Friday, May 18, 2007

Review: Mü

Lately I find myself playing an awful lot of , a trick taking card game for 4-6 players by Doris and Frank. The box also contains rules for four other card games that can all be played with the same special deck but none of the other games is even remotely as compelling as Mü. Of all traditional style trick taking games, Mü is easily my favorite. Let me try to explain why.


Mü comes in a very nice box which is officially labeled Mü & More. (The "& More" part refers to those four other games.) The box is far better than the standard tuck box that normal playing cards are generally sold in. This is a hard cardboard box with a nesting lid, similar to boxes used by many other European card games. It's very durable and under normal use it will typically outlast the cards themselves. Inside you'll find a very nice, and complete rule booklet, and a deck of cards. The cards themselves are quite nice with a luxurious linen finish. They are sturdy and should last for many, many games.

The deck itself is composed of sixty cards divided into five colored suits. The twelve cards in each suit are ranked from 0 to 9 with two 1s and two 7s. Each card also has a number of chevrons (or pips) printed under the rank. Most cards have one pip but 1s and 9s have none and 7s and 6s have two. Each pip is worth one point so there are sixty points distributed throughout the deck.


Mü, like most trick taking games, is played over a number of hands, usually until one player reaches a predetermined amount of points. Our lunch group typically plays to 1000 points and our games span several lunch hours but it's more common, and still quite fun, to play to a smaller score or play a predetermined number of hands, perhaps ensuring that each player deals the same number of hands. The rules state that playing to 200 points will take about an hour and my experience would say that estimate is perhaps a little bit optimistic.

A hand begins when one player shuffles the cards and deals all sixty cards to all players. Since there are sixty cards in the deck, each player will have an even number of cards whether there be four, five or six players.

After the cards are dealt, a bidding round begins. The really clever thing about Mü is that the bidding is done silently by revealing cards from your hand and placing them face up in front of you. Cards that are bid remain part of your hand and are played just like any other card but they must remain face up in front of you until they are played. The genius of this bidding mechanism is that as you bid you are also revealing information about your hand. This is especially true since if you win the bid, you will be required to name a trump suit from the cards you revealed. If you haven't revealed a blue card then you may not name blue as the trump suit.

This bidding round is really the heart of Mü and a huge part of what makes this such a brilliant game. Unlike Bridge, where hand strength is revealed through complex bidding conventions which must be learned and practiced over dozens, perhaps hundreds, of games; there are no complex bidding conventions in Mü. They aren't needed. The bidding in Mü just naturally seems to do what it should: reveal something about the players' hands, form a contract for the hand (called a goal in the rules), and select trump.

Once all players have passed, the bidding round ends and whoever has won the bid is named the "chief" of the hand. Whoever comes in second is named the "vice". In the relatively rare case where no one comes in second, there is no vice. The vice's job is to name a lesser trump suit and thwart the chief. The chief's job is to name a greater trump suit, choose a partner from the remaining players, lead the first trick, and, as a partnership, try to capture enough points to fulfill the contract based on the number of cards in the bid. Naturally, the more cards that were bid, the more points the chief and his partner are required to take and the more difficult it will be to win the hand.

Since both the vice and chief call trump, there are (usually) two trump suits in a hand. The vice chooses a trump and the chief must either choose a different trump or choose "no trump" in which case only the suit named by the vice is trump. These two trump suits then merge to become a single trump suit. What's more, either colors or numbers can be declared trump. For instance, the vice could declare that 1s are trump and the chief could declare that blacks are trump. In this case, the two black 1s would be the highest trump cards (since they are doubly trump by virtue of both their rank and color), followed by the black 9, 8, 7s, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 0 (the chief's trump), with the eight other 1s (the vice's trump) tied as the lowest trump cards. Note that the 1s would be in the trump suit; and thus not considered red, blue, green or yellow cards. This can lead to some confusion (many is the time I've accidentally played a trump number card when I thought I was following suit) but it also leads to some very intriguing play possibilities.

Tricks are played as in most traditional trick taking games. A card is lead and each subsequent player must follow the lead suit if they can. The highest card in the lead suit takes the trick unless one or more players was void in that suit and chose to play a trump card, in which case the highest trump card takes the trick. If two identical cards are winning the trick (possible since there are two 7s and two 1s in each suit and also since numbers can be declared trump) the first of the tied cards wins. The winner of the trick takes the cards played in the trick and earns the right to lead the next trick.

Once all cards have been played, the hand ends. Each player counts the number of pips on the cards they've captured and earns that number of points. The chief and his partner add their pips together to determine if the chief has fulfilled his bidding contract and won the hand. If the chief has won the hand then both the chief and his partner are awarded bonus points based upon the difficulty of the contract. If they fail, the chief is docked points and each of the players on the vice's team for that hand are awarded a bonus.


The doubled 7s and 1s, the uneven distribution of pips, the ever-changing partnerships, the double trump suits, and the ability to name numbers as well as suits trump all make for a very strategic and relatively complex game. While the rules themselves are not that complex, the ramifications of those rules can be. This is probably not the best game for trick taking novices; yet it is far easier to learn than Bridge and much richer and more elegant than any other trick taking game I've played.

Probably the most common mistake newcomers make is forgetting that all trump cards (numbers or colors) become part of the same suit during play. If the trump is black over 1s (to use our earlier example) and a black card is lead, then the 1s are all in suit and may be played without breaking suit. Conversely, if someone leads a yellow card then your yellow 1 is trump and may not be played unless you have no other yellow cards. It takes some getting used to but once everyone gets the hang of it, it's brilliant.

The play of the hand makes use of skills that will be familiar to seasoned card players. Players who understand the value of roughing, draining trump, and especially card counting, will benefit. The uneven pip distribution and the fact that the length of the trump suit changes from hand to hand (depending on what was called) make the play even more exciting and challenging. For instance, 9s are powerful but they are worth no points. 1s can be thrown on hands you know you're losing to avoid giving away points. 6s can be thrown on hands you know your partner is winning.

But where the game really shines is in the bidding. The simple bidding system offers so many possibilities. As the bidding unfolds it's typical for two players with strong hands to battle back and forth for chief while the other players lay down just enough cards in an attempt to be chosen as the chief's partner. Bidding can get brutal when one player indicates he might be a good partner only to get cold feet as the chief's bid rises too high for comfort. So he lays down a high enough bid to secure the vice position, thus forcing the chief to partner with one of the weaker players instead. Bidding is always tense and good bidding is what sets a good Mü player apart from the rest.

Mü is for four to six players but I think it plays best with five and it's almost as good with four. With six players your hand is very small and the chief's team is outnumbered two to one. This makes the deal a little more fickle and it makes it more difficult to bid with confidence. But don't let that deter you from playing with six! It's still quite enjoyable. With four players you have more information but the chief's team seems to be just a little more powerful. Five is the sweet spot.

If Mü has one flaw (other than its complexity which, with practice, becomes a virtue) it is that, like most card games, it can be very susceptible to the whims of fate. Even the best Mü player in the world can lose by being dealt several bad hands in a row. As players become more comfortable with bidding this becomes less of a problem but it will never go away completely. If you want a fair game then you really need to play dozens of hands to allow the luck to even out.

So if you are looking for a rich trick taking game that will provide experienced card players with a lifetime of enjoyment then you need look no further than Mü. I really can't recommend it highly enough.