What Is Hoof and Mouth?

Hoof and Mouth is a card game. It's a variant on canasta (and if you don't know what canasta is, don't worry). It's very much a social card game, in that it leaves plenty of brain cells left over to heckle your opponents, drop blatant hints to your partner, and drink lots of beer and wine before your playing skills degrade. If you're looking for intense intellectual effort, go play bridge. And don't call me.

Hoof and mouth has all the features that make for a good social game:

  • It's a game in which skill and experience do count;
  • But there's enough luck involved that even rank beginners occasionally stop the experts.
  • We've successfully taught it to kids as young as eight, and computer programmers pick it up in seconds but still enjoy it. It's the official card game of the Dorsai Irregulars, and from them is beginning to make inroads into the computing community.

    It's also occasionally called Hand and Foot.

    Quick Overview

    The game is very simple. There are four players who play as two teams of two. It also requires four standard playing decks, including jokers. Yes, there are 216 cards in the game.

    You always sit opposite your partner.

    You are dealt two sets of 11 cards. You choose one and look at it; this becomes your hand. The other you leave face-down in front of you; this is your hoof.

    The remaining undealt cards are divided roughly evenly and placed face down in the center of the table with a gap between them. These we call the stacks. Discarded cards are placed face up between the two stacks, and this is called the pile.

    You play by drawing two cards, one from each stack. You place them in your hand, and then discard any card from your hand into the pile. Periodically you may be able to play cards from your hand onto the table. The point of this play is to get rid of all the cards in your hand. When you do this, you can then pick up your hoof and start playing the cards in it. When someone has the right cards on the table and and has gotten rid of his entire hoof, the round is over and everyone counts points and gloats.

    A game consists of four rounds. Whichever team has more points at the end of four rounds wins.

    Of course, things are somewhat more complicated than that....


    Because of the use of four decks, dealing and shuffling can be a pain. Here's how we do it:

    Each player takes roughly one quarter of the cards and shuffles them a few times. Then each player takes half the cards they have and gives them to the player to their left. Assuming everyone is in sync, this means you are receiving cards from the player to your right just as you give away cards. You then shuffle all those cards together.

    This is repeated 3 or 4 times, or until you all feel comfortable that the cards are sufficiently mixed. Note there is nothing sacred about any of this. If you've got a mechanical shuffler, fine. If three of you shuffle all the cards while the fourth refills the beer, that's fine too. Whatever makes you comfortable with the shuffle is OK by me.

    Once the cards are all shuffled, the dealing starts. Each player deals out two sets of 11 cards and gives both sets face down to the player to the left. Once all four players have received their two sets, all the remaining cards are placed in the two stacks in the center of the table. Leave enough space between the two stacks to form the discard pile.

    Pick up one of your two sets of eleven and place the other aside as your hoof. You're now ready to begin play.

    Order Of Play

    One person is chosen to start. We select based on something silly, such as age.

    When it is your turn to play, you select one card from each of the two stacks in the center. Once you touch a card from either stack or the discard pile, your play has begun. You place these cards in your hand and mull it over. You select the least useful card from your hand and discard it by placing it on the discard pile face up between the two center stacks. Once the discard hits the pile, your play is over.

    Play moves clockwise around the table. Once the round is over, cards are shuffled and dealt again. With each new round, the person who goes first also rotates clockwise. Thus after four rounds, all four players have gone first once.

    The Value of Cards

    Every card has a point value. These values are selected to make adding up the points easy. Jokers are 50 points. Aces and deuces are 20 points. Kings through nines are ten points. Eights through fours are five points. Black threes are zero points. Red threes are 500 points.


    Obviously with every round you're adding one card to your hand. There must be some way of getting rid of them, right? Yes - by opening books.

    An open book is a set of three to six cards of the same number (three fives, three jacks, whatever). Once you are holding enough books in your hand to open (we'll define `enough' in a minute) you lay your books down on the table face up. We call laying down a set of three (or more) opening a book. Thus if you lay down three jacks, you've opened a book of jacks.

    Twos and jokers are wild cards, and are very useful in starting books (but there are reasons not to, as we'll see soon). However, you must always have more natural cards than wild cards in a book. For example, three queens and a wild are OK, three queens and two wild are OK, but three queens and three wilds are not.

    You cannot make a book of wild cards, nor can you make a book of threes. Threes are special in other ways too, as we'll see in a minute.

    A book with wild cards is called a dirty book, a book without wild cards is called a clean book.

    Once books are on the table, play changes somewhat. If you or your partner has opened, once you draw your two cards you may add cards to any open books you or your partner have on the table. Typically one partner keeps all the cards for both in front of him. It's a good idea to have the neater partner keep the cards.

    While the books are open on the table, they should be cascaded much like playing solitaire. This lets everyone see how many cards are in each book and if the books are clean or dirty.

