The Game of Königsrufen

Introduction

Königsrufen is an Austrian trick-taking game for four players in which there is a permanent set of trumps. The contract played is determined by bidding, and in most contracts the object is not to win a certain number of tricks but to capture in the tricks cards amounting to a certain value.

This article describes the variant of the game played in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England – and now also at Made by Many in London.

The order of a game is as follows:

  1. The deal
  2. Bidding for game
  3. Doubling and announcements (if allowed for the game that was bid)
  4. Playing of tricks
  5. Scoring

It should be noted, there are two sorts of “points” in Königsrufen. Cards have points values which are often used to determine which side wins one particular game. Games have points values which originally corresponded to amounts of money: the game scoring system arose out of people pushing money across the table. Königsrufen in Cheltenham is not played for money, so it is simulated with game points - the sum of all players’ ongoing scores at any point in time should be zero.

There are always two sides in a game (apart from in Trischaken, which is “every player for themselves”, and will be explained later): declarer, and if they are playing with one, their partner; and the defenders. The two sides always win or lose as one, and each player gains or loses the same number of points as every other player on their side.

The Cards

A 54-card Austrian Tarock pack is used. Packs of the same design are used in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia under the very similar names “Tarokk” and “Tarok”. A pack of the same composition is also known in Germany, but is called a “Cego” pack (for the game of the same name), and the pack called “Tarock” in Germany is unsuitable – it has only 36 cards.

In Cheltenham at least (and presumably in Austria), a Piatnik “Industrie und Glück” Tarock deck is standard.

A French pack of Tarot playing cards can be suitably shortened. The Swiss or Italian pack – or even the soothsayers’ tarot pack – could be suitably shortened, but have south European suit-signs.

In the Austrian pack there are:

Note that labelling 10–7, but also 1–4 “high–low” is not a mistake: in the red suits, the pip cards’ values are reversed. This only usually becomes a deciding factor in Trischaken.

The Pagat, Uhu and Kakadu are collectively known as the “birds”.

The Deal

One player – say the owner of the cards – deals one card at a time anti-clockwise (starting with the player to their right) until a king appears. The player with this king deals first.

The dealer shuffles and offers the pack to their left to be cut. If the player on the left does cut, then dealer places six cards face down in the centre of the table as the “talon” and then deals anti-clockwise in packets of six cards, starting with forehand (the player to the dealer’s right). Six cards are then dealt to each player again to give twelve cards to each hand.

If, however, the player to the dealer’s left raps the pack with their knuckles to signify that they do not wish to cut, then forehand chooses whether the dealer shall deal normally as above, or else deal six as the talon follwed by four packets of twelve. In this case, forehand, second, and third hands choose – in this order – which pile to pick up, with the dealer taking the last packet. The rapping is called “klopfing”.

The talon can alternatively be dealt as a packet of six cards at any stage, or as packets of three cards at any two stages, provided the players’ hands are dealt in packets of six cards (or twelve if that option was chosen after a klopf).

When more than four players meet

The next game is normally dealt by the person to the right of the old dealer, but if extra players have joined or left the table than the next game is dealt so that the new forehand is to the right of the previous forehand.

Bidding For Game

Forehand opens with a bid of Rufer (which only forehand may bid), or any other contract apart from Trischaken or Sechserdreier.

Bidding then follows anti-clockwise around the table. Each player in turn must out-bid the current bid, or pass. Once a player has passed, they may not re-enter the bidding for game but they may still take part in the announcements and doubling. To out-bid, players must declare a contract higher (that is, further down the table below) than the current bid; forehand may alternatively declare the same contract as the current bid. Bidding ends once three players have passed. The winner of the bidding is known as the declarer.

If a forehand bid of Rufer is passed around, forehand must either stay with Rufer by calling a king, switch to Trischaken (by immediately leading a card, skipping announcements and doubling and proceeding directly to the game) or switch to Sechserdreier (by turning over all six cards of the talon). No other contract may be played in this situation.

Calling a King

If declarer bid Rufer (and did not switch it to Trischaken or Sechserdreier as above), Besser Rufer, or Solo, they must now call a king by naming its suit. The holder of the called king becomes declarer’s partner. No-one reveals if they do or do not hold the called king. Declarer may, if they wish, call a king which they hold – in this case they do not play with a partner and the game is scored as such, but this situation is not revealed until the king is played. King Ultimo is also scored as normal in this case. If declarer holds exactly three kings, they may call “the other king” or “the fourth king”.

