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This is a sort of trick-taking game, but one in which all players play a card face down, and all reveal them simultaneously, as in GOPS. However, unlike GOPS, this is a game in which cards have various point values, and the aim is to collect the majority of points in a suit.

Democracy is one of several unusual card games played at the Tabletop Board Game Cafe in Cleveland, Ohio. Ribs is another. We do not know the history of these games - whether they were invented in Cleveland or introduced from elsewhere, or adapted from previously existing games. We do know that Democracy has been played in Cleveland since 2004 or earlier. Any further information about its history or other places where it is known would be very welcome.

Democracy is a light-hearted game that comes with a substantial back story. However, I prefer to describe the mechanics of the actual game first. The back story and some of the customs surrounding the game will be found at the end of the page.

Players and Cards

This game can be played from anywhere between two to six players, but works best with 3-5. The twos are removed from a standard 52-card deck, leaving 48 cards remaining in play. For 2, 3, or 5 players, these 48 cards alone are used; for 4 players, two jokers are added (for a total of 50 cards); for 6 players, one joker is added (for a total of 49 cards). 

The cards rank from high to low in this order: 5-4-3-A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6. Point values and names (including alternate names) of each card are as follows:

Card Value Name
5 5 Chief / Tribe Leader
4 4 Vice Chief / Chieftainess
3, A 3 Ministers / Warriors
K, Q, J 2 Noblemen / Hunters
10, 9, 8, 7 1 Peasants / Farmers / Children
6 0 Village idiot / Village drunk / Donkey

Note that even if two different ranks share the same point value, one must outrank the other. For example a 3 beats and Ace even though both are worth 3 points. The total value of the cards in each suit is 25.


The cards are thoroughly shuffled and dealt face down clockwise from the left of the dealer, one card at a time, and an extra hand, known as the "voting pool" is dealt face down to the center of the table.

Normally the game is played in two stages, known as "days". In the first "day" half the cards are dealt and the remainder of the deck is set aside to be dealt in the second day. For example in each day, 3 players get 6 cards each with 6 in the pool, 4 players get 5 cards each with 5 in the pool, and 5 get 4 each with 4 in the pool.

The players pick up their hands and look at them, keeping the face of their cards hidden from the other players.


The dealer flips over a single card from the voting pool, which determines the trump suit for the trick. Each player selects a card from their hand and places it face down in front of them. Players are free to choose any card from their hand - there is no requirement to "follow suit" or to play a trump if you have one. Once everyone has selected a card, on the dealer's signal, all simultaneously turn their cards face up, and the cards are compared to see who wins the trick.

If any trumps (cards that match the suit of the card from the voting pool) have been played, the highest trump takes the trick, with one exception. If the 5 and 6 of trumps are both played to the same trick, the 6 wins.

If none of the played cards matches the suit of the card turned up from the voting pool, the trick is won by the highest card irrespective of suit. The winner of the trick takes all the cards played to the trick, including the voting card, and stores them face down in his or her pile of captured cards.

If no trump cards are played a tie for highest card is possible. In this case each player captures his or her own card only, while the voting card is discarded and belongs to no one.

A joker can represent any card except a trump. Therefore a joker will lose any trick to which a trump is played. In a trick without trumps a joker will tie a trick if anyone else plays a 5 or joker, and will win the trick if no 5's or other jokers are played. If a joker is turned up as the voting card, there is no trumps suit and the highest card wins, irrespective of suit.

After all the first day cards have been played, the dealer deals out the remaining cards for the second "day" and the play continues as before.


Once all the cards have been dealt and played, each player counts the point values of the cards they have captured in each suit. Jokers are worth zero points. There are 25 points per suit, and any player who has more than half the points in a suit, that is at least 13 points, scores a game point known as a "tribe". It is possible for a player to score more than one tribe in a game, or that more than one player will score a tribe, or that no one will score if the cards in each suit are evenly divided.

The match continues with further games until a player wins by reaching a previously agreed total score, usually 5, 7 or 10 tribes.


