The Shapes of Euchre

Finding the best way to teach a strange game

The other day, a friend and I taught Euchre to our partners. For those not familiar, Euchre is a popular card game in Michigan. Since my friend and I grew up playing it, we were blind to its strangeness until we tried to teach it.

We were eventually successful (the four of us could play a few games with a surplus of patience), but our journey to get there was messy. Could we have done better?

I have a theory that multimedia—images, audio clips, props (like playing cards)—can be a crutch for unclear thinking, like copious salt & pepper masking the (dis)flavor of a gross dinner. For instance, slide-decks can be plagued by sloppy thinking but are sneakily digestible due to pictures and flashy charts. I’m a very visual person, so I liked the challenge of explaining a complex concept with words alone as an exercise to sharpen my thinking. Euchre was the perfect candidate, so I explained it as efficiently and effectively as I could on my blog (click to learn Euchre!). I planned to share it via this newsletter until I realized that an unsolicited, pictureless card game manual isn’t very fun. Ergo, I’m sharing how I thought about teaching Euchre. (And yes, I’m including doodles to mask any unclear thinking).

To set the stage: Euchre is a four-player card game that uses half a deck, involves winning tricks (playing a better card than your opponents), and has a trump suit. Under trump, jacks become ultra-powerful (bowers), which adds complexity. Scoring is nuanced and employs a unique mechanism to track points.

To teach Euchre, one must explain each piece (tricks, trump, scoring, etc.) and how they fit together. Like file transfer, teaching is copying an image from one person’s head to another person’s head. Since we can’t copy & paste between minds yet (submit a feature request to Neuralink!), the teacher must break his mental image into puzzle pieces and deliver the pieces such that the recipient can reassemble the image in her mind.

Like building a puzzle, you can assemble these pieces in any order. But some shapes will be more conducive to the content and priorities of the lesson. Do you value practicality (how applicable the lesson is) or accessibility (how easy the lesson is to grasp)? What about clarifying the objective or managing the learner’s attention? Different shapes prioritize different values. When thinking about Euchre, four shapes come to mind:

Left-to-Right

Left-to-right is obvious because it’s familiar: We read left-to-right, calendars move left-to-right, etc. Teaching Euchre in this shape could follow the sequence of game activities: Begin with making the deck; end with win conditions. While practical, delivering topics in sequential order may not account for accessibility or managing attention. Learners won’t understand the reason for some concepts (i.e., tricks) if they don’t understand where they’re leading (i.e., win with 10 points).

Right-to-Left

Right-to-left corrects for the latter. The learner works backward from the goal (win 10 points), so each added piece will have meaning to the larger whole. This is common for business projects because starting with the end in mind avoids rabbit holes. For Euchre, this approach is less practical since it requires the learner to gather all knowledge before acting (i.e., learn what a bower is before gathering four players). Nor does it account for accessibility or attention.

Exponential

Where linear shapes fall short in their unidimensional approach, the exponential shape excels. Pieces are ordered for complexity, so each new piece increases in difficulty from the last, which makes the content accessible. Wet the toes by mastering basics, wade into the shallows, and then swim to the deep end. The problem here is fatigue. Learners’ willpower is drained with the increasing complexity, so the attention needed for difficult topics expires too early.

Asymptote

An asymptote addresses the fatigue problem since this shape frontloads complexity. Start with the hairy concepts (i.e., trump and jacks) to take advantage of starting attention. As the learner empties her mental gas tank, she can coast into progressively simpler territory (i.e., the deck, win conditions, etc.). The problem here is abstraction. Pieces are taught non-linear, so learners must grapple with complex topics before grounding them in practical application.

The Best Shape for Euchre

In the end, I settled on this weird lumpy shape. Learners start with foundational pieces, like building a Euchre deck and gathering four players. These are accessible and get the game rolling. After dealing, learners are given the concept of tricks without the nuance of trump and bower. This serves as a pre-requisite for delivering trump while ramping up the learner’s complexity tolerance to mitigate willpower fatigue. Acknowledging that mental energy will deplete after these concepts, I give learners slightly easier lessons to wind down—such as scoring. At the very end, I deliver a low-importance, medium-complexity piece (Going Alone). This concept isn’t vital to the game experience, so it shouldn’t hog resources from the critical ones.

While practical, accessible, and manages attention; this shape doesn’t upfront the goal, so learners won’t know why they’re bothering to learn all this. That’s a trade-off I was willing to make because, well, playing Euchre is pointless anyway.

There you go. Hope you enjoyed my needlessly complex thought process to explain a card game!

If you were to teach Euchre, what would do differently?

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Junk Drawer

Three other things worth sharing:

  1. My 1-second per day video of August

  2. This example of the web’s deteriorating user experience

  3. This unedited image (click here to see behind the curtain)