For years before the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been a treasured tradition at annual family reunions, said Marblehead resident Walter Carl.
Members of the family young and old would break out the playing cards and do battle in Hand & Foot, a version of the game Canasta.
Indeed, part of the allure of Hand & Foot is that players can compete across generations. There’s an element of skill, but luck affects players’ fortunes as well, Carl explained.
So, when the pandemic rendered an in-person reunion impossible, the family began a quest to see if their card game could be salvaged. Surely, someone had created an online or app-based version of the game that would feed their jones, they thought.
But one of the reasons people enjoy Hand & Foot is that there are myriad ways to customize the rules. As with the first two beds Goldilocks tried, nothing the family could find was just right, Carl said.
“My family’s very particular in how they like to play the game,” he said.
So, around August 2020, Carl set to work. After sketching out the game he wanted to see in the world, Carl hired a visual designer to help with the graphics and user interface.
The prototype launched — initially only within Carl’s family — just in time for Thanksgiving 2020.
But they had so much fun, Carl decided to share his creation with the world. Now, two-plus years later, Carl’s Hand & Foot Friends & Family Edition (HFFE) website, hffe.fun, has given rise to a vibrant community — mostly based across the U.S. and Canada — members of which compete in daily and monthly tournaments or just play with friends new and old.
To the complete Canasta neophyte, the rules — and in particular the lingo — of Hand & Foot may seem a bit daunting. What does it mean to “meld”? What are the special rules that apply to the black and red threes?
To help new users up and over the learning curve, Carl has created a training section on the website with instructional videos.
Carl acknowledges that his online version of Hand & Foot does not yet have every customization under the sun, though new options and variations are being added slowly but steadily. To prioritize the customizations, Carl said he is listening to his loyal players.
Carl was able to undertake this project because, in his professional life, he has worked extensively with developers to create technological platforms to conduct market research.
But Hand & Foot is not an easy game to explain to someone who has not played it.
“You have to play one or two rounds to get your head around it,” Carl said.
It took a bit more time than he initially anticipated to translate the rules into code so that the game both worked correctly and looked good, Carl acknowledged.
But once his family had given the game their imprimatur, Carl was eager to roll it out to a wider audience. With the permission of the pages’ moderators, he began to market his online version of Hand & Foot in Facebook groups populated by Canasta enthusiasts.
Carl said the goal has never been to amass the largest group of Hand & Foot players but rather to appeal to the discerning player who would appreciate the user interface, including its robust capacity for keeping track of players’ statistics.
Carl added he was also hoping to attract the best players to his site’s tournaments, providing an opportunity for players looking to put their skills to the test.
“For the most part, we have succeeded,” Carl said.
In all, about 1,700 people have signed up and started a game on the site, while there may be on average about 100 daily users, according to Carl.
Just because HFFE has managed to attract a high caliber of players does not mean that brand new players should feel like they would be walking into a lion’s den, Carl stressed. The site has a “coaching tool” to help guide new players through their first game. And if they find that navigating the site is a challenge, they can reach out to Carl.
“I’m the support team as well,” he said.
The game itself does not have a live chat feature — at least not yet, Carl said, noting that adding such a forum “can lead to some trouble in an online environment,” especially given how quickly online discourse can devolve.
But the lack of a chat feature has not stopped a community from forming, especially as participants in the monