The question, of course, is: "what makes Sheepshead different/better than any other card game?" Ignoring the purely subjective, the answer is that Sheepshead is the most skill-centric card game I have yet to encounter (by "card game," in this context, I'm referring only to games played with some portion of a standard 52-card deck). It rewards a good memory, attention to detail, and rapid analysis of possible outcomes. At a table of skilled players, each card played is both a tactic and a statement. Sometimes the information carried by a card is more important than what the card actually achieves, and sometimes what the card achieves has little to do with the points it takes or gives. It is a game in which there is almost always a right play and a wrong play; few choices are indifferent.
The next question is: "what kind of people play Sheepshead?" Almost anyone can play, of course, but the ones who (in my experience) take to the game most quickly are those with a logical, pragmatic, and/or analytical bent of mind. Virtually all the reasonably serious coders I know consider Sheepshead their favorite card game, for example. For many people, the game takes on an almost religious significance: the two arguments I want to insert myself into least are first, an argument between a husband and a wife, and second, an argument between the picker and the partner after they've just lost a 60-60 tie. The people who have the most trouble with the game are those who come into it focussed primarily on the social aspect, and only secondarily on the game. This is not to say that Sheepshead isn't a social event--it certainly is. I've been to any number of quite successful Sheepshead parties. Still, the game does require attention and thought; particularly for the novice player. Few things are more frustrating to a serious player than someone who plays poorly, and doesn't seem to care.
All that being said, bear in mind that the ultimate arbiter of why the game is good, or what parts of it are best is the individual playing it. Whether you're a programmer, a police officer, a teacher or an author, the game is certainly worth learning and trying.
II. THE DECK
New players generally have the most trouble with the makeup of the deck itself. Given a standard 52-card deck, start by discarding all the cards two through six. 32 cards are left, split among four suits: clubs, spades, hearts, and "trump". The trump suit comprises the four queens, the four jacks, and all the remaining diamonds. This concept is so critical it bears repeating: trump is a suit. Hence, the queen of clubs is not a club, it is a trump. Ditto the other queens and jacks; they're all trump, not whatever suit is on the card. All other cards (7, 8, 9, K, 10, A) of clubs, spades, and hearts, are collectively known as "fail", which simply means they're not trump.
Next comes the ranking of cards. In trump, queens beat jacks beat ace through seven (generally referred to as "the diamonds"). Queens are ranked by suit (in this case, the suit printed on the card) high to low: clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds. Ditto the jacks. So QC beats QD beats JS beats JH. Beneath the clubs are the diamonds, ranked high to low as follows: ace, ten, king, nine, eight, seven. Here, note that ace is high and the ten beats the king. Fail within a suit is ranked as the diamonds: A, 10, K, 9, 8, 7. Fail, however, are not ranked by suit; an ace of clubs is equivalent to an ace of hearts. And, as is implied by the word trump, any trump beats any fail.
Finally, each card has a point value. These, though, aren't anywhere near as convoluted as the ranking. Queens are worth 3 points each, jacks 2, aces 11, tens 10, kings 4, and everything else 0. (That's 120 points total, before you bother trying to add it up).
III. GAME MECHANICS
Basics first. If you've ever played a trick-taking card game before (Euchre, Hearts, or Spades, as examples), this will seem familiar. If you haven't, here's how it works: play proceeds clockwise around the table, starting to the left of the dealer. That person may "lead" with any card in his hand (with one exception I'll address later). Each subsequent player lays down one card in turn, following suit if possible. This means, if a spade is led, everyone else must play a spade if he has one. If not, any card may be played. Here, again, it is absolutely critical to remember that trump is a suit, and if led, must be followed as any other suit. By the same token, a jack of spades may not be played on a spade lead unless the player has no spades. After everyone has played, whoever played the highest card on the table takes the "trick", which simply means all the cards played this round. That person then has the lead for the next trick, and so forth until all cards have been played.
Determining the highest card on the table is trivial if trump was played: the highest trump takes the trick. If only fail have been played, however, note that only the led suit has rank. If a seven of spades is led, someone playing the ace of hearts will not take the trick. Only a higher spade or a trump can take that trick.
