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Tonk from TBC Campaign Green Ronin

A game of tonk, depicted in The Black Company Campaign Setting

Goblin looked his over. His eyes got big. He slapped them down face upward. "Tonk! Godddammed tonk. Fifty!" He had dealt himself five royal cards, an automatic win demanding a double payoff.

Croaker, The Black Company, chapter 2

Tonk is a card game played frequently by the mainstays of the Black Company throughout the modern Annals. Croaker the Annalist admits to playing more than ten thousand hands of the game in the roughly 6-year span between the end of his 1st chronicle and the beginning of the 2nd chronicle. Banter between players was typical, and small stakes were common. The wizard One-Eye was infamously bad at the game unless he was cheating, and sometimes squandered large amounts of his ill-gotten wealth. The game was carried thousands of miles south after the Battle of the Barrowland by the remnants of the Company, where it was enthusiastically adopted by the newcomer Taglians. Later it even proved popular among the young recruits from the faraway world of Hsien.

I had been counting hands. They were perfect ticks of the clocks of our lives as brothers of the Black Company. I had played over ten thousand hands since the battle at Charm. Only the gods themselves know how many I played before I started keeping track.

–Croaker, Shadows Linger, chapter 4

Details of gameplay from the Annals[]

Black Company in Iron Lily Serbian Shadows Linger

Goblin (playing tonk), Croaker, and the Captain of the Black Company at the Iron Lily, with Marron Shed in the background, from the Serbian translation of Shadows Linger

Croaker, in Soldiers Live (chapter 47), summarized tonk as follows:

Tonk is one of the simplest games ever invented, rules-wise, but a huge part of it is the table talk that goes along with the actual picking up, discarding and laying down of cards. [...] Wherever the Company stops for fifteen minutes a tonk game soon develops. The tradition began ages before my time. It will persist long after I am gone.

A tonk deck is comprised of the following:

  • Denominations of aces, deuces, treys, fours through nines, and the royal cards of knaves, queens, and kings. The royal cards are each worth 10. In Water Sleeps, Sleepy specifically mentions a "black knave" and a "red queen".
  • Suits, apparently 4 in number, one of which is "swords" according to Murgen in Bleak Seasons ("you've got the eight and ten of swords and to go down you're going to bet your ass on pulling the nine"). In The Black Company, Croaker comically described an awful hand he had just been dealt as "damned near one of Elmo's fabled Pismo straights, or no two cards of the same suit".

Tonk can be played with 3 players, but is better with more.

The mechanics of the game include the following:

  • Each player is dealt 5 cards by the dealer.
  • Players can discard cards, and other players can claim or ignore those discards.
  • A player gets "tonk" when they have five royal cards, which totals 50 points, an automatic win demanding a double payoff.
  • Other automatic wins are: 49 points, or, 15 points and under.

Interpretation and example game[]

The interpretation and pair of example games of tonk, below, were written by John P. Speno and was originally found at: (website now defunct).

A card games for two or more players.

Setup: Using a standard 52 card poker deck, the dealer deals each player five cards. The remaining cards become the draw pile. The top card from the draw pile is placed face up next to the draw pile to become the discard pile. Determine the amount of the payoff. This can be whatever the players wish, i.e. a chip, a quarter, 10 jellybeans, nothing, etc.

Play: Immediately after the deal, all players check for TONK. A player has TONK if the total of the cards in their hands is 15 or less, or greater than 48, i.e. 49 or 50. Each face card [jack, queen, or king] is worth 10, aces are worth 1, and all other cards have a value equal to their number, e.g. a Three of Spades is worth 3. If any person has TONK now, they must yell "Tonk!" and drop their cards to show the other players. Each of the players that doesn't have TONK must pay the player(s) with TONK twice the agreed upon payoff. If no players have TONK, then normal play proceeds to the left of the dealer. N.B. A player can only get TONK immediately after cards have been delt. Later in the game, the value of their hands may be less than 15 or greater than 48, but it isn't a TONK.

Once play has begun, a players has two options to choose from, and can choose one or the other, but not both during their current turn. The first option is called Going Down, and is an attempt to win the game. To go down, the player drops his cards and announces the total value of his cards. If that player has the LOWEST point value, he wins, and all other players pay him the payoff amount. If, however, he doesn't have the lowest point value, then he must pay each player who has a point value that is equal or lower than his own DOUBLE the payoff. Everyone else must pay the person, or persons in case of ties, with the lowest total the normal payoff.

In the second option, the player must take either the top card from the draw pile or the top card from the discard pile into his hand. Afterwards, if a player has three of a kind, four of a kind, or a spread of three or more cards of the same suit in numerical order [order is Ace One Two...Ten Jack Queen King] (like a straight flush) he may put those cards out of his hand in front of him. Cards put out in this manner no longer count towards the total value of the player's hand. Also, a player may add to any spreads already on the table at either end of the spread, even other those in front of other players. A player may not add to three of a kinds already on the table. If a player manages to get rid of all his cards during his turn, he is the winner and all other players pay him the payoff. If any cards remain, the player discards a card onto the discard pile. If discarding leaves the player with no cards, he wins. If he hasn't won, play proceeds to the next player.

Example of play[]

After dealing we have:

Croaker:	10s 8d 8h 5s 4c	= 35
Goblin: 	Kc 10c 3c 2s Ah = 26
Elmo:		Qh 8c 6d 2d 2c	= 28
discard:	5c

After Elmo deals, everyone checks for TONK, but nobody has it. Croaker doesn't want the 5c on the discard pile so he draws from the draw pile getting a 6s, discards his 10s. Goblin draws the Ac, discards his Kc. Elmo draws a 7s, discards Qh. Now we have:

Croaker:	8d 8h 6s 5s 4c	= 31
Goblin: 	10c 3c 2s Ah Ac = 17
Elmo:		8c 7s 6d 2d 2c	= 25
discard:	Qh

Croaker draws the 8s, giving him three of a kind. He puts down the three 8's, and dicards his 6s. Goblin grumbles at Croaker's luck, and draws a 3s. He then discards his 10c. Elmo draws the 7h, discards the 8c. We now have:

Croaker:	5s 4c = 9, On the table: 8h 8d 8s.
Goblin: 	3s 3c 2s Ah Ac = 10
Elmo:		7s 7h 6d 2d 2c = 25
discard:	8c

On his next turn, Croaker announces he is going down with 9. He wins since his total is lower than both Goblin's and Elmo's. They both pay Croaker his money.

Example two[]

Here we have the following hands after a few rounds have gone by:

Croaker:     Qc 10s 9s 6h 5h = 40
Goblin:      Jc 10c 4s 4c As = 29
Elmo:        8s 7h 5d 2d Ad = 23
discard:     Qd

Croaker draws a Js, giving him a spread of Js 10s 9s which he puts down. He discards his Qc. Goblin takes Croakers Qc from the discard pile and puts down his spread of Qc Jc 10c and discards his 4s. Elmo draws a 10h, drops his 8s onto the end of Croaker's run, then discards the 10h he just drew. Now we have:

Croaker:     6h 5h = 11, On the table: Js 10s 9s.
Goblin:      4c As = 5, On the table: Qc Jc 10c.
Elmo:        7h 5d 2d Ad = 15
discard:     Qd

Croaker doesn't think he can beat Goblin since he saw him discard a 4, so he draws and gets the 9h which does him no good so he discards. On this turn, Goblin goes down and wins. Elmo curses his luck.

  • John P. Speno,, Swarthmore College Computing Center
  • "There is no wisdom greater than kindness."