There’s a card game that I play with my Dad whenever I see him. It’s special because it is ‘our game’. We’ve got a rhythm, some in-jokes and a regular patter of banter. It’s also special because everyone else refuses to play it.

The game is Brigadier. It’s a 2-player card game that plays in 30-60 minutes. Taking turns, two players try to get rid of their deck of cards by placing cards out in rising foundation piles of each suit (from Ace upwards) and on holding tableau piles (from any card downwards and alternating suit colours). Find out how to play Brigadier here.

There are many things that make Brigadier great: the tricky card moves you have to work out in your head, the mixture of luck and skill, the potential for placing out a run of cards, the fun of giving penalties to your opponent and the requirement to put yourself in your opponents shoes… But the thing that sets this game apart – and also the reason that so many people refuse to play – is The Knock!

In Brigadier there is an absolute requirement to place cards on foundation piles if you are able to. You MUST do whatever you can to make the move to get the cards out from the tableau piles and onto the foundation piles. There are eight foundation piles – two in each suit – as the game is played with two decks. There are also eight tableau piles of descending cards, each splayed outwards so you can see all the cards underneath.

So let’s say one of the foundation piles has an 8 of spades at the top. The next card will be the 9 of spades. You must look for this card in the foundation piles (and in your own two piles – your deck and claw). If you see it, you must try to manipulate the cards to get it out. You may only move one card at a time. There may be 8 foundation piles, all looking for the next card. So you’ve got to really keep track of what cards are needed at any one time. If you are able to get a card onto a foundation pile, but you do something else instead, the other player can knock the table. That’s ‘The Knock’.

It’s just a knock on the table, like you would knock on a door. But this simple mechanism is enough to strike fear into the hearts of Brigadier players. You do everything you can to avoid The Knock. Of course, if you are seen to make a wrong move, you can be Knocked. So you have to work out where all the cards will go in your head, rather than playing around with moving them on the table, before you commit to a move. “Hmmm, there’s a Jack of Diamonds buried under that big run of cards… I have two spaces that I can move cards into, that will get me up to the red 8… then I can place the 9 on my rival’s claw and move the 10 over onto the other Jack – freeing up the card I need.” It’s all in the head.

The Knock is a sign that you have failed. An observation you failed to make, or a leap of logic you failed to recognise. The Knock shows your weakness as a player. So you always want to avoid it. But it’s more than that. The Knock is the sign that your opponent is better than you. Your opponent saw what you missed, or that they calculated what you couldn’t. The Knock is a double-whammy. If you do fall victim to The Knock – to add insult to injury – your opponent takes over your turn, like a patronising boss showing you how to do your work.

The tension that you could be Knocked pervades the whole game. There are moments in the game where the tension is released – as there are no cards in tableau piles which can go into foundations. But there are more moments where you’re pretty sure that you can’t get that pesky 10 out, but you’re not absolutely sure. The time you decide to move on and flip over your next card is the most tense moment as you’re bracing yourself for The Knock. 

Trying to Knock and avoiding being Knocked is the real game here. Turns in Brigadier can be quite long – when one player is on a streak or when they have acquired loads of free spaces to move cards into. But the opportunity to Knock keeps the passive player very much involved in the game. It’s a stroke of genius. 

The passive player can employ all sorts of tactics to lure the active player into The Knock: fraying nerves by flinching and preparing your fist, hand hovering over the table, distracting them with light-hearted chat, offering a top up of wine, or drawing attention to an entirely different card. It’s the classic bluff, hiding steely concentration.

Officially, you win brigadier if you are the first player to get rid of all your cards. Dad and I couldn’t care less who wins as there’s quite a lot of luck involved in the final outcome. But we care very much about who has the ‘moral victory’ – the person who gives the most Knocks. If I take the moral victory, Dad always blames his age (83) and failing mental capacity (still very sharp) and sometimes sleeps very poorly as a result. But we’re pretty evenly matched, which is what makes each game so tense. It could go either way. 

I’d love to see The Knock, or something similar, in more games. If you know of games that employ similar tactics, do let me know. 

Dad came to visit at the weekend. He won Brigadier, but we each had one Knock. So we could both sleep soundly.