Card Game: Khanquest

by connal on December 29, 2009



Most of the traditional Mongolian games of skill and chance are played with the ankle bones of sheep (and therefore difficult to recreate outside a ger). However we did learn a card game while staying with a nomadic family out on the Mongolian steppe and in our attempt to spread Mongol culture, we’ve included the rules below.

It’s a great game with a tricky strategy that definitely takes a few games to pick up. We’ve taught it to our family in South Korea and after 2 games to get the jist of it, they love it! This is definitely becoming a new family card came. 😀

Object of the Game
The winner is the first person to get rid of all the cards in their hand.

Ranking of Cards
“Big” Joker – “Small” Joker – A – 2 – 3 – K – Q – J – T – 9 – 8 – 7

The 4 – 5 – 6 are removed from the deck. Also, the Jokers in a deck sometimes vary slightly in some way (often by color or size of image) – just chose one of the two to be the “big” or stronger one. If there is no difference, put a small sticker, piece of tape or sharpie-mark on one.

This game also utilizes a randomly chosen “trump” suit at the start of each game which beats all others. For example, if the trump suit is clubs (♣) a K would beat an 8 but any club would beat any non-trump suit, so a 7♣ would beat the K. Within the trump suit, normal game ranking applies, so a 2♣ would beat K♣ and the Jokers beat all, so the Small Joker beats any trump or non-trump card and the Big Joker beats the small Joker.

Number of Players
3 to 5 (though it seems to work best with 3)

The Deal
The game can be played by dealing 5 or 7 cards to each player. (We only played the 5-card version. Until you get the hang of the game, start with that one.)

Who Goes First?
Once the cards have been shuffled, each player picks up any number of cards from the top of the deck, and shows the card on the bottom of the stack that they picked up. Players do not return the cards to the stack until everyone has picked up at least one card. The highest ranking card goes first (according to the game rank – so a 3 would beat a King). Cards are then returned to the deck (when we played the game, the cards were not necessarily replaced in the exact order in which they were picked up). The player to go first then deals the cards.

Playing the Game
Deal 5 cards to each player then place the remaining card stack on the table. Take the top card from the stack, turn it face up and place it at the bottom of the stack, turned 90° from the rest of the cards (so it forms a ‘T’) – this is just so it can be seen. The rank of the card is not important, but the suit becomes the “Trump” suit and will beat all other suits.

Player 1 now has the option of playing either a single card or, if he has a pair, he may play the pair along with one additional card (for example: K K 9♠). Whether 1 or 3 cards are played, the cards are laid face up on the table. The turn of Player 1 is now over, if he has less than 5 cards in his hand, he draws cards from the deck until his hand is back up to 5.

Player 2 now has to either “beat” the cards on the table or “lose” the battle and take them. To “beat” the card, one must place a higher ranking card of the same suit on top of it. If Player 1 put down three cards (for example: K K 9♠) then Player 2 has to beat the K with a higher ranking diamond, the K with a higher ranking heart, and the 9♠ with a higher ranking spade. If a player does not have a higher ranking card of the correct suit, then he is unable to beat is (unless he choses to play a trump suit card or one of the two Jokers).

If a player is unable to beat all of the cards on the table, then he must pick up all the cards and add them to his hand – even if a player can beat two of the three cards, it is still considered a loss and the player must pick up all three.

If Player 2 is unable to beat the cards and picks them up his turn is over and Player 3 begins with a clean table and is free to play 1 or 3 cards.

If Player 2 is able to beat the cards, then his turn is over and Player 3 must now beat the cards Player 2 has put on the table. If Player 3 is unable to beat the cards, he picks up the cards laid down by both Player 1 and 2.

If Player 3 is able to beat the cards of Player 2, then the cards on the table are turned face down and removed from play. Player 3 then starts with a clean table and is free to play 1 or 3 cards.

End of the Game
Players keep drawing cards after each turn (assuming that they have less than 5 in their hand) until the deck is gone. All the cards will be drawn, including the final “trump suit” card which is face up on the bottom.  Once the deck is gone, play continues until one player is out of cards.

