Ambition Card Game


Mike Church

My name is Mike Church and in 2003 I invented the card game, Ambition. While Ambition's not totally obscure (the game is played independently of me and my personal associates, and has an estimated 2000 players worldwide, mostly in North America and Japan) this is probably the first time you have heard of Ambition.

Since fall 2003, I have been adapting the rules and modifying the game, researching and analyzing the game's emergent properties and strategies, and striving to write the best damn card game I can. My most recent changes will be posted on Usenet within a couple of days, and I'm hoping to circulate an updated PDF rules document by the end of January (once these damn grad school Apps are done).

This is just an intro. post to get the ball rolling. Do any of you have any questions about Ambition, or any comments?

For those who don't know about it yet, Ambition is a trick-taking game with a lot of strategic depth. The goal isn't unambiguously to win (positive trick games like Bridge) or to lose (evasion games like Hearts)-- it's consistently to take moderate-to-strong totals while never taking the most (unless you can take a lot, or take none). Because of its unusual multiplicity of objectives and strategic biodiversity, it's a very deep game that invites very intricate analyses. Another plus is that hand-luck plays a surprisingly small role in round outcomes-- I believe much less than in any trick game popular today. Even contrivedly terrible hands, with skilled players, can be played to positive average outcomes.

To get started on the strategic aspects of Ambition, there's an essay on the Usenet (which I'll post on the Ambition blog when it goes up) from 4 months ago, 9/11/2004. It discusses how to read one's hand for strengths and weaknesses, which shines a bit of light onto the tricky aspects of passing strategy, optimal ruffing, etc.

The Ambition blog, at , will be going online shortly.


Welcome to the forums Mike,

I'd just like to say well done for thinking of a game and going through all the steps to make it as good as it possibly can be. I'm sure even in the future you will make revisions to improve it as you get more feedback.

One of the things that draws me in is
Another plus is that hand-luck plays a surprisingly small role in round outcomes-- I believe much less than in any trick game popular today.
One thing that I really get tired of is people moaning that "you beat due to luck", I'm not sure if it's possible to make a game that doesn't rely to much on luck of the draw, but if it is, I'd sure like to play any game that could minimise it!

When the PDF rules are out, feel free to post them as an attachment here, or better yet, post the contents here into this thread.

To have 2000 people playing a game you created must make you feel proud, as the game develops, I'm sure more people will try it out and like it. I know quite a few invented games have been posted here, and one even had a larger amount of people playing it than that. If you could share any tips with our other users on how to "make your game successful" that would be great.

Mike Church


On hand-luck: it took a lot of effort to get hand-luck (as much as possible) out of Ambition, to be honest. I definitely don't have it at 100% pure-skill, but that's just not possible in card games and I don't even want that. The inherent tension in the concept of "pure skill" is that for a game to be skillful, the player must be subjected to unpredictable and varying (random) circumstances-- if the notion of "skill" is rote performance of one rehearsible strategy or method, it's not a game but performance art. The only games that seem to have pulled off "pure skill" are Go, Chess, and Checkers, and even those have a luck element (white/black) that confer measurable (but small) advantages.

Of course, any non-pure luck game becomes skillful if played in iterations (e.g. poker). (I'm putting my own game-design theory into this.) The issue is one of patience; if a clearly inferior player can beat out a superior player for 12 hours, there's too much luck in the game. On the other hand, I prefer to have enough luck (strategic luck if nothing else) that two relatively equal players can flip-flop the outcomes, so that there is excitement.

In Ambition, I developed and tested a set of four hands, one of which was contrivedly terrible (to the tune of about 1-in-3,000) and the others average to above-average. Then I played them against each other (8 trials). This was a Hold round (no passing) so the afflicted "player" had no chance to improve the hand. His average "relative score" (relative score = player's score minus the average of the other three players' scores, with no attention to strikes) was about -6 (or one-third of a round). Now, to be critical of my own study, these rounds were not played out by real players, though I tried to vary the players' strategies in my simulations and be as scientific as possible. I could only run 8 trials because, after a while, I got too used to the hands and knew (by heart) what the board looked like.

I estimate, then, that the standard deviation of hands (in terms of effect on relative score) is about 2-3 points (not much) and over an average game would swell to about 5-8 (game-end scores are usually 60 to 140). Of course, individual players will flip-flop a bit more than that from game to game, based on who's "on" and "off" each night, as well as the interactive element (strategic luck) which plays a huge role in the game. I don't mind "strategic luck" because it's not "luck" in the stochastic sense; in a psychological game (even Rochambeau) this type of "luck" is mostly the skill of reading the other player, if iterated for long enough.

