The Great Dalmuti, first published in 1995, was designed by Richard Garfield (you may have heard of that other game he made in 1993), but it bears much in common with traditional Western card game President (although you may know it better by a name that can’t get through the language filter here at Strange Assembly), which is itself based on traditional Japanese card game Daifugō (both played with a standard 52-card deck). The most recent version of the game, themed around Dungeons & Dragons, was published in November 2020.
All of these games have a couple things in common. All are “ladder-climbing” or “shedding” games where the object is to play all of the cards out of your hand as quickly as possible. One player leads – a single, pair, trio, etc. – and other players can follow by playing the same number of cards, but of a stronger value. Whoever is the last to play in that trick then leads in the next. Whoever empties their hand first wins that hand. The other, more distinctive, element is that they all involve players being given titles based on their performance in the last hand, which then carry benefits or detriments in the current hand. Each has two positive titles (Grand Millionaire/Millionaire, President/Vice President, Great Dalmuti/Lesser Dalmuti), two negative titles (Poor/Extremely Poor, High-Scum/Scum, Peon/Greater Peon), and one title for everyone else (Commoner, Citizen, Miscreant). After the hand is dealt (the entire deck is dealt every hand), the lowest-ranking player must give their two highest-value cards to the highest-ranking player, and the second-lowest their single best card to the second-highest (others players do not exchange).
The primary gameplay difference in The Great Dalmuti is that there is a specialized deck instead of a standard 52-card deck. The specialized deck has more copies of the lower-value cards, so a hand with a lot of lower-value cards might at least have the ability to dump a lot of them (after all, you can’t match me playing five copies of my low-value card if the deck doesn’t even have five copies of your higher-value card).
The Great Dalmuti is not a “serious” game. There’s no winner – you just play until it seems like a good time to stop. Which is good, because there’s an intentional element of “unfairness” to it – you did worst last hand, so now you lose your best cards this hand. There are a lot of ways to really ham up the social order aspect of the game – the Dalmuti gets to pick where they sit, they get a fancy hat, they can order the lowest-ranked player to fetch them drinks, that sort of thing. I first played The Great Dalmuti long ago in a differently-branded version called Dilbert’s Corporate Shuffle (with bosses and interns). A group of my high school gaming friends rented a cabin for a week, and we played Corporate Shuffle in between longer things like Warhammer 40,000 and Axis & Allies. We really enjoyed it then (the unfairness of the game mechanics syncs up well with the corporate incompetence theme of Dilbert). This time around, my play group was harder to come by (no gathering eight of your friends for a big game these days), and the young player who was roped in to round out the player count was not particularly happy with the whole ‘get punished for losing’ aspect of the mechanics (although he still wanted to play more).
What’s new in this Dungeons & Dragons themed version of The Great Dalmuti is basically just art, card names, and titles. The lower-ranked players are now “dregs” instead of “peons.” The passing of cards is the “shakedown” instead of “taxes.” The original The Great Dalmuti had generic medieval-style names (Peasant, Knight, Baroness, Archbishop, Seamstress, etc.). The new version seems to be more vermin-themed. So peasants are rat catchers, the stonecutters are exterminators, and the seamstress is a spinner. There’s a little bit of fantasy flavor in the names, but not a bunch – the baroness is the baronessss and is a gorgon; the archbishop is a mind minister and is a mind flayer. The art is fairly dark (in a literal sense), as you can see from the above.
I like The Great Dalmuti, but there’s a bit of a disjoint with the tone of this version. Dark urban fantasy is fine, but The Great Dalmuti is a light, social game. “Peon” just has a much better ring to it than “dreg.” The art is grim and dirty in tone; the game is not. I like the Great Dalmuti and I really like D&D. And one could make a bright, happy-go-lucky D&D version of The Great Dalmuti. But this isn’t it. If you’re at all interested in trick-taking/ladder-climbing sorts of card games and have the chance to play The Great Dalmuti, you should. But, unless the art and tone of the new D&D version particularly appeals, I would personally suggest checking out the standard version, which is still in print.
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