Let’s talk about Hearts. The game, not the chest-thumpers.
I know, I know, it’s an utterly abstract game, and my bailiwick is usually the high-narrative stuff, and I don’t even like Hearts–for no good reason I really find trick-taking games of all sorts to be loathsome–but I need a mechanic to dissect and Hearts is home to a big one: the ability to “Shoot the Moon”.
We’re taking this rule straight from the source: the Wikipedia page for the game of Hearts.
“If one player takes all the penalty cards on one deal, that player’s score remains unchanged while 26 penalty points are added to the scores of each of the other players.”
For those not in the know, the general structure of the game is as such: you try to get rid of all the damn hearts in your hand. It’s trick-taking at its most basic, except inasmuch as rather than counting the tricks you took, you count how many hearts you have acquired (as well as the Queen of Spades, known variously as the Black Maria, Calamity Jane, Cursed Athena,, the Bitch, and Muhammad Hamza Zubaydi, among others). One point per heart, thirteen for the queen of spades, and by the way, whomever has the fewest points when the game ends is the winner.
Obviously Hearts, like any card game worth its salt, has more variant rules than it does actual rules by, like, an order of magnitude, and depending on who you ask, the very act of moon-shooting IS a variant, but it’s common enough that most folks take if for granted as being an actual part of play, like getting free money for landing on “Free Parking” or rolling a natural 1 meaning that your character automatically screws up so bad that she injured herself. Unlike those rules however, this one is a good thing which makes the game measurably more interesting.
Why can the moon be shot? Why reward behavior that is elsewhere punished? To be honest, the answer is right there in the question: it means that behaviors which are punished by the game normally are now rewarded! It upends that most basic rule of all games everywhere, the ur-rule if you will:
If you want to win, you must do the sorts of things which will allow you to win.
It’s so basic as to be a tautology: to win is to win, in short. And yet, shooting the moon, and similar strategies in any number of other games, inverse it. Take action which harms you, take action which makes you all the closer to losing, and only then shall you win. It’s backwards.
- It means that you can never quite be sure whether a player that sucks actually sucks, or if he has a strategy that you don’t want to accidentally allow him to achieve.
- It means that a really terrible hand might, under certain circumstances, be a really great hand. (Aside. A friend of mine was playing hearts with another friend; he had played before many times, but this was her first game. He played the 2 of clubs to lead the trick, and she played a heart. “No,” he said, “you have to play a club, to follow suit.” “I don’t have any clubs,” she told him. “Okay, but then you need to play a spade or diamond; you can’t play hearts on the first round.” “Um,” she said, “um, I can’t.” Lo and behold, she had been dealt the entire suit of hearts, a one in six hundred billion (or so) event. Needless to say, they gave her credit for shooting the moon without bothering to play out the rest of the hand.)
- It means that a really great hand isn’t something you can rely on if there are clever and brave opponents about.
- It means, more than anything else, that a middling hand becomes an exercise in the cruel math of risk and reward. Oh, you want to shoot that moon but oh, oh, it’s so far away and oh, if you don’t do it quite right then suddenly instead of penalizing everyone else by 26 points you wind up TAKING 25 of them because one bastard saw through your plan too early, before you could cement the round, and he has one measly point now and you’re booched.
That’s good. That’s a lot of emotions. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I hate Hearts and never play it, but I like this, in theory at least, in part because of what it is: a house rule that takes advantage of a player’s love for uncertainty and risky tricks, and in so doing has become timeless and time-honored. Shoot the moon, baby.