What I really like about Ambition, in terms of the scoring/objectives system is that:

  • It's quite stable. Good play over several rounds will almost always inevitably beat spotty, lucky play. I had a game last night where I won, fairly decisively, even though I had the 3rd-best (of 4 players) outcome in 5 out of 7 rounds. I never pulled off a "Slam" (a bonus worth a lot of points) while two other players did.
  • At any point until the end, it's still "anybody's game". The way scoring works is that there are strikes (bad) and points (good). The game ends when someone gets to 3 strikes; that person loses (strike-out) and the winner is the player, of the remaining three, with the top score. Therefore, even a player with a decisive lead can fall. Once I had a game where I developed a monstrous lead (70 points), struck three times in a row, and lost. (I still had the top point total; this is the only time that's happened to me and I loved the firstness of it all.)
  • The multiplicity of objectives means that there really isn't a good or bad hand-- in Bridge, there are clearly terrible, and excellent, hands, but that's less true in Ambition. Usually, the goal is moderation, but if you can take no points or take a lot of points, there are bonuses for that. If a hand is too weak, it's actually a "no-brainer Nil" hand and you can get a decent round; if it's too strong because of the 9-card spade suit, you can probably Slam. I'd guess that 99.8% of all hands yield some options; the tougher hands are challenges but surmountable with skill (and a bit of strategic luck).
As for adapting Ambition to minimize hand-luck, I'll admit that it wasn't easy. Ambition's what I call a "sculpted game"-- I started with a fairly simple idea, and adapted it according to results of play. My "seed" idea was a card game where you wanted points, but taking the most in a round was penalized (strike). I threw in some funky aspects (hi/lo 2's, to make "sure tricks" rare) and stole Hearts's 3-card player-to-player pass for the strategic element that passing invites. Then, voila, I had a game. Nil and Slam weren't introduced yet, and not for a while would they be.

I believed that the stated goal of moderation would result in a game where hand-luck played a very minor role. Well, I was wrong. In fact, the high and low cards had considerably more strategic value than middle cards (6-J; Q borderline), which couldn't be counted upon dependably either to win or to lose tricks. Any game with "bad" and "good" cards inherently has "bad" and "good" hands just by mathematical fact. (The changes I introduced gave the middle cards a lot more value, to the point that I don't mind having a middle-heavy hand. One change, with Nil/Slam in the picture, is that middles make a great play in the lead or second-position against a Nil; if you play high, the Nil player can get rid of his middle cards.)

Empirically, the emergent behavior of an Ambition hand, before several rounds of changes were made, was like this: everyone tried to take about 15-21 points, then get out of the action as fast as possible. One person, unable to get out of the lead, would be stuck with it in the end (Ambition is no-trump) of the round, take a large number of points, and probably strike. High cards were essential to take any of the first 8 tricks, and the last five were hazardous. Weak hands had no power and were unlikely to win anything. So, I had to make some changes, because it was clear to me (this was Dec. '03; Ambition was 3 months old) that Ambition was plagued by the same hand-luck found in any other trick game.

So, I introduced the "Nil" option for taking no tricks (later, no points). This allowed weak hands a strategic option. "Slam" (which I revamped many times) gave strong hands a very risky (and exciting) option. What they also did was mix up players' behavior. Since you don't want the most, and there are 85+ points each round, the goal was (before Nil) to take near 21 (in practice, I've never seen a 22 strike; 23 and 24 are very rare) because 21 is safe by the Pigeonhole Principle. If someone gets Nil, though, the paradigm changes: with a successful Nil player, up to 28 is safe. So, the interaction of different strategies ensures that every round has a different character; you need to pay attention to other players' intentions in order to develop a strategy of your own.

"Nil" and "Slam" beat back hand-luck, a lot, but then I did a couple things that really changed play, though they seemed small. I added in a 6-point bonus for the 6c-- introducing 6 points, that are difficult for anyone to control, to the game-- and changed the Kc (the big "whopper" card) to 13. Then I brought in a -6 option for a player taking the last trick (to counteract the "stuck in the lead" paradigm to a degree). These changes, which seem small, had huge effects on the game... because emergent behavior is chaotic and is also what drives games. Later, I also started the practice keeping running counts (with chips; on paper they would be visible to only one and the others would be required to ask) of player's points taken throughout the round. This makes the game more fun, and also has surprising (positive) emergent effects.

