What is Tien Len?
Tiến Lên, also known in the United States as Thirteen (13) or Killer, is a card game in the shedding genre.
Its namesake derives from the Vietnamese words for “Go forward.” It is the national game of Vietnam but also played in the United States due to the close cultural contact between the two countries during the American-Vietnamese War.
How to Play Tien Len?
The Tien Len or Thirteen card game is played using a Standard, 52-card Anglo-American deck. In the case of 4 or fewer players, a single deck will be used. In the case of 5 or more Players, 2 decks will be used.
Regardless of the number of Players, each Player will be dealt 13 cards, and the remaining cards will be set aside, remaining facedown.
Tien Len is similar to other shedding-type games, where the goal is to be the first player to “go out” or use up all of the cards in the hand.
Starting the game
The game begins with the Player in possession of the lowest card out of all Players starting the discard pile. This discard pile is face up, and in the center of the Play area.
After this initial hand, the winner of the previous round will be the first to start, and may start by discarding any card of their choosing instead of the lowest card.
Tien Len is not just a shedding-type game, but also a meld-making one. Like its relatives in the Rummy family, it allows for the play of singular cards, as well as melds.
The melds in Tien Len are as follows:
- Pairs, two cards of the same rank (2, Ace, K, Q, J,10-3).
- Triplets, three cards of the same rank.
- Quartets, four cards of the same rank.
- Sequence, three or more cards that follow consecutive order (9, 10, J). Suit does not matter.
- Double Sequence, a sequence of at least 3 unique pairs regardless of suit (3♥,3♦,4♦,4♠,5♠,5♦)
In Tien Len, melds may be played as a lead at the start of a Player’s turn. When melds are led, then the following plays must be the same type of meld.
For example, if Player 1 leads with a double sequence, then Player 2 must either pass and fold their cards for the hand, or they must play a double sequence that is a higher rank than the one played.
Another example, if Player 1 leads with a sequence of 5♦, 6♦, 7♣, then Player 2 must pass or follow with a sequence of at least 6, 7, 8. The top card of the sequence determines its value.
A sequence of the same rank may still have a higher value.
For example, 5♦,6♦, 7♣ would be beaten by a sequence of 5♥, 6♦, 7♠ because spades are the highest value suit. However, rank always beats suit.
This means while 5♣, 6♦, 7♠ would be a legal move, 5♠. 6♦, 7♥ would not be a legal move. Although there is a spade card, the spaded card is the 5, which has a lower rank than the 7, and the rank value always counts before the suit value.
The game continues until all but one Player has emptied their hand completely of cards. This remaining Player is the loser, and must suffer whatever nominal punishment was decided at the start of the game.
The next game will be dealt out by the loser, as well.
- A leading card may only be followed by another card or sequence that has a higher value.
- Card value is determined both by rank and by suit.
- 2 is the highest value rank, while 3 is the lowest.
- Cards cannot loop, meaning A-2-3 is not a legal sequence.
- The rules of Tien Len dictate that Suits are ranked Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, and Spades, in that order from lowest to highest. Two cards of the same rank will have their tie determined by their suit value, however, rank value always beats suit value. For example, a Q♥ still beats a J♠, even though the spade is more highly valued than the heart.
The Tien Len card game does not have an integrated scoring system designed within it. The game is instead played on a game-by-game basis.
Generally, if the game is being played for monetary bets, the only Player who must pay out the ante is the Player who comes last.
This means that in a gambling game of Tien Len, the loser must pay out each Player the pre-game agreed-upon wager, or 3x the amount they stood to win.
A scoring sheet for Tien Len does not officially exist, but a Player could make each “game” count for one point. In this way, a scoring sheet designed for match-play could be created, where each Player could have their wins marked. The First Player to achieve a certain number of wins would then be the winner.
The following is a potential starting hand in a game of Tien Len:
3♥, 4♣, 9♥, Q♠, Q♣, 3♦, 4♣, K♦, 2♣, 5♠, 5♥, A♥, 7♠
The above hand is an extremely strong starting hand to be dealt. Not only is there a 2 in this opening deck, but there is an immediate double sequence of three unique pairs.
This double sequence can be saved in order to bomb a single 2 that leads the discard pile, or it could be played straight away to reduce by the hand by 6 cards.
Viet Cong (VC) Variant
This variant of Tien Len is the most popular in the United States. The name is a reference to the Vietnamese communist guerillas who opposed the American occupation of Vietnam.
In the VC card game, many rules are the same as in other versions of Tien Len. However, there are two key differences.
- Firstly, a Player who is dealt all four 2 cards in their starting hand automatically wins. This Player may then lay down all their cards, after showing the four 2s to other Players in order to prove they possess all four 2s.
- The second major difference between Viet Cong and the more traditional Tien Len is the bombs. In Viet Cong, Bombs are called “slams” instead, and follow different rules. If a single 2 leads, then a Player might be able to slam that two with a quartet, or a double sequence of at least 3 pairs.
A pair of 2s leading can be slammed by playing 2 consecutive quartets (e.g. 4,4,4,4 and 5,5,5,5) or a double sequence of at least 5 unique pairs.
A Triplet of 2s is slammed by playing 3 consecutive quartets, or by playing a double sequence numbering at least 7 pairs.
In Viet Cong, the bombs or “slams” are much harder to pull off. This increased difficulty in playing against 2s makes Viet Cong a game where 2s are even more valuable than they normally are. The odds of a Player slamming a 2 are very low due to the strict conditions required.
Strategy & Tips
- Try to save up a double sequence if you already have one partially made. Playing a bomb not only discards many cards from your hand at once, it completely disrupts the other Player’s strategy. Bombs are difficult to form, and can cause a major upset because of their low chance of occurrence.
- Every Player has the same number of cards at the start, but be sure to pay attention to other Players. You should play more aggressively and try to shed as quickly as possible as other Players reduce their card totals.
- The only way to discard cards is by playing them. Getting useless cards is difficult to deal with, but a necessary part of the game’s challenge.
Frequently Asked Questions
How many cards does each player get?
Each layer must be dealt the same number of cards in order for the game to be played properly. As such, the general rule of thumb is that 13 cards must be dealt to each player, and all remaining cards should be discarded, face down, to the side of the play area. For every 4 players in the game, add a deck of cards.
Can you play VC with two people?
Yes. The Viet Cong variant of Tien Len can be played with 2 people. The rule changes of Viet Cong do not alter the number of cards drawn or dealt, and as such have no bearing on the number of players able to play. Each Player will still receive 13 cards in Viet Cong.
What is a Bomb in Tien Len?
Bombs are special sequences of cards that can be played on top of a 2, in order to discard even after the 2 card has been played. In order for a Bomb to follow a 2, it must follow specific rules.
- A single 2 can be trumped by any quartet or any double sequence that has at least 3 unique pairs.
- Pairs of 2s must be beaten by a double sequence of at least 4 unique pairs.
- A Triplet of twos can only be beaten by a double sequence containing 5 or more unique pairs.
Where can I play Tien Len online?
Tien Len is available on Cardgames.io, a free multiplayer service that provides a number of popular card games online. No account is required, and games can be found within 10 seconds.