shuffles and deals out the cards. The Dalmutis and Peons switch cards. The Greater Dalmuti leads. And so on and so forth.

There’s one more rule: If anyone ends up with both jesters, they can declare a revolution. Unfortunately, the revolution doesn’t have much impact, other than eliminating the need of the Peons to trade their cards. In the rare instance in which the Greater Peon ends up with both jesters, they can declare a Greater Revolution, and all the roles in the game reverse [9].

That’s about it. You can teach someone the game in about five minutes. It takes a bit longer to learn strategy, in part because strategy may depend on the people you are playing with. Should you split up a set to win a round? Sometimes it makes sense. When you get the lead, what should you lead? There are many strategic choices.

What important societal concepts does it reveal? It seems fairly obvious: Those at the top tend to stay at the top. Those at the bottom tend to stay at the bottom. My sons inform me that there’s also an important subtle concept: Since the Greater Peon gets to deal the cards and collect the cards, they have an option to do better in the game, at least if they are willing to cut corners [10].

As I said, I like that The Great Dalmuti is easy to teach and can be subtle to play. I’m a blunt person, so I like the blunt moral. I also find that it has a good balance of luck and strategy. And, perhaps most importantly, I like that we play The Great Dalmuti for the process, not the product. Since you regularly change your position, it’s hard to designate a winner or a loser [11].

If you’ve never played, I recommend that you try. It’s relatively cheap on Amazon [12]. Or you could take three decks of regular cards and make your own set. It won’t be quite the same experience, since the cards in the official version are all a bit different [14], but it will be pretty close. However, if you find you like it, you should buy your own copy and support the designer [15].

Postscript: The thing I’ve been calling a round, Garfield [16] refers to as a hand. The things I’ve been calling a hand, Garfield also refers to as a hand. It strikes me that it’s better to use different names.

[1] I believe that Richard Garfield is known for creating Robo Rally and another card game that a few of my students seem to enjoy playing.

[2] I’ve played with as few as three; I hear that some of my children attempted to play with two.

[3] I suppose that I could have expressed that more concisely.

[4] Unless you are playing one of my sons’ variants.

[5] Or counter-clockwise, if you are playing a Rebelsky Son Variant.

[6] Or right, if you are playing some Rebelsky Son Variant [7].

[7] That’s the last time I’m mentioning those; you can probably figure out the rest.

[8] Remember those Rebelsky Son Variants? One is In a three-player game, no one moves; you just may have to change the order of play. Another is In a four-player game, only two players should move; one may have to be the Greater Dalmuti. I’ll leave you to do the analysis.

[9] RSV: The order of play switches from clockwise to counter-clockwise.

[10] I’m pretty sure that no one does so. Nonetheless, my sons theorize that the designers wanted to make that point.

[11] There are ways to score The Great Dalmuti. We’ve never used them.

[12] You think I’d have an Amazon affiliate link by this time. But I don’t.

[14] I have no idea how to take advantage of that fact; however, I’m pretty sure that my sons do.

[15] Since it’s Richard Garfield, it may not make a difference.

[16] No, not the Jim Davis creation.

Version 1.0 of 2019-12-22.