This card game has some history. China had some rough times. Invasion, collapse, division, civil war, revolution; China went through all of these in just a few decades. The most pivotal event among them was the communist revolution, and the struggles that followed. Unlike most western countries, China was a mostly agricultural nation at the time. The revolution of the west were factory workers rallying against the capitalist bourgeois who owned the factories. In China, they were the farmers who fought against the landlords. In the new communist regime, the land-owning bourgeois became the enemy of the people. Years of struggle followed. It left a visible mark in China’s modern history.

This was the background that helped shape this unique card game. It’s called doudizhu(斗地主), literally “Fight the Landlord”. It’s a shedding-type card game for three people. The rules are quite familiar except one thing. After a bid, one person gets to be the landlord(地主 – dizhu) and the other two team up to become peasants. Although the peasants can’t share information, they must silently work together. If one of the peasants wins the game, both of them shares the winning score. Even if they lose, they share the loss. It’s a safer bet, but with a lower return. Being a landlord, on the other hand, is high-risk and high-return. The landlord must fight alone to keep his wealth. He gains or loses the entire score.

Rules

Each player is dealt 17 cards. The landlord is given three extra cards. The three extra cards must be revealed to all players when the landlord takes them. The objective is to shed all cards first.

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One game of doudizhu usually consists of six to nine rounds. In those rounds, players may play landlord once and play peasant in the next. Roles can change every round. At the end of the game, the scores are added up. The person with the highest score becomes the winner. Often, people casually bet 0.1 to 1CNY per point for a light gamble.

Landlord Bidding

After all of the players have gotten their cards, they assess their hand of cards. Depending on the hand, the player choses how he will bid. If the hand is very good, he could take the risk of fighting two people to get a higher score. If the hand is not so good, he would choose rather to be a peasant for a low-risk team fight. Each of the players make a bid by calling numbers one to three. Players must decide their numbers wisely. If the hand is reasonably good, you might go for two. If another player believes his hand is almost certain to win, he might bid three and become the landlord. If other players bid lower, you will get become the landlord. If the everyone decides not to bid, the cards are reshuffled. Who gets to bid first is random, and different people have different ways of deciding.

There’s another way you can adjust your stake. If you think your hand is fairly good, you can decide to double your bet. You can earn twice the scores, but lose twice if you lose. You can manage your risks in various angles by bidding to be landlord, and doubling or not doubling your bet. All of this must be decided before the game begins.

Card Ranks

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The card with the highest rank is the colored joker(大王/da’wang), followed by the black joker(小王/xiaowang), two, ace, king, queen, jack and all the way down. The lowest card is three. Suits are irrelevant in this game. Suits can be ignored.

Dealing and Turns

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The landlord gets to deal his card first. A single card, or a category of cards can be dealt according to the rules. The players that follow must deal cards that is higher in rank than the category last dealt, and the category must match. If no other players can deal higher than your card, you get to start the next set of turns.

After several turns, you will have fewer and fewer cards. If you have two cards left, you have to announce that you only have two cards. If you have only one card left, you also have to let everyone know.

Category of Hands

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There are nine categories of hands that you can deal. Singles and pairs are simply a card, or a pair of cards with equal rank. If you have three cards of equal rank, a trio, you can add an extra single or a pair. These are called “kickers”. Kickers must have different ranks from the trio. Kickers are useful for getting rid of lower ranking cards. The number of the kicker cards are irrelevant in the rank of the hand. The next person only has consider the rank of the cards in the trio. It’s not an obligation to add kickers if you don’t want to. It’s an option.

If you have five or more consecutive single cards, it makes a chain. There is no upper limit on the length of chains. If you have them, up to 12 single cards (from 3 to Ace)  can be dealt as a chain. However, the next person can only deal chains with both equal length and a higher rank. If you have three or more consecutive pairs, it’s called pair chain. You can make your pair chain as long as you can.

If you have two or more consecutive trios, it’s called an airplane. The rules are a little different from chains and sisters. When you have consecutive trios. You can add kickers, just like you can with trios. You can add as many kickers as trios you have, but they must be either all singles or all pairs.

Four cards of the same rank makes a bomb. The perk of these bombs is that it can win over any hand. It can only be beaten by a bomb with a higher rank. For example, four threes will be beaten by four kings. If you are willing to exchange power with quantity, you can instead deal four cards with two sets of kickers.

The highest of all are the two jokers in a pair. It’s called the Rocket, and it’s higher than all ranks of all categories. It instantly allows the person start the next turn.

Scoring Rules

There is a base score that the winner gains and the losers lose, but there are factors in the game that can change the multiples of the score. Landlords get the entire score from winning or losing, but the peasants share them. It’s less risky to be a peasant. If you double your bet in the beginning of the game, you receive double the score or the loss. Each bomb or rocket dealt by a player doubles the score each round. There is an additional rule that doubles the final score if, the losing side had no chance to deal (or only once, if the landlord loses).

If the base score for winning is 10, the usual winning stake for the landlord would be about 10 to 80. If the player was the landlord, all the bombs are dealt(13 possible, the jokers have to be divided because peasants have an odd number of cards) and the player doubled the bet, it can theoretically go up as high as 327,680.

Basic Strategy

  • It’s generally a good rule of thumb to use lower ranking cards first. Higher cards are more powerful and versatile. It shouldn’t be wasted where lower cards can be used.
  • Peasants must cooperate. For example, if the other peasant has only one card left, the other peasant should try to deal the lowest single card. It makes it more easier for the other peasant to shed his last card.
  • Think wisely when dealing bombs or rockets. It will change the flow of the game, and increase risk by doubling the score. Deal only when you can certainly use it to your advantage.
  • If you have last two hands of cards, deal the hand that others are less likely to beat. For example, if you have 3-3 and A-A as your last four cards, use A-A first. If you deal 3-3, things may get complicated if your opponent also has a pair of aces. This prevents that.
  • Watch carefully what cards have been used. In a real game, used cards are all down on the table, but on computers you have to memorize them for your advantage.
  • Don’t be afraid to break your cards apart. Instead of waiting for your opportunity to use your rocket, it may be wiser to use two jokers separately.
  • Examine your opponents. You dealt a colored joker, the highest single card, but the opponent still takes time to think. This means he is likely to have a bomb or a rocket. There are many other clues and intelligence you can gather by watching carefully.

Popularity

Doudizhu is a tremendously popular game in China. If Chinese chess is for two, and Mahjong is for four, doudizhu is the most popular choice for three. Many apps are available that lets you play the game with strangers. More than ten thousand people are playing doudizhu online every hour, and as many offline. Though the game originates from a dark period of civil strife, such colors have faded entirely in the 21st century. Doudizhu has become a popular national game love by all Chinese. The game is quite enjoyable, easy to learn, but hard to master. Its quaint origins behind China’s past makes it even more charming.