If a Player has less than 3 cards in their hand, all other Players must put down only single cards on an open table, not 3.

Winning the Game
The winner of the game is the first person to get rid off all the cards in their hand. It is possible to win by either putting down your final card(s) on an open table, or by using your final card(s) to beat the cards another Player has laid down.

General Strategy + Other Notes
A very important tip to the game is that players never have to play any card in their hand, even if they are able to:

  • If you have a pair in your hand, you are not obligated to play it when you start an open table – you may lay down a single card instead.
  • You are not obligated to beat the cards on the table, even if you are able to. You may choose to “lose” the battle and pick up the cards, rather than use (and thus lose) the strong cards that are in your hand.

There’s a balance between using too many strong cards early in the game (thus having none left for the end) and not using your strong cards, thereby losing battles and winding up with too many cards in your hand as the end of the game approaches.

Another tip is that it’s not always best to put down 3 cards, even if you have a pair available. When and why to play 3 only becomes clear after a few games, but don’t feel obligated.

Anytime a player puts down cards (either on an open table or in beating existing cards) if he is left with fewer than 5 cards in his hand at the end of his turn he should draw enough to bring the total back up to 5. Because Players will add cards to their hands when they lose a battle, it is not always necessary to pick up any cards and the end of a turn.

The 7-card version of the game is almost identical to the 5. The only difference is that players are dealt 7 cards and a player may put down one or two pairs and a single card, not just one pair and a single card.

Why “Khanquest”
The truth is that we made up the name. We asked our translator several times what the name of the game was – each time phrasing the question differently to make sure that we were understanding each other – but each time he just replied that the name was “Playing Cards.” Mongols tend to be pretty literal with their naming. For example, though horses are absolutely central to Mongol life, history and culture, they don’t give them names (like Alexander the Great’s “Bucephalus”), but rather call them by color. They have hundreds of descriptive color names for horses, so it’s not that names are unimportant – they just tend to be literal.

“Khanquest” seemed appropriate for a number of reasons. Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire (the largest empire in the history of the world) was an amazing strategist and almost always fought (and bested) armies that were larger than his own (often significantly larger). The card game was clearly described to us a battle, and after a few games one finds that winning early battles or by dominating an opponent in a battle (rather than using just enough strength to win) is no guarantee of overall success. One has to balance their play throughout the game to wind up victorious at the end.

We hope you like the game – we’ve been having a blast playing it – and if there are any points that need clarification, feel free to email.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Taylor Wright December 29, 2009 at 10:19 am

Sounds fun, I can’t wait to play. For the 7 card version of the game, would you still keep the 4 – 5 – 6 cards out of play?


2 Ty December 30, 2009 at 3:47 pm

The name is well chosen, brother!


3 connal December 31, 2009 at 7:52 pm

I’m pretty sure the 4-5-6 are always out of play. Also, I’ve made a slight addendum to the instructions. It can play with up to 5 but I think it plays best with 3 people. With 3 people you can use a lot more strategy on your final moves. With 4 or more it comes down to a bit of a crap shoot.


4 Eun-mi December 31, 2009 at 10:43 pm

Nice one !


5 Alexander October 10, 2011 at 5:42 am

I had a Mongolian girlfriend in the mid 1990s (who I completely lost touch with unfortunately; no real street addresses in Uulaan Bator make it hard to correspond with anyone!). She taught me a version of this game. We often played it as a two-player game, though three was better. I also seem to remember that to play three cards, they all had to be of the same rank or at least in order; four cards could be played, either four of a kind, two pairs or in sequence, and I think, but can’t be certain, that the equivalent of a full-house or straight was allowed as well (no flushes I think). I don’t remember if for the straights whether they had to be of the same suit or not. I truly wish I had written down the rules… thanks for listing this, because it definitely is a related variant. We may have also started out with a differing number of card depending on the number of players, perhaps two starting out with 13.


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