This is not mine, the creator of this is u/enderpiet
Since the Diamond Casino update, I have seen a large number of 12-year-olds posting Blackjack memes on this sub. As a parent, this has me very worried.
On top of that, I have seen some of the most trustworthy GTA Youtubers giving flawed gambling advice, which can have damaging impact on their gullible audiences.
So that's why I decided to write this up, to educate everyone on the subject, so there will be no more misunderstandings. (2020 Update down at the bottom.)
If you're one of those Youtubers that wants to use this information in a video, feel free to do so. The more people (especially kids) that become educated about gambling, the better.
But then also please go back and review your own work, and delete or edit the videos that are giving out the wrong advice, like where you're saying you have "a good strategy for making money with roulette", or some other nonsense that I've heard this week. Delete that please.
Before I get into the individual games, I need to discuss a few concepts first, that will make understanding the rest a lot easier. Expected return and variance
A game like Roulette or Slots has a fixed expected return on your bets. This is a percentage that you have no way of influencing. Say you are flipping a coin against a friend, and you both put up $1. The winner gets the pot. Since the odds are even at 50%, in the long run, you will expect to break even. Your expected return is 100% of your bet.
But imagine if you would play this coin flipping game in a casino against the house. On the "house rules" listed at the table they would probably say that you would only get 95 cents back for every win, while you are forfeiting a dollar on every loss. Would you still play?
Sounds stupid to do so, but still, everybody does it. Every bet they place on Roulette, every coin they put into a Slot machine, is based on the same concept.
Those few cents they take on every bet are their profit margin, and has paid for all the Vegas lights, the Mirage volcanoes, and the Bellagio fountains. Make no mistake - casino gambling games are not designed to make you lose, because sure, you can get lucky on a single night, but they are designed to make them win. That's the beauty of it. They can both exist at the same time.
Too many people that don't see how this works, are just destined for disaster. Just because you went on a lucky streak and won 8 games out of 10, does not mean that flipping coins is a profitable game, or that choosing tails is a winning strategy. Always be aware of the house edge, your true chances of winning, and just realize that you got lucky. There is no such thing as a strategy in flipping a coin that will give you a higher expected return, so it's just pure gambling, just like Slots and Roulette.
Most casino games are made in such a way, that your expected return is a little under 100%. This means that from every dollar bet at the tables, the casino expects to keep a few cents. For individual players, results may vary. Some will win, most will lose. But for the house, it doesn't matter. They take millions of bets each day, so for them, the expected average works out a lot sooner. In short: the house always wins.
When looking at the house edge, we're talking about the expected long-term result, based on the game's house rules. But for a player, it can take literally tens of thousands of hands or spins before you also reach this average number. Until that time, you can experience huge upswings and downswings, that are the result of nothing but short-term luck, which is called variance.
Some games and some bets have a much higher variance than others, which means your actual results will differ enormously from what you're expected to be at.
Take for example betting on red/black at the Roulette table. This is a low-variance proposition, because it has a high percentage chance of occurring, and a low payout.
Contrast this with betting single numbers in Roulette, which only win once every 38 spins on average. This bet has a much higher variance, meaning you can easily hit a dry spell, and not hit anything for 200 bets in a row, or you can see a single number hit three times in five consecutive spins. This is not a freak occurrence in high-variance bets.
Even though the expected return in both these bets is exactly the same, there's a huge difference in variance, causing massive differences in short-term results, which can go both ways. You need to be aware of this, before you decide what types of bets you are comfortable with placing. Gamblers' Fallacy
Another thing to realize, is that each individual game, hand, or spin, is completely independent from the one(s) before it, and after it.
Gamblers tend to believe, that the chance of a certain outcome is increased, based on previous results.
The most famous example comes from the Casino de Monte Carlo, where the Roulette wheel managed to land on black 26 times in a row. Gamblers lost many millions during that streak, all frantically betting on red, believing that the odds were in favor of the wheel coming out on red, after producing so many blacks. This is not true. Each round is completely independent, and the odds are exactly the same.
You will hear people say things like a Blackjack table being "hot" or "cold", which is completely superstitious, and should be ignored. The exception was when Blackjack was being dealt from a shoe. It made card counting possible. But with the introduction of shuffle machines, and continuous shuffling like is being used in GTA, this no longer exists.
This is also why "chasing your losses" is a very bad idea. After being on a losing streak for some time, many gamblers believe that now it's their turn to start winning. So they will often increase their bet size, believing that when their predicted winning streak comes around, they will win back their losses, and more.
The reality of it, more often than not, is that people will indeed start playing higher and higher limits, until they are completely broke. Nobody is ever "due for a win". There is never a guarantee that you're about to start winning. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. You are, after all, in a casino. Betting systems
Some people like to think that they have a fool-proof betting system, like the Martingale system. Simply increase or even double your bet when you lose, and keep doing that until you win. In theory, this system will always win. So that's why table limits were introduced, and where the system fails.
