Canasta - The Great Card Game
Canasta is a card game that was created by two bridge players in 1939 and was extremely popular at the end of the 1940s, "In the peak year of the game one hundred million packs of cards were sold" - When Canasta Was the Craze, article from 1952.
It is one of my absolute favorite games to play - and I play a lot of different card and board games.
The game is always interesting and often reaches a level of excitement I seldom see in any of the games I play.
My uncle and his wife introduced the game to me and my wife in April 2019 and it became an instant hit in our family. I became obsessed with it for a few days and I wanted to answer questions such as: how was the game originally played? Why is the game almost unknown today? How do people play it today? How do people play 2-3 player Canasta in the beginning and today?
My questions took me to Google Books such as this one and I tested to play Canasta Online here (recommended once you know how to play). I tried to find the source of wikipedia rule suggestions for 2-3 players but only found this archive page from 2001.
We tried playing different versions of Canasta until we quickly settled for the original classic Canasta. Then after playing that for some time I did some revisions to the version that we play today. It greatly improves the game in my opinion, here it comes:
Our Own Canasta 2-3 Player Version
As developed by Jim Westergren and Bo Larsson in January 2020.
Playing 2 players is when the game really shines in my opinion.
- 2-3 players, each person plays individually.
I tried the normal 4 player canasta but did not find it so exciting as when I played individually.
- You start with 13 cards in hand.
Wikipedia recommends 15 cards for a 2 player game but it does not really make any difference. More simple and easier to remember to always have 13.
- Each player draws two cards on each of their turns and discards one.
Drawing only one card can be more exciting but the game becomes really long and almost always the first person taking the discard pile wins which makes the game kind of boring.
- 2 canastas are required to go out.
This is also the official recommendation if 2 cards are drawn and it works better based on our testing as well.
- The minimum initial meld is increased from 50/90/120/150 to 90/120/150/180.
This is to compensate because 2 cards are drawn per turn and you start with more inital cards in the hand.
- Bonus points for going out is increased from 100 to 300.
100 points is so little that it almost is not noticed. With 300 it is something you consider when playing.
- Bonus points for a natural canasta is increased from 500 to 600 (double of mixed canasta).
We really feel that the difficulty in medling a natural canasta is so much more work than a wild canasta - the points should be double value.
- If a player goes out the same turn that he/she does the initial meld, only one canasta is required for going out and the player receives double points for going out.
With this rule it is now possible to use this as a strategy and surprice.
- A turn is ended by the discard. No changes can be made after discarding.
Makes the game faster and a bit more exciting.
- If a meld is transformed into a canasta it becomes closed, put the cards together with a red or black natural card on top to indicate if it is natural or wild. No new cards can be melded to it and it can not be used to pick up the discard pile. It is possible to wait to change a meld into a canasta.
To make a canasta is now a decision to take and it is no longer automatic. With this change it makes it safe to discard cards with numbers the opponent has melded into canastas - as it should be.
- When a player has made a canasta the discard pile is now frozen the rest of the game for this player.
Clarification: the discard pile is frozen for players that has not yet opened, players that has made at least one canasta and it is frozen for everybody if the discard pile contains a wild card.
There are suggestions and variants of canasta in which the discard pile is always frozen which is interesting, but my suggestion is even better I think.
- The bonus points for red threes (100 each) not only requires the person to make the initial meld but also to create at least one canasta, otherwise they are counted as negative.
Just to open I seem to be a too simple requirement. Now we increase the pressure of making that first canasta (which will make the discard pile frozen for that player).
- It is not mandatory to put down red threes on the table, they can be kept in the hand and discarded as a blocker (same as black threes).
With a big discard pile you will discard any card to make sure the opponent does not pick up the pile, even cards with a value of 100 which increases the excitement.
- Black threes has a card value of 50 instead of 5.
Clarification: -50 if on the hand at the end of game or +50 each if melded (reminder of the rules: "3 or 4 black threes may be melded last in the process of a player going out.").
This rule is to offset a bit of the advantage of picking up a big pile and it works good.
- If a player is not able to pick up the discard pile and so must draw but there are less than 2 cards in the stock, the game ends directly. A player must pick up the discard pile if able to do so if there are less than 2 cards in the stock.
This introduces some interesting strategies, a player can force to game to keep going.
- Bonus points if collecting all four red threes are removed.
This happens very seldom, no need for having rules for that.
- Bonus points rules for melding a concealed canasta are removed.
Happens very seldom, no real point. Replaced with the bonus for going out the same turn as the initial meld.
Complete rulers of Our Own Canasta 2-3 Player Version
Text based on Classic Canasta Wikipedia.
Cards and deal
Canasta uses two complete decks of 52 playing cards plus the four Jokers. All the Jokers and twos are wild cards.
|Red 3s||Bonus points, safe discard|
|Black 3s||Safe discard, may be melded when going out|
|4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, J, Q, K, A||Melding cards|
|2, Joker||Wild melding cards|
The dealer deals out a hand of 13 cards to each player.