    After a book is opened, you can add more of the same to it or add wild cards to it. However, once there are seven cards in the book it is closed. To signify closed books you stack them up straight rather than cascade them. If the book is clean, you place a red card on top. If dirty, place a black card on top.

    You get points for closing books. Clean books are 500 points, dirty books are 300 points.

    Once a book is closed, you can no longer add wild cards to it. But you can add natural cards.


    You can't simply start laying cards down as soon as you get the minimum for a book. You must have at least 50 points in cards to lay down. Thus a book of three queens (10 points each) and three sixes (5 points each) is only 45 points, not enough to lay down. But if you have a fourth six it makes 50 and you're OK. Or it you have three queens, two sixes and a deuce (20 pts) you have clean queens (10+10+10) for 30 points and dirty sixes (5+5+20) for 40 points, for a grand total of 70 points. Obviously you can open with more than 50, but 50 is the minimum.

    But that's only for the first round. On the second round, you must have 90 to open. The third requires 120, and the last requires 150.

    Playing Once You're Open...

    Once you've successfully opened, you and your partners' first goal is to `get into your hoof,' or pick up that second group of eleven cards and start playing it. So on each pass, you draw your two cards, lay down what you feel is appropriate, and discard one. This continues until you have no cards.

    The exact way you get rid of that last card is important. If you get rid of it by discarding it, your play is over and you start playing from your hoof once play gets around to you again (and yes, you will have to draw two cards from the stacks). But if you are lucky or skillful enough to draw your two cards and play everything in your hand onto your books, you pick up your hoof and continue playing. The rationale here is that since you've not discarded, your play isn't over.


    There's one special thing we haven't talked about. Suppose the player ahead of you discards a ten and you have two tens in your hand. You'd love to pick up that ten and make a book, right? Well, you can. We call this buying a card - but there are some gotchas.
  • You can only pick up a card if you have at least two matching cards to make a book, such as the two tens mentioned in the previous paragraph. You cannot use a wild card.
  • You must play that book immediately. All three tens must hit the table.
  • If you are not open when you pick up the card, you must immediately open. You may use only the single card you picked up and the other cards in your hand to open. If you pick up that card and then discover that you don't have enough points, you suffer no penalty (aside from having to endure razzing from all other players). Return the card to the discard pile, draw up your two cards from the stacks, and resume play.
  • When you buy a card, you do not pick two cards off the stacks. Once you've successfully used the card you bought and are open, you complete your play by taking the next six cards on top of the discard pile. You must take those six cards.

    Since you haven't discarded a card yet, it's still your play. So if any of these cards can be used to make or add to your books, you may do so. Once done, you discard a card from your hand and your play is over.

    Threes Are Special

    At this point you're probably thinking that those 500-point red threes are pretty special. They are, but not in the way you're thinking. You are not allowed to make books of threes. Thus the only way to get threes out of your hand is by discarding them.

    This is an important strategic point in many ways.

  • Discarding a three prevents the next player from buying. Since you must use the bought card in a book and the rules say you cannot make books of threes, a three cannot be bought. (Note this also means that if you discard a wild card, the next player can't buy it). This might be a good reason to hold black threes initially, then discard them when you think the next player might be buying.
  • Having red threes in your hoof does terrible things to your score (see Adding Up The Score below).
  • Buying can be a risky business if you get a bunch of red threes along with the card purchased. Even black threes can be a problem, since the only way you can get rid of them is by discarding.
  • If you're convinced your partner is about to go out, you can save points by discarding high-value cards and holding black threes.
  • Threes being special is a major part of what makes the game interesting.

    Going Out

    The round is over when one person has gotten rid of everything including hand, hoof, and drawn cards. However, you are not allowed to do this until you have at least two clean books closed and at least two dirty books closed. If you don't, you must continue to hold at least one card in your hand. Play continues until one team or the other has two clean books, two dirty books, and one of the two team members can get rid of all his cards.

    Before going out, you must ritually ask for your partners' permission. If you don't there is no penalty, but rather like the case of an improper buy you will suffer humiliation in the face of your peers. Deeply personal razzing is encouraged.

    Adding Up The Score

    Your score for a round is the total value from closed books, plus the total value from the individual cards, less the total value of cards still in your hand and (if you didn't get into it) your hoof. An example will help here.

    Let's say you closed with clean aces (seven), dirty queens (five queens, two twos, one joker), clean eights (nine of them), and an open dirty book of fives (four fives, two twos). Your points from closed books are 500 for the clean aces, 500 for the clean eights, and 300 for the dirty queens. Thus the value of your closed books is 1300 points.

    Now we count the value of the individual cards, both in open and closed books. Jokers are 50 points. Aces and deuces are 20 points. Kings through nines are ten points. Eights through fours are five points. Black threes are zero points. Red threes are 500 points.

