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Ambition (card game)

Ambition is a trick-taking game developed by Mike Church, a 20-year-old math student, in September 2003, in Budapest, Hungary. While designed to be played with four players, it can be adjusted to suit between three and eight players. When three or four players are involved, a standard deck of playing cards is used; two are used for 5+ player play. Games with large, even numbers of players often involve partnership play.

 Table of contents 1 Basics of Ambition 2 History of Ambition 3 Strategy of Ambition 4 The Quest for a Balanced Reversal 5 The Appeal of Ambition 6 Glossary 7 External Links

Basics of Ambition

The specific rules of Ambition are copyrighted and cannot be posted here, but an earlier edition of its rules can be found at the link below. The author, Mike Church, allows royalty-free non-commercial use and distribution of Ambition and its rules, but requires compensation for any commercial use of his game.

Ambition is a point-trick game ("point-trick" refers to a species of trick-taking game where point values assigned to certain cards, instead of the number of tricks taken, are used for scoring; Hearts and Pinochle are point-trick games, Spades is not) wherein, each round, a player's goal is to score the second highest number of points. Specifically speaking, points are desired, but the player scoring the most points in a round is penalized-- s/he scores no points and a Strike. Players failing to achieve a certain Quota (11 pts., in a four-player game) can also strike, but retain their points. When a player "strikes out", or receives three Strikes, the game ends and that player is disqualified from winning, regardless of his/her score. The winner is the player remaining with the most points.

Ambition differs from most trick-taking games in its unique objective of scoring second in each round, which is rarely pursuable by simple strategy. It's not an evasion game, in which the object is to avoid tricks, nor is it an "overpowering" trick-taking game, wherein the object is to take as many tricks as possible.

Ambition was founded in accordance with Church's Criterion. This principle of game design is often formulated as: "A good game is fun to lose". While almost all games are enjoyable for the winning players, a game will only keep its players if it remains enjoyable even when one's luck turns sour (as it inevitably will). An example of a game cited as failing Church's Criterion is Magic, where the gaping design flaw known as "mana-screw" hamstrings players in a small but noticable proportion of their games.

To that end, Ambition succeeds. Whether or not a player is winning or losing in a given round of Ambition is often not known until near its end.

There is no trump suit in Ambition. Cards follow the standard ranking: Aces are high, Twos are low. However, Twos become high if a face card (or ace) of the same suit is present in a trick.

Ambition is unique because of:

• The high-low property of the Twos. Unlike most trick games where Aces (or, at least, the Ace of trump) cannot be beaten, Ambition has no single cards which are "sure winners". To have a "sure winner" a player must have the Two and the Ace of a suit.

• The unusual objective of each round. Each player wants to get some points, without taking the most, which creates a strategic tension between the players not replicated in any other trick game. The sort of thinking the game requires is unique to Ambition.

• The "slow and steady" aspect of gameplay. "Exceptional" rounds resulting in dramatic score changes are practically nonexistent. One wins Ambition by having several good rounds and striking as seldom as possible.

• The psychological tension the game creates. Because there are so many different ways to play a given hand, a player never knows what to expect from the other players. The King of Clubs (worth 11 points, the most of any card in the game) may come out early in the game for a player wanting to score it, or might be "dumped" on a non-club trick in an attempt to push another player over.

History of Ambition

Ambition was inspired, in part, by the trick-taking games Oh Hell and Hearts. Oh Hell is a bidding-trick game where the object is exact predition of one's trick-taking potential, and Hearts is a point-trick game based upon the evasion principle-- a player seeks to avoid tricks containing designated penalty cards (other tricks are neutral).

Ambition was titled "Self-Control" when first drafted on September 8, 2003 because it requires exactly that attribute-- it is not a game won by aggresive, nor by passive, strategy. Self-Control required clever (and lucky) manipulation of a massive tangle of rules. For example, the 7 of Clubs was worth +/- 7 points, depending on the parity of the number of tricks taken, and "landing on" certain scores had positive or negative effects, in a chutes-and-ladders fashion. Because of Self-Control's overcomplication, it playtested very poorly. On September 25, 2003, Church removed several of the counterproductive or unnecessary rules, wrote the first edition of rules for the new game, re-titled Ambition.

On October 1, 2003 Church wrote several friends about the new game he had created. Throughout October, playtesting of the game ensued, the majority of which was conducted by Church himself. Unlike its predecessor, Ambition was met with enthusiastic positive response-- Church receives daily requests for the rules. The game's popularity grew at a steady and surprising pace, spreading outward from Church and his playtesters-- by the end of 2003 there were an estimated 300-600 people familiar with the game, and several describe it as "addictive". One game designer predicts that Ambition will emerge as a "household name" in popular card games by the middle of 2004, another by the end of that year; Church expects it to do so by 2005.