Exchange with the Talon

If declarer bid Rufer, Besser Rufer, or Dreier, they turn over the top three cards of the talon, followed by the bottom three – showing them to all players. They must choose which group of three cards to take into their hand – the remaining three go to the defenders to score as points, as if it was a won trick.

If the called king is found in the talon declarer may concede, automatically losing that hand and paying the points accordingly. This prevents anyone from doubling the game with a Kontra. If declarer decides to play on, they take one half of the talon as normal. A conceded Besser Rufer is deemed to have included announcing Pagat. Whether they concede or play alone, declarer collects from or pays to all three opponents.

If forehand turns over all six cards of the talon at once, to announce Sechserdreier, they take them all into their hand.

Declarer must then put down as many cards as they picked up to return their hand to twelve cards. The discarded cards will be scored as if they were a won trick. Kings, the Sküs, the Mond and Pagat must never be discarded. Other trumps can only be discarded if there are no alternatives, and they must be shown to the other players before discarding.

Announcements and Doubling

Now the announcements and/or doublings start. Announcements are feats that you are betting that you or your partner (if any) will be able to accomplish in the game, and doublings double the game point value of the game or an opponent’s previous announcement. Except that only a member of declarer’s side may announce King Ultimo, either side may make any announcement, and all players on the same side gain or lose equally, whoever actually made the announcement.

All the announcements apart from 45 also have a game point value when attempted, but not announced in this phase. Apart from 45 and Valat, this includes attempting but failing to make a feat – such as losing the last trick having played the Pagat.

In Bettel, Piccolo, Bettel Ouvert and Piccolo Ouvert, there are no announceable feats available to any player and so declarer must pass. In Sechserdreier, announceable feats are available to all players except forehand, and so again declarer must pass. Any feats that declarer makes (or fails at) in Sechserdreier are scored at the unannounced rate.

Otherwise, declarer starts by calling zero or more announcements or doublings (as in the table below), and then “pass” to signal they are not calling any more. Defenders (opponents of the declarer) must prefix any announcements they make with “defensive”.

The game and any announced feats are scored separately – even in Besser Rufer – and so can be doubled separately by any successive opponent by announcing “kontra the [game or feat]”. This doubles the amount of points the game or feat is worth – both to win or lose by. The declarer or announcer of the feat then has the option to rekontra, quadroupling the points value. Finally, the opponent can then sub-kontra if they wish, bringing the game or feat to eight times its normal value.

A defender announcing 45 or Valat must first kontra or subkontra the game, and if declarer or their partner announces 45 after a kontra then they must first rekontra.

It is legal for someone to bid Besser Rufer when they don’t hold a bird, hoping they find one in the talon. If they don’t, they still must announce one even though they cannot make it. Similarly, declarer can announce King Ultimo for their partner’s king, hoping that they make it.

In Solo and Solodreier all announceable feats, including Valat, count double – whether announced or not.

Announcements and doubling finish when three players in succession have said nothing but “pass”.

Playing of Tricks

Forehand leads a card to the first trick, except in Bettel and Bettel Ouvert where declarer leads. Play continues anti-clockwise.

If a suit is led it must be followed if possible. If no card of the led suit is held, a trump must be played. If no trumps are held any other card can be played, but it cannot win the trick.

In negative contracts (see table), play is also subject to the “rising rule”: if a player can legally play a card that beats those already played, they must do so.

In the Ouvert contracts, declarer’s cards are laid down face-up on the table before the lead to the second trick.

In Trischaken, you may not play the Pagat until it is your only trump.

If a player has announced Pagat, Uhu, Kakadu or King Ultimo, they must try to make the feat even if it is clear they cannot – the relevant card cannot be deliberately played early or late unless they have no other legal card to play. If there is a trick where one of many announced cards is forced, the player can choose which one to play.

If a suit is led and no trump is played the highest card in that suit wins the trick, otherwise the highest trump does. The winner of the trick leads the next. Tricks are kept face-down by their winner or a player known by the whole table to be on the same side.

Point Counting

At the end of play in a contract where the target is an amount of points, the two sides add the cards taken in their tricks to any relevant part of the talon or the cards discarded by declarer during the talon exchange. The points value of these two resultant piles are then counted to determine the winner.

In Rufer, Besser Rufer, Dreier, and Besser Dreier, the three cards discarded by declarer before play as part of the talon exchange are added to the declarer’s pile of won tricks. In Sechserdreier, declarer takes the six cards discarded.