Sheepshead is ideally played with five people, though three- and four-player variants exist. For now, assume five players. Each receives six cards, with the two remaining cards dealt face down in the middle of the table, forming the "blind". The dealer is subject to a few mechanical rules: he must offer a cut, may not ever deal a single card to a player, and neither the first nor last card in the deck may go to the blind. Normally, I deal three to each player, two to the blind, then three to each player--this is by no means the "correct" way to deal, but it's simple to remember, difficult to get wrong, and meets all the requirements. The dealer must deal clockwise 'round the table. After each hand, the player to the left of that hand's dealer gets the deal.
During a typical hand, the five players are divided into two teams of two players and three, respectively. This is determined by who "picks" the blind after the deal. The option to pick is offered first to the player on the dealer's left, who evaluates the strength of her hand, and decides: the stronger the hand, the more likely she is to pick. If she passes, the blind will be offered to each person around the table in turn, coming finally to the dealer. There are various ways of dealing with the hand if no one picks, but assume for the time being someone picks up the blind.
That player now does two things: "bury", and call a partner. After examining her eight cards (including the blind), she must bury two cards (these may be the same two cards she picked up). Those two cards will later count towards her team's point total, but are out of play for the duration of the hand. She may also, at her option, call a partner. The gimmick is that no one except the partner gets to know who the partner is--including the picker!
To achieve this feat of misdirection, the picker calls a partner by announcing a fail suit. Whoever has the ace of that suit becomes the partner for the hand. The hitch? The picker must have a card of that suit in her hand (cards in her bury don't count). The second hitch is when that suit is first led, the partner must play the ace, even if he's got other cards of that suit. Similarly, the picker must play the card of that suit she kept. And, by "must," I mean must: the picker and the partner may not play those cards until the suit is led (or on the last trick, of course). This means that, even if the partner knows the picker will take the trick, he may not put the called ace on the trick.
Obviously, situations arise such that this system isn't applicable, and there are rules to cover them. First, if the picker has all three fail aces, she may call a 10. She is required to keep the ace of the called suit in her hand, and play it on the called suit trick, though the 10 will act as the high card in the suit. If she has all three aces and all three 10s, she may call a king. Of course, one would then wonder why she picked (having no trump). Slightly more complex is if the picker doesn't have all three fail aces, but does have the ace of every fail suit she has (counting all eight cards: hand and blind). In this case, the picker selects one card (it can be anything), places it face down on the table, calls a suit "unknown" (saying, for example, "spades unknown"), and play proceeds as normal. The facedown card must be played as though it were a six of the called suit. That is, it has no power, and counts as the called suit. It does retain its point value.
Both these rules are designed to ensure two things: first, that the picker always has a fail of the called suit. Second, that the partner always has the highest fail in the called suit. The intent is to give the non-picking team at least one trick they have a good chance of taking.
One final gameplay rule: if no one picks the blind, one of three things can happen, depending on what rules you choose to play with. First, the hand can be declared a misdeal, and just re-dealt. Second, the hand can be declared a misdeal, and the next hand played for twice the normal stakes (see the next section). Third, the hand can be played out as a "leaster", wherein the goal is take as few points as possible. In this case, it's every player for himself. The dealer picks a trick, and whoever takes that trick also gets the cards in the blind added to his score. The lowest point total at the end of the hand wins, but only players who have taken at least one trick can win. If two players tie for lowest score, the hand is a wash ("two tie, all tie" is the operative phrase).
A single hand only takes a few minutes among reasonably experienced players. If you're planning on setting aside an evening for Sheepshead, you need a way to keep track of who's winning overall--this is particularly important if the loser(s) will owe the winner(s) money.
Sheepshead is scored as a zero-sum game: if one player gains a point, another player must lose one (this makes intuitive sense in terms of money changing hands). Hence, the easiest way to double-check your scoring is to make sure that every line of scores adds up to zero. Most basically, the four non-picking players each have one point at stake, and the picker has two. This both makes the math work out, and addresses the fact that the picker is the player with the most control over the hand. So, if the picking team wins, the picker gets two points and the partner one, while each opposing player loses one point. And vice-versa if the picking team loses.
This base rate is modified depending on the extent of the victory. As mentioned earlier there are 120 total points in a hand of Sheepshead, so the picker needs 61 points to win (ties go to the non-picking team). If a team doesn't win, however, they still want to make a reasonable showing: if they get fewer than 30 points (31 for the picker), stakes for the hand are doubled. For no discernible reason, this breakpoint is known as "Schneider", or, occasionally, "schnitz". If they can't manage Schneider, they must still arrange to take at least one trick, even if it contains no points: if a team gets no-tricked, the stakes for the hand are tripled.