The link below (at the bottom of this page) contains the fourth edition of Ambition's rules, written on November 4, 2003. The most recent edition of the rules is similar, with the following changes:

• The prohibition against playing high-value cards (the King of Clubs and royal Spades) on the first trick, inherited from Hearts, has been eliminated.

• The "Nil" reversal, whereby taking no trick scores Quota and evades a Strike, has been adopted as official. A decision on the "Slam" reversal is pending.
• On December 20 Church revised the Nil bonus upward, to 21 points. On January 8 he changed it to 28 points, and adopted a "Slam" rule.

• Numerous variants and optional rules are included in the 5th edition. These are not necessary to play Ambition.

Strategy of Ambition

In single-deck Ambition, there are 83 points in the cards and a 2-point bonus for taking the last trick, making 85 points per round. Since the goal is to take as many points as possible without scoring the most, a score of 21 (in a four-player game) is the maximum "safe" score-- a player will not strike taking 21 points as one player must have at least 22. Scores between 17 and 21 are considered the most desirable, but it can be to a player's advantage to take more. For example, a player who knows that another has taken 28 points can take as many as 27 without striking, and it is to his advantage to do so.

Normally, it is difficult to control the exact number of points one takes. Single tricks (in 4-player) play can be worth as few as zero or as many as 26 points, and the King of Clubs (worth 11 points) is often "dropped" onto a trick to surprise the trick-winner with unexpected points. Furthermore, Ambition has the "TRAM" (The Rest Are Mine) property seen in many trick-taking games: A player with the "lead" late in the round will often have it for the entire remainder. The absence of a trump suit in Ambition exacerbates this characteristic.

In Ambition, it's usually undesirable to possess the "lead" late in a round, since the player who does so tends to take a large number of points, and therefore often strikes. In the early (tricks 1-4) and middle (5-8) parts of a round, players tend to seek these objectives:

• To score a decent number (13+, preferably around 17) of points early on so as to ensure an acceptable score for the round, without scoring enough to expose the player to unnecessary risk. (For example, scoring 21 points in the first three tricks is not desirable, unless a player has an extremely weak hand, as it is likely that this player will take more points.)

• To clear a suit so as to be able to "dump" unwanted cards when further cards of the suit are played. There is no trump in Ambition so "dumped" cards never win tricks. Voids (suits of which a player has none) also allow a player to adapt his/her hand as the round progresses-- a player seeking a strong hand will dump low cards, a player seeking a weak hand will dump high cards.

• After one has taken a satisfactory total, to clear one's hand of high and mid-level cards (while still avoiding winning unwanted tricks) so as to dodge the lead at the round's end.

In Ambition, a balanced hand-- neither too strong nor too weak-- is generally the best. Yet surprisingly, middle cards (6 through 10) are worse than both high and low cards to have in a hand. The highest cards offer sure or near-sure wins of tricks, and, early in the round, also aid in controlling the game, and low cards are good for evasion. Whereas middle cards are unpredictable and often stick a player with the lead toward the end of the round.

To give a sample of Ambition's strategy, here is an example hand and how a player might play it:

H: 3 4 5 6 Q

S: 2 3 5 Q A

D: 9

C: 3 K

This is an above-average hand. While I won't reproduce the exact scoring of Ambition here (see link below for that) Spades are the big-money suit, the red suits are "small-money" suits, and Clubs are worth nothing, excluding the King-- an 11-point whopper. Therefore, this is a balanced hand with some very strong cards.

A player's eye first catches the King of Clubs, worth 11 points, with very little protection-- only one other club. This is alarming.

Furthermore, this hand contains several low Hearts with one royal, strong but balanced Spades, and a singleton in Diamonds. This is very good.

The player's first concern will be to know where the King of Clubs goes. If s/he takes it, this will require playing the rest of the hand weakly; if not, the rest of the hand can be played as normal. A player with such a hand might lead, early on, with the KC just to know whether or not s/he will take the 11 points for it (and adjust later play accordingly).

The singleton in diamonds is good news. The player will soon have a void through which s/he can dump (if needed) the King of Clubs as well as the Queen of Spades. While the Ace of Spades is a very good card in that it will command a high-point trick, further high Spades are liabilities because they may result in the accumulation of too many points.

Ideally, the player will be able to command 11-14 points with the Ace of Spades, and possibly a few more with the Queen of Hearts, while ridding him/herself of the extra, unwanted, high cards. S/he hopes to reach a point where s/he has accumulated 18-23 (while 22-23 is technically unsafe, it is rare for a score below 24 to be the striking score) points and holds only low cards, and therefore can evade the lead for the rest of the round.