If you start at the Roulette table, playing red/black, with a small 750 chip wager, and just double your bet every time you lose, you only have to lose 6 times in a row, before you will be betting the table limit of 48,000, just to get that 750 chip profit.
Sure, you can go on all evening without this happening, winning 750 chips each time, but this losing streak only has to happen once, and you're bust. Any betting system like this is ill-advised, because you are hugely increasing your so-called "risk of ruin", and that's what we were trying to avoid.
And even if your starting bet is only 100 chips, after only nine straight losses, and nine doubled bets, you are betting the table limit at 50,000 chips. If you lose that bet, you're 100,000 chips in the hole, with no way to recover that with your 100 chip base wager.
So don't believe anyone that says this is the perfect system to always win in the casino. Sooner or later they will understand why they were wrong, when they're asking you for a loan. Set your limits BEFORE you start playing
One final point before we get into the games, a general tip for people that head out to play: money management.
Just like in real life, before you go to the casino, decide on a maximum amount that you are WILLING TO LOSE.
Bet small enough, so that amount can last you through the entire evening, and you will not be tempted to run to the ATM to continue playing.
Considering GTA money, some people will be comfortable losing 1% of their GTA bank balance, some people will be comfortable with gambling away 5% of their total GTA savings. It's up to you what you can handle. Decide for yourself where it will start to hurt, and don't cross that line.
But whatever number you decide on, as soon as you lost that amount, get up and walk away. Don't chase your losses, stick to your limits, and accept that this has not been your day. There is always another game tomorrow. Always agree with yourself on a simple stop-loss rule, how much you would want to lose at most, and simply stop playing when you get there.
Same goes for winning. You can decide on a number, how much profit you would like to take away from the casino. You can go on a hot streak and be up half a million in a short period of time, but if you would continue to play longer, looking for more, chances are that you're going to lose it all back.
Most people are happy with doubling their daily casino budget, for example. Others are looking for 10 bets profit in Blackjack. Whatever you choose, when you hit that number, you can stop playing and bank your profits, or you can continue playing if you're still enjoying the games, but then only just play minimum bet sizes. Then you're just playing for fun, not for money. You've already made your profit, so simply keep it in your pocket, and don't risk losing it again.
Either way, decide on what your money management strategy will be, and STICK TO IT. Casino games in GTA Online
Now, I'm going to dive into the games that you can find at the Diamond casino, ordered from worst to best. 6) Slots
Generally the rule is this: the less strategy a game has, the worse it is for the player. And with slots, this is definitely the case.
The only influence you have, is choosing what type of machine you're going to play. Basically, there are two types of slot machines:
-high frequency, low payout slots
-low frequency, high payout slots
In the first type, there is no huge (progressive) jackpot on offer, just your average selection of prizes that don't go up to crazy amounts.
This will result in a player having many more spins resulting in a win. The amounts that you win on the bigger prizes, will be smaller, but they do come around more often. This type of slot machine has a lower variance, which means that your money should last you longer, winning many smaller prizes along the way to keep you going.
The second type of slot machine lures you in with the temptation of a huge jackpot prize. Even though the long-term expected return on these machines is the same as the previous type, the prize distribution is hugely different. The large jackpot prize weighs heavily on the scale of expected return, but the chance of it hitting is extremely small. This results in a much higher variance on this type of machine. Usually your money will go down very fast, because the smaller prizes are less rewarding than on the other type of machine.
At the Diamond, the info screen says the player return at slots is set at 98.7%. This means that, on average, for every maximum bet of 2,500 chips, you expect to lose 32.5 chips.
This might not seem like a lot, but the danger of slots is that the game is extremely fast. You can spin about once every 6 seconds, which would result in an expected LOSS of about 20,000 chips per hour of playing.
But again, in this long-term expected number, the large jackpot awards are also factored in, and as long as you don't hit those big prizes, you'll see your money go down a lot faster.
In any case, thank heavens the max bet is only set at 2,500, or else we would see more players go bankrupt at alarming rates. Optimal strategy for slots:
There is none. Because after betting, you have no more influence over the outcome. The only choices you have, is what type of machine you want to play at, and how much money you are going to risk. And those are all personal preference. As long as you stick to your loss limits, as discussed above, there's no harm in having a go every once in a while, hoping to get a lucky hit. Just realize that you don't have a high chance of scoring a big win, so as soon as you do, get up and walk away. 5) Roulette
Roulette is also a game where you have no influence over the outcome. There is zero skill involved. You place your bet, and that's it.
In traditional French roulette, a table has only the single-zero, but of course, for American casinos that wasn't enough of a house edge, so they simply doubled their profits by adding a second zero. The house edge was increased from 1/37 to 1/19, which is huge.
This makes playing on a double-zero roulette table by definition a sucker's play.
The payouts scale evenly, which means that a bet on a single number, and a bet on half of the numbers, and everything in between, yields the same expected return. The only difference, again, being the variance that you are willing to subject yourself to.
The player return for double-zero Roulette for all bets is 94.74%.
