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Need a Fourth?

Designer: Larry Levy
Players: 3
Equipment: Standard deck of cards.

A Bridge Variant for Three Players

Author's Note: This game was originally designed in 1985; it was my first complete game design. The scoring was revised and the optional rules added five years later. I have successfully played this game with both Bridge players and those unfamiliar with the game. For the former, it is a challenging variant which rewards visualization, proper signaling, and careful card play. For the latter, it can serve as a fine introduction to a great game, since there is less to remember with the bidding and there is no full-time partner to yell at you if you screw up. Hopefully, many of you will find it enjoyable as well.

Scores of Bridge variants for less than four players have been invented, most of them for two. The few games created for a threesome vainly searching for a fourth tend to be unexciting and overly dependent on luck. This is an attempt to fill the breach. Game play is very much like the parent game, although some changes in the scoring rules have been made. The major twist: the players who win the bidding must play defense—and they still have to take a majority of the tricks!

The Deal: One player is selected to be dealer and deals fourteen cards to each player. The remaining ten cards are placed face down in a separate pile called the dummy.

Bidding: The dealer opens the bidding. Bidding proceeds just as in Bridge. For non-Bridge players, I will explain in some detail. Every bid consists of two parts. The first part is a number from one to seven. This is the number of tricks the player is saying he and the partner he will eventually choose will win in excess of six tricks. (In other words, the lowest number of tricks that can be won to satisfy a bid is 7 (6 + 1) and the highest number is 13 (6 + 7), which is all the tricks in a hand.) The second part of a bid is the suit the bidder is suggesting as trump. The choices here are Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades, or No Trump. With this last choice, the bidder is proposing a hand which will not have a trump suit. These bids are called contract bids. In addition to contract bids, a player may also make a bid of "Pass".

The opening bidder may make any of the bids explained above. Each succeeding bidder must either Pass or make a bid higher in rank than the last contract bid made. The contract bids are ranked as follows: One Club, One Diamond, One Heart, One Spade, One No Trump, Two Clubs, Two Diamonds, Two Hearts, Two Spades, Two No Trump, Three Clubs, and so on. The highest bid is Seven No Trump. A player who passes is not forbidden from re-entering the bidding at a later time.

After the dealer makes her opening bid (which can be a Pass), the bid proceeds in a clockwise fashion and continues until a contract bid is followed by two consecutive Passes. This ends the bidding, which is won by the player making the last contract bid. In the unlikely event that all three players Pass in the first round, the cards are redealt with a new dealer.

(Bridge veterans should note that bids of Double and Redouble cannot be made during the auction. See the next paragraph to find how those actions do occur.)

The player who made the last contract bid is called the Chooser. The Chooser now selects which of the two other players will be her partner. If the player who was not chosen doubts that the other two players can make the bid, he has the option of saying "Double", which increases the rewards and penalties for the hand. If he does Double the bid, the Chooser may either say "Redouble" (which further increases the rewards and penalties of the hand--the Chooser is confident her team can make the bid) or "Pass". If the Chooser passes, her partner has the same option. If the partner Redoubles, she, and not the original Chooser, then becomes the Chooser for the hand for the purposes of scoring. If the partner passes, the hand is played as a Doubled contract with the original Chooser.

The player not chosen by the Chooser is called the Declarer for that hand. The other two players are called the Defenders.

Each of the three players now takes one card from their hand and places it face down onto the dummy's hand. All four hands should now consist of 13 cards. The Declarer then shuffles the dummy, still keeping it face down, and places it opposite him on the table, between the two Defenders. The Defender on the Declarer's left leads the card to the first trick, after which the cards in the dummy are exposed and sorted by suit.

Play of the Hand: The objective for the Defenders is to take the required number of tricks between their two hands. Thus, if the Chooser's last bid was 4 Spades, the Defenders would have to combine to take 10 tricks between them, with Spades as trumps. The Declarer plays both from his own hand and from the dummy. He plays from the dummy just as if it were a fourth player sitting opposite the Declarer. The Declarer's objective is to stop the Defenders from meeting their goal.