What Ambition is, to me, is actually multiple subgames played at once. If you look at the scoring, it's a "game of fifths":

  • the diamond suit (17 pts.)
  • the heart suit (17 pts.)
  • the low spades (18 pts.)
  • the honor (J-A) spades (20 pts.)
  • the 6 and king of clubs (19 pts.)
However, nothing is so clean that these "fifths" don't interact: they invariantly do. There are also other emergent subgames: there is the subgame of avoiding (or seeking) the late-round lead, there are the Nil and Slam subgames, as well as counter-Nil and counter-Slam subgames. There is the game of how to use the "middle cards" (dreaded by new players, but very valuable in subtle ways) to one's benefit, how to pass, and how to use 2's. What amazes me-- and I guess it shouldn't surprise me because I sculpted it over months-- is how smoothly all these subgames seem to fit together. When I started with Ambition, these interacting subgames weren't well-balanced against each other (and some didn't exist) so it was a "one-paradigm" game with hand-luck as a decisive factor, but as I adapted the game, I seem to have fixed it quite a bit.

Empirically, what we find is that people usually get undesirable round-outcomes (strikes or low-scoring hands) usually because of certain hand properties-- sometimes very subtle ones-- called "liablities". A singleton Kc would usually be a liability-- a player might get 13 points shoved down his throat (or might lose it to the Ac or 2c, when wanting to take it). It might seem that this introduces hand-luck (and it does, to some extent) but about 85 percent of hands have at least one minor liability; the other 15 percent can still screw up based on unexpected circumstances. Liabilities are challenging but not death sentences, as one can expect that pretty much every hand has one.

I hope this helps you understand why I believe (and others may disagree) that hand-luck plays only a tiny role in Ambition; according to my game-design aesthetic, the luck/skill balance is just right (but I'm ideologically pro-Ambition :)). I will (even if I don't get the PDF done soon) post updated rules on this site within a couple of days-- there's no reason why I can't-- and you can play it and judge for yourself. I warn you that this game is not for everyone; it can be very intense and it's unapologetically complicated. It's a great game for nerdy math majors, and a terrible game for the pub. I'll also provide an essay I wrote (look in around Sept. 11, 2004, if you want to read it now) on how to read one's hand; it shines some light on how the game works.

That's all I have to say. I hope you'll try the game out.


Wow that was one hell of a read ;) It sounds to me like you've got it all worked out, is this a final revision or are you looking to be making future revisions?

I'm glad you made a game that minimises hand luck's importance, I am eager to try it out. It's quite hard to get a feel for what you're saying without having a clear knowledge of the rules, but I do get the gist of it.

Mike Church

Rules of Ambition

These aren't from the technical rules document, Rules of Ambition, that I'm preparing as PDF. Those include other details such as variants, history of the game, and the mechanics of trick-taking, as my assumption, in the rules document, is that the reader may not be familiar with trick-taking games at all, or may be familiar with the concept but not the English word trick in the card context (which translates nonliterally across languages).

This as a somewhat abbreviated, but complete, version of the rules, intended for people already familar with trick-taking games such as Spades, Oh Hell, and Hearts. If you're familiar with trick-taking games, this post contains all you need to play.

An old version of this game can be found here, but the rules aren't up to date. I do reserve copyright control over Ambition, but only with regard to commercial use. You're free and encouraged to make any noncommercial use of the game you wish (including small-stakes, convivial gambling; using it in a for-profit casino, without my permission, would not be OK).

Basic stuff

Ambition's a four-player game using one deck of 52 cards. Collusive arrangements among players are verboten; everyone plays for him- or herself. (However, at least in informal games, table-talk such as "don't let him Slam" or "he always tries to void diamonds" is normally OK.)

Trick play, and high/low 2

Ambition is a trick-taking game, always played at no trump: winner of a trick is the highest card of the suit led, and players must follow suit if able. The ranking is A(high)-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 (low), and the A, K, Q, and J are called honor cards; 10 through 2 are spot cards.

The 2, however, has a unique high/low property: in the led suit, it becomes high (outranking all) when an honor card of the same suit is present in the trick (order of play matters not). To show three example tricks:

1. :5h4: :7h4: :2h4: :10h4:

2. :5h4: :7h4: :2h4: :kh4:

3. :5h4: :7h4: :2h4: :ks4:

The first trick would be won by the 10♥-- highest card of the led suit. The second would be won by the 2♥, as the king activates the 2's high/low property. The third would be won by the 7♥; the off-suit king does not trigger the 2.

Point values for cards

Like Hearts, Ambition is a point-trick game where each card is assigned a point value. The point values are:

K♣: 13 points
6♣: 6 points
J-A♠: 5 points
2-10♠: 2 points
J-A♥, : 2 points
2-10♥,: 1 point
*: 0 points

So you would score the trick:

:kc4: :7h4: :ac4: :as4:

at 13 + 1 + 0 + 5 = 19 points. There are 91 points in the deck; however, the person taking the last trick has the option to subtract 6 points from his/her score, making the total of players' scores 85. You want to avoid getting the most, so you're safe up to 21.

Round Procedure

There are up to 10 rounds in a game of Ambition, and five "phases" in a round of Ambition:

Dealing: The player designated as dealer deals each player a 13-card hand.