Except for the 5-number bet, which can only be made by placing a bet on the two top rows that contain 0, 00, 1, 2 and 3. The expected return on this bet is lower: 92.1%. This is because it only pays out 6-1. Why? Well, the number 36 isn't divisible by 5, so the greedy people that came up with double-zero Roulette had to round it off someway, and as expected, it wasn't going to be in the players' favor.Just remember that that 5-number bet is the worst bet at the table, and should be avoided. All other possible bets have the same expected return.
So it really doesn't matter how you spread your bets, if you bet only one chip, or if you litter the entire table with a bucketload of chips. Each chip you put out there, has the same expected return, so there is no strategy that will improve your long-term results.
Assuming that you're betting the maximum table amount of 50,000 chips, you will be looking at an expected loss of about 2,630 chips per spin. Considering that a round takes about 45 seconds to complete, your expected LOSS at the GTA Roulette tables will be around 200,000 chips per hour of playing. Optimal strategy for double-zero roulette:
Stay away. Stay far away. 4) Three Card Poker
With Three Card Poker, we come across the first game where there is actually some strategy involved. You get to look at your cards, and then decide if you want to fold, and surrender your ante, or double your bet.
Additionally, you can choose to place a side bet on "Pair Plus", which offers progressive payouts.
There are some websites out there that ran all the numbers with computer simulations, and even though I would like to quote the source here, these websites are understandably littered to the max with online casino ads, so that's why I have decided against doing that. Optimal strategy for Three Card Poker:
For this game you only have to remember one strategy rule: Always bet on any high card queen-six-four or better, and fold any high card queen-six-three or lower. That's it. Just don't forget to double check if you're not folding a straight or a flush, and you'll be fine.
This strategy will result in an expected return of 96.63%.
The Pair Plus sidebet, with the payout table that is used at the Diamond casino, gives you an expected return of 97.68%, which is actually a bit better than the main ante bet.
So by playing both wagers, you're reducing your expected losses per bet, but since you're betting more, you're also increasing your expected loss per hour.
My advice would obviously be to not play this game at all, but if you do, put as much of your bet as possible on the Pair Plus, while making our Ante bet as small as you can.
To be able to compare it to the other games at the Diamond, let's stay on that 50,000 maximum wager, meaning making your ante bet 35,000, and your pair plus bet 15,000, if the table would allow it.
This results in an expected loss of about 1,525 chips per hand, and with a round taking about 45 seconds, this adds up to an expected LOSS of around 120,000 chips per hour of playing. In comparison, if you would only play the ante bet for 50,000 per hand, you expect to lose 1,685 chips per hand, which means an expected LOSS of about 135,000 chips per hour. So the more out of that 50,000 wager you can put on the "Pair Plus" sidebet, the better.
Even though it may be fun to try out this game for a bit, since there's only one simple strategy rule to follow, you'll soon find yourself robotically grinding down your bankroll until it has vaporized. You're not missing out on anything if you skip these tables, there is no real challenge.
Just like with Roulette and Slots, if you want to try it out nonetheless, you can just bet the minimum amounts and only play for fun, so it won't matter if you win or lose. 3) Blackjack
Blackjack is the most complicated game by far. Simply because the player has to make a series of decisions, which will largely decide the outcome. Luckily, there is such a thing as an optimal strategy, which will be outlined below.
However, the strategy is also dependent on the house rules. These not only affect your expected return, but in some places also your decisions.
Here are the house rules at the Diamond casino:
-The game uses 4 standard decks, and a continuous shuffle.
-Blackjack pays 3 to 2, dealer checks for early blackjack.
-No insurance offered, no surrender.
-Dealer stands on soft 17.
-Double down on any two cards.
-Player can split only once, but doubling after split is allowed.
Under these rules, and following the "basic strategy" chart, your expected return at Blackjack is a shade under 99.6%, which is extremely good for a casino game, that's why Blackjack should be your table game of choice.
But it comes at a price: you are going to have to memorize the relatively complicated strategy chart, or at least stick it to your monitor until you have it in your head. But in case you ever stumble into a real-life casino, you won't regret having this table memorized, so I would definitely advise you to work on that.
The strategy chart might look complicated at first, but you will be able to notice certain patterns. Your decisions are mainly based on the dealer's upcard, which is basically divided into a weak card (2 to 6), and a strong card (7 to ace).
When a dealer shows a strong card, you will be hitting more often with the risk of going bust, but when a dealer shows a weak card, you're not taking that risk, and you will be standing more, but also doubling and splitting more. You want to increase your bets when the odds are in your favor, and get out cheap when they're not.
But it also helps to take some time to think about why a certain advice is given. For example, why does it say that you always have to split two eights, even against an ace. Well, that's because two eights equals 16, which is the worst total you can have. It's better to split them up, and give yourself a chance of finding a 17, 18 or 19 with the next card. Once you see the logic in that, you'll have one less thing to memorize.
