304 (Pronounced ‘three nought four’) is a card game popular in Sri Lanka. It is a four-player partnership point-trick game with bidding. From the rank and value of the cards, with the Jack and Nine promoted above the Ace, it is clear that it belongs to the Jass family, which originated in the Netherlands. It is probable that 304 is derived from a game brought to Sri Lanka by Dutch traders in the 17th or 18th century.
A key difference from Dutch Jass is that in Sri Lanka the Jack and Nine are high not only in the trump suit, but in all four suits. This same feature is found in the Indian games 28 and 29, and it is certain that those games, with their simplified card value system, are descendants of 304. Another closely related descendant of 304 is Thunee, which is played by the South Asian community in South Africa.
Players and Cards
There are four players, in two teams of two. Partners sit opposite each other: North and South play against East and West. Deal and play are counter-clockwise.
304 uses a standard 32-card deck consisting of the cards 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A in the four suits spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts. The cards game point values, and the rank of the cards from high to low in all suits is as follows:
The game is named after the total number of points in the pack, which is 304.
Any player may deal first; after each hand the turn to deal passes to the right. The dealer shuffles the cards, after which the player to dealer’s left is given an opportunity to cut the cards, but is not obliged to do so. The dealer then deals a batch of four cards to each player, beginning to dealer’s right, going round counter-clockwise and ending with the dealer. The players look at their cards and bid according to what points they think their team can win in tricks (see below). After the bidding is complete and the highest bidder is established, the dealer deals the remaining cards, again in batches of four, so that everyone has eight cards.
Note on Shuffling. In Sri Lanka, the tradition is that the cards need not be thoroughly shuffled between hands. The dealer is permitted to shuffle the cards minimally, so that the order of cards is to some extent preserved from the way they fell in the previous hand. The theory is that any advantage that the dealer can gain from this can be nullified by the left-hand opponent intelligently cutting the deck before it is dealt. The constraints of shuffling and cutting are:
- players may not look at the face of any of the cards while shuffling, cutting or dealing;
- the dealer is not allowed to rearrange the cards deliberately in a particular way before the shuffle;
- cards must not be counted out nor moved individually;
- after each shuffle or cut the whole pack must be squared up into a homogeneous whole;
- the shuffling and cutting must be carried out in full view of all players.
Bidding and Choosing Trump
Bidding with Four Cards
When the dealer has dealt four cards to each player, the players bid in turn: the highest bidder will have the right to choose the trump suit. I will call this player the trump maker. The dealer’s right-hand opponent speaks first, and bidding continues counter-clockwise for as many circuits as needed until the highest bidder is established. Each bid is a multiple of 10, representing the minimum number of card points the bidder’s team must collect in their tricks if they win the bidding. Players cannot bid less than half the points in the pack, so the minimum bid is 160. Each bid must be higher than the last, and a player who does not wish to bid may pass.
Bids below 200 are subject to some constraints:
- a player who has already had a turn to bid or pass cannot bid less than 200 at his or her second turn to speak (but may pass);
- if the previous highest bidder was your partner, you cannot bid less than 200 (but you may pass).
If the four cards held by the player to dealer’s right are worth less than 15 points in total, then this player, instead of passing or bidding, may reject these cards demand a redeal. The cards are gathered in, shuffled, cut and dealt again by the same dealer. Only the player to dealer’s right can demand a redeal: this option is not available to the other three players however bad their cards are. After the player to dealer’s right has bid or passed, it is too late to demand a redeal.
If all four players pass, there is no further deal, no play and no score. The cards are gathered and passed to the next dealer in turn to shuffle and deal.
If any player bids, then the bidding continues until three players pass in succession. The highest bid is thereby established and cannot be raised further.
At your turn to bid, you may ask your partner to bid in your place, and your partner may bid or pass in accordance with the usual rules. This counts as a turn for both players, so after this neither partner is allowed to bid less than 200.
Example of bidding with four cards after South deals:
- East bids 160.
- North bids 170.
- West passes.
- South is not allowed to bid less than 200, since North is the highest bidder so far, and decides to pass.
- East bids 200, the minimum allowed since this is his second turn to speak.
- North, West and South pass. East is the highest bidder.
Another example. This time East deals.
- North passes.
- West asks his partner to bid. East bids 160.
- South bids 170
- East cannot bid less than 200, having already bid, and decides to pass.
- North passes.
- West asks his partner to bid again. This time East bids 200, the minimum allowed.
- South, North and West pass. Again East is the highest bidder.
Note 1. For bids below 200, players often drop the “1” when bidding, saying “60”, “70”, etc. to mean “160”, “170”, etc. This is especially common in northern Lanka.
Note 2. It is clearly very hard to predict how many points your team can take on the basis of only four cards. In practice most reasonable hands are good enough for a bid of 160, while a bid of more than 210 even on the best cards requires a great deal of luck to succeed.
