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[Illustrations] The Tet Board Games That Help Foster (and Destroy) Family Relations

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as beating all your siblings and cousins in a heated game of cờ cá ngựa

Tet is truly a time to revel: most shops and restaurants are closed; work is suspended; and family members gather to catch up and gorge on heaps of decadent food gathered for weeks beforehand. This cordial setting wouldn’t be perfect without a few — or hundreds — of rounds of Tet-specific board games. Usually involving tokens, cards, or both, these games can be played any time of the year, but are most commonly associated with New Year.

To celebrate these wonderful inventions, Saigoneer takes a look at the four most popular Tet games of the bunch: cờ cá ngựa, bầu cua, lô tô and playing cards. While the assets of each game are similar across the country, each region and family might have their own rules on how to play. For the scope of this article, we will focus on southern ways to participate.


1. Cờ Cá Ngựa

Cờ cá ngựa’s literal translation is “seahorse chess,” in which four players compete to send all their horse tokens back to the stable safely. Players take turns rolling the dice (up to two dices per game) to determine the number of moves. The first competitor with four “horses” in the 6, 5, 4 and 3 slots of their stable wins the match.

The rules of cờ cá ngựa are akin to that of classic Cross and Circle games, which have local versions in many cultures in the world. Korea’s version, called Yut, is also played during New Year. India’s rendition, named Pachisi, has been played since the 16th century and is the sole foundation for Spain’s Parchís and the US’s Parcheesi, both bearing close resemblance to cờ cá ngựa. However, Vietnam’s version, in both form and function, takes after France’s jeu des petits chevaux, which simulates a horse race.

2. Bầu Cua Tôm Cá

Its full name is bầu cua tôm cá, or bầu cua cá cọp, after the animal figures present on the game sheet. Vietnam’s roster of animals and objects is similar to its Chinese origin called Hoo Hey How: bầu (gourd), cua (crab), tôm (prawn), (fish) and nai (deer). Thailand, on the other hand, switches deer for tiger, while a western iteration called Crown and Anchor uses suit symbols of playing cards instead.

The game begins with a banker and a few players who put wagers on at least one animal on the sheet. The bank then rolls three special dices, whose sides also bear the symbols. The banker has to pay players according to the number of times the symbols turn up on the dice. 

3. Cờ Lô Tô

If cờ cá ngựa can sometimes bring out the most aggressive traits in people, lô tô is a game of pure luck. Every player is given a sheet with numbers in random orders. Each turn, a number token is picked from a sac and called. Whoever gets to five tokens in a row first yells “kinh” to win the round. 

4. Bài Tây 

Western playing cards have been a part of Vietnam’s Tet culture for decades, spawning dozens of different rule sets, such as cào, mậu binh, xì dách, etc. However, the most popular remains tiến lên, a shedding-style game played across the country. Four players are each dealt 13 cards and then take turn playing card combinations, which could be a single, a pair, a triple, a sequence or even more complex ones. Combinations played must be more powerful than the previous. The most powerful suit is Hearts, followed by Diamonds, Clubs and Spades. The ranking of the cards from highest to lowest is 2, A, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, and 3. Whoever sheds all of their cards first wins the round.

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