It is possible to play the whole game as a single day, dealing out the whole deck rather than just half at a time, or to divide the game into more than two days. The more days are played the less choice of cards players have in each day and the game becomes more one of luck.
Bad Catch
Some play that a player who is dealt only one-point cards (peasants / farmers) in the first day of a game, they can call a "bad catch" (misdeal), show their hand, and have the dealer collect and redeal the cards. The player who called "bad catch" automatically scores one tribe. Note that the dealt cards can only consist of one-point cards; if the player is dealt a village idiot (worth 0 points) or a joker, they do not qualify for the bad catch. In games with larger hands (because there are few players or only a single day), the chance of a bad catch is very low, and sometimes the bad catch criterion is extended to include one- and two-point cards.
High Stake
Some allow a player with a bad catch to declare this and elect to play the round at "high stake". The player does not score the automatic tribe for a bad catch, but instead, after the remaining days have been played, any suits that the high stake player wins are worth 2 tribes (or sometimes by agreement 3 tribes) instead of the normal 1. This increased score only applies to the high stake player - the others just score 1 tribe for winning a suit as usual. A high stake player does not have to demonstrate the bad catch by showing his or her cards at the time of the declaration, but the penalty for lying is severe - losing 5 or 10 tribes, or score reset to zero, or ejection from the game, or laundry duty for a month, etc. There is little point in lying since the deception will be exposed when the offending card is played, assuming that at least one of the other players is paying attention.
Ghost / Klepto
Some play that if a joker is turned up is the voting card, each player draws one card unseen from the hand of the player to their left, and captures it immediately; the joker is discarded. Some allow the dealer to decide, when a joker is turned up, whether the trick should be played "dead" (normally, with no trumps) or "ghosted / spooked / ransacked" (where everyone draws a card from their neighbour and captures it).
Dummy Joker
Some play that the joker is worth zero points, ranks below the 6, and has no suit, so that it always loses. In this case the joker can be affectionately called the "dummy," "midget," "town rapist," or any number of offensive or derogatory names (including the names of other players who are particularly irksome or inebriated).
Suit Sweep
Some play that any player who captures an entire suit (all twelve cards) scores two tribes for this instead of the usual one. Some play that in order to score two tribes, the player must announce the sweep, naming the suit, after the deal for the first day and before the first vote. Some play that a player who announces a sweep in a suit cannot score a tribe for taking the majority of cards in that suit: the score will be two tribes for all 12 cards and otherwise nothing.
More than five players
With a larger number of players Democracy can be played with a larger deck formed by duplicating all the cards except the 5's and 6's, for a total of 88 cards, and adding however many jokers are needed so that the cards divide evenly between the players and the voting pile. With 6 players the deck size must be divisible by 7, so add 3 jokers for a deck of 91 cards. For 7 players no jokers are added. For 8 or 9 players, add 2 jokers. For 10 players, no jokers are needed. There are still only four suits with 45 points in each suit, so in principle 23 points should be needed to score a tribe. With a large number of players it may be found too difficult to score, so players may agree to score a tribe for a plurality of points in a suit (more than any opponent) rather than requiring a majority (23). When playing with this expanded deck, ties in the trump suit are possible.

Back Story and Customs

This game appears to have many names -- including "Civilization," "Imperialist Takeover," "Colonization," etc. -- but by far the most popular name is "Democracy", probably with a satirical sense.

There is a somewhat elaborate back-story behind this game. The story goes that there is a remote island inhabited by four tribes, namely the four suits of a standard deck of cards. Each player is then a colonist from a different nation looking to take over the island. The nations have decided to let the tribes deliberate and decide who should win which portions of the island -- however, the night before the deliberations, colonists from each nation sneak into the tribal camps and kidnap several members of each tribe, who they plan to coerce into advocating for their nation during the discussions the next day. Unfortunately, since it is so dark when the abductions occur, the colonists do not know which tribal members they are capturing, and thus some nations have some powerful members (e.g. chief of the tribe) and some weak members (peasants, children, etc). The next day, during the deliberations, the kidnapped members make a case to vote for their captor nation, probably fearing for their lives.

Each game is considered a different "island" to be colonized: multiple players may win tribes in a single game. The cards dealt to the players are the "kidnapped" tribal members according to the story, and each trick is a "vote" or "deliberation". If the chief of the tribe is present, sometimes the village idiot/drunkard/donkey comes to the deliberation and urinates over the congregation, who all promptly leave the premises.

Kumar writes:

This is a fairly light-hearted game that often involves some off-color humor. The story is malleable, humorous, perhaps even offensive, and the game often evokes more of a role-playing atmosphere than a strategic, methodical one. Cards can be assigned names, characters, elaborate origin stories, etc to make it even more engaging when one turns up in deliberation with hands tied by one of the colonists. Over the past few years as I have played this game, the "deliberations" have become actual verbal negotiations, where players with powerful cards do get advantages but do not win outright as specified by the rules; 7s and 8s have won hands simply due to the charisma and craftiness of the player wielding them at the time. Of course, none of this is relevant to the core of the game, which involves winning tricks through and through, but I believe that the spirit of Democracy is to institute various convolutions in the formula until the end result is scatter-brained and devoid of its original structure, but somehow still fun and endearing: more of a backdrop for clever social interaction than a serious, logical experience. 

When I have played this game with close friends, we may sometimes impose "sanctions" on other players, whereby they must adhere to different (and often unfair and cruel) rules to continue playing the game. These have included playing blind, giving up all cards of value to other players, playing with cards from other decks (usually containing only 7s and 8s), playing with baseball or trading cards, being forced to communicate in pig snorts "as punishment for war crimes," etc. No player is allowed to leave a deliberation with cards in hand, so when players leave to use the rest room we have often swapped out their cards with our bad ones. When played seriously, this game can get a little dry, but toying with the rules and introducing new elements to the story ("The spade chief died in a bout of dysentery and has been succeeded by his pet monkey", throwing out the 5 of spades and replacing it with a 7) has kept it fresh and interesting for our group of players.