The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

The Bum Game

Designer: Larry Levy
Players: 3-5
Equipment: 1 Standard deck of cards with jokers. (Two decks required for 5 or more players.)

In the last ten years, a new type of card game has appeared. In each of these games, the object is to go out first by playing higher groups of cards of the same type as the group that is led. Probably the best known commercial version of this family of games is Wizards of the Coast's The Great Dalmuti, but many others have also appeared, including Karriere Poker, Zoff im Zoo and Tichu (which has become quite popular in many gaming circles). There are also a large number of these games which can be played with a conventional deck of cards (you can find their rules on the Web), with names like President, Asshole and even less savory titles. The extraordinary thing is that games of this sort were completely unknown in the West as little as a dozen years ago.

All of these games have a common ancestor: a traditional Chinese game called Zheng Shng Yu. This was described in English for the first time in 1980 by John McLeod and was given popular exposure by David Parlett, first in The Oxford Guide to Card Games (1990) and later, with more detailed rules, in Teach Yourself Card Games (1994). Parlett called his version The Bum Game and my group has played it frequently over the last five years. It's a marvelous game, although it's best played over extended sessions, since you should really play at least 50 hands to eliminate the early advantage of the first hand winner.

The following version of the game is the one played by our gaming group. In addition to a few rules tweaks, the principal differences between these rules and Parlett's are changes we've made for the three and five player games. The rules for the four player game are given first, followed by the differences for the other number of players.

The Bum Game for 4

Equipment: A 54 card deck, consisting of an ordinary 52 card deck and two Jokers.

Game Play: The Bum Game is played in a series of hands. The first hand is played by slightly different rules. Thereafter, based on the results of the previous hand, one of the players is identified as the Boss, another as the Foreman, a third as the Worker, and the fourth as the Bum. The game rules are deliberately biased with respect to these roles, with the Boss being most favored and the Bum getting the worst of it. The object of each hand is to play all your cards. After each hand, the players are awarded a different number of points. Continue play until one player reaches an agreed point total. That player is the winner.

Rank of the Cards: The two Jokers are the highest cards. They are followed by the Twos, Aces, Kings, and so on down to the Threes, the lowest ranking cards. Suits are irrelevant. Jokers and Twos are wild in certain circumstances, as will be explained later.

The Deal: The Bum shuffles and deals the cards. He gives each player a card until the deck is exhausted. This means that the first two players to receive cards (which, as we will see, are the Boss and the Foreman) will be dealt 14 cards and the other two players (the Worker and the Bum) will only get 13 cards.

Revolution: If the hand of either the Worker or the Bum contains both Jokers, that player reveals them and declares a revolution. This means that the Worker now becomes the Boss for that hand and the remaining designations follow in clockwise order, so that the old Bum is the new Foreman, the old Boss is the new Worker, and the old Foreman is the new Bum. These changes take place immediately, beginning with the card exchange. The player revealing the two Jokers places them back in her hand before continuing the game.

Card Exchange: Whether or not there is a revolution, the Boss now takes the two lowest cards in his hand and passes them face down to the Bum. The Bum, in turn, must pass his two highest cards face down to the Boss. However, if the Bum was dealt a Joker, he gets to keep it and instead passes his next two highest cards to the Boss. Similarly, the Foreman passes his lowest card to the Worker, who passes his highest non-Joker to the Foreman. Note that the Boss and the Foreman have no choice in what cards they passit must be their one or two lowest.

Play of the Hand: Each hand is played as a series of tricks, although tricks have a different structure than is usually the case. The Boss leads to the first trick by playing a combination of cards. A card combination may be a set or a sequence. A set is a group of cards of the same rank, which may include wild cards. Here are some examples of sets:

  • 7 (one seven);
  • 4-4-4 (three fours);
  • Q-Q-Q-2-Joker (five Queens);
  • 2-2-2-2 (four Twos);
  • 2-2-Joker (three Twos);
  • Joker-Joker (two Jokers).

As the foregoing shows, a Two can be used to replace any card in a set except a Joker and Jokers can be used to replace any other card in a set.

A sequence is a group of cards in consecutive order, regardless of suit. The sequence must contain at least three ranks of cards. Multiple sequences are possible. Wild cards cannot replace a card in a sequence, but can be used in a sequence if their natural order is used. Here are some examples of sequences:

  • 9-10-J (a three card sequence);
  • 5-6-7-8-9 (a five card sequence);
  • 3-3-4-4-5-5-6-6 (a four card double sequence);
  • K-K-K-A-A-A-2-2-2 (a three card triple sequence);
  • A-2-Joker (a three card sequence).

After a combination of cards is led, the player to the leader's left has the option of playing a higher ranking combination or passing. In order to be higher ranking, the new combination must be of the exact same type, have the exact same number of cards, and have higher ranking cards. For example, if a single 5 is led, the next player could play any single card of rank 6 or higher (including a 2 or a Joker). He could not play a pair, regardless of rank. Pairs must be played in response to pairs, triplets in response to triplets, and so on. Similarly, if the lead is the 6-7-8-9 sequence, the next player would have to play a four card sequence (no more, no less) headed by at least a 10. If a double three card sequence is led, it can only be followed by a higher ranked double three card sequence, and so on.

In clockwise order, each player in turn has the option of playing a higher ranking combination than the last one played or passing. Note that the leader has set the type of card combination that can be played that trick; no other type can be played until the next trick. A trick can go around the table several times, and a player who passed previously is free to play to the trick if his turn comes around again. The trick continues until three consecutive players pass. The fourth player, who played the highest combination, is the winner of the trick. The cards played to the trick are discarded, since they have no bearing on the rest of the game. The winner of the trick then leads to the next trick. If she has no cards, the first player to her left which still has cards leads.