Passing: 3-card player-to-player pass. (Inherited from Hearts.) The pass schedule is L-R-A-H-S-H-A-R-L-S, where

Left (1, 9) means three cards are passed to the player at left.
Right (2, 8) means three cards are passed to the player at right.
Across (3, 7) means three cards are passed across the table.
Hold (4, 6) rounds involve no passing, and
Scatter (5, 10) rounds mean that each player passes one card to, and recieves one card from, each player.

Of course, as in Hearts, players don't look at what has been passed to them until they themselves have passed.


After the pass, the 3♦ is always led to the first trick. Trick-play continues, the winner of each trick leading to the next, until all the cards have been played.

Because Ambition is rather rich in computation, players announce the trick's value when they take it to all players. (So if you won the trick K♣-6♣-A♠-K♠, you would say, "Twenty-nine".)

Running counts of players' totals are to be common knowledge-- the game plays better when this is done. In my experience, the best way to keep counts is with poker chips. I put 15 5-point red chips, and 16 1-point white chips, in the center of the table. As players take tricks, they move an according number of chips over to their area (and, if they have more than 5 white chips, trade 5 whites for a red). Red chips are stacked in fours (20) and whites in fives (5), to keep the chips organized so the relevant info. is in plain view. The cards played in tricks are not to be kept in plain view, but are turned over once the trick is over (and all players have had a chance to see it).


This is the phase where you verify the counts according to the chips, especially if there are any weird discrepancies or if it's a close round. You make sure the totals sum to 91. The player taking the last trick chooses whether or not to exercise the -6 option.


This is the only complicated part of Ambition: here's how you determine your score for the round:

  • If you have 57 or more points (Slam) you get a flat 36-point bonus. This is tough to do; it's 5/8 of the points.
  • If you have 56 or less, and take the most of any player, you get 0 points for the round, and a penalty called a strike. ("Overstrike".)
  • If you don't take the most, and get at least 11 points, you score your points-taken for the round.
  • If you take 1-10 points, you get a strike for the round, unless you already have 2 strikes: you cannot get a 3rd strike (strike-out) in this way. You still score your points for the round. ("Understrike".)
  • If you take 0 points (Nil) you get no strike and a 24-point bonus. However, if two players make Nil, they only get 16 points.
Also, there's the ultra-rare Grand Slam where someone takes every trick; usually, this is played either at 50, or 36 and the Grand-Slammer gets -1 strike.

Scoring is written S/P, where S is the number of strikes, and P is the number of points. So, if you got 25 points in your first round, which split 30-25-19-11, you would be at 0/25 (a very good round). If the next round split 25-25-21-14, and you were either of the 25s, you would get a strike (X) and go to 1/25. If you got a Nil in the next round, you'd go up to 1/49. Getting only 6 in the next round (understrike) would put you to 2/55; getting 6 again in the round after that would put you to 2/61, since you can't strike out on an understrike.

After you add in the scores, you check for game-end conditions and play another round.


There are two game-ending conditions:

1. Someone "strikes out", or gets 3 strikes. The person with 3 strikes loses. Among the remaining players, the winner is the person with the highest point total; strikes are irrelevant unless one has 3 of them.

2. Ten rounds pass. I've never seen a case where I needed this rule (it would require two Slams in the game, along with other weirdnesses). However, if no one has struck out after 10 rounds, the person with the most points wins. This rule is there just so I can console new players that the game has a definite length.

I'm pretty sure that's all. If you have any questions about this, let me know.
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Ahhh now I understand the game a lot more. As soon as I get 3 friends round who like Hearts type games I will be sure to try it out and feedback. The scoring system will take a while to get used to but I'll just print your post out. Thanks for posting this!

Mike Church

Blog is online

The Ambition blog is now up, here.

If you play the game and would like membership, please contact me: ambition_game :) yahoo dot com. (The smiley is an @ symbol.)


Nice blog Mike, I look forward to seeing more information about the game when it's ready, don't forget to keep updating this thread as well though.

Mike Church

I hope you enjoy it.

I finished the 2.0 version and the rules are available by email (ambition_game at yahoo dot com) and should be at shortly.

Mike Church

PDF version available

A PDF version of the new rules document is available here at least briefly. I don't know how long I will be able to host on Carleton's server after I graduate, and it will be at least a month before I'm able to host from Wisconsin. If anyone knows where I could get free or cheap web hosting for it, that would be much appreciated.

-Mike Church

Mike Church

The file is too large for upload. Apparently there's a 19.5 kb limit. The PDF file is 250ish.

Mike Church

Madison, WI

I just moved to Madison, Wisconsin, so anyone in that area and interested in playing Ambition should let me know. The first scheduled game is going to be this Saturday, 7/23.
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