Monday, February 7, 2011

Hot Basket

One of the best purchases I've made--at least, if we define best as "gotten the most use out of for the price"--only cost me $5.99, and it can fit in my pocket. It's a little card game called Canasta Caliente.

I know, I know--isn't that a game for old people? That's what I thought, too. I thought it belonged to the category of old people card games, along with Bridge and Pinochle. And perhaps it does. But I do love Pinochle...

The object of Canasta is to have the most points. The game ends when at least one player or partnership reaches five thousand points. The game can be played with two to four people. The rules also offer a five-player variation, but it's really the four-player game with one player rotating out--so not the best fit for five. In the two- or three-player game, each player plays by himself; the four-player game is a partnership game. My favorite way to play is with four players, but the two- and three-player games are fun as well. (My family once tried to play with six players because we liked the game so much and wanted everyone to be able to play at one time. Not only did it take all afternoon, but it was a disaster. I think there are legitimate six-player variations out there somewhere, but ours was a major fail.)

The deck of cards is really two decks of regular playing cards. The cards are divided into four categories: natural cards (4-Ace, eight of each), wild cards (big and little wilds, four big/eight little), stop cards (four in the deck), and bonus cards (four in the deck). Each card has a point value which counts toward your score if played and against your score if held in your hand. The natural cards are worth 5 (4-7), 10 (8-King), and 20 (Ace) points each; wild cards are worth 50 and 20 points (for big and little wilds, respectively; their only difference is their point value); stop cards are worth five points; and bonus cards are worth 100 points and must be played immediately. The Caliente version of Canasta (pictured above) also features two Caliente cards, but Abby and I don't like the Caliente variant of Canasta, so we don't use them. In fact, in my opinion, it's hard to improve upon the base game.

For the sake of simplicity, I'll describe the four-player game. The game is played in hands (rounds). Each player is dealt eleven cards at the start of a hand. Starting from the player left of the dealer, players immediately play any bonus cards in their hands and draw cards to replace them. Once every player has played bonus cards, the dealer turns over the top card of the deck to form the discard pile, or, as it's called in Canasta, the prize pile. (If the card that's flipped over isn't a natural card, cards are turned over until a natural card is on top.) The hand ends and points are tallied when one player has played every card in his hand, but a player can only go out if his partnership has a canasta, a set of seven cards (and also the best way to gain points in the game).

A player's turn consists of 1) drawing a card, 2) melding cards, 3) discarding a card. To draw a card, the player may either take the top card of the deck or the top card of the prize pile. If the player chooses to take the top card of the prize pile, he must be able to play it immediately. If he can't do that, he can't take the card. If he can, the player plays that card and takes the rest of the prize pile, adding it to his hand. This is a good thing because it is the only way to increase your hand size. If you take the top card of the deck and later discard a card, you have not added any cards to your hand. There are a few other rules that govern drawing from the prize pile, which I'll describe in a bit.

After a player has drawn a card/taken the prize pile, he may meld cards. ("Meld" is the technical term; all it really means is playing cards in front of you.) Cards are melded in sets of at least three cards. Sets must be natural cards, though wilds may be added to natural cards. However, there must always be more natural cards than wild cards in a set (for example, a player cannot play two 5s and two wilds; he can play two 5s and one wild, or three 5s and two wilds, but natural cards must always outnumber wilds in a set). The first player in a partnership to meld keeps all the points for the partnership in front of him. But the first time a partnership melds in a hand, a meld threshhold must be met. If a team has 0-1495 points, their first meld (the first sets they lay down) must add up to at least 50 points. If a team has 1500-2995 points, their first meld must add up to at least 90 points. If their score is 3000+, their first meld is 120 points. This helps keep the game even. (My sister and I once reached 3000 points too early; we lost that game because the other team was able to meld faster than we were in subsequent rounds.) Only one player must meet the starting meld, that is, if my partner melds the required number of points, I can play normally.

I mentioned that there are additional rules that govern drawing from the prize pile. If a team has not yet met their starting meld, the only way a player on that team can draw from the prize pile is if the card drawn can produce a natural set (i.e., no wilds). So, for example, normally if I saw a 5 on top of the prize pile, I could take it if I had another 5 and a wild in my hand or if I had a set of 5s in my partnership's play area. But if my team hasn't melded yet, I can only take the 5 if I have two 5s in my hand, making a natural set. A player also must be able to meet the first meld requirement with other sets from his hand in order to take the top card of the prize pile. Once a team has met their first meld, the players on that team can draw from the prize pile normally (as long as the card can be played immediately, either with cards from a player's hand or on his team's sets already melded).