Choosing the Trump Suit
The highest bidder (the trump maker) selects one of his or her four cards and places it face down on the table, without showing it to the other players. This will be called the trump indicator card: the suit of this card is trump for the hand (unless superseded by an eight-card bid – see below), but the other three players do not initially know what suit it is. The play of the trump indicator card is subject to special rules – see “cutting” below. Under no circumstances may the bidder look at more than the first four cards dealt before selecting the trump indicator card.
Bidding with Eight Cards
After the high bidder has chosen the trump card, the dealer completes the deal with another batch of four cards to each player. When everyone has looked at their eight cards there is a second round of bidding, beginning with the highest bidder from the four-card bidding round, and going once round the table counter-clockwise.
In the eight-card bidding round, bids must be not less than 250, and must be greater than the final four-card bid. Each player has only one chance to pass or bid in this round, and if the previous highest bid in this round was by your partner, you must pass.
If, as often happens, all four players pass in the eight-card bidding round, the play goes ahead on the basis of the highest four-card bid.
If anyone does make an eight-card bid, this supersedes the four-card bid. The highest bidder from the four-card bidding takes back the original trump indicator card, and instead the highest eight-card bidder becomes the new trump maker, and selects one of his or her eight cards, placing it face down on the table to become the new trump indicator card and determine the trump suit.
The highest possible eight-card bid is “Partner Close Caps”. This is an undertaking to win all eight tricks playing alone without help from partner.
Note 1. This process can be used by the highest four-card bidder to increase the bid and change the trump suit. Having won the four-card bidding, say for 200, the same player, having received four more good cards, could bid 250 and put down a new trump card in place of the old one.
Note 2. For a bid of 250 to have a reasonable chance of success, the bidder needs to be confident of winning at least seven of the eight tricks.
The basic rules of play, as in many trick-taking games, are as follows. The player to dealer’s right leads to the first trick; thereafter the winner of each trick leads to the next. The leader plays a card face up, and the other three players in turn (counter-clockwise in this game) each play a card. They must follow suit, playing a card of the same suit that was led, if they can. If unable to follow suit they may play any card. The trick is won by the highest trump in it or, if it contains no trump, by the highest card of the suit that was led. The cards of the trick are gathered and stored face down in the trick pile of the team that won the trick.
During the following trick, players are allowed to consult the cards that were played to the most recently completed trick, but not to any earlier tricks.
Terminology. In Sri Lankan English, leading (playing the first card to a trick) is known as “calling“. Trumping (playing a trump to a trick in which a non-trump suit was called, when one does not have a card of that suit) is known as “cutting“.
The rules of play are complicated by the fact that three players initially do not know what suit is trump, and the fourth player (the trump maker) begins with only seven cards in hand and the trump indicator card face down. A number of special rules are needed to deal with this.
Open Trump games
After the eight-card bidding and before the first lead, the trump maker can elect to play an open trump game. In this case, the trump indicator card on the table is turned face up for all to see, and then returned to the trump maker’s hand. The game is now played according to the basic rules described above, and all cards are played to tricks face up.
Usually it is better for the trump maker’s team to play a closed trump game (see below), but in certain situations an open trump game is desirable: for example if the trump maker wants his or her partner to play a trump to the first trick. It is also necessary if the trump maker is sitting to the dealer’s right and wishes to begin by leading a trump.
Closed Trump games
Most games are played with closed trumps. In this case, so long as the trump card is face down on the table, any player who is unable to follow suit must play a card to the trick face down. Also, the trump maker is subject to some constraints:
- If the trump maker is sitting to the dealer’s right, he or she is not allowed to lead a trump to the first trick in a closed trump game. If the trump maker wants to start by leading a trump, an open trump game must be played.
- The trump indicator card itself can onlybe played
- face down, to cut a non-trump trick led by another player, or
- in the eighth trick, when it is the trump maker’s only card.
It follows that if a trump is led when the trump-maker has no trumps remaining in hand, but only the trump indicator card, the trump maker is unable to follow suit and must play a non-trump card face down from hand. This rule can be advantageous to the trump maker, especially if the trump maker’s partner is winning the trick.
It also follows that when the trump maker plays a card face down, the other players immediately know whether the trump maker is cutting the trick (using the trump indicator card) or throwing a non-trump card (playing a card face down from hand).
If any face-down cards are played, the trump-maker inspects these at the end of the trick, and announces whether any of them are trumps.
- If none of the face-down cards were trumps, they remain face-down and no one else may look at them. The trick is won by the highest card of the suit led.
- If any trumps have been played face down to the trick, the trump maker reveals all the cards played to the trick by the other players, and also reveals the trump indicator card. The trick is won by the highest trump played to it. If the trump indicator card was not played to the trick, it is picked up after all have seen it, and added to the trump maker’s hand. IF the trump maker played a non-trump face down to the trick, this card is not shown to the other players, but remains face-down.
Cards that are played face down and not revealed by the trump maker cannot be looked at by a player choosing to refer to the previous trick.