So, a player loses one point for a loss, two points for a severe loss, and three points for a massive drubbing (for the picker, it's two, four, and six, of course).
There are two other little details about scoring. First, if the picker doesn't personally take a trick, then the picking team doesn't get to count the bury towards its total (but still needs 61 to win). If the picker doesn't take a trick and the picking team loses (which is normal, if the picker can't arrange to take a single trick), then only the picker loses points. The partner neither gains nor loses points for the hand, though the picker does get to count any points the partner took towards the team total (so could still get Schneider).
V. TWO VARIANTS
Though the game is far and away best with five players, if you find yourself falling short of that number one evening, don't despair! You can still play Sheepshead. Here's how.
There are three ways of playing four-handed, and each has its own problems. The first, "cutthroat", is fairly straightforward. Seven cards go to each player, four cards go to the blind. Play is the same, but the picker doesn't get a partner (which is fair, since she got a blind bigger than half her hand). Each non-picker has one point at stake, the picker has three. Schneider and no-tricking change these numbers as they do in five handed. The difficulty is that the four card blind makes picking much more a roll of the dice, and the lack of the partner dynamic detracts from the tactical interplay of the hand.
The second method is to discard the black sevens. Each player receives seven cards, the blind gets two, and the picker calls an ace. This is perhaps the closest simulation of five handed possible, but suffers three disadvantages. First, the picker will never call clubs or spades if she can avoid it: with one fewer card of that suit out, the called suit is much more likely to be trumped by the opposing team. Second, though I only have qualitative evidence, it seems that the picking team wins a disproportionate number of times under this approach. Third, the picker has no more at stake on the hand than anyone else: she will win or lose one point, just like her partner and her opponents. This also means that there's no incentive to pick, which tends to lead to more leasters. Schneider and no trickers affect scoring as in five handed.
The third and final method is to deal eight cards to each player, and do away with the blind. A pair of cards, either the black sevens or the black jacks, are partners every time. There are no rules regarding when any of those cards may or must be played (aside, of course, from the normal suit-following rule), so there is no guaranteed way to flush out the partners. If one player has both cards, the hand will either be a leaster, or that player goes alone, depending on the group with whom you play (normally, if black jacks are the partners, having both means you're going alone; if black sevens, it's a leaster). Either way, the player with both cards has a slight advantage insofar as she's the only person who knows she's alone or it's a leaster. In many ways, this is the best of the three variants. The only difficulty is that, given no blind and therefore no pick, it is the most unlike five handed. Still, as a personal preference, it's the way I prefer to play if only four people are around.
In three handed, ten cards are dealt to each player, and two to the blind. Obviously, the picker doesn't call a partner. Three handed can be an interesting game, since fail takes on a power it simply doesn't have in four and five handed. In a three handed game, a fail ace is likely to take a trick (with six fail to go around, odds are good that each player will have at least one); in four and five handed, fairly few fail aces take tricks. As with five handed, the picker has two points at stake, and the non-pickers one each. Schneider and no trickers affect the scoring as they do in five handed.
VI. WHERE TO LOOK FOR MORE; FINAL THOUGHTS
I've presented here the basic rules which will allow you to play the game. Tactics, techniques, and tips will be presented in the next installment, but if you're looking for more information and you want it now, you can try sheepshead.org as a decent resource. Can't find players, but want to see/play the game? Yahoo!'s (registration required) games section includes various flavors of Sheepshead. Play ranges from brilliant to atrocious, but it's all interesting to watch. If you've suddenly decided you love the game, and need to spend money on it, you can always visit the Sheepshead Store, where they'll be more than happy to relieve you of money in exchange for nifty Sheepshead knicknacks.
Even beyond the three- and four-player versions mentioned above, various people play under various different rulesets, with changes ranging from major (jack of diamonds is the partner, not a fail ace) to minor ("no face, no ace, no ten, no trump:" if you're dealt only fail sevens, eights, and nines, you get a pity point from everyone) to silly (taking a trick with the seven of diamonds is worth 42 points). What I've presented here, though, should be enough to be going on with. Learn it, play it, and evangelize it!