How to Play Set Back

By Jessica Haberman
some friends, this addictive game
Björgvin Guðmundsson

This is a game of strategy and precision with similarities to Whist, Spades and Hearts. The point of the game is to make your bid (between two and four) or to stop your opponent(s) from making his bid. There is a possibility of winning up to four points each hand: the four points refer to four types of hands you can win—they are called High, Low, Jack and Game—which are all described below. Although there are variations to this game (draw/no draw, deal six or seven cards), this article will deal with the 7-card draw version.

The Points: High, Low, Jack, and Game

High refers to winning a book containing the highest trump card of the hand.

Low refers to winning a book containing the lowest trump card of the hand.

Jack refers to winning a book containing the jack in the trump suit.

Game refers to winning the highest number of “points towards Game.” “Points towards Game” can be made by winning tens of any suit (for ten points), aces of any suit (for four points), kings of any suit (for three points), queens of any suit (for two points), and jacks of any suit (for one point). These Game points should not be confused with points (one through four for each hand) gained to win the game as a whole.

The Play: Set Back

If you have an even number of players (four or more), you must split yourselves into two teams. Next, choose a dealer (a common practice is to deal a card to each player until a Jack appears—first Jack deals). Also choose a score keeper.

Shuffle the cards and deal seven cards to each player. (Note variations in the tips section.)

The player to the immediate left of the dealer begins by making a bid. He should bid on the number of points he believes he can win (up to four, consisting of High, Low, Jack, and Game). He cannot bid one; he must bid at least two or he must pass. One other option is to bid “Four Smudge”—an explanation of this term is included in the notes section as it is a rare bid.

Bidding continues clockwise. You cannot bid the same number as the player before you. You must bid one higher or pass.

When bidding returns the dealer, she must either bid one higher than the last bid or give the highest bidder the first turn. (Note variations in the notes section.) If all players pass to the dealer, she must take the bid for two points.

The highest bidder (or the dealer, if he takes the hand) announces the trump suit. This is typically the suit that the he has the most of or in which he has boss cards (like ace, king, and queen). The trump suit beats any other suit when taking books (or tricks), as in other similar games like Spades and Hearts.

Players may choose up to three cards to discard. Variations of this game allow you to discard as many as all your cards; it is up to you how many you will allow in your game, but keep it consistent in each hand.

Deal new cards to each player so that each player holds six cards. (This should be the case whether you're playing with six or seven cards to start.)

The highest bidder plays first. She must play a trump card.

Each player plays a card in clockwise order. High trumps always beat lower trumps (ace is high). Any trump always beats any card of another suit. High cards of a neutral suit always beat lower cards of their own suit. High cards of a neutral suit beat any card of another suit that is not lead. If a suit is lead, you must follow it unless you play a trump, which can be played at any time during the game on your turn, even if you have cards matching the suit that is lead.

The winner of each book collects all four cards. Play continues with the winner of the book leading another card.

Each team wins books based on the hierarchy of cards explained above. The point is not to collect the greatest number of books. The point is to collect the four points: Ace or king of trumps is usually High. Two or three of trumps is usually Low. Jack of trumps—that is self-explanatory. To get Game, you want to collect tens (of any suit), aces and high face cards.

When all cards have been played, each team/player should count the number of books he has won. The point is to make your bid. A player or team who makes his bid receives that number of points—i.e. for a bid of three and three books, the team wins three points, and for a bid of three and four books, the team wins four books. In other words, you receive the number of points you win. If, however, a player or team does not make his bid, he loses the number of points he bid—i.e. for a bid of three and two books, the team loses three points. That team is “set back.” The team that did not bid wins the number of points they gained even if it is only one point.

Repeat steps two through 13. Play continues until a team has reached 11 points. If the opposing team has zero or fewer points, the team with 11 points wins the game. Otherwise, play continues until 21 points. You may choose to play “Bid to Win” in which case a team cannot win the game unless they win a hand that they bid on and they reach 21 (or more) points.

About the Author

Jessica Haberman is a project editor for a leading book publisher, where she edits outdoor recreation, sports, local interest, cooking, and nature books. Haberman has been writing for more than five years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature from Denison University.