Playing Hearts with Pyramids
By Andrew Looney
September 2002


I love Hearts. It's my favorite game for standard playing cards, if not my favorite game of all time (not counting my own). I have played Hearts incessantly throughout my life, and I still can't get enough of it. It was Hearts that inspired the Icehouse set, which in turn launched my professional game design career. I love Hearts.

As you might expect, since I've played this game so much, I have a number of opinions about the finer points of how it should be played. Some of these opinions are just little preferences, others are questions of gameplay about which I feel strongly. Lastly, I've come up with a way of keeping score with Icehouse pieces, instead of paper and pencil. All of these things I will share with you in this article.

How to Play Hearts Properly

The Basics (Just In Case You Don't Already Know): The basic rules of Hearts are very easy. Shuffle and deal out the complete deck. Each player passes 3 cards to a neighbor, then receives 3 cards in return (as described below). Whoever has the 2 of clubs leads with it (which is not to be confused with allowing the player who has the deuce to lead with whatever he wants, as I've heard of some people doing). Each player in turn plays one card. You have to follow suit if you can, otherwise you can toss out whatever you want. Whoever plays the highest card in the trick of the suit that was led takes the trick. There is no trump. All tricks are played, then score is taken. You get 1 point for each Heart you take, and 13 points if you take the dreaded Queen of Spades. The object is to take as few points as possible, and when someone's total exceeds 100, the game ends, with whoever has the lowest score being the winner. If one player takes every last Heart and the Queen of Spades, that player has "shot the moon"; instead of getting 26 points, if you successfully Shoot the Moon, you may either deduct 26 from your score, or add 26 to all other players' scores.

Pass Order: The direction of the 3-card pass will alternate from round to round, going in a particular order. In a 4 player game (which I greatly consider optimal) the order will always be Left, Right, Across, and Hold. If you only have 3 players, you can't pass across, so that one is omitted. Either way, it should work out that each player has a particular pass direction associated with their turn at dealing. I am always Right.

With Three, Discard the Deuce: If you only have 3 players, you'll have one card too many. There are two ways to handle this. Some groups enjoy setting the random last card aside, then giving to the person who takes the first trick (or preferably, the first trick containing points), who alone is allowed to see what the card is. However, I prefer to simply remove the 2 of clubs and transfer all of its powers and responsibilities to the 3 of clubs.

Everyone Has Their Own Deck: When I play Hearts, I like for each player to have their own deck of cards. Ideally, everyone can then work on shuffling their deck in between rounds, and thus each be ready to begin dealing the next as soon as the cards from the previous have been swept up by their owner. To be maximally efficient, you can even deal your deck out into equally-sized piles for rapid distribution, though I regard this as optional.

Drawing Blood: Some people like to play Hearts with rules that restrict you from breaking Hearts (aka "drawing blood") until after the first (or even the third) round. I reject such rules as being for whiners. At my table, there are no restrictions on how early you can drop points on others. However, I support the rule that says you cannot lead with Hearts until after they have been broken. Also note that the Queen of Spades is not a Heart and therefore does not break Hearts.

The Jack of Diamonds: Some people like to play Hearts with a rule that gives a -10 point bonus to the player who took the Jack of Diamonds. I reject this rule. It has some interesting effects, and there are things I like about it... I've given it some very thorough play-testing over the years. But I dislike the way it lengthens the game, and I particularly dislike the impact this rule has on the dynamics surrounding the shooting of the moon.

Moon-Shoot Fever

Shooting the Moon is one of the main reasons Hearts continues to hold my attention even after all these years. Each round, as I fan my cards out for the first time, my immediate thought is "Can I shoot?" Most of the time, the answer is no, which means you must play many games with no possibility of a moon shot just for the occasional chance at hitting gold. It's like going to an amusement park: you have to spend a lot of time waiting in line for that one great minute on the roller coaster... but when it happens, it's the high point of the day.

The adrenaline rush of shooting the moon has such a strong appeal that dedicated Hearts players may often find themselves attempting a moon shot when they have absolutely no business trying. We call this sort of irrational behavior "the fever"... once you've gotten the moon-shoot fever, you'll never be free of its spell.

