Critical Play: Is this game balanced? — Blake Sharp

I am going to analyze the card game Hearts for this critical play. Hearts is my favorite card game, and I can never get enough.

Hearts is a card game for 3-4 players and the entire deck is dealt. Then players play rounds until they are out of cards. Each round consists of one player playing a card of a certain suit. Then each player plays a card of the same suit if they have it. The player who played the highest card of the original suit takes the pile and starts the next round. The goal is to have the fewest number of points. Each card that is in the heart suit is a point and the queen of spades is thirteen points. So each game, twenty-six points are given out. The exception is if a player shoots the moon and gets every single heart and the queen of spades. Then he/she gets zero points and everyone else gets 52. Players usually keep score and play across multiple games.

For game balance in Hearts, there are two considerations to think of. The first is thinking about the asymmetry of where players start. Each player is given a portion of the deck. Some players like to have the queen of spades, some like to have a lot of low cards, some like high cards, and some want to clear out an entire suit from their hand. Certain starting hands are better for shooting the moon and certain starting hands are easier to get zero points.

Another facet of balance is that there are multiple different strategies to win the game. These strategies change if you are trying to shoot the moon or if someone else who is playing is trying to shoot the moon. The twist of shooting the moon is so important because it keeps players on their toes and disincentivizes players from putting all the points onto a single player. This element is part of the cost curve of the game.

Another element of balance is the facet of rotating who goes first. There is an advantage here because you get to choose what suit is played, but there is a disadvantage because you don’t know who is going to play what after you. The best position to be in is going last because you get to see what everyone played and can make your best judgment on that call. However, that rotates each round which keeps the game in the balance.

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