Sap Ng Wu 十五湖 Climbing games

Sap Ng Wu 十五湖 Climbing games

Sap Ng Wu十五湖


The name of this Chinese game 十五湖 (Sap Ng Wu in Cantonese or Shi Wu Hu in Mandarin) appears to mean '15 lakes', but the last word 湖 (wu) must in this context also mean a winning card, since the main objective is to be the first to have 15 wu, i.e. 15 winning cards. It is a climbing game for three (or sometimes four) players using a pack of 84 Chinese domino cards known as '15 lakes playing-cards': 十五湖紙牌.

Unfortunately none of the descriptions of this game we have found so far is entirely complete. Also there are several inconsistencies between the various accounts, and it seems clear that a few different versions of the game exist in different parts of China. However, between them the descriptions give enough information to be fairly sure how at least some versions of the game are played, and to identify a number of variations and some alternative names of the game.

The first part of this page describes a version played in Hong Kong. In the variations section we describe similar games from other parts of China.

I would like to thank Anthony Kam, Anthony Smith, 'The Suffocated' and Dmytro Polovinkin for contributing descriptions and helping me to find and interpret the Internet sources.

Players and Cards

This game is normally for three players, but it is also possible for four to play. As in most Chinese games, deal and play are counter-clockwise.

It is played with a pack of 84 Chinese domino cards, showing all the 21 possible combinations of two numbers from 1 to 6, with four copies of each card in the pack. The cards are long and narrow with spots corresponding to the two numbers at both ends. As on Chinese domino tiles, all the ones and fours are shown with red dots, and half the dots on the 6-6 card are red. All other dots are black.


Cards like those illustrated above are made in Hong Kong. Note that the central spot of the 5's overlaps the four corner spots, causing the 5 to coalesce into a single blob. Other domino card designs are found in other parts of China

It would be possible, though unwieldy, to play this game with domino tiles. Four identical domino sets would need to be combined and the unneeded tiles discarded. Note that in the deck used for this game each card is present in equal quantity (4 of each), unlike the tiles in a normal Chinese domino set in which 11 of the 21 different tiles are duplicated to make a set of 32.

Suits, Ranking and Valid Combinations

The cards are divided into three unequal suits. The ranks from high to low in each suit are as follows:

Civil suit (文子)6:6
Military suit (武子)group 1
group 23:6

The civil suit is the same as in domino games such as Tien Gow, but the military cards are divided into two suits. Group 1 has all the military cards that include red spots plus the 2:6 (straight eight) and group 2 has the remaining military cards (all black).

Each Military suit has a 9-spot card, an 8-spot, a 7-spot and a 5-spot card, and in addition group 1 has the two cards of the 'supreme pair' 2:4 and 1:2. A table showing all the cards with their Chinese names and ranking is included in the Glossary.

Single suit combinations

The cards can be played singly or in sets of 2, 3 or 4 identical cards. A single card can only be beaten by a higher single card of the same suit, and a set can only be beaten by a higher set from the same suit: the higher set must contain the same number of identical cards as the set to be beaten. For example 5:65:6 can be beaten by 1:31:3 but not by 3:53:5 (wrong suit) and not by 4:46:6 (not an identical pair) and not by 5:55:55:5 (too many cards).

Mixed suit combinations

Civil cards can also be played in combination with military cards of the corresponding rank as follows:

In such a combination there must always be at least one civil card. 1:12:6, 1:13:5 and 1:12:63:5 are legal combinations, but 2:63:5 is not. Provided that at least one civil card is present, there can be any number of military cards of the corresponding rank in any combination. In this way it is possible to play as many as 12 cards together.

A mixed combination of this sort can only be beaten by a mixed combination of higher rank with the same mixture of suits. For example in order to beat 1:31:31:42:32:3 it would be necessary to play a set of 5 cards of a higher rank, consisting of two civil, one military group 1 and two military group 2, such as 1:11:12:63:53:5. It could not be beaten by 4:44:44:42:53:43:4 (too many cards) nor by 1:11:12:62:63:5 (wrong mix of suits) nor by 6:66:62:63:53:5 (invalid combination: ranks do not correspond).