The playing advice in the basic strategy chart is a result of computer simulations that ran all possible outcomes against each other, and produced the most profitable decision for each situation. So you can't go wrong following it. Optimal strategy for Blackjack with Seven-Card Charlie
The added house rule of Seven-Card Charlie, adds a small advantage for the player, and it does influence a few strategy decisions. For example, you might have a 14 with 6 cards, against the dealer's 5 upcard.
Normally this would be an automatic stand, but if you're only one card away from the Seven-Card Charlie, meaning an instant win for the player, regardless of the dealer's hand, it turns it into a hit.
Here's the most optimal strategy chart to follow for the Diamond Casino house rules:https://prnt.sc/olct6g
You'll see that two fives are missing from the chart, and that's because you never split them. You treat them as a regular 10. You also never split tens. Just stand on 20.
If you follow this strategy religiously, even with a maximum wager of 50,000 chips, you only expect to lose about 215 chips per hand, and with rounds taking about 30 seconds, that amounts to an expected LOSS of 26,000 chips per hour, which is only half a bet. A small price to pay for an hour of entertainment.
But since the expected return is so extremely close to 100%, you will see more positive short-term results than with other games. But obviously it can also swing the other way. Again, this is supposed to be the game where your money lasts you the longest, but always set your loss and win limits before you sit down. That rule simply always applies.
Still, even with optimal strategies applied, all these games are expected to lose you money in the long run. So betting any kind of large amounts is not advised. If you simply want to enjoy playing these games, there's nothing wrong with betting a minimal amount. Playing these games for a longer period of time will already cost you money anyway, since your daily property fees will still be charged while you're playing in the GTA casino. As long as you can play for fun, there's nothing wrong, but when you see yourself betting insane chunks of your entire bank balance to try to recoup some unfortunate losses, you're doing it wrong.
As the commercials in Britain all correctly say: when the fun stops, stop. 2) Virtual Horse Racing
Now onto the good stuff. I ran some numbers, and I believe Rockstar has made a mistake with the horse racing game. Because as it stands, and if I read the numbers correctly, this game is actually profitable for the player. You can actually make money with this, at least, until Rockstar figures out their mistake and patches it.
If anyone wants to jump into the math and double check this to make sure, please do so. I will add any corrections to this post. This is one of those "to good to be true" things, so I keep thinking that I might have overlooked something. So please verify it if you can.
The setup is this. There is a pool of 100 horses, each with their own attached payout. These are divided into 3 groups, ranked by their odds. From each group, 2 horses are randomly selected to provide a pool of six runners for you to bet on.
Now it's not an actual race you're looking at. You are looking at a raffle. This is important to realize.
Each horse gets awarded a certain number of raffle tickets. The favorites get awarded more tickets than the underdogs, and therefore, have a higher chance of winning.
If this distribution works like it does in the real-life casinos, then the raffle tickets are awarded according to the betting odds.
Example 1: imagine a race with 3 runners, all have 2/1 odds, representing a 33.3% chance of winning. (Because 2/1 means 2 AGAINST 1, so 3 total.) In this case, each horse gets one third of the raffle tickets, giving them an equal chance to win.
Example 2: imagine a race with 3 runners, one has 1/1 odds (or EVENS), representing a 50% chance of winning, and the other two horses are marked up as 3/1, with a 25% chance of winning. The favorite gets half the tickets, the other two get a quarter of the tickets each.
A ticket is drawn, and you'll have a winner.
It doesn't matter in this game which horse you bet on, because the expected return is always the same: 100% or break-even, for the above examples.
Now, what happens if the percentages don't exactly add up to 100%?
They must add up to 100%, because there will always be a winner. And only one winner.
So when this is the case, the actual winning chances of the horses are adjusted to meet the 100% requirement, using their payout odds to determine the scale.
So, if the represented percentages add up to more than 100%, the actual winning chances of the runners will be DECREASED, resulting in all bets becoming losing propositions for the players.
Example: In a 6-horse race, all runners are listed at 4/1, representing a 20% chance. Only with six runners that amounts to 120%. So all chances are scaled down by 1/6th, to end up at 100%.
This means your horse's chances are reduced from 20% to 16.67%, turning it into a losing bet: 5 times you will lose your bet, and 1 time you will win, but only get 4 bets back in this instance, instead of 5. A losing bet in the long run.
This is the type of odds that you find in regular casinos, with fields as large as 15 runners to bet on, where the assumed winning chances always add up to more than 100%, therefore are decreased for all runners, resulting in a house edge.
But in GTA Online's Inside Track, there are other scenarios, because of the small field, and the way that they are put together.
In some cases, the represented percentages when added up, are LESS than 100%, meaning that the actual winning chances of all runners, are INCREASED.
This creates profitable bets for the players, because in the long run, you're expecting to win more money than you lose. This is a gambler's dream, pure and simple.
So, according to the in-game information, the three groups of horses are divided as follows:
-Favorites: EVENS to 5-1
-Outsiders: 6-1 to 15-1
-Underdogs: 16-1 to 30-1
Let's take the two most extreme examples to show what's happening.
The worst possible field to bet on: two runners at EVENS, two runners at 6-1, and two runners at 16-1.
