Skat – An Alternative for Sheepshead if there are only 3 people?

Germany, more than 200 years ago. Folks already enjoyed playing Sheepshead. Four friends set out to develop a new game by combining the best aspects of the games they loved: Sheepshead, L’Hombre, and Tarock. And just like this, Skat was born, and successively spread through central Europe, becoming the most popular card-game in Germany, which it still is to this day.

Skat is similar to Sheepshead in the following aspects:
  • Trick-taking game, requirement to follow suit

  • 32 cards, 7-to-Ace

  • Assignment of cards to points

  • Ranking of 10 above King

  • 61 to win, more than 30 to “clear Schneider”

  • Two teams play against each other, changing for each deal

  • The declarer can pick the “blind” (two cards set aside during dealing), and bury into her trick-pile to improve her hand

Skat differs from Sheepshead in the following aspects:
  • Skat is a strictly 3-person game. Though, the official rules say it can be played by 4, but then the fourth person is the dealer, changing after each Hand 🙂

  • In Skat, there are fewer trump cards: The Queens (worth 3 points) are fail-suit ranked below the Kings. Thus, the four Jacks are Trump (in the usual order).

  • In Skat, the declarer can choose a trump suit to be trump along-side the four Jacks; or the declarer can choose to play Grand, where only the Jacks are trump. Additionally, the declarer can also choose to play Null, where she wins if she does not make any trick. In Null, there are no trump-cards – even the Jacks are fail-suit. In my opinion, the aspect of choosing the trump suit is very interesting as it reduces the importance of having been dealt many trump cards in order to win. It feels like you have more control of what to do as a declarer.

  • Games are not simply valued by Won/Schneider/Schwarz; but there is a scheme on how to value each game based on: what Jacks the player had, what was trump, whether Schneider / Trickless, and various other choices the declarer made – for example, the choice to not pick-and-burry. Game values range from 18, 20, 22, 23, all the way to 264 for a single hand.

  • The last difference is that the declarer is not chosen by simply asking around the table, but by a bidding scheme. The scheme allows the person that promises to play the game with the highest value to be the declarer. The bidding, in particular how game values are determined, is a little bit technical and needs some time to get used to. For the first few games it is fine to play without bidding, but the bidding does add quite a bit of balance to the Skat. The rules for game values are simply mechanics and once understood, relatively simple (especially with a cheat-sheet) compared to the tactics that can evolve during trick-play. The intellectually challenging part (like in Sheepshead) is not determining the game value but to know whether to bid at all – and then how far.

I have been growing up in Germany, playing Skat with my Grandpa and with friends at school. So, I might be biased. But, I do enjoy Skat even more than Sheepshead. If you find yourself with 3 players you might want to give it a try!

You can read about the rules of Skat on Wikipedia, buy one of the many books, or, watch 3 Youtube videos I created. The first one Gameplay explains the basic trickplay and most of it should be fairly obvious to any Sheepshead player. If you like this, then, you can listen to the last two videos: Game Values and The Bidding, which explains how game values are determined – to keep score – and more importantly how to do proper bidding for the right to be the solo player.

The Blue Rings Deck
Ever since moving to the US 15 years ago, I found it hard to entice friends to learn how to play Skat. (Skat is a similar game to Sheepshead, see above). I lived in California and Washington – so I couldn’t find anyone playing Sheepshead either. Every time I tried, people lost interest very quickly: Why are the points assigned in such a random fashion? Why is 10 higher than King and Queen? Why is a Jack always Trump? What was their order? … Needless to say, having so many rules to explain puts Sheepshead (or Skat in my case) at a disadvantage: why learn all these random rules when there are so many simpler games out there? You know as well as I do that it is totally worth it! But good luck convincing someone of this.
So, I set out to design a deck that makes many of these rules obvious. I started with a Skat deck – because little did I know that there is such a large Sheepshead following in the US. After about 4 years of being my side-project for evenings and weekends, I am finally launching a Kickstarter for the Blue Rings Deck. The deck is $13, shipping included, for high-quality 100% PVC cards. If you like Sheepshead, you should give Skat a try. And, I think the Blue Rings cards should make it easier to find two more people to play!

Let me know what you think!

I also have the design finished for sheepshead cards: with swords for the Queens alongside the ring-cards. If you would be interested in these, let me know – maybe we can make another Kickstarter! Good quality, custom playing cards are not expensive if you want 1000 decks of them 🙂