After the trump indicator card has been revealed, the trump is said to be open. From then onwards all cards are played face up to tricks, and the basic rules of play apply.
Special Rule for Bids of 250 or more
If the bid is 250 or more, then even if a closed trump game is played, the trump indicator card is revealed at the end of the first trick. After all players have seen it it is returned to the trump maker’s hand. From the second trick onwards, all cards are played to tricks face up, and the basic rules of play apply.
If the trump maker has all the remaining cards of the trump suit and leads one of them, none of the other players will be able to follow suit. If this happens, the trump maker is compelled to lead all the trumps from his or her hand before leading any other card.
If the trumps maker’s opponents hold no trumps at all, any player who notices this is allowed to declare a spoiled trump game. In this case there is no score. The cards are thrown in, shuffled and dealt again by the same dealer. Spoilt trumps may be declared at any time before the last card of the last trick has been played. Once the last trick is complete, it is too late.
Winning all eight tricks is called Caps. If a team wins all 304 points but loses a zero-point trick, this does not count as Caps.
If a situation is reached where one of the players should know, from the information he has about the cards played so far, that if he plays his remaining cards in a certain order his team is certain to win all the tricks irrespective of how the other players play, the player must call Caps at this point. Calling Caps too early, when one is not yet sure of the remaining tricks, or too late, when one already had the necessary information earlier, or not at all when one is able to do so, is known as Wrong Caps, and the team suffers a penalty. Deliberately losing a trick unnecessarily to conceal the fact that one should have called Caps also counts as Wrong Caps.
When calling Caps the player exposes all his or her remaining cards and states the order in which they will be played. If the claim is correct and is made at the first opportunity and not later than the lead to the seventh trick, the calling team is rewarded with an extra scoring token (see below). If Caps is correctly called after the seventh trick has begun, there is no extra reward above the normal score for the bid, but a team is still penalised for Wrong Caps if they call too early or too late or not at all, even when the call was only possible after the seventh trick had started.
Partner Close Caps
When a player bids Partner Close Caps, the highest possible bid, the player’s partner’s eight cards are placed face down on the table. The partner takes no part in the play. The bidder chooses the trump indicator and leads to the first trick. Play is counter-clockwise between the bidder and the two opponents, skipping the bidder’s partner. No other player may look at the bidder’s partner’s cards until the play is over. All the other rules for a bid of 250 or more apply, except that:
- it is not necessary to call Caps. The bid succeeds if and only if the bidder wins all eight tricks;
- the Exhausted Trump Rule does not apply.
Each team begins with an equal number of scoring tokens, normally 11. The first team that collects all the tokens wins the game.
At the end of the play, the trump maker’s team counts the card points in its tricks. If the number is greater than or equal to the bid, the trump maker’s team wins tokens from the other team. If not they lose tokens to the other team.
The number of tokens won or lost depends on the final bid, and is modified in the case of Caps or Wrong Caps, as follows.
|successful bid||failed bid||comments|
|Bid was less than 200.||win 1 token||lose 2 tokens|
|Bid was at least 200 and less than 250.||win 2 tokens||lose 3 tokens|
|Bid was at a number, at least 250.||win 3 tokens||lose 4 tokens|
|Bid was “Partner Close Caps”.||win 4 tokens||lose 5 tokens|
|Correct Caps announcement.||1 extra token||only if announced before the start of the seventh trick|
|Wrong Caps||lose 2 tokens||lose 2 tokens||no reward for the bid, even if it succeeds|
|Losing a trick after Caps was announced||lose 5 tokens||lose 5 tokens||lose 5 instead of 2; no reward for the bid even if it succeeds|
Some play a shorter game in which the losing team (i.e. the trump maker’s team if a bid fails or their opponents if it succeeds) pays tokens to a neutral bank instead of to the other team. . The first team to lose all its tokens loses the game. This variant is increasingly popular, because the game ends sooner and within a limited time, whereas under the traditional rules a game might continue indefinitely.
It is common in some parts of Lanka to allow bids of more than 200 to be in multiples of 5 rather than 10.
It is sometimes possible for the trump maker’s opponents to announce Caps. This is known as External Caps. Formerly the payment for a correct announcement of External Caps was fixed at 8 tokens, but this rule has fallen into disuse, and nowadays the payment is generally just 1 token more than for a normal failed bid.
Some allow a bid of “Half Court” with four cards. In this case no further cards are dealt and the bidder must win all four tricks, playing alone. I do not know how this bid is scored.
It is possible for six or eight players to play 304. Six players in teams of three, sitting alternately, each player between two opponents, and using a 24-card pack without 8’s and 7’s. Three cards are dealt to each player, and a round of bidding takes place in which the first player is obliged to bid at least 200. After, the bidding, everyone everyone is dealt a fourth card. A similar game can be played by eight players in two teams of four, using all 32 cards. I would be interested to learn further details of these variants.