The remaining cards are left in a stack in the center of the table.
Decide randomly who start the first turn, then play then proceeds clockwise. A turn begins either by drawing the top two cards from the stock into the player's hand or by picking up the entire discard pile. However, there are restrictions on when one can pick up the discard pile. (See Picking up the discard pile, below).
The red three can be melded as a single card during the players turn, if that is done the player may draw a replacement card from the stock. The red and black three can be discarded as a block card.
The player may then make as many legal melds as they wish from the cards in their hand. A turn ends when the player discards one card from their hand to the top of the discard pile, a player may not continue to do changes after the discard.
Melds and Canastas
Each player keeps separate melds of the various ranks of cards. A legal meld consists of at least three cards of the same rank. Suits are irrelevant except that black threes are treated differently from red threes. Wild cards can be used as any rank except for threes. Threes may never be melded in ordinary play, although 3 or 4 black threes may be melded last in the process of a player going out.
A meld must always contain more natural cards than wild cards.
A meld of at least seven cards can in the players turn be transformed to a canasta. The meld is then considered closed and no new cards can be melded to it. If the canasta does not contain any wild card put the cards together with a red card on top. If the canasta contains a wild card put the cards together with a black natural card on top.
Each card has a specific value which determines both the score and the minimum points a player needs before laying down their first meld(s):
|4, 5, 6, 7||5|
|8, 9, 10, J, Q, K||10|
During each hand the first time a player lays cards on the table the cards of the combined melds must equal a minimum meld requirement based on the values of each of the cards. At the beginning of a game, players have an initial meld requirement of 90 points. The total value of each card laid on the table cannot include the value of the cards a player could possibly pick up from the discard pile but must come only from the cards in their hand. If the combined value of the cards of a player's hand does not meet the minimum value they cannot play the cards on the table nor pick up the discard pile. After the first hand, the minimum meld requirement is based on the players score before the hand starts.
|Score||Minimum initial meld|
|4000 and above||180|
Red threes and points for canastas are not counted towards the minimum meld requirement.
Example: If a player has a score of 1,600 and has not yet made any melds in a hand, an initial meld of 7-7-7, Q-Q-Q-2 cannot be made as it scores only 65 points and the requirement is 90. A meld of 7-7-7, A-A-A-2 would score 95 points and can be played. Note that both initial melds can be played if the players total score is below 1500, and that neither can be played if the players total score is 3000 or higher.
Picking up the discard pile
At the beginning of their turn, a player may pick up the entire discard pile instead of drawing two cards from the stock. They may only pick up the discard pile if they can use the top card, either in an existing meld that has not yet been transformed to a canasta or by making a new meld along with at least two other cards from their hand. Only the top card is relevant for the player to pick up the rest of the discard pile. In addition, if the player has not yet melded, they must meet the initial meld requirement using the top card of the discard pile in order to pick up the pile.
If a wild card or a three is on top of the discard pile, it may not be picked up. Playing a three does not freeze the pile, however; it just acts as a "stop card".
Frozen discard pile
There are three ways that the discard pile can be frozen:
- The discard pile is frozen against all players if it contains a wild card. To show that it is frozen, the wild card is placed at right angles in the pile, so that it is still visible after other cards are discarded on top of it.
- If a player has not yet melded, the discard pile is frozen against this player.
- If a player has constructed a canasta, the discard pile is frozen against this player.
When the discard pile is frozen, it may only be picked up if the player can meld the top card with two natural cards of the same rank in the player's hand.
A player may go out by using all the cards in their hand only if that player has made at least two canastas. This requirement is reduced to a single canasta for those players that has not yet done any melds and can manage to go out in the same turn as making the initial meld.
The player may go out only by melding all his cards, and may discard a single final card if necessary. It is not required to discard a card in the process of legally going out. The hand ends immediately when any player goes out.
If a player can legally go out, but only has three or more black threes in his hand, these may be melded at this time only giving the player a 50 points for each black three melded this way.
Less than 2 cards in the stock
If a player is not able to pick up the discard pile and so must draw but there are less than 2 cards in the stock, the game ends directly. A player must pick up the discard pile if able to do so if there are less than 2 cards in the stock.
At the end of each hand, the score for each player is calculated as follows:
- the total value of all the cards they have melded,
- plus the total value of any bonuses - see the table below,
- minus the total value of any cards remaining in their hands,
|4, 5, 6, 7||5|
|8, 9, 10, J, Q, K||10|
|Joker, Black 3||50|
|Going out same turn as making initial meld||300 extra|
|Each black (mixed) canasta||300|
|Each red (natural) canasta||600|
The red three gives a positive bonus of 100 each if the player has constructed at least one canasta - otherwise it gives a negative of 100 each.
The game ends when a players total score reaches 5,000 or above. The player with the highest total score at this point wins.
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