In Solo and Solodreier, the talon is given to the defending side unless Solo was played and the called king is found in it, in which case in Cheltenham, the whole talon is taken by the defender. In this case the declarer pays to or receives from all three defenders, but if they failed, any Kontra is cancelled unless it had been Rekontra’d or the declarer had made any announcements.

In Solo and Solodreier, if declarer (or partner, if any) announced 45 and Valat (announced or not) is made, the defence do not get the talon – so even in the unlikely event that the talon holds twenty-six points, the 45 is still made. Similarly, if in Solo the defence bid 45 and make Valat and the called king is in a twenty-six-point talon, then the 45 would be allowed.

To count points, for each set of three cards, or two odd cards at the end of the pile, count one point, plus:

The total is seventy, except in Trischaken where some cards are out of play in the talon.

It is thought this curious way of counting is borrowed from a three-handed game, in which the sets of three cards would be the tricks.

Scoring

Sum the game points, as modified by any doubling, adding for game and any announcements made, and subtracting for game and any announcements lost. If Solo or Solodreier was played, the value of all annouceable feats is doubled – both announced and unannounced.

If declarer has been playing alone, they collect in game points from each opponent the figure in the table for the game, each announcement they made, and each opponent’s announcement they defeated. For game lost, declarer’s announcements lost or defender’s announcements made, declarer pays to each opponent the figure in the tables.

If declarer had a partner they each collect from – or pay to – one opponent the figure in the tables for game and any announcements.

Doublings must be taken into account for the game and any announcements.

For example, for a made game of Besser Rufer (+1) where declarer had a partner, announced and made Pagat (+2), and failed an unannounced King Ultimo (−1), declarer and declarer’s partner each lose 2, and each defender gains 2.

A failed game of Dreier Kontra’d (−3 × 2 = −6), with an announced Rekontra’d Uhu made (+1 × 4 = 4), with defenders making Pagat unannounced (−1, from the point of view of the declarer) would result in declarer losing 9 (−3 × 3 defenders), and each defender gaining 3.

Tables

Contracts

Game Rules Type Value Goal
Rufer Use half the talon and play with the owner of the called king. Positive 1 36 points
Trischaken Everyone plays for themselves. Negative +1 / −2 (see note 1) No tricks or not most points.
Sechserdreier Use whole talon but play alone. Positive +3 / −6 (see note 2) 36 points
Solo Play with the owner of the called king without the talon. Positive 2 36 points
Piccolo Play alone. Negative 2 Win exactly one trick.
Besser Rufer Call a king. Use half the talon and play with the owner of the called king. Positive 1 (plus announced bird(s)) 36 points, plus announced Pagat, Uhu, or Kakadu.
Bettel Play alone Negative 3 Win no tricks.
Dreier Use half the talon, but play alone. Positive 3 36 points
Piccolo Ouvert Play alone. Negative 4 Win exactly one trick, with hand face-up after first trick.
Besserdreier Use half the talon, but play alone. Positive 3 (plus announced bird(s)) 36 points, plus announced Pagat, Uhu, or Kakadu.
Bettel Ouvert Play alone. Negative 6 Win no tricks, with hand face-up after first trick.
Solodreier Play alone, using none of the talon. Positive 6 36 points

Note 1

In Trischaken, if a player wins no tricks they collect one from every other player. If two take no tricks they each collect one from one opponent. Otherwise, the player taking the most points pays one to each other unless they are forehand, in which case they pay two to each other player.

Note 2

In Sechserdreier, forehand receives three from each opponent for winning, but pays six to each for failing.

Announcements

Name Announced Value Unannounced Value Goal
Pagat Ultimo 2 1 Use Pagat to win last trick.
King Ultimo 2 1 Called king is won by declarer or declarer's partner in last trick.
Uhu 3 1 Use Uhu to win last trick but one.
Kakadu 4 1 Use Kakadu to win last trick but two.
45 2 0 Take 45 points instead of the usual 36.
Valat 8 4 Win all tricks.

Doubling

Name Effect Objective
Kontra Double value of game or announcement. Defeat announcement or contracted game.
Rekontra Double a previous Kontra, quadroupling the original value. Achieve Kontra'd goal.
Subkontra Double a previous Rekontra, multiplying the original value eightfold. Defeat Rekontra'd goal.

Compiled by Dan Bee.

Email me with comments, suggestions, corrections, other things: “dan”, then an at sign, then “stompydan.net”.