Sheepshead Card Game – Basic Rules and Interesting Variations

In this articles we'll explain basics of the sheepshead card game and teach you most impressive tricks to help you win
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Last updatedLast updated: August 31, 2021
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If you are looking for a new cooperative game to play, then the Sheepshead card game might be a good option. This game has been around for a good long time, giving it a rich history and tradition to rival other, more popular family card games. It also uses a standard deck of playing cards, though these need to be shuffled a bit differently to get the game going.

Basically, you only need 32 of the 52 cards in a deck, with each card having a different point value and strength. The object of this game is to get at least 61 points by using strategy and a variety of tricks throughout the game. In this guide, we will take you through everything that you need to know to play Sheepshead effectively so that you can teach your friends and family.

Sheepshead interesting facts

As we mentioned above, Sheepshead has been played for a good long time. It was most likely invented in Germany and was originally called Schafkopf, which translates to Sheepshead. The version played today has been Americanized and is especially popular in Midwest states such as Wisconsin. In fact, it is actually considered to be the unofficial card game of Milwaukee. There are annual national tournaments held in Wisconsin since 1970, which have helped to cement the cult status within the state.

Learn the rules

Sheepshead Card Game - Basic Rules and Interesting Variations

While this game utilizes the same cards as poker, it does so in a very different manner. As such, you need to make sure that you are well versed in the rules of Sheepshead before you try to play.

Players

Sheepshead can be played with a varying number of players, though the most popular configuration is with 5 people. We will be focusing on this variation throughout our guide, though we will also discuss the rules for games played with 2-8 players as well later on in the guide. No matter how many players there are in a game, the dealer changes with each new round, as the person to the left of the dealer gets to deal after each game.

Deck

Before you deal out the cards, you first need to get the deck ready. The deck for Sheepshead needs to only contain 32 cards instead of the standard 52. To achieve this, you need to remove all of the 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s of each suit. These cards need to be set aside, and only the 7s, 8s, 9s, 10s, Jacks, Queens, Kings, and Aces should be shuffled and dealt with by all of the players.

Dealer

Once the deck is prepared, you need to decide who will deal first. This person should shuffle the deck thoroughly and cut the deck. Next, the dealer needs to deal out the cards, 3 at a time to each of the players, starting with the person to their left. After everyone has received their first three cards, the dealer should place 2 cards in the middle of the table into the blind pile. The remaining cards should then be dealt, 3 at a time to all the players so that they have a total of 6.

Card rankings

When playing Sheepshead, you need to pay close attention to the strength of the cards in your hand, which is usually the hardest thing for beginners to grasp. The rankings are as follows:

Top: All four queens

Middle: All four Jacks

Bottom: The Ace, 10, King, 9, 8, and 7 of diamonds.

There are also 18 cards that are “fail” suits. These include:

Ace, 10, King, 9, 8, and 7 of clubs, spades, and hearts.

You need to pay special attention to the fact that Aces and 10s always outrank Kings, which is quite different from other card games.

Points count

Aside from the power rankings of the cards, there is also a points value system that you need to have a clear understanding of in order to play the game effectively. After all, in order to win the game, you need to get a total of 61 points to win. The points for each type of card are as follows:

Aces – 11 points

10s- 10 points

Kings – 4 points

Queens – 3 points

Jacks – 2 points

9s, 8s, 7s – 0 points

How to play Sheepshead

Now that you have a firm grasp of the setup for the game of Sheepshead, it is time to go over the actual gameplay.

Picking up

Sheepshead Card Game - Basic Rules and Interesting Variations

Once the cards have been dealt, the game can begin. The first step is choosing a picker. The person seated to the left of the dealer gets to go first, and if they choose to pick up the 2 cards in the blind, then they are the picker. If they think their cards are already good enough, then the next person at the table has the option and so on. Whoever picks up the blind must also bury two of their own cards, which means they put them at their side.

Partner selection

The picker can also choose a partner. Once chosen the partner will work with the picker against the other players. Usually, the partner needs to be the player with the jack of diamonds, though the picker can also choose an ace of a fail suit and have that person be their partner.

Go alone

If, however, you feel that your hand is strong enough on its own, you can go it alone. This would mean that you have a lot of trump cards already and are on your way to 61 points. If you choose to go alone, then you are playing against all the other players for the rest of the game.

Lead and least

The lead in the game of Sheepshead is whoever plays the first card. The other players need to follow their lead and follow suit in a clockwise manner. Whoever plays the first trick always leads the next one as well.

If no one picks up the blind, then you can play a round of least or “leaster.” In this variation, players need to make one trick but aim to get the fewest points possible. Whoever has the smallest amount at the end wins the round.

Trump card

Sheepshead Card Game - Basic Rules and Interesting Variations

The trump cards in Sheepshead are the most important cards when playing a trick. If a trump card is played, then all the other players need to follow suit. These also determine who wins the trick since the highest trump card played determines the winner. The trump cards are a suit all to themselves, so they cannot be used if someone plays a different suit to lead the trick.

Count the score

The picker and their partner win the game if they can collect 61 points from the 6 tricks played. The picker would then get 2 points for the win, and the partner would get 1. All other players would lose 1 point from their cumulative score. If the picker and partner do not get 61 points, then the opposition wins, and they get 1 point each, while the partner loses 1, and the picker loses 2.

Sheepshead strategies and tricks

When playing Sheepshead, you need to decide if you are going to be an offensive or defensive player. If you are the picker or the partner, then you need to be on the offensive and attempt to set the trick by playing trump cards. If you are in the opposition, then you need to try to wrest control from the picker while protecting your own trump cards. No matter what, you need to pay attention to the other players’ tendencies so that you can pull out the win.

Variations

As we mentioned before, there are several different variations that can be played based on the number of players present.

2-player game

In this variation, there is no blind, and each player receives 16 cards. 8 cards card are dealt facedown, 4 are dealt face-up, and 4 are dealt with a player’s hand. The non-dealer goes first and can lead from his hand or face-up row. The dealer follows suit until a trick is played.

6-player game

With 6 players, everyone gets 5 cards, with 2 left in the blind. The Jack of Diamonds identifies one partner, and the player to the picker’s right is the other.

7-player game

In this game, the picker gets two partners. One is the holder of the Jack of Diamonds, and the other is picked by the roll of a die. Each player is dealt four cards, with four left in the blind. The picker only takes 2 of these cards and then rolls a die. The number determines his partner, as counted clockwise from the picker. That partner then gets the rest of the blind.

Doublers

If no one picks the blind, then you can play doublers. The hand is dealt again, and the stakes of winning and losing are doubled.

More to change

Another variation of the game is if you force the dealer to pick regardless of his hand. Since this forces the dealer’s hand, they may waive the doubling of the stakes if they lose the round.

One other version that you may want to try is called Crack and Recrack. In this variation, someone else can claim that they should have been the picker since they feel their hand is stronger. This doubles the stakes, though the group can choose to recrack, which reduces the stakes.

Final thoughts

The Sheepshead card game is a lot of fun. You can easily play with a standard deck of cards, which can easily be carried wherever you go. It involves a ton of strategy since it changes after each and every round. There are lots of things to consider, from the trump cards to who should be the picker and to go on offense or defense. There are lots of things to take into account whenever you play. The most important thing is to remember is to carefully watch your opponents so that you can determine their strengths and strategies so that you can work them to your advantage, and, of course, have fun!

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