¡Quiero y tu mamá en pantaletas!
Let’s start with an exercise: imagine a game. It’s a card game. A card game you’re supposed to play in teams of 2 vs. 2, where points are wagered and each match, which consists of several independent games, is played to 24 points. A match can end in one game just as likely as it can end in 5, 8 or 15. It’s a game where cheating is allowed, and getting caught costs you points. It’s a game where you’re supposed to shout, where you’re allowed to curse your opponent’s whole ancestry, question his intelligence and mock his inability to beat you, bang your hands on the table and throw your cards face up when you’ve won a hand. It’s a game where the winner is the toughest, the smartest, the quickest and wisest. If you’re actually attempting this exercise, then most probably your imagination has imploded by now. Unless you’re from Venezuela or some other Latin American country – because in that case you know very well that I’m talking about Truco.
Truco is a very popular game amongst college students in Caracas, Venezuela. That’s where I grew up and so that’s where I first heard of it, but Its origins are more than likely traced way south, to Argentina. Truco is unlike any game you have ever played. Because Truco is, above everything else, the perfect distillation of Latin American culture into game form.
Not so long ago, I spent four months living in a European city. As a designer, I paid a lot of attention to the design differences that surrounded me – starting with the way the toilets worked and going all the way to employee behavior in amusement parks -, the question in my mind always the same: could I design for this culture? The answer would undoubtedly be tied to my ability to understand the thinking process of that particular culture. But what interested me most wasn’t the answer, it was the problem.
In a way, by looking at Truco I am trying to reverse engineer this problem: it is a game that no American designer could have thought of, as it is also a game that is shaped by the people who play it, a sort of chameleon game that takes on the characteristics of each culture. If a game of soccer is exactly the same from Buenos Aires to Leningrad, a game of Truco can be entirely different from my game table to the neighbor’s.
Truco is, among other things, the king of house rules, and every match inevitably starts with the setting of clear conditions and very likely develops at some point a discrepancy upon some obscure rule that got left out of the starting negotiations – most likely on purpose by one of the parties.
Truco must be played with a partner, and every game involves exactly 4 people. Open communication is essential and even though secret hand signals can be frowned upon by some, they are definitely allowed.
Truco is also a game of deception, not at all unlike Poker. In fact, the closest you can probably come to describing Truco in American game terms is that it is like Poker with a partner. Like Poker, Truco is at its best when playing for real money, or with real, tangible stakes of some sort. Also, if you think you’ve seen bad cases of taunting while playing poker, it is only because you’ve never seen a game of Truco.
In Truco, it is usual to metaphorically wager your opponent’s mom’s underwear.
At this point you might be thinking that Truco is an immature game – a game not really worth your time. But if you’ve ever been sitting down at the Truco table, holding a Perico and on the receiving end of an Espadilla-powered taunt, watching all those insults come at you and putting on your best thinking-very-hard-about-this face, then you know that is not the case. Because when that Espadilla is dropped, there is a surge of infinite emotion that flows through your heart and to your fingers as you pick up your card with one hand, lick your other one so that you can wet your forehead and stick your Perico on it for your now-inifinitely-ashamed opponent to bask upon. In the realm of Truco, you are not being immature – you are God.
What makes the game special, though, what brings it to the next level is that at its core it is an extremely smart and complex game. Truco‘s sometimes inexplicably complicated rules, mixed with its streetwise aura make it so that players usually find themselves on the scenario of trying to decode an extremely complicated play while making sure their opponent is not cheating, or of trying to solve relatively complex probability problems while being on the receiving end of an endless taunt precisely about their inability to reach a satisfying conclusion to said problem.
Truco is just one example out of many games of this type that populate the world. Some of these games can be taught to anyone and will make perfect sense to any stranger. But others, like Truco, have been so deeply changed by the personality of the region that they are basically designed for and by the culture itself. I wouldn’t know how to begin to explain the rules of the game to my non-Venezuelan friends; and it wouldn’t make much sense to do so, since a big part of the game’s magic are the murky areas where the different versions of the rules everyone knows don’t overlap. I will continue to associate Truco with my home country forever; and I’m happy knowing that if I’m sharing a Truco game with three friends (or strangers) then home can’t be too far away.