Monday, April 18, 2011

A Blaze of Lightning

In honor of my grandmother, who passed away on April 9, today's game review will focus on her favorite game, Rook.

It's not often that I admire marketing copy. In fact, I often consider myself immune to tricks and gimmicks (though my watching America's Next Great Restaurant could refute this idea) and doubt the effectiveness of most advertisements. But even though I already owned a copy of Parker Brothers' Rook game, I bought the newer version because of the marketing copy, mostly so I could read it aloud before each game. In order to get the full effect, or at least to understand why I love it so much, try reading it in a deep, gravelly voice, emphasizing each time "rook" appears in all capitals:
A blaze of lightning. A wind turned cold. Beware the power of the Rook. The eerie black bird can make all the difference. Four players (options for two, three, five, or six). Partners or not. You bid. You name trump. You take tricks (when you're lucky and smart). But beware the wild ROOK! When he lands, everything can change. A classic game. (A favorite since 1906. Oh, my!) Easier than bridge. More challenging than Hearts. Custom-designed cards. Gorgeous. Perfect for a dark, stormy night. Bring home the ROOK card game and find out.
Then, after reading this, it's necessary to read the front of the box in a shrill, scared-sounding voice: "It's only a card game, but I'm feeling an odd chill in the air!"

Why do I love this marketing copy? Because it in no way describes my experience while playing Rook, but I love the mood it sets (and the potential for overacting it gives).

I've mentioned before that if my family has a family game, it is probably either Pinochle, Dutch Blitz, or Rook. What's special about Rook is that it could be called my family's game on both sides of the family. Pinochle and Dutch Blitz are games that my immediate family adopted after playing them with my dad's side of the family; Rook spans the full family tree.

Rook is a partnership tricks-and-trump game. Before each hand, players bid to name trump. Whoever names trump gets the "nest," a collection of cards set aside while dealing that can be integrated into the bidding player's hand. (It is also a place to bury trump or short-suit yourself--if you dare!) There are certain cards that have point values attached to them, with 200 points available in each round. There are four colored suits, each ranging from 1-14 (1 being the highest card in each suit, followed by 14, 13, and so on). In addition to these four suits, there is a special Rook card, which is what sets this game apart.

I said earlier that the marketing copy on the box doesn't reflect my experience of playing the game. This is mostly true. The box gets it right in saying that "the eerie black bird can make all the difference." The Rook card is worth the most points of any card in the game--20 points (that's ten percent!). It is also a trump card. The question is, how will the Rook be played?

There are some variations on the Rook card. My family prefers to play with Rook being the lowest trump card. The Rook, then, is a fragile vase that must be protected by larger trumps and is completely up for grabs--anyone can get the points. Others play (wrongly, in my opinion--sorry, college friends!) with the Rook card being the highest trump, meaning that whoever is dealt the Rook card is dealt a boon, a card that cannot be captured (essentially an easy 20 points). And I've heard of Rook in the middle, with the Rook card being higher higher than a 10 but lower than an 11. But this just seems silly.

Rook is a great card game. Unlike Pinochle, the rules of Rook are wide open--you follow suit when you can, and if you can't, you can play whatever you want. There is also no pre-round melding: what you bid is what you have to take (harder than it sounds). And then there's the nest. Is what you need to complete your hand buried in the nest? Or does your partner have it? Or is it in an opponent's hand? The excitement of gambling (though without the "house-always-wins" loss of cash) is present in the pre-round bidding.

But why I really like Rook is all the memories that surround it. Like I said, I played Rook with both sides of my family, with my high school friends, with my college friends, with my suburban friends, and on and on. On quiz trips we played late into the night, so slaphappy and tired that we were bidding outrageous amounts, 160+, every round--and sometimes making it. After I learned the Pick-Your-Partner Rook variation, there was a resurgence of interest in my family, and it didn't matter how short or long a time we had together--Rook was hitting the table. We played with my grandma in the nursing home and tried to encourage her to start a league. She never did, but we played with her at every visit, and while in all other circumstances she was the sweetest woman, she was a ruthless card shark when she played Rook. (She even called me a louse once in the midst of a fierce bidding war, something I never let her forget.) Toward the end of her life, when she seemed so weary, Rook was one of the few things guaranteed to lift her spirits. In fact, laughter and high spirits never seem far away when Rook is out, despite the gloomy text on the box. And Rook is another game my dad taught me how to play, and because of this, it will always have a special place in my collection.

It's hard to divorce Rook from all my memories of it, so my opinion of the game is likely skewed. But that's okay. The reason I play games in the first place is the interaction with others, and Rook, in that respect, pays off in spades.


  1. I haven't played Rook in ages. I used to have the best Rook partner ever. It's been so long, in fact, that I can't remember if I was taught to play Rook high or low when I was out in North Dakota. Low always seems more logical though.

  2. It does seem more logical...and makes for a more interesting game. I like having to sneak the Rook.

  3. On choir tours, our default was 5-player Rook, in which the player who won the bid chose trump color, then blindly selected his or her partner by identifying a specific card. For instance, if I won the bid, I might select red as the trump suit and state that the person holding the rook (or ROOK) was my partner (at which point, only the selected partner knows who is on who's side in this round). This 2 versus 3 situation with unrevealed alliances required good strategy and teamwork (and subterfuge, if you're the partner). It also means that partnerships (and point totals) vary with each hand.
    Great game.

  4. Caleb, that sounds fun. We've played blind partners (which I called "Pick Your Partner") with four players, but playing that way with five sounds even better. I'll have to try that sometime.

  5. The memories surrounding rook are the greatest. Because of rook, I met my wife. I'm sure there are many rook-born couples out there :)