    Your seven aces and four twos are 20 points each (180), your five queens are 10 points each (50), your one joker is 50 points, and your nine eights and four fives are 5 points each (85). The total card value 180 + 50 + 50 + 85, or 365. Added to the book value, we get 1665 points.

    Now we subtract the point value of what you have left in your hand and your hoof. If we had one queen and two fours, we would subtract 20 points. If we had one queen and one red three, we would subtract 510 points. You now see the value of trying to go out before the other teams gets into their hooves!

    A typical scorecard looks like this:

           Us       Them
          1300      2300  closed books
          +365      +560  points in books
         -----     -----
          1665      2860
          -510       -20  points in hands
         -----     -----
          1655      2840  total
    This is of course only one round; you'll have three more before reaching the end of the game.

    Table Talk

    Most card games forbid you to talk over strategy with your partner. We're a little sloppier than that. By our convention, you can
  • can ask your partner if it's ok to open with all dirty books
  • can ask your partner if it's ok to start another dirty book
  • can ask your partner if it's ok to start another dirty book
  • should ask your partner before going out. You don't have to obey if the answer is `no', though.
  • Some Strategy Notes

    In no particular order of usefulness:
  • In the first three round, try to open with at least as many clean books as dirty. Given the difficulty of getting 150 in the fourth round, just get open however you can.
  • It's always smart to hold a wild card or two unless there is a compelling reason to play it. Compelling reasons could be closing a book near the end of the game, getting into your hoof, etc.
  • Order of play is important! Suppose you have a dirty book consisting of four naturals and two wilds, and you have a matching natural and wild in your hand. You can legally play either card on the book, closing it. But once the book is closed, you can only add naturals to it. Thus playing the wild followed by the natural is permitted, but playing the natural followed by the wild is not.
  • Frequently Asked Questions

    What if I buy and there aren't six cards in the discard pile?

    Then you take all the cards that are there, and that's that.

    Suppose I want to buy a card and we already have a book of that number?

    No problem, provided of course you have two more of those cards in your hand. Just add the resulting three cards to that book.

    Can I start a second book of the same thing?

    Yes, provided that (a) the first book is closed and (b) you have three cards to start the new book. If the first book is not closed, you cannot start a second book of the same.

    Why would I want to?

    Points, should you manage to close the second book. It's certainly possible to have two closed books of the same number, and does occasionally happen. Two 300-point 7-card books are much more useful than one 300-point 14-card book.

    When I buy, do I have to show the other six cards to the other players?

    No, but some players (like my wife) would consider you a hard-nosed competitive asshole. I can live with that, but your mileage may vary.

    Can I go out even if my partner says no?

    Yes, but some players would consider you a hard-nosed competitive asshole. I can live with that, but your mileage may vary.

    Can I go out even if my partner says no and my partner hasn't gotten into his hoof?

    Yes, but some players would consider you . . . well, you get the picture.

    Do you have to lay down all your books immediately?

    Nope. If you've got some sneaky reason, you can hold back. See the next two questions.

    Do you have to lay down all cards which can go with your partners' immediately?

    Nope. If your partner lays down a book of tens and you've got a pair of tens, you might hold them back in hopes your opponent will discard a ten you can buy.

    Doesn't holding back cards or books from your partner deprive them of the data they need to play?

    Yes. This is part of what makes it a game of skill - knowing what to hold when, what the potential benefit is, and balancing that against the loss to your partners' ability to play. Note too that it also deprives your opponents of information.

    Can I discard a card which I could have played on a book?

    Yes, this often is required near the end of the game while you're `killing time' waiting for the card you need to go out.

    Can I discard a wild card?

    Sure. Sometimes it's even the right thing to do.

    Can I buy a wild card someone else has discarded?

    No, because the rules require that to buy you must have two other cards of the same number and those three cards must immediately start a new book or play onto an existing book of the same number. Wild cards are not a number.

    Can I open with a closed book and count it as 300 (or 500) points??

    Yes. If you can accumulate four fours and three twos, that's 20 points for the fours, 60 points for the twos, and 300 points for the dirty book. That's sufficient to open.

    What if we run out of cards to draw?

    Extremely rare, but it happens. Take the cards in the discard pile, shuffle them, divide into two stacks, and they're your new stacks.

    Can you use more or less than four players?

    In theory, yes. In practice . . . well, as Peter Salus says ``The gap between theory and practice is always wider in practice than in theory.'' Some people enjoy it, some don't. Variations attempted include:

    Add another deck or two of cards and play in two teams of three. This wound up with whatever team went down first going out in very short order.

    Add another deck or two of cards and play in three teams of two. This almost always winds up with one team going out before one of the others has even gotten down.

    So it's possible to play in groups of six, but the rules might need some tweaking. Groups of three can play, but the game loses its social flavor. Five and seven are right out.

    Thanks are due to Ellen McMicking and Colin Lamb for advice on the writing of this page. Special thanks to Wes Plouff, who tightened up my terminology tremendously.

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