sheepshead card game

Sheepshead Card Game Explained

If you’re looking for a fun activity to add to your game room, then the Sheepshead card game is one you should definitely consider!

Boasting a rich heritage and an interesting style of play, this American trick-taking card game is as good as it gets! Of course, to be able to fully appreciate the game in its entirety, you need to know what it’s about and how it’s played.

To that end, we’ll be delving into the history of the game, the table rules to remember, as well as offering you some strategies that you can try out if you want to play the game yourself!

A Brief History of the Sheepshead Card Game

This crazy card game came into existence around the middle of the 19th century. Originally brought to the shores of America by immigrants from central Europe, much of Sheepshead gameplay is similar to that of the German game, Schafkopf.

The German immigrants who brought the game settled in Milwaukee. As they had one of the largest populations in the region, it didn’t take long for much of their culture and tradition to sweep across the entire state!

Over time, Schafkopf gained an American form which would then go on to be the more dominant form as Sheepshead. The game became so popular that it was competitively played in neighborhoods and several community-based organizations.

At the center of it all was the Milwaukee Deutscher Club and, through them, the Wisconsin Club. They helped make the Americanized form of the Sheepshead game even more popular as they introduced it to taverns and card players with zest!

Eventually, this enjoyable card game would spread from Milwaukee to various parts of the country.

While it certainly isn’t as popular as it used to be, Sheepshead remains one of the best card games you can play!

sheepshead card game

How the Trick-Taking Card Game Works

The game itself is fairly uncomplicated. It’s played with 32 specific cards pulled out of a standard deck of cards. While table rules can be tweaked to accommodate a lesser number of players, it’s typically played with 5 people.

To win, you have to get card combinations that will give you a cumulative score of 61.

That means that throughout the game, you have to look for high card point values. So, the higher the ranking card strength you have, the higher your chances of winning.

The aspect of card strength is where things can get a little tricky for most players. To better manage this confusing aspect of this all-time favorite card game, it always helps to know the card scores.

Jacks, Queens, Aces, Spades, and so on all have different card point values. This American card game leverages that to make this activity even more exciting!

Without further ado, here is how the value of each card in a Sheepshead deck is ranked and valued.

Card Rankings and Groups in Sheepshead

Even among card games, Sheepshead has a bit of an unusual character when it comes to assigning value points. A Sheepshead deck typically consists of suits from specific card ranks. These are as follows:

  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Jacks
  • Queens
  • Kings
  • Aces

These cards are further grouped into 2 categories: Trump Cards and Fail Suits.

Here’s a list of all the cards that fall in either rank.

The Trump Cards Rank

There are 14 trump suits. These are the strongest cards in the game. According to rank, these are as follows:

  1. Queen of Clubs
  2. Queen of Spades
  3. Queen of Hearts
  4. Queen of Diamonds
  5. Jack of Spades
  6. Jack of Clubs
  7. Jack of Hearts
  8. Jack of Diamonds
  9. Ace of Diamonds
  10. 10 of Diamonds
  11.  King of Diamonds
  12. 9 of Diamonds
  13. 8 of Diamonds
  14. 7 of Diamonds

The Fail Suits Rank

These cards make up the remaining 18 cards used in the game. These consist of the following:

  1. Ace of Clubs, Aces of Spades, Ace of Hearts
  2. 10 of Clubs, 10 of Spades, 10 of Hearts
  3. 9 of Clubs, 9 of Spades, 9 of Hearts
  4. 8 of Clubs, 8 of Spades, 8 of Hearts
  5. 7 of Clubs, 7 of Spades, 7 of Hearts 

Remember that a trump card will beat any fail card!

Understanding the Card Point Values of the Game

All cards in each card deck rank also carry a designated point value. All the card point values in this card have a cumulative score of 120.

So, card players have to get the most of these points in order to win the game. Moving forward, one thing to remember here is that cards in the same suit will have the same value, even when you’re dealing with trump cards.

  • All Aces: 11 points each
  • All 10s: 10 points each
  • All Kings: 4 points each
  • All Queens: 3 points each
  • All Jacks: 2 points each
  • All 7s, 8s, 9s: 0 points

Now that you have a grasp of the basic elements of the game, let’s look at how the game itself is played!

The Setup in Sheepshead

To play the Sheepshead card game, someone has to be designated as the dealer. However, the dealer may or may not be a player.

For example, if you want to play the game with 5 people, one person can double as both player and dealer. However, if you were to be playing with 6 people, the 6th person could be an independent dealer. As such, they wouldn’t participate in the gameplay itself.

For the purpose of this guide, we’ll be explaining this game when played with 5 people.

In this case, choosing a dealer can either be done randomly or with a shuffled deck of cards. When a deck is used for this action, it’s typically the player that draws a high-point card of the greatest value that becomes the dealer.

This person then goes on to deal each of the players (themselves included) 6 cards each. For optimal gaming experience, the cards should only be dealt 3 at a time. That is, the players should each be dealt three cards first, and only after this should the next three cards follow.

Gameplay in Sheepshead

The first round of the game begins as soon as the cards are dealt. The rule of thumb here is that the player to the left of the dealer goes first. As such, this person has the right to be the “picker.”

Picking is done by taking the two cards placed at the center of the Sheepshead table earlier by the dealer.

If you fall on the left side of the dealer and you have a strong hand, you can go ahead and serve as the picker. However, you can choose to forgo that privilege. This is usually best if you don’t have a good enough hand.

If you don’t think you’ll score over 61 by picking those cards, the player next to you has to pick them. That’s how the round of play will continue until it comes back to the dealer.

However, should you pick the two cards, you would have to drop two from the 6 you had with you before. You can do this by placing your two face-down cards in front of you.

To make the gameplay easier to understand, we’ll be breaking it down based on the different approaches you can take.

Picking a Partner

When picking a partner, table rules demand that you have an Ace card that matches the suit of the non-trump card you’re holding. Now, when you ask for a card, the player with that card automatically becomes your partner.

When the picker (you) chooses a partner, it splits the table into two groups: you and your partner against the other three players.

The player with the highest card value here will win the trick and collect all the cards. They can then begin the next trick and continue the game.

Going Solo or Going Alone

You can opt to play without a partner if you’re confident you have a strong hand. Once you’ve analyzed the situation, table rules require you to declare that you’ll be going it alone.

From that point on, it becomes you against the other four players, and the trick-building begins!

Scoring Your Cards

Once the game is underway, you can then refer to the card point values we highlighted earlier to determine the worth of each of your cards. Knowing this will help you determine the best moves to make in order to increase the cumulative score of your cards.


Sheepshead is a truly fun and entertaining game, whether used in campus card playing or in your game room with friends. That being said, it does take some getting used to.

Unlike card games for younger kids, Sheepshead requires you to be very strategic with your actions. But, if you’re a fan of challenging games and take the time to master that pesky, confusing aspect of card strength, you’re sure to have a blast playing!