Play is identical to Bridge. The highest card of the led suit wins the trick, unless a trump card is played, in which case the highest trump wins. Players must follow suit if able, but are not required to play a trump if they have no cards of the led suit. The winner of a trick leads to the next trick.

Scoring: The scoring for a hand depends upon how high a bid was made. Bids fall into four categories: Partials, Games, Small Slams, and Grand Slams.

3 No Trump, 4 Hearts, 4 Spades, 5 Clubs, and 5 Diamonds are game bids. Any bid lower than these levels in the appropriate suit is a Partial. Bids at game level, but lower than the six level are Games. Any bid at the six level is a Small Slam. Any bid at the seven level is a Grand Slam.

Points are only scored for the level which was bid. Thus, if 4 Hearts was bid and 12 tricks are taken, only the points for a game are scored, not a small slam.

The Declarer never receives any score for a hand. If the Defenders make at least as many tricks as they bid, they receive the appropriate score for the category of their bid—only 100 points for a partial, going up to 2000 points for a grand slam. They also receive additional points for every "overtrick" (tricks above the level of their bid) they take. For example, if the bid is 3 Diamonds and the defenders take 11 tricks, they score for a partial with two overtricks. Finally, if the bid was doubled or redoubled, the Chooser and her Partner receive different bonuses in addition to the above scores.

If the Defenders fail to make their bid, they receive a penalty for every "undertrick" (tricks by which they fell short of their bid) they suffer. Thus, if the bid is 4 Hearts and the defenders only take nine tricks, they are penalized for one undertrick. The Chooser and her Partner score different penalties, and the loss increases significantly if the bid was doubled or redoubled.

The following tables summarize the scoring for the Chooser and her Partner. (The column labeled "Liar" is only used with the optional rules and will be explained in the next section. Just ignore it if you're playing with the basic rules.)

Scoring Table Chooser Partner Liar
Making a partial 100 pts 100 pts -
Making a game 500 pts 500 pts -
Making a small slam 1200 pts 1200 pts -
Making a grand slam 2000 pts 2000 pts -
Making any doubled hand +300 pts +200 pts -
Making any redoubled hand +600 pts +400 pts -
Additional bonus for making a doubled partial hand +300 pts +300 pts -
For each overtrick:      
Normal hand +50 pts +50 pts -
Doubled hand +100 pts +100 pts -
Redoubled hand + 200 pts + 200 pts -
For each undertrick:      
Normal hand -100 pts -50 pts -150 pts
Doubled hand -250 pts -150 pts -350 pts
Redoubled hand -500 pts -300 pts -600 pts

The bonus for making a redoubled hand is not in addition to the doubled bonus—only one of the two bonuses can be earned, depending if the hand is doubled or redoubled. The bonus for a partial is scored when a doubled or redoubled partial bid is made. This bonus is scored in addition to the normal bonus for making a doubled or redoubled hand. Note that there is no bonus score in any of the hands for 100 honors or for holding four aces.

The scores for each player are kept separately. There are no above or below the line scores, just a single running total.

After the hand is scored, the game continues with the player to the left of the previous hand's dealer dealing out the next hand. Prior to beginning play, the players should mutually decide how many hands will be played. This number should be a multiple of three so that every player has the same number of chances to be the dealer. After the last hand, whoever has the highest total score wins the game.

Optional Rule—Minimum Bidding Requirements: The scoring in Need a Fourth? tries to punish an overbidder who is determined to play a contract (and possibly take his helpless partner down with him) regardless of the weakness of his hand. This is the reason the Chooser loses more points than his partner when a contract goes down. However, it is still possible for a crafty player to open a weak hand, let the other two players fight over her, and then wind up as part of a losing partnership when the other two players could have combined for a game or a slam. The worst part of this (or, from the point of view of our sneaky opener, the best part) is that the guilty party doesn't even lose as many points as her gullible partner. There is scope for a tremendous amount of creative bluffing in the bidding of Need a Fourth?, and this is certainly an appealing aspect of the game to a wide variety of players. However, it cannot be denied that this also injects a great deal of randomness into the bidding that might distress serious players, particularly bridge veterans. For these players, the following optional rules are recommended.

