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Designer Preview: Holly Oak

by Tom Lehmann

Holly Oak is a trick-taking game for 3-5 players in which players influence and contend with the changing seasons.

I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of changing seasons within a card game. When do you want to stay with the current season and when should you advance it?

Over the years, I’ve designed several prototypes based on this idea. Holly Oak is the simplest expression of it: a seasonal trick-taking game.

Deck the Halls

In Holly Oak, the four seasons (suits) are Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, with ranks 0-10.

Scattered among the four seasons are six scoring cards. I wanted these cards to both stand out and reinforce the changing season theme.

I made them different stages of the Oak and Holly Kings of Celtic lore, two opposing natural spirits locked in an eternal cycle of growth, decay, and renewal.

These six cards are each worth 1 or 2 points, as shown by the stars on either end of these cards and by the borders around their indices (which serve as a reminder when a player fans their hand).

Finally, there is one special card, the Season Retreats card.

Follow the Seasons (or Not)

The 45 cards are shuffled and dealt to the players. (In a four-player game, the 0 Winter is not used.) The player with the 1 Spring must lead it to begin the first trick.

The next player must, if they can, play a card in the current season (Spring for the first trick). Otherwise, they may play any card in hand.

If a player without a card of the current season plays the next season — in the cycle Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, etc. — then the current season immediately advances. The next to play on this trick must now play a card of the new current season, if they can.

It is possible for the current season to change multiple times within a single trick.

If, instead, a player without a card of the current season plays a card of a non-following season, the current season does not change — but if a player without a card of the current season plays Season Retreats, the season changes to the previous one. (For example, if the season was Fall, Season Retreats would make it Summer.)

Season Retreats

Once each player has played a card, the highest ranked card in the season in which the trick ended — that is, the current season — wins that trick. Whoever played that card takes all played cards and will lead the next trick.

Advance the Seasons (or Not)

A player on lead must play a card of the current or next season or play Season Retreats. They may do any of these things; they need not lead the current season (unlike when playing on a trick).

This decision is trickier than it may first appear. Unlike most trick-taking games with trump suits, a player can’t simply force out trump cards by leading a high trump card as the trump (season) may very well change mid-trick.

Should you advance the season to possibly set up tricks in later seasons or, even, the same season a full season cycle later, when a low rank card may well win by changing into this season late in a trick?

If a player has no legal lead, the lead passes clockwise to the next player, and so on. If no player can lead, the round ends “out of season”. All remaining cards in hand are tossed into the center and do not score.

There’s More! (or Less)

When a hand is over, players score points for all the Oak and Holly Kings they took, or if they took no tricks, 3, 5, or 8 points in a five-, four-, or three-player game, respectively. (Taking no tricks is much harder in a three-player game, so it’s worth a lot more.)

Unlike games such as Oh Hell or Wizard, players decide during play whether to try for no tricks based on how the hand has gone and what the other players are doing.

Scoring chips are provided, so no pen, paper, or scoring pad is needed.

If any player has at least 15, 12, or 10 points in a three-, four-, or five-player game, respectively, the game ends and the player with the most points wins! Otherwise, a new hand is dealt and the game continues. A typical game lasts 3-5 hands.

Conveying the Seasons

Harald Lieske provided the illustrations and graphics. One challenge we faced was how to emphasize the suits as seasons, not colors, while still keeping some color association. We experimented with various approaches and settled on distinctive season pips against light pastel tree branch backgrounds, keeping with the Oak and Holly theme.

Since Holly Oak is a light strategy game suitable for families or teenagers just learning trick-taking games, we wanted the season pips and kings to be accessible, inviting, and somewhat stylized, but not too “cartoony”. I’m quite happy with the results.

As always, Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games was very supportive.

I hope players will have fun exploring this seasonal twist on trick-taking games. Enjoy!

Tom Lehmann


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