Shithead is what is known as a “Beating” card game, a type of Shedding game where players “beat” each other’s cards.
Without confirmed origins, though it is believed to have arisen from the Scandinavian countries, as it is closely related to the Finnish game Paskahousu (translating to Shitpants.) Shithead also shares many similarities with the card game Palace/Castle.
The game spread across Europe as the European Union allowed for free travel between member states, with numerous young backpackers bringing the game to their destinations, along with numerous house rules and variations.
How to Play Shithead?
The Shithead card game can be played with 2-4 Players, using the standard Anglo-American 52-card deck. In many European countries, the French deck is more common, though any 52-card deck will do.
Selecting the Dealer
The first Dealer will be chosen randomly.
Subsequent games will have their Dealer chosen for them, as Players declared the Shithead at the end of a game will be forced to deal in the next game, as well as other possible punishments.
Once the Dealer has been selected, they will deal out to each Player a sequence of cards.
- Firstly, each Player will be dealt a row of three cards, face-down.
- Then, they will be dealt another row of three face-up cards, overlain atop the other row.
- Finally, each Player will receive a hand of three cards which they should keep hidden.
- The remaining cards are left in the center of the table to act as a draw pile.
Once each Player has been dealt their cards, they may look at their hand (Not the cards on the table, but the separate hand they were dealt last) and exchange any of those cards with the three face-up cards atop their face-down cards.
Once this exchanging phase has occurred, gameplay can begin.
Starting the Game
The first player to have a 3 of any suit dealt to them as one of their face-up cards is given the right to take the first turn of the game. This only applies to the cards that are initially dealt as the face-ups, an exchange from the hand is not valid.
- If no Player is dealt a 3, then the first Player to be 4 will go first.
- If no Player is dealt a 4, then the first Player to be dealt a 5, and so on.
After the first player is determined, play will continue clockwise.
The first Player to take their turn can play any card that they wish from their hand and from their hand only. Players may further play a set of cards, so long as they are all of the same rank.
After a Player plays cards from their hand, they must draw from the deck until they have at least three cards in their hand.
- If there are already three or more cards in the hand, then there is no need to draw.
- When the deck is empty, it is not reshuffled, Players will simply stop drawing cards into their hand.
The Player to follow the First Player to create a discard pile must discard a card or cards of a higher rank than the current top of the discard pile.
For example, the top card of the discard pile is a 3, so the current Player must discard at least a 4.
This continues until a Player is unable to play a card onto the discard pile that is a higher rank than the current top card. If this happens, that Player must draw the entire discard pile into their hand.
Players are able to choose to draw the discard pile if they do not want to discard. However, as Shithead is a shedding game, this is almost always a bad idea.
After a Player is forced to draw the discard pile, their turn is immediately ended, and the next Player in the regular rotation is allowed to discard as though they were the first Player. So, discarding whatever card or cards from their hand that they wish.
There are two special cards: The 2 and the 10.
2s in Shithead are bombs and wildcards. A 2 may be played during your turn, regardless of the top card on the discard pile.
Not only can a 2 be played on any card, but a 2 further clears the discard pile. All cards in the discard pile are removed from play when a 2 is played.
10s in Shithead are also bombs but they are also steal-turn cards. 10s may be played during another Player’s turn, and after clearing the discard pile, allowing the Player who played the 10 to steal that turn, and make a further discard from their hand.
The rotation continues from the stealing Player, potentially skipping multiple Player’s turns.
This gameplay cycle continues, with Players discarding their hands, and replenishing them from the deck while occasionally drawing the discard pile.
Once the deck is depleted, Players will no longer replenish their hand after discarding. Once a Player starts their turn with a completely empty hand, they are free to discard using the face-up cards in front of them.
Once the whole row of face-up cards has been discarded, then Players are able to flip up their face-down cards, and discard those. Players will still be forced to draw the discard pile if they fail to discard. If a Player is forced to draw the discard pile, they may no longer play cards from their rows, as they now have cards in their hand once more.
Players compete not to be the first to use up all of their cards. Rather, Players compete to not finish last.
The last Player that still has cards in their rows or hand at the end of the game will be declared “Shithead.”
The shithead will be forced to shuffle the deck and deal the next game. Further, many people invent their own punishments for the Shithead, such as getting everyone a round of drinks or doing something humiliating.
Shithead Rules Summarized
A summary of the game’s rules can be found below:
- Players must have no cards in their hand at the start of their turn in order to play cards from their rows.
- The Shithead will have to deal the next game, and any other punishments that are determined by the Players. Some games give the first Player to empty their rows the right to decide an additional punishment for the Shithead.
- Players must discard a card of an equal or higher rank than the top card of the discard pile.
- 2s and 10s are both bombs, while 2s are wildcards and 10s are “Turn-stealing” cards.
Imagine the following is a hand in a game of Shithead:
4♦ 6♠ 10♥
The card in the discard pile is an 8♣.
Since you cannot discard the 4 or 6, as they are a lower rank than the 8, you are forced to discard the 10. This prevents you from using the 10 to steal a turn, but it does at least give you the opportunity to play the 4 in your hand, as the discard pile will be cleared and you will be given an extra turn.
It is better to discard the 4, after playing the 10, because 4 is a very low-ranking card. It will be difficult to play the 4 in normal play without the use of a bomb, whereas the 6 is a middle-ranking card, and has a decent chance of being played.
Strategy & Tips
- Exchange your high-ranking cards in the hand with low-ranking cards in your face-up row at the start of the game. Low-ranking cards are more likely to be played successfully in the early game, and if you are forced to draw the discard pile in the early game, you will likely only draw 3 or 4 cards at a time. It is far less punishing to have low cards in your hand in the beginning of the game than it is near the end.
- Use your 10s immediately after your turn, at the start of the next Player’s turn, whenever possible. This will essentially give you 3 discards. Firstly, your normal discard during your normal turn. Then, the discard of the 10 during the start of the next Player’s turn, and finally the discard made during the extra turn granted by a 10. Not only does this allow you to discard 3 cards, it essentially skips the turn of every Player at the table, maximizing the value of your 10 bombs.