EVENS represents a 50% chance, 6-1 is 14.29%, and 16-1 is 5.88%. Add those up and you land on a total of 140.34%.
This means that the actual winning chances of the horses are decreased by 28.75% (to get that 140% down to 100%), which makes betting on this field extremely unwise.
A horse at EVENS will only come in as a winner 35.63% of the time, instead of 50%,
a horse at 6-1 will only win 10.18% of the time,
and an underdog at 16-1 will only win 4.19% of the time.
The expected return on a bet on any of the horses in this field is only 71.26%, so a maximum bet of 10,000 chips on any of these horses holds an expected LOSS of 2,875 chips.
These returns are the same, because the winning chances are scaled equally, according to the payout numbers. So it really doesn't matter which horse you bet on, in the long run, you expect the same results.
But as explained before, it does influence variance, and therefore your short-term result, which can swing both ways.
But now, the best possible field to bet on: two runners at 5-1, two runners at 15-1, and two runners at 30-1.
Odds at 5-1 represents a winning chance of 16.67%, 15-1 odds means 6.25% chance, and 30-1 odds means a 3.23% chance of winning. Add these six horses together, and you only get 52.285%.
This means that, to get from 52% to 100%, the actual winning chances of these horses will be almost doubled! Multiplied by 1.91 to be exact.
So the 5-1 favorites will now win 31.88% of the time, instead of 16.67%,
the 15-1 runners will win 11.95% of the time,
and the underdogs at 30-1 odds will still win 6.17% of the time.
When betting on this field, the expected return on your bet is 191.25%!
This means that a max bet of 10,000 chips will result in an expected PROFIT of 9,125 chips.
This is printing money, if there ever was such a thing. Optimal strategy for Virtual Horse racing
So all you have to do, is only bet high on the games where you have an expected positive return, and bet the absolute minimum on the games where your expected return is negative. Or back out of the racing game to refresh the field.
If you don't have a way to quickly add up all the percentages, and until somebody shows up here with a neatly formatted table, just use a few general rules of thumb:
-Always bet the maximum on a race with favorites at 2/1 and 3/1 or higher in it.
-Simply skip all races with two favorites at EVENS in it, and at EVENS and 2/1. Or bet the minimum, if you can't skip or refresh the field.
-To decide if you should play races with other favorite combinations EVENS and 3/1, EVENS and 4/1, EVENS and 5/1, or two favorites at 2/1, the payouts on the other four runners determine whether or not it's profitable to play them. The results of betting on these fields vary from an expected 1,330 chip loss (worst-case) to an expected 1,680 chip win (best-case), with a max bet of 10,000 chips.
But if you're not looking for another strategy chart, you might just want to skip these borderline cases, and just cherry pick the best ones, which are easy to recognize, and with which you can never go wrong.
It's difficult to put a number on an expected win-rate, because it all depends on which fields you get presented with, but it's not unreasonable to state that you can maintain a steady win-rate of around 200,000 chips per hour, with about 50 seconds per race.
Remember, you're not trying to win every race. You're trying to win the most money per hour. So don't sweat it when you bet on a 4/1 favorite, and lose a couple of races in a row. It will still be more profitable in the long run. You have the math on your side.
To reduce negative variance, always bet on the favorite, when betting on profitable fields. We're not gambling anymore, we're grinding out a steady profit. We want to keep the swings to a minimum.
I contacted Rockstar support to verify if this is indeed how it works, but the only reply I got after 6 weeks is that they were "looking into it".
made a useful Excel-worksheet, available for you to download, where you can quickly type in the payouts on the horses, to see if it produces a profitable bet or not. You can find it in his post here: https://www.reddit.com/gtaonline/comments/ekp8na/gta_online_inside_track_odd_calculato 1) Wheel of Fortune
The number one profitable casino game in GTA Online is obviously the Wheel of Fortune, because it costs you nothing to play.
Unfortunately, you only get one free spin per day, but it holds great value, so make sure you do it.
With a chance to win a super car, vehicle discounts, expensive mystery prizes (which also can be vehicles), and a lot of cash and chips, the expected return on a single spin is around $100,000 in value.
So don't forget your daily spin, it's definitely worth your time. 2020 Update:
As of the Diamond Casino Heist update, the Inside Track horse racing is confirmed to still be as profitable as outlined above.The only thing that seems to be changed, is that you can't refresh the field anymore by backing out of the screen. This does affect your hourly rate in a negative way, but does not change the fact that this game has a huge positive expected return, and should be your go-to when you're trying to take money from the house, without having Lester's nagging voice in your ear. That should also be worth something.
And with that, I conclude my 5,000 word essay on gambling in GTA. Questions, comments, feel free to add your input to this guide. Cliffs:
-Gambling games should only be played for fun, not for big money. You should expect to lose in the long run. The house always wins.
-A casino game doesn't have a memory, and betting systems don't work.
-Set your limits before you start, how much you are willing to lose or win, and then walk away when you get there.
-Don't play slots, roulette, or three card poker.
