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©2019 by To the Death! Games & Pastimes. 

  • Dakota Winslow

Game Breakdown: Nap (Napoleon)

This is the second in my alternating series on learning from other games. For my previous breakdown of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, click here. The following breakdown is for a classic game; therefore, the rules discussed here may not be the only ones in circulation. If you have played this game by different rules (or under a different name), feel free to mention it in the comments – we love to hear about unknown variants!

With the holiday season behind us and the long winter ahead, it the perfect time to think about one of my favorite segments of gaming: classic card games.

With many classic and traditional games lost to the ages, and nearly all of them being more than 50 years old, it can be easy to overlook them as a source of inspiration and innovation. However, these games can provide a new perspective on gaming, as they are almost always the result of years of tweaking and modification by the very players who enjoyed them. They are holdovers from a time when games were not owned by companies, but by communities of players. As such, they frequently come in many variants and styles, and are rarely played exactly the same way by different groups. For us as game creators, this makes them a treasure trove of ideas for repurposing since classic games contain the cumulative ideas and refinements of thousands of players over decades of play.

The specific game I will break down today is one that I learned from the fantastic Penguin Book of Card Games and played with friends and family during the long wait for midnight on New Year’s Eve. It is a trick-taking game called Nap (short for Napoleon) and a distant relative of Euchre with a gambling twist.

To play Nap, 5 cards each from a standard 52 card deck are dealt to 3-6 players. Players then begin bidding for the number of tricks they think they can take (from 2 to 5, or none). Whoever bids highest become the soloist and wins the right to lead the first trick and choose trumps with their first card. All other players are now united in preventing the soloist from making their bid, while the soloist is aided in their mission by taking first lead and choosing the trump suit. If the soloist makes their bid, all other players owe them money (or tokens) equal to the value of the bid. For example, if a player bids highest at three tricks, and then proceeds to take their three, each other player at the table owes that player 3 tokens. If the soloist fails, they owe each other player the same amount. This means the stakes are frequently high, as a bid of 4 at a table of 5 players could cost the soloist 16 tokens on a single hand.

The simplicity of the game combined with the engaging nature of wager games (even if you don’t play with real money) makes Nap an excellent time killing game. The game can be easily started, easily added to, and quickly ended without much fuss or confusion. If played to its natural end, the game ends when all the money is in the hands of a single player; if cut short, the winner is whomever has the most money when the game ends. Buying in mid-game is not much of an issue, as tokens change hands quickly and frequently. Most importantly, Nap can be learned by a new player in a matter of minutes, since it is based on the same trick-taking mechanics of such classics as hearts, spades and bridge.

Anyone looking to create a fast, casual game can learn from these lessons from Nap:

1. Give your game one goal.

Multiple paths to victory is a staple of deep strategy games, and for a good reason; variety keeps players interested over the long term and gives them options when things don’t go their way. However, the same design concept can become a hindrance in small games. Players trying to learn quickly can be easily overwhelmed, and if the game only lasts 20 minutes, they will begin and end the game without ever feeling like they get it. Keeping the game goal down to just one concept makes the game easy to learn, but necessarily easy to master. Example of a focused game: Love Letter.

2. Make it easy for players to join in.

Keeping rounds quick and making each round independent of the last are some of the best ways to ensure that your game will easily accept mid-game joiners. Many developers never consider this as a possibility, but the ability to be “dealt in” mid-game will give your game wide appeal at events where players will be filtering around: parties, conventions, and the like. Tabletop gamers frequently carry such games on their person at all times just in case they find a bored moment. Providing this functionality is an excellent way to make your game the one they choose. Example of a joinable game: Uno.

3. Make it work for a variety of table sizes.

Scaling can be one of the most difficult challenges for a game creator to overcome. Some games scale naturally, either because they are played independently or because turns are very short; others may require special rules or modifications for small or large tables. Whatever your casual game is, make sure that it can scale well, so when it comes time to play, it isn’t tossed aside for something as trivial as “not enough players”. Example of a scalable game: 7 Wonders.

Remember, these lessons are for short, time-killing games – if your game doesn’t follow the rules, that doesn’t make it a bad game. It just means you should think hard about how you want your game to be viewed, and where your target audience will be playing. And, as with all games, fun trumps all; if the game is fun to play, never break that to follow some other guide.

Thanks for reading!

-- Dakota W Winslow