Supreme combination

The cards 2:4 and 1:2 together form a combination called 'supreme' (至尊) which is unbeatable, but cannot beat any other combination. A supreme combination can include any number of 2:4 and 1:2 cards provided that there is at least one of each present.


The first dealer is selected by any convenient random method. Subsequently the winner of each hand deals the next.

As in many oriental card games, the cards are not really 'dealt' in the Western sense. Instead, after the pack has been shuffled, stacked and then spread face down on the table so that the cards overlap. Beginning with the dealer and continuing anticlockwise, each player takes the top card and adds it to the hand until all the cards have been taken. So in the 3-player game each player will have a hand of 28 cards and with 4 players each will have 21.


Before the play begins, any player who has a supreme combination (a set of 4:2's and 2:1's that includes at least one of each) may lay it face up on the table. It counts as that number of wu.

Then the dealer plays any card or valid combination face up on the table.

Each player in turn may either beat the latest play with a higher card or valid combination (which must be the same number of cards in the same suits but higher in ranks as described above) or pass.

When all players but one pass in succession, the player of the final and highest card or combination places the winning card(s) face up in front of them, and each of these cards counts as one wu towards the total of 15 needed to win. Any cards or combinations that were beaten are set aside. This winning player then begins again by playing any card or valid combination, which the other players in turn may beat.

Endgame and Scoring

A player who collects 15 or more face up winning cards in front of them can declare a win - this is called 食湖 (sik wu) which means 'eating the winning cards' (or the lake). The play ends and the winner receives payment from the other players. The basic payment is 1 chip for 15-17 wu, 2 chips for 18-20 wu, 3 chips for 21-23 wu, 4 chips for 24-26 wu or 5 chips for 27-28 wu.

A win can only be declared immediately after acquiring extra wu. Instead of declaring a win, the player can continue playing in the hope of winning more chips. But in that case the player cannot declare a win until they accumulate enough wu to increase the number of chips they win, and there is the risk that another player may declare a win before them.

For example if player A has 15 wu but decides to continue playing and acquires 2 more wu, they cannot declare a win at this point. Having continued with 15, player A now needs at least 18 wu to declare. If player B achieves 15 wu and declares a win before A reaches 18, player B wins and player A has to pay.

Winning with 4 of a kind. If a player plays four identical cards together (either alone or as part of a larger combination) and these are not beaten and so become wu, each of the other players immediately pays them 1 chip.

8-card supreme. An 8-card supreme combination - that is all four 2:4's and all four 1:2's - counts double: 16 wu instead of just 8. So by placing it on the table before the play begins the lucky owner can declare a win immediately. Alternatively they can allow the play to begin and try to collect 18 or more wu for a larger win, but as usual they then risk losing if another player collects 15 wu before they reach 18.

If a player runs out of cards, they miss their turn to play and the game continues between the other players. If a player uses their last cards to win some wu but does not declare a win, they will then have no card to play to continue the game. The turn then passes to the next player to the right to play any card or valid combination. If all players run out of cards and no one has declared a win, there are no payments and the same player remains the dealer.


Here are some of the technical terms used in the game. In Hong Kong the Cantonese pronunciations of the characters are used.

十五湖sap6 ng5 wu4shi3 wu3 hu215 'lakes' (the name of the game)
十五湖紙牌sap6 ng5 wu4 ji2 paai4shi3 wu3 hu2 zhi3 pai215 'lakes' playing-cards (the 84-card deck)
wu4hu2a winning card
文子man4 ji2wen2 zi3civilian suit
武子mou5 ji2wu3 zi3military suits
至尊ji3 jyun1zhi4 zun1supreme
食湖sik6 wu4shi2 hu2declare a win ('eat winning cards')

The cards also have nicknames, some of which are based on an interpretation of the shape made by the dots. Below the image of each card is the nickname in English, Chinese characters, Cantonese, Mandarin, and then the identity of the card.