-Only play blackjack following a basic strategy chart (https://prnt.sc/olct6g
-Inside Track betting can be played profitably, if you only bet on fields WITHOUT a heavy favorite.
-Wheel of Fortune is always your best bet, because it's a free bet.
It is a horrible time for the world, but a good time for games. As it is an expensive and space consuming hobby, I know many of us don’t have access to everything we’d like to play. Over a few years I researched for myself the best uses of a deck of cards – easily portable, easier to get people to the table (oh yes! I play cards!), usually available. It seems like the right time to share the results.
I’ve organized the below into both frame of mind (I want to Think, I want to Pass Time, I want to Laugh) and player count. Player count is focused on who you have – I didn’t put games necessarily where they are best, but rather “if I have four people, what is my best option?”
A brief calibration: I still have my 1995 first edition of Settlers of Catan. I’ve got roughly 80 games in my basement curated from the last 25 years and know the rules to twice that number. My favorite games are Tigris & Euphrates and Race for the Galaxy. This isn’t boasting (certainly not around here) - it is meant to be context so when I say these are games “worth playing” you have a better sense of what that means.
Links to rules. Hope this is helpful. When you want to think: For 2:
(2 players): Khmer begins as a math and probability game, but quickly evolves into the psychology space and bluffing as you and your opponent learn the game. It gets better with more play, as it has room for different metagames and strategies, and the winner will be the one who remains one step ahead. In essence, you are trying to move cards between your hand and the table such that your total is MORE than your opponent, but LESS than the table – and you are rarely sure what your opponent is holding. The deck requires six 6’s – we use face cards for the 6’s and A-5 for the 1-5.
(2-3 players): This is also a psychological game, where you will win by predicting your opponent and staying one step ahead. The core conceit is simple, you each have an identical deck (1-13), you are bidding on another pool of cards (worth face value), and high cards win. The twist comes because you have to use your entire deck of 1-13 to bid, and you can’t win everything. The game is more commonly known as GOPS or Psychological Jiujitsu, but I feel those names are both bad and inaccurate, so we’ve adopted this name instead. For 3:
· Fight the Landlord
(3 players): This is the best 3-player version of the “Big 2” family of games from East Asia. Big 2, or climbing games, are a race to empty your hand before your opponents. There is wide room in choosing what to play when, and how to break up your hand, meaning you will be making both difficult and important decisions throughout each and every round. Highly addictive, and good hand play will nearly always beat out a lucky deal.
The rules get a bit lengthy when it comes to what cards can be led, so you will either want to make a crib sheet or simplify the rules to mirror Tichu (below). The game will play just as well.
) (2-4 players): Another trick-taking game (see note below) on my list. The mechanism for bidding in this game (in a nutshell, removing three cards from your hand) is simple, but introduces asymmetric, hidden information and requires you to make trade-off choices between your desired hand and your desired bid. This adds a bit of crunch to the model without making the game inaccessible to new or more casual players. For 4:
· Scotch Bridge
(Really 4 players, but can stretch to 3-6): Also known as Oh Hell, Pratt & Whitney, La Podrida, and others. This is a trick taking game, and I nearly universally dislike those (see note below), but it wins me over for two reasons. First, you aren't trying to win the most tricks but rather to value exactly the strength of your hand and then hit that bid - which means you are engaged in every single hand. Secondly, the handsize will range from 1 to 13, and each handsize meaningfully changes the feel of the game. 13 is a pure test of trick taking skill, 1 is a Mexican stand-off with your chips on the table, and 7 in the middle is a wild ride of big bets and lady luck.
As noted, this game has numerous variations. Most make little tweaks to the scoring, max handsize, and order of hands. In general, I prefer a positive form of scoring (10 for hitting your bid, 1 for each trick, penalty for how far you missed your bid, etc.) and playing hands from 1 to 13 and back again.
(4 players): In my opinion, the best of the Big 2/climbing games. Same as Fight the Landlord, the goal of the game is to be the first to empty your hand, but it requires skillful play in knowing when to play, when to pass, and what to lead. You can never go on autopilot in this game. Tichu is played in 2 vs. 2 partnership and has elegant rules for scoring, both of which make this one of my favorite games of all time.
A note on the game – It is technically designed and published by a Swiss designer. However, if you research it, he played more the role of an editocurator, (quite masterfully) going through regional variants of Big 2, compiling the best, pulling in some scoring rules from other games, and polishing it all into the glistening pearl it is.
A note on the deck - it requires four jokers. You have three options 1) Find two decks with the same backs and mark up the jokers 2) Equally mix two decks so there is an even mix of two card backs, again including and marking up all four jokers, 3) Removing the jokers and using the four 2’s as the jokers, with a crib sheet in the middle of the table mapping the four suits to the jokers. Or you can buy a Tichu deck. 5-6 Players
(4-8 player): This is an auction game using a deck of cards. Winning a bid will net you points but losing a bid will constrain your future options - as well as provide key information to your opponents. These decisions are the core drivers – what to set out for auction and when to throw down on someone else’s auction. In the end, the game is a mixture of psychology, strategy, and luck, leaving room both for clever play and for big moments when everyone groans and laughs around the table.