A game of Ambition ends when any player reaches three strikes. The player(s) with three strikes is (are) disqualified from winning, and the player among the rest with the highest score wins. Normally, the player who wins did so by having several strong, 18-23 point, rounds while striking as rarely as possible. The winning score in a four-player game is normally between 70 and 100; in a three-player game, it's most often between 80 and 120.

Within a game, proximity of scores, rather than relative ranking of players, should be the metric of each player's performance. Luck, more than anything else, will normally be responsible for the difference between, say, a 103 and a 102. However, scores cannot be compared between games due to the variable length of an Ambition game. Most four-player games finish after about seven rounds, but they can be as short as three or as long as nine rounds.

One should note that, while a player at the upper end of the "safe range", or even moderately above it, desires to avoid taking more points, a player who is sure to strike does the opposite. There is no further penalty for striking with, say, 50 points as opposed to 30, so a player who is sure to strike wishes to take as many of the remaining points as possible, so as to make the round low-scoring for the other players.

The Quest for a Balanced Reversal

A reversal is a game mechanic by which play that is normally punished is, if taken to a difficult extreme, instead rewarded. "Shooting the moon" in Hearts, "Nil" in Spades and bluffing in Poker are examples of such. Reversals, if properly balanced, complete a game by offering players with bad luck a high-risk, high-reward alternative approach to play. By doing so, they reduce a game's emphasis on luck and increase, dramatically, the importance of skill.

In Ambition, a balanced hand is the most desirable type, and there are two types of difficult hands: Very strong hands, and very weak hands. In testing, Church discovered that very strong hands can, normally, be played to the holder's advantage in some way. Weak hands, however, are much more difficult, because the afford the holder almost no control over the round.

To correct this, Church introduced the Nil bonus, whereby a player taking zero tricks in a round did not strike and scored Quota, on November 1, 2003 and adopted it as official on November 20. On December 20 he revised the Nil bonus upward, to twice Quota, minus 1, or 21 points in a four-player game.

Until recently, Church did not have a reversal in the opposite direction, for the player who takes a massively large number of points. Presently, he has developed a more complete reversal scheme, which he hopes to have finalized in time for the February 14, 2004 Ambition tournament at Carleton College.

On January 8, 2004, Church adopted the following reversal scheme:

• Taking no tricks ("Nil") is worth 28 points, and no strike.

• Taking at least 3/4, or 64, of the points ("Slam") is worth 28 points, and no strike.

• Taking every trick ("Grand Slam") is worth 50 points. The other two players net no points for Nil, but do not strike.

Slam and Grand Slam do present the opportunity for strikeless rounds. However, because these outcomes are rare, this does not signficantly slow game play.

The Appeal of Ambition

Much of what has attracted thousands, if not millions, of players to the solitaire game FreeCell is the fact that, while the games are very different from one another, and there is a great deal of variation in difficulty, the overwhelming majority of configurations, if played correctly, were winnable. (31,999 of the Microsoft 32,000 are solvable.)

Ambition is a trick-taking game with a similar appeal. While each of the 635,013,559,600 possible hands plays differently, and requires a different strategy, there are very few truly "good" and "bad" hands: The play of one's hand is much more important than the cards within it.

In trick-taking games such as Hearts and Bridge, it's easy to imagine an excellent or a terrible hand, and these extremes occur quite frequently. In Ambition, extreme and possibly unplayable hands can be contrived, but almost never appear out of a random deal. This is because:

• What would be an excellent hand is one which will allow its holder to score about 20 points for the round, and then evade further scoring, in a predictable manner with high probability. Such hands do occur, but even they (due to the objective of Ambition) do not score overwhelmingly for their holders. For example, if a round splits 26-25-20-14, the player whose "difficult" hand caused him to overshoot and score 25 reaps a larger benefit than the player whose "good" hand allowed him to score 20.

• There are few terrible hands. Some hands are more difficult to play than others, but almost all of those fail to qualify as truly bad, much less unplayable. High-power hands can usually still be played to the holder's advantage (because of the control they allow early in the game). Low-power hands are more difficult; extremely weak hands were almost unplayable until the "Nil" bonus was introduced by Church in November 2003 to correct this imbalance.

Ambition's further appeal is in the strategic complexity admitted by its unusual objective. A game designer familiar with the game, and who assisted Church in the development of the project, said: "The objective of Mike Church's game is simple and easy to understand, and the scoring is, well, pretty simple, a lot better than what [Church] started with. What makes the game so addictive to those who play it, though, is the strategic complexity that comes out of this game's relatively simple rules. Everyone knows what they want, points, and what they want to avoid, which is taking the most. But someone's guaranteed to strike, and each player wants to make sure it's not them. Each round is a maniacal contest to take control, get your share of the bounty, until the endgame, when everyone's trying to avoid the lead like a hot potato. This is why the people who get into Ambition love it so much. It's a forehead-slapper game in that it makes you say, 'why didn't I think of that?' "