big head 6 big chicken 6大頭六 大雞六daai6 tau4 luk6 daai6 gai1 luk6
small nail pheasant small chicken 3么釘山雞么雞三mo1 deng1 saan1 gai1 mo1 gai1 saam1
plum flower梅花mui4 fa1
long 3s長衫cheung4 saam1
bench板凳baan2 dang3
axe斧頭fu2 tau4
red head 10紅頭十hung4 tau4 sap6
long leg 7高腳七gou1 geuk3 chat1
plum flower 6 ? ?梅花六伶淋六拎冧六mui4 fa1 luk6 ling4 lam4 luk6 ling1 lam1 luk6

The main description above is our best effort so far to reconstruct the way the game is played in Hong Kong. I would very much like to hear from any players who can verify whether this description is correct or help to put right any errors. It is based on references 1, 2 and 3. Although the system of declaring a win for 15, 18, 21, etc. wu is clear, none of the sources explains the actual payments, so we have assumed that these cost 1, 2, 3, etc. chips respectively. Also the payment for winning with 4 of a kind is not explicit, so we assumed 1 chip.

It seems quite possible that all payments to or from the dealer should be doubled, as happens for example in Tien Gow and Mah Jong, but since none of the sources mentions this we have omitted it from the main description.

Anthony Kam's description (reference 3) says that the ranking of the cards is the same as in Tien Gow, without giving further details. Taken literally, this would imply that there are only two suits (civil and military) and that the different types of 9, 8, 7 and 5 are considered equivalent, so that there would effectively be 8 of each of these cards. Since both the other descriptions disagree with this we have assumed that this was an oversight in 3.

The descriptions we have seen give no information about what happens if players run out of cards or if no one declares a win. We have therefore made what seem reasonable assumptions: if a player has no cards to play the turn passes to the next player, and if no one declares a win there are no payments.

Wu Han games

References 4 and 5 describe a related game or games played in Hubei province, in or near Wu Han. These are also climbing games in which the main object is to have 15 winning cards.

In the game described in 4 the military cards are divided into two suits depending on whether they have red spots, so the 2:6 (straight 8) belongs to the black military suit, which therefore has two 8's, and the red military suit consists just of the military cards containing 4's and/or 1's, namely 4:5, 3:4, 2:4, 1:4, 1:2. The play of the cards is similar to the Hong Kong game, including laying out supreme combinations before the play begins, but in this game a player is obliged to beat the previous play if they are able to. There seem to be a lot of bonus scores for having particular cards or combinations among one's winning cards, but the details are unclear.

Reference 5 describes a Wu Han game simply known as 'long cards' (硬顿: cháng pái). In this game the card ranking is different. The cards are divided into suits according to whether they are entirely red, entirely black or mixed colours. A card with more spots beats a card with fewer spots of the same suit, but also a red card can beat a black card with equally many or fewer spots. One, two or three identical cards can be led together, and if a set of 2 or 3 cards is led, the same number of identical higher ranked cards are needed to beat it. The 6:6 card is an exception. Apparently, a 6:6 can only be played in combination with a 1:2 card, and this is the highest pair of the mixed suit.

Si Chuan game

References 6 and 7 describe a games played in Si Chuan province, where the cards are known as 川牌 (chuānpái: Si Chuan cards). The name of the game is 乱戳 (luàn chuō), which appears to mean something like 'random poke'. The descriptions do not make it completely clear that this is a climbing game. They do not mention that a player who does not beat the previous play passes without playing cards, but neither do they say that when not beating cards one must throw away an equal number of cards, which is the case in a trick-taking game such as Tien Gow. Also both references include rules that imply that the players will often be holding different numbers of cards from each other, which is inconsistent with a normal a trick-taking game in which everyone should run out of cards together at the end of the last trick.