Certain bids are given minimum requirements. These bids are called structured bids. A suggested list of structured bids is given below, along with their requirements, but players should feel free to add or subtract from this list as they see fit. The only rule which should be observed is that all three players must agree to the inclusion of a bid and its requirements or it will remain unstructured. There are no requirements on any unstructured bid.

Before outlining the list of structured bids, the following items will be reviewed for non-bridge players. Spades and Hearts are called major suits. Diamonds and Clubs are called minor suits. To obtain the point count of a hand, assign 4 points for each Ace, 3 points for each King, 2 points for each Queen, and 1 point for each Jack. Adding all these points together yields the hand's point count.

Here are the minimum requirements for the following bids:

One of a minor: Bidder must have at least 4 cards in the suit bid and at least a 10 point hand.
One of a major: Bidder must have at least 5 cards in the suit bid and at least a 10 point hand.
One No Trump: Bidder must have at least a 15 point hand.
Two No Trump: Bidder must have at least a 20 point hand.
Raising a suit bid from the one level to the two level: In other words, another player bid the suit at the one level and you are now bidding it at the two level at your first opportunity. The bidder must have at least a 5 point hand. If the suit is a minor suit, the bidder must have at least 4 cards in the suit bid. If the suit is a major suit, the bidder must have at least 3 cards in the suit bid.
Raising a suit bid from the one level to the three level: In other words, another player bid the suit at the one level and you are now bidding it at the three level at your first opportunity. The bidder must have at least a 10 point hand. If the suit is a minor suit, the bidder must have at least 4 cards in the suit bid. If the suit is a major suit, the bidder must have at least 3 cards in the suit bid. This bid is structured even if it follows another player's raising of the suit from the one level to the two level (e.g., in the auction, 1 Spade - 2 Spades - 3 Spades, with all three players making bids, all three bids are structured).

The first four requirements are only in effect if the bid is the first the player has made. A bid at the one level or of Two No Trump is unstructured if the player's first bid was a pass, and has no additional requirements if the bid is a follow-up to the player's opening bid of one of a suit. Moreover, any raises of these "second round" one level bids by another player are also unstructured. (However, note that a player whose first bid was a Pass and who then makes a single or double raise of a structured suit bid of another player has made a structured bid.) To clarify another unusual case, if Player A bids 1 Club, Player B bids 1 Heart, and Player A then bids 2 Hearts or 3 Hearts, Player A's bid is structured in that his hand must have at least three hearts.

These are just some of the bids which could be included as structured. Other bids which Bridge veterans could add to the list at their choice include weak two bids, the strong 2 Club bid, raises to a 1 No Trump bid, and the Stayman convention.

A player does not have to meet the minimum requirements in order to make a structured bid. However, if he lies, becomes a Defender on the hand, and then his partnership fails to make their bid, he will suffer greater penalties for each undertrick.

The play of the hand when playing with the optional rules is just the same as for the basic game, except that during a trick, each Defender plays her card in front of herself, rather than to the center of the table. If the Defenders win a trick, each Defender should turn her card over and add it to a pile in front of her to the left; if the trick is lost, the card should be added to a pile to the right. Alternatively, if the players trust each other they can simply play to tricks in the usual manner and make a mental note of whether they were truthful during the bidding.

If the Defenders make their bid, score up the hand as in the basic game and go to the next deal. However, if the Defenders fail to make their bid, reassemble each of their hands, review the bidding, and see if either of the two Defenders lied during the auction. If neither player lied, or if both players lied, assign the penalties to the Chooser and his Partner as prescribed in the basic game. If only one player lied, however, the hand is scored differently. The guilty player receives the penalties given under the "Liar" column of the Scoring Table; her partner, regardless of whether she was the Chooser or not, receives the penalties given under the "Partner" column of the table. Note that a lying player suffers the penalties outlined above even if her truthful partner redoubles. Obviously, honesty may sometimes be the best policy in this version of Need a Fourth?.

Acknowledgment: I want to thank my two loyal playtesters, Bill Moore and Al Dunn. Both have provided input which has affected the design of Need a Fourth? and made it a better game.

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