The object of a hand is to get rid of all your cards. The first player to do this (possibly in the middle of a trick) immediately scores 3 points. That player will be the Boss for the next hand. Play continues and the next player to play all their cards scores 2 points and will be the Foreman next hand. Play continues until one of the two remaining players runs out of cards. That player scores 1 point and will be the Worker next hand. The remaining player scores no points and will be the Bum next hand.

The players now change seats (if necessary) so that they are seated Boss, Foreman, Worker, and Bum, in clockwise order. This can always be accomplished by having no more than two players switch seats. The next hand is played with this new ordering. Continue dealing hands until one player has scored enough points to win.

The First Hand: Prior to the first hand, cut cards to determine which player will be the first Boss. The player to his left will be the first hand's Foreman, followed by the Worker and the Bum. Play the first hand as usual, but do not exchange cards. The remaining hands follow the usual rules.

Winning the Game: Because the rules deliberately make it difficult for the Bum to relinquish his lowly status or for the Boss to be brought down, The Bum Game is best played over a number of sessions, with the scores and player designations carrying over from session to session. Otherwise, in a short game, the player winning the first hand will have a significant advantage. A good winning total is 100 points, which represents about five to six hours of game time, once the players get adept at the play. This works very well as a lunch time game or a regular closer. If you only want to play for about an hour, ignore the card exchange rules and play to 20 points.

Variant: If revolutions occur more often than you'd like, you can play that true revolutions only happen if the Bum is dealt both Jokers. If the Worker receives both Jokers, the only effect is that no cards are exchanged for that hand.

Strategy: The most important thing to remember is that your objective isn't to win tricks, but to rid yourself of your cards. The most significant cards in your hand aren't your high cards, but your low ones. That's because low cards can usually only be played when you are on lead, so it is all too easy to get stuck with one or two low ranking cards with no way to win a trick to lead them. Unless you have a powerful hand (such as the Boss often has), your best bet is to be patient, clear out some intermediate cards, wait for the high cards to be played out, and then make your move. If this means settling for the Foreman's or even the Worker's spot, so be it; this is far better than winding up as the Bum.

Judging how to play your cards is more of an art than a science and definitely improves with experience. Plan to make plays that will minimize the number of unmatched cards left in your hand. Above all, be flexible if things don't go as anticipated, and alert if an unexpected opportunity falls into your lap. One of the hallmarks of a good Bum player is "thinking outside the box".

One of the reasons we feel Parlett's version of the game is superior is that sequences can be easily played (many similar games do not allow them, or require they all be of the same suit). This gives you many different ways to play a hand and reduces the dependency on high cards. A hand with a long sequence and only a single Joker as a high card will usually score very well and can snatch the top spot if the Boss isn't careful. A good Boss tries to make allowances for such occurrences and will usually do his best to avoid giving up the lead. He also needs to know when to cut bait, however, and gracefully accept the Foreman spot rather than risk falling lower.

It is very easy to get discouraged when playing in the Bum seat. All the rules are pretty much stacked against you. Your best bet with most hands is to project a series of circumstances, no matter how unlikely, that will allow you to go out before all the other players do. Play your cards as if those events will occur and hope for the best. Besides, you can always pray for a revolution.

The Bum Game for 3

Equipment: A 41 card deck, consisting of three full suits and two Jokers.

Differences in Play: The player designations are Boss, Middleman, and Bum. Revolutions only occur if the Bum has both Jokers. In this case, the Bum and the Boss switch seats and designations, with the Middleman staying the same. At the beginning of each hand, the Boss passes his lowest card to the Bum, who passes his highest non-Joker to the Boss. The Middleman neither passes nor receives cards. A trick ends following two consecutive passes. The first player out of cards scores 2 points and the second scores 1 point. The winner is the first player to reach 75 points. All the other rules remain the same.

The Bum Game for 5

Equipment: A 68 card deck, consisting of five full suits and three Jokers. Since the suits don't matter, any suit can be duplicated.

Differences in Play: The player designations are Boss, Foreman, Middleman, Worker, and Bum. Revolutions occur if the Bum is dealt two or more Jokers or if the Worker is dealt all three Jokers. In either case, the Worker becomes the new Boss, the Bum becomes the new Foreman, the Boss becomes the new Middleman, the Foreman becomes the new Worker, and the Middleman becomes the new Bum. At the beginning of each hand, the Boss passes his two lowest cards to the Bum, who passes his two highest non-Jokers to the Boss. Similarly, the Foreman passes his lowest card to the Worker, who passes his highest non-Joker to the Foreman. The Middleman neither passes nor receives cards. A trick ends following four consecutive passes. The first player out of cards scores 4 points, the second player 3 points, the third player 2 points, and the fourth player 1 point. The first player to reach 125 points wins. All the other rules remain the same.

The Bum Game for more than 5

We haven't tried playing The Bum Game with more than five players, but it should be possible in theory. Use a complete suit for each player and a number of Jokers equal to about half the players. This way, each player will receive 13 or 14 cards, which we think is really important for gameplay. You'll have to work out what conditions trigger a revolution. We find the game works best if revolutions occur about 10% of the time, but keep in mind that the more players you have, the harder it will be to get out of the lower ranked positions, so you might want to have more revolutions to counteract that. You'll also have to decide how the card exchange will work. The usual rule of thumb is that each position does a little worse than the position above it. But allowing the Boss to exchange three cards might be too huge an advantage, so you might have to alter this procedure. Maybe you can come up with a creative way of differentiating the various positions without handicapping the game too much. If you come up with something really clever, let me know!

- Larry Levy

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