Tam Cúc

Redesigning the tam cúc card deck was a labor of love.

I was home for the weekend and running errands with my mother. Our conversations during those car rides often turned to “remember when…” Perhaps we were talking about Tết traditions or games we used to play, when my mother said, “The tam cúc cards are so conventional, I have always wanted to redesign them, but I just don’t have the skills.” Luckily for her, her daughter had studied graphic arts (“at an expensive design school,” my parents liked to needle me).

Over the course of more weekends home, I searched through books on traditional Vietnamese arts. Of particular interest were chapters on the bronze drums and ceramics of the early cultures of Đông Sơn and Sa Huỳnh. A long anticipated family trip to Vietnam meant a chance to see firsthand some of the artifacts.

Tapping into these pre-historic visual arts, I redrew the tam cúc cards with simpler lines. To improve user experience, cards that make up a valid meld were rendered with the same background. The whole project took a while, from the initial mother-daughter conversation in the car to when I held the brand new deck in my hands. Seeing my cousins play tam cúc with it at our next Thanksgiving get-together was worth the effort.

Mẹ Mứt remembers:

Instead of bầu cua cá cọp, which I considered a form of gambling, the game we played during Tết was always tam cúc. The deck of cards I kept in my bookcase for the occasion had the same design as the cards my Bà Nội used to teach the grandchildren how to play.

I relished telling my children that my ruthlessly competitive Bà Nội would give us no quarter, often bluffing her way to a win with a lousy hand. It validated my parenting philosophy.

Even a card game shall be turned into some sort of “tough it out” life lesson. Of course dumb luck matters, how could it not? But having a promising hand does not guarantee success and it is possible to win with a middling hand… as long as you get the chance, before it is too late, to make the right call at the right time. Two lowly tốt đen beat a mismatched tướng ông tướng bà if the trick calls for a pair and, in a point-trick version of the game, gets you bonus points if they are your closing win.

Read more about the redesign process at http://clarissavu.com/work/tam-cuc/


Redesigned Tam Cúc Deck (http://clarissavu.com/work/tam-cuc/)

Tam cúc is a trick-taking game, typically with 4 players. The deck has 32 cards, consisting of 2 colors (đỏ/red, đen/black, with đỏ outranking đen) and 7 suits (from highest ranked to lowest, tướng/general, /scholar, tượng/elephant, xe/chariot, pháo/cannon, /horse, tốt/soldier). At the beginning of each round, the deck is shuffled and the cards dealt to the players, one card at a time, in counter-clockwise rotation.

One of the players, the cái or lead, calls the first trick: A single card (một), a pair of cards that match in both suit and color (đôi), or a meld of 3 cards (ba). Three-card melds are tướng-sĩ-tượng or xe-pháo-mã combinations in the same color. Once all players have placed their card(s) for the trick face down, the cái’s bid is revealed. Starting with the player on the cái’s right, the other players reveal their card(s) to challenge the cái’s or put the card(s) straight into the discard pile (chui or “to go under”).

The player with the highest ranked card or meld wins the trick and becomes the cái. A meld of four tốt in the same color is rare enough that the holder can just declare it before any trick is called (trình làng or literally, “to present to the village”) and force everyone to discard four. A meld of five tốt allows the holder to trình làng and become the cái. In the plain-trick version of tam cúc, the winner of the round is the player with the most tricks or the most cards.

There are many ways to designate the cái to start off a game. Our way was a round of tay trắng tay đen: At the count of three, everyone sticks out their hand, palm up (tay trắng) or palm down (tay đen). The result is tallied; players in the higher tally drop out. The other players repeat the process until two players remain. The player who wins rock scissors paper gets to be the cái. Then, from one round to the next, the cái privilege is passed counter-clockwise, regardless of who wins the previous round.