Another reason I obsess about shooting the moon is that I consider it the prime example of an important game design adage: Always provide multiple paths to victory. (It was with this lesson in mind, for example, that I designed the trio of ways to win in Chrononauts.) Until someone else has taken a heart, you are always (well, mostly.. if you have the fever, that is) facing a choice: try to take as few points as possible, or try to take the whole pile.

The Hunt for the Queen

But perhaps the biggest of all reasons I can't get enough of this game is the fun of hunting for the Queen of Spades. (This is why my current Hearts group is named the Queen-Hunters.) At the beginning of each round, one player is secretly holding a bomb. At some point during the round, that bomb will explode, delivering 13 painful points to the person it lands on.

Who is holding that bomb? If it's you, keeping that fact a secret until you are safe for deployment is vital. (It's not unlike being a werewolf in another of my favorite classic games, which we sell under the name "Are You a Werewolf?")

However, if you don't have the Queen, figuring out who does, before she lands, can make all the difference in making sure she doesn't land on you. And the best way to find that out is to go on a hunt! This is done simply by leading low spades, forcing whoever holds the Queen to follow suit and hopefully be forced to take the Queen himself, through being required to play it for want of other spades. Such a self-infliction is the ultimate goal of the hunt, but hunting is also an excellent way to uncover secrets. Be careful, though... sometimes the secret you find is that the player who you "tricked" into taking the Queen is actually attempting to shoot the moon!

Scoring with Pyramids

The Problem of using Paper and Pencil: One of the (very few) things I dislike about Hearts is the basic issue of score-keeping. While the chore of dealing can be evenly divided between all players, someone has to step forward to do all the math and book-keeping work, typically using wasteful and inelegant additional equipment. Each round ends with a slow and tedious accounting of who got how many, and any time you want to know the current score, you have to pester the book-keeper. Wouldn't it be nice to do away with that whole annoying paper-based scoring system? Moreover, for some (though not for me personally) this is more than just a question of elegance. Orthodox Jews who enjoy games cannot play many of the classics during the Sabbath, because using pencil and paper to keep score is considered Work, and thus is not permitted. And what fun is a day off if you can't play your favorite games?

The Solution is a Bowl of Icehouse Pyramids: Here's how it works. Each player is given a standard stash of pyramids. Contrary to their usual values, the Larges are worth 10 points, the Mediums are worth 5, and the Smalls are worth 1. With 15 pieces in a standard stash, that's 80 points total (which is a little low if you are used to playing to 100, but still a fine length for a game). After each round, each player will lose pyramids according to the points they took, with the game ending when someone runs out. The sacrificed pyramids are dumped into a bowl, after first being placed in the center of the table, where a quick count can be made to verify that all 26 points have been accounted for.

Making Change: The only problem with this is that you won't always have the right combination of pyramids necessary to pay your fine. To solve this, Kory came up with a nifty method of making change. When sacrificing a pyramid to pay your fine, you place it upright in the center of the table. Any change you need is removed from the bowl, then placed lying down next to the piece(s) you paid. When checking to make sure the total points collected is 26, all pieces lying down are counted as negative. Once the total is verified, the upright pieces go into the bowl, and the change pieces are delivered to their owners. It's quick, it's easy, and it doesn't use paper!

See also: Wimping Out with Pyramids

How Hearts Inspired Icehouse

As a fledging writer in the summer of 1987, I wrote my longest short story ever, which I called "Icehouse." Drawing on real-life experiences (such as they were) I made up some characters based loosely on myself and some guys I used to hang out with a lot. We habitually sat around playing Hearts until very late at night, then we'd go out on minor adventures like 3 AM skinny-dipping excursions to the swimming pool behind the apartment complex where we'd gather.