It can play 4-8, but plays best at 5-6. The first game or two generally feels casual and luck driven, but as the game clicks you may start seeing how you can influence the state of the table by choosing what to auction, or how the timing of your bid can win or lose you the hand. Like Khmer, this game grows on you over the first couple of games.
(5-6 Players): This is a Japanese trick-taking (see note below) game. What makes it stand out is the hidden role. Each player bids individually, then the winner (Napoleon) declares a Secretary card. Whoever is holding this card is secretly on Napoleon’s team, unbeknownst to everyone (including Napoleon). This leads to bluffing and deduction during play, with players uncertain about when to win a trick and when to ditch their low cards. It’s an excellent knife twist in the side or what is too often a rote playing-out-of-hands in standard trick taking, and it creates a social environment ripe for discussion and laughter at the end of each hand.
Napoleon is very similar to Briscola Chiamata, but in my opinion plays better as it removes some unnecessary complications from that latter game. It also draws comparisons to Schafkopf/Sheepshead, but again I think this one does it better.
· Skull & Roses
(4-8 players): This is a pure bluffing game – think Poker without hands, only you, your opponents, and your wits. If that doesn’t capture it for you, just accept that this is amazing. You all place cards on the table until someone starts bidding, then it’s a gamble for who thinks they can flip the most cards without revealing a skull. The tension comes because, if you win the bid, you have to flip ALL of your own cards - so if you’ve played a skull, you lose. But, if you play all roses, you’re making it easy on your opponents. Choose wisely when you want to bid to win, and when you want to bid to entrap your opponents.
The game is usually played with coasters, but just as easily you can give each player one face card as their Skull and three numbered cards as their Roses. Or mark up any stack of two sided, identical objects in your house – I’ve heard of people playing with sweetener packets at Denny’s. 1) A note on trick-taking:
I don’t like it. Pure trick-taking – think Vanilla Whist – is not devoid of skill, but it IS quickly masterable and rarely surprising. A set of skilled players will play the same hand the same way every time, can guess the outcome before play even begins, and state it with certainty after 2-3 hands have revealed voids or singletons.
Most trick taking games, therefore, overlay something else to add interest. Things like complex bidding (Bridge, Skat) make the games inaccessible to new players, and turn them into objects of study more than play. Things like small hand sizes (Pitch, Euchre) throw the game into heavy luck, and often throw you into the backseat, passively throwing cards on the table until you are dealt a hand worth playing. This is fine to keep your hands busy while you drink, but isn’t what I look for when Gaming (with a capital G).
Nonetheless, I’ve included four trick-takers. My criteria are straightforward:
- You have to be able to bid and play whatever hand you get. Games like Spades and Scottish Bridge don’t ask you win as much as you can, but rather to exactly value your hand. Playing a bad hand can be just as engaging and difficult as playing a good hand.
- They need a single, straightforward twist to add interest. Napoleon adds a hidden role and uncertain partnerships. 99 asks you to secretly remove cards from the game, manipulating suit length, while trying to deduce what your opponents have removed. Hearts asks you to consider and risk when to win a trick and when to lose. These all give you something to think about throughout the game, sometimes require you to shift tactics midgame, and don’t require a course of study to properly learn (I’m looking at you, Bridge).
I anticipate the comments will contain passionate counter-arguments. So play and make up your own mind. I’ve played a lot and am now offering the best advice I can. When you want to chat and pass time:
None of these games are chutes and ladders. But they do offer more luck and simpler decisions, for the most part, allowing you to while away hours and spend as much time talking to your opponent as you do thinking about the table. 2 Players
(2-4 players): Cribbage plays out in two acts. You and your opponent(s) lay cards on the table, trying to hit or avoid certain sums, with a few bonuses for creating pairs or runs. Then you look at your hand (and the crib) to make combinations worth points. There’s a bit of a list to remember, for what scores you points, but with that mastered the game settles into an easy rhythm of regular dopamine hits and little pegs on a board. Hitting 15 and hunting for your melds is utterly enjoyable. This is the perfect game to crack open a bottle of something together and seamlessly move back and forth between chat and play.
· Spite & Malice
(2-4 players): This game feels like Spit - without the frantic pace, slapped hands, and bent cards. It’s also like multiplayer solitaire, except reverse to how that term is usually used. The rules are built on real solitaire, but you will be very much intertwined with your opponents. Hence the spite, and the resulting malice. I know couples who play this frequently, keeping a running score for the entire year. 3 Players
· Shed / Palace
(3-5 players): This game goes by many names, not all of them polite. I was taught it as “Screaming Yoda” and it was over twenty years before I learned that the game was known worldwide by other names.
Anyway, Shed is a race to get rid of all your cards. Instead of a winner, there is one loser (the last one). The rules for playing cards are simple, and sometimes you’ll be forced to pick up 20 cards all at once. But it’s fine, everything’s fine. You’ll get it back.