After a player has drawn and melded any cards he wants, he must discard a card (exception: a player can play all of his cards and not discard if he decides to go out). If a player discards a natural card, the next player has the opportunity to pick it up. If he discards a stop card, the next player must draw from the draw pile. If he discards a wild (big or little), the pile is "frozen." When the pile is frozen, the conditions for drawing from the prize pile revert to what they were before a team played its first meld (i.e., in order to pick up the top card of the prize pile, a player must be able to meld a natural set using that card and two cards from his hand). Freezing the pile is what really makes Canasta exciting (and tense). It feels like hot potato every time a player discards. Will the next player be able to pick up the pile? The frozen pile, as it builds up (which it will inevitably do while frozen), feels more and more like a ticking time bomb--and you hope it explodes on your turn.

I mentioned before that picking up the prize pile is a good thing, the reason being that it is the only way to increase your hand size. Increased hand size = increased chances of picking up a frozen pile. Freezing the prize pile can effectively eliminate players from a game. If I notice that I have six cards in my hand, my teammate has about the same, and my opponents are down to three or four cards, that is the perfect time to freeze the pile. Fewer cards means fewer chances of having sets that match the top card on the prize pile. Also, if a player has fewer cards in his hand, the chances of him discarding a card you want is greater--he'll have fewer cards to choose from when he discards a card (as he must do).

A round is over when one player goes out, but in order to go out, his team must have at least one canasta. Once a player goes out, points are tallied and added to the running score. Players score bonus points for going out first (100 pts.), having canastas (300 pts. for each canasta containing a wild/500 pts. for each natural canasta), and for their bonus cards (100 pts. per bonus card, 400 extra points for having all four bonus cards). Players score the face value of cards in their play area. Players score negative points for the cards in their hands. After the points have been tallied, if no team has reached 5000 points, play continues for another hand, with the deal passing to the left.

This may seem like a lot of rules, but once you play a hand or two, it all feels natural. The draw, play, discard flow makes the game easy to recognize; the "prize pile," freezing the pile, and playing for canastas makes the game fresh and fun. As I mentioned, the game can be played with two regular decks of cards (if the decks have jokers), but I think this is a game worth buying the boxed version for. The cards, according to the package, have a "Latin flair," which adds to the ambience of the game. I also like the packaged version because it has the point value of each card printed on the card. This makes scoring easy for newbies (and even for us more experienced folk).

I like Canasta so much because it is easy to learn (despite the number of rules and exceptions!), fun to play, and fosters good conversations. It is a game that does not require excessive strategizing (though it does include a fair amount of strategy to be played well), so players can talk as they play. The ability to freeze the pile adds significant tension to the game, making a good game great. The tension added isn't a panicked tension, but the tension I imagine gamblers feel while sitting at the slot machine. "Pull the handle--maybe this will be my chance!" I mentioned that there is a fair amount of strategy, but there is also some guesswork and luck. I like this balance because while strategic/experienced players have the upper hand in Canasta, it is not guaranteed that they will win. And with the first meld thresholds, the game is evenly balanced. If a team takes an early lead, the other team is normally able to catch up a little.

I like the four-player game better than the two- or three-player game because it forces you to manage your hand size. If I meld my cards, I show my partner what I have, and he may be able to build on it, but then it's unlikely that the player who discards before I take my turn will discard what I want. Melding also hurts my chances if the prize pile is frozen. Should I discard a wild to freeze the pile, even though wilds are a precious commodity? Should I discard a card I want in order to throw other players off the scent? Keeping cards in my hand doesn't let others know what I have, but the cards also count negative if anyone goes out. Is it worth the risk? The four-player game is more strategic because each turn you don't pick up the prize pile is zero-sum: draw one, discard one. (The two-player game [and the three-player game, according to our house rules] has you draw two cards on your turn instead of one.)

The rulebook for Canasta Caliente has some holes (or some silences, rather), but they are nothing that a few house rules can't fix. My sister and brother-in-law have added spice to this game by buying a hot pepper necklace that the winner of the last hand gets to wear. While this isn't necessary to gameplay, it does make the game that much more fun. Abby and I have yet to add this to our game, but only because hot pepper necklaces are hard to come by in these parts.

As I mentioned, I count Canasta Caliente--purchased on a whim when I worked at Target--one of the best cost/benefit purchases I've ever made. My cards are worn and falling apart, but it is still just as fun as ever, and each time a friend gets married, I seek this out as my go-to gift (or at least one of them) because it is an excellent two-player game, even if four-player is better. I can't recommend Canasta highly enough. Old person game or not, you will enjoy it--I can almost guarantee it.

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