  • In the civil suit (主牌: zhǔ pái), the top four cards as usual are 6:6, 1:1, 4:4, 1:3. The 1:3 in this game is not a goose, but is called 和 (hé), which can mean peace or harmony. The next three cards 5:5, 3:3 and 2:2 are all equal in rank - none of them can beat the others. They are called 中三 (zhōng sān: middle three) or 中山 (zhōng shān: central mountains). The lowest four civil cards 5:6, 4:6, 1:6 and 1:5 are also all equal to each other, and are called 下幺 (xià yāo: lower youngest) or 下烂 (xià làn: low and rotten).
  • The 2:4 and 1:2 in this game are called 硬张 (yìng zhāng: hard cards). They are placed face up in front of the player before the play begins and count as points (张: zhāng). Apparently they do not have to form a combination.
  • The remaining military cards (副牌: fù pái)are divided into two suits according to whether or not they have red spots. As in the first Wu Han game the black military suit 3:6, 2:6, 3:5, 2:5, 2:3 therefore has two 8's, which are equal in rank. The red military suit has only three cards: 4:5, 3:4 and 1:4.

There are normally four players at the table. The player sitting opposite the dealer/starter shuffles the cards but takes no part in the play. Each player takes 27 cards, and the last three remain face-down as a talon (底牌: dǐ pái: bottom cards). The dealer has the opportunity to take this talon: if the dealer does not want it, the opportunity passes to the other two players in turn. One might expect that the player who takes these extra cards should have some extra obligation, but the source does not mention this.

As usual cards can be played singly, in groups of identical cards, or in groups consisting of at least one civil card accompanied by one or more military cards of equivalent rank. An exception is that the lowest civil cards (xià yāo or xià làn) can never be played singly, only as sets of two or more identical cards.

The scoring is in points (张: zhāng) and multipliers (番: fān). 16 or more winning cards are needed to win the game. Each winning card in excess of 15 scores 1 point. The player gets one multiplier for winning, plus an extra multiplier for set of three identical winning cards played together, and 2 extra multipliers for each set of four. The winner's score is their points multiplied by their total multipliers. If no one achieves 16 winning cards there is no score - this situation is known as 'yellow cards' (黄牌: huáng pái).

The game is sometimes played with four extra cards known as 财神 (cái shén: gods of wealth). Each of these cards is worth an extra multiplier.

The above is based on reference 7. Reference 8 describes what is probably a version of the same game (it has the same name), but in less detail. There are some definite differences in this version:

  • There is no talon: each player takes 28 cards.
  • A player who does not have the highest card in any suit (no 6:6, no 3:6 and no 4:5) can demand a redeal.
  • 2:4 and 1:2 cards can only be laid out for points at the start only in a set that includes at least one of each.
  • A player can claim a win with 15 or more winning cards - here called 墩 (dūn: pillar), scoring 1 point for 15 plus 1 for each additional dūn, plus 1 more point for 21 or more dūn, and another for every 2 extra dūn beyond 21. So 20 dūn scores 6, 21 scores 8, 22 scores 9, 23 scores 11 and so on. It is explicitly mentioned that a player need not claim a win but can continue playing in the hope of increasing their scorebefore another player claims a win.
  • The score is doubled if the winner has played a set of 3 identical winning cards of any of the top four ranks of the civil suit {6:6, 1:1, 4:4, or 1:3 or quadrupled for a set of 4 of these.

Mā Huā Huā - a 48-card game from Northwest China.

This game, whose name 抹花花 seems to mean 'Wiping Flowers', is known to us only from its Wikipedia page (reference 8), according to which it is played in Northwest China, especially in Shaanxi, Ningxia and Gansu. It can be played by three people or by four with players taking turns to sit out.

A 48-card pack is used. There are four each of the 'sky cards' 6:6, 1:1, 4:4, 5:5, 3:3, 2:2, 5:6, 4:6, 1:6 and 1:5, and only two each of the 'bull cards' 3:6 and 2:6 and of the 'happy cards' 2:4 and 1:2. The 1:3 and the remaining military cards are missing from the deck.

Each player draws 16 cards. If all agree the deal can be abandoned and the turn to start passes to the next player, but if any player insists on playing the hand must be played. The starter speaks first, then if the starter does not wish to play the second player is asked, and if neither of the first two wishes to play the third player can choose whether the hand should be played or the cards thrown in.