The game plays out in multiple acts and often swings back and forth, lending it excitement and perpetual hope. Not overly strategic, but engaging and fun from start to end. 4 Players
(4 players): The Archetypal Argentinian game. Canasta is an ageless, breezy, push your luck game of set collection and making odd faces at your partner across the table, trying to read their mind without communicating ("May I go out?" "No." "G****n you what a f**** mess why didn't you play your Canasta before.")
It feels a bit like Rummy, as you are drawing and discarding to collect sets of cards with your partner, and trying to out-collect your opponents. However, the team dynamic, the scoring rules, the wild cards, and the end-game make this an entirely different animal.
The game has a frustrating amount of rules – though they are all simple, the sheer number means some time to learn and then time to familiarize/memorize. As is the way with most longstanding, cultural games. Nothing that a crib sheet and a few run-throughs can’t solve.
(4 players): Now hop over to Ecuador, and this is the national game. The central conceit is much simpler than Canasta – play one card onto the table, trying to capture the cards already on the table by creating matches or runs. But, as with Canasta, there is then a laundry list of footnotes to be memorized with edge cases and scoring.
That said, once digested, the game is simple, breezy, and endlessly entertaining. You’ll do better if you can calculate odds and count cards, but at the same time you can still enjoy yourself (and still win) by just playing your cards and sipping your drink.
(4 players): As mentioned, I’m generally not a fan of trick taking (see note above). I include these because they don’t overinflate themselves. They know they are simple trick-taking games, they add a touch of spice for interest, and just leave it at that. The result in both cases is a pleasant way to pass the time.
For Hearts, the good bit is the shifting winds, trying to decide at each point when you are trying to win and when you are trying to lose. Each hand is a puzzle, how to throw your hearts at other people, how to win those tricks with your high cards at the right time, etc.
For Spades, the central challenge is in correctly valuing your hand, then playing to hit that value. Keep in mind that others may start tanking their own tricks to hit their bid, which makes the ground under your own feet increasingly unstable. Depending on how the cards come out, you may find yourself scrabbling for just one more trick, or suddenly shifting to trying to lose because someone had an unexpected void – it’s that agility that comes from the shifting landscape and the fact that every hand is a chance to play THAT hand that makes Spades a game worth playing. When you want to Laugh and have fun:
Sometimes you want to laugh more than you want to win. Sometimes you just want to have fun, without taking on any stress. These are those games. 2 Players
) (2-4 players): This plays better at 3-4 but is the only one I’ve found for the bucket that does work for 2. At it’s core, it is a bit of memory, luck, and playing the odds – you are swapping facedown cards around the table, but you don’t get to look at all your cards. So you need to figure out what you have, what your opponents have, and choose the moment to strike - when you think you have the lowest hidden total.
Cabo is a relatively modern game, but even so there are a handful of different origin stories and many minor rules variations. Play one set of rules to start and, if you like it, you can check out all the possibilities and stick with your favorite. 3 Players
· Ricochet Poker
(3-8 players): It’s a light betting game – can play with quarters or crackers, whatever you like. The game is simple and draws from poker rules. Each round you get one more card and have to decide whether you want to pay to stay in or fold. It’s more accessible than poker, so is easy to “wing it,” but you still get the agony and thrills that come from winning or losing the pot.
· Manipulation Rummy
(2-4 players): If you are familiar with Rummikub, this is that game exactly but with two decks of cards (instead of tiles). If you aren’t – this builds on the foundation of Rummy, but all melds are played onto the table. Where it shines is the fact that you can break, reform, and rearrange ALL the cards on the table on your turn, in order to find a place for more cards from your hand. The joy is in hunting for that one opportunity on the table so you can wow everyone when it comes to your turn. 4 Players
· Cockroach Poker
(3-6 players): This is properly a game that should be purchased, but in these times you can make a deck using two decks of cards – 8 each of 8 numbers (I recommend A, K, Q, J, 7, 8, 2, 3… it’s a cognitive psychology thing, just humor me). You’ll be passing cards facedown around the table, asserting (truthfully or falsely) what the card is. The game is in correctly guessing when someone is lying or telling the truth, as well as in the politics of not being the last person at the table to receive a card (after everyone else has already seen it). Every time you lose a challenge, the card goes face up in front of you. Collect too many cards, and it’s game over. This one is amazing. 5-6 Players
(4-8 players): I originally learned this as “Delphi,” a streamlined version that is more appropriate for kids. This version has more teeth to it and should delight all ages. One player takes on the role of god (think Zeus) and secretly writes down a law that all cards played must follow. All the other players must then, by trial and error, figure out that law and get rid of their cards. This is harder than it sounds. What makes it work is that Eleusis has a number of scoring rules that put balance into the game – you want the rule to be hard but not too hard, etc.
This game will earn many rounds of play. What is nice is it also has a co-op feel. Yes, you are all trying to be the first to guess and play your cards, but on the other hand you are all in it together trying to decipher the divine law you’ve been given.
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