When I first started making up adventures based on this group of four, I turned them into time-traveling pirates who happened to enjoy playing cards. (See "The Device".) But by the time I started writing "Icehouse," I wanted something more exotic for them to be playing with than ordinary cards. Thinking (I think) of the colorful crystals on the Sleestack control panels glimpsed in "The Land of the Lost," I envisioned beautiful crystal pyramids, never imagining how much trouble such game pieces would be to manufacture, nor even particularly caring at that point. (I believe I was also inspired by the classic board game Troke, in which each player controls a set of 12 rings, 4 each of 3 different sizes.) I then described a game I thought might be fun, yet perhaps somehow vaguely like hearts, except played with pyramids instead of cards. To make it even cooler, I had this idea for playing without turns...

But Icehouse was an imaginary game long before I thought up the pyramids. For awhile, Icehouse was an imaginary game played with regular playing cards. The nanofic entitled "The Tavern" (featured in Playing with Pyramids) is a 55-word rewrite of a story I wrote around 1983; in the original (never-published) manuscript, my hearts-playing buddies discovered a mysterious tavern where they learned a new card game, called Icehouse. In an eerie foreshadowing of future events, John Cooper was inspired by this story to invent a card game based on the one I had described. (Sadly, John no longer remembers how it was played, and all written records of the rules have been lost.)

And for a brief time, Icehouse was an imaginary game played in an unusual manner on a pool table. I remember being at a party once in college, trying (or perhaps just pretending) to make up a new game you could play with billiard balls, and saying "We'll call it Icehouse!" Bizarrely enough, John Cooper was there then, too. (I've known him for a really long time.)

Anyway, it just seemed to me there should be a game of some kind called "Icehouse."

Five Paragraphs That Changed My Life

A few years after writing the story that inspired the Icehouse set, I expanded it into a short novel, entitled The Empty City. With only a few changes, the original story became chapters 2-33 of the new book. But among those few changes was a rewrite of my original description of the once non-existent but now actually-playable Icehouse game. After John Cooper came up with rules that mostly matched my vague description, I re-wrote said description to more closely match the game we'd started playing. But looking back on it all now, I think it's interesting to read again that initial description, the way I first wrote it:

"The game of Icehouse was played on a free form surface - no board was required, only a flat area, such as a table top or floor. It could be played by two or more players, with no real upper limit, though most considered four the optimum number. The game employed the use of small four sided pyramids, of varying sizes and colors. Each player had fifteen such pyramids, called 'points,' five each of small, medium, and large sizes, all of one color. The colors traditionally used in a four player game were red, yellow, green, and blue. Dime store Icehouse sets came with cheap plastic points. A decent set used wood, and a luxury model came with points carved out of stone.

"The game itself was played by placing the points out on the table. Once placed, it was rarely legal to move them, but this was permitted under certain conditions of the game. The object was to surround a certain number of your opponents' points with points of your own, while, naturally, keeping your points from being surrounded. The condition of being surrounded was called being put 'in the icehouse' and it generally meant that you'd lost the game.

"One important feature of Icehouse was that it happened in real time, that is, there was no sense of 'turns'. Anytime you felt like making a move you could do so, provided it was a legal move. This meant that some phases of the game were met with frenzied activity by all players, and at other times, minutes would pass with little change in the playing surface, each person pleased with his position and carefully considering his options.

"In games of more than two players, an important aspect was diplomacy. Two players might want to team up to put their opponents into the icehouse collectively and thus share a joint victory. Since it was much better strategically to work together without the knowledge of the enemy, there were often many elaborate signaling systems employed in a game of Icehouse.

"An Icehouse game could last anywhere from two or three minutes to several hours. Depending on the players, it could also become an endurance test. 'Cutthroat Icehouse,' played by experts, meant that there were no breaks, play was never suspended, no matter how important the phone call or how urgent the need for restroom facilities. In such a game, anyone who got up from the table was doomed."

Since the game John invented to meet this description assigned a point value to the pieces, and caused pieces to point at each other, it was immediately obvious that we couldn't really refer to the pyramids as "points." But that's about the only concept we completely abandoned. We have yet to come up with a better nickname for the pyramids than "Icehouse Pieces."

Copyright © 2002 by Andrew Looney.

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