Cards may be played in groups of 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 or 12. A group can be a set of identical cards (only possible up to 4 cards) or any one of a number of special groups, which are:

  • Happy cards: 2:4 and 1:2. The group must presumably contain at least one of each card, and so can have 2, 3 or 4 cards in total.
  • Bull cards: 3:6 and 2:6. Again, a set of 2, 3 or 4 of these cards containing at least one of each.
  • Pendulum (擺牌: bǎi pái): a group of three cards 4:4, 5:5 and 6:6
  • Fish (魚牌: yú pái): a group of three cards 1:1, 2:2 and 3:3
  • Expanded pendulum: a set of six cards, all of which are 4:4, 5:5 or 6:6, including at least one of each
  • Expanded fish: a set of six cards, all of which are 1:1, 2:2 or 3:3, including at least one of each

The source does not explain what groups of 8 or 12 cards can be played. Perhaps they are expanded pendulums or fish with more cards of the same type.

The first player leads any card or valid combination, and the other players may beat it in turn with a higher combination of the same number of cards. A set of happy cards cannot be beaten if led, but cannot beat any other set of cards. The remaining cards and sets rank in order from high to low in the order 6:6 > Bull cards > Pendulum > Fish > Other cards. The 'other cards' probably rank in the normal order with civil beating military, as this is the order in which the source lists them, so 1:1>4:4>5:5>3:3>2:2>5:6>4:6>1:6>1:5>3:6>2:6>2:4>1:2.

Sets can only beat other sets when they contain the correct number of cards. So for example 1:11:11:1 can be beaten by a fish 1:12:23:3 which can be beaten by a pendulum 4:45:56:6 which can be beaten by a bull group such as 2:62:63:6. A pair 1:11:1 cannot be beaten by a fish or pendulum as they contain the wrong number of cards, but could be beaten by a bull 2:63:6 or a pair of sky 6:66:6.

For sets of six cards the source says 'Expanded pendulum > Expanded fish > Other cards' but it is not clear what other sets of 6 cards are possible, since there are only 4 copies of each card in the deck. An expanded pendulum with more spots beats one with fewer spots and the same for expanded fish.

Exceptionally, a set of all four 6:6's beats any other combination of cards, irrespective of the number of cards in the combination.

The payment system is unclear. There are the winning cards known here as 墩 (dūn: pillars), the points scored known as 點 (diǎn: points), and two levels of winning described as one or two 家 (jiā: families). From 6 to 10 pillars a player scores 1 point and wins one family. With 11 or more pillars a player scores 4 points plus an extra point for each pillar in excess of 11 and wins two families. A player who wins two families can end the play. In addition a player scores 1 point for each winning set of happy cards, 1 point for each winning set of bull cards and 2 points for each winning set of 4 identical cards.

So it seems that there can be more than one winner, at least if the play continues to the end of the cards and more than one player has at least 6 pillars. Also, if a player ends the play with two families, there could also be another player with one family, which is said to be 'enough' (夠: gòu). We could speculate that if there is only one winner, each other player pays them the number of points they have scored; if there are two winners the loser pays each of them for what they have scored; and if there are three winners there is no payment.

Another possibility could be that each pair of players settles up according to the difference between their scores, but that does not seem to give adequate weight to the statement that 6 pillars are 'enough'.


  1. Chinese Wikipedia page十五湖 (Sap Ng Wu)
  2. Hong Kong Radio article on the history of gaming (archive copy)
  3. E-mail contribution from Anthony Kam, who obtained a description from the father of a friend in Hong Kong.
  4. GuanDan website 武汉撮牌 (WuHan card game) (archive copy)
  5. Günther SENST and Anthony SMITH: Luik Fu, Cháng Pái and other East Asian Trick-Taking Games in The Playing-Card Vol XXIV no 4 pp116-118 (1996)
  6. Chinese Wikipedia page亂戳 (game from Si Chuan)
  7. 杨玉茹. 潘仲秋: 棋牌竞赛与规则 pp248-251 (乱戳 / LuanChuo : game from Si Chuan)
  8. Chinese Wikipedia page抹花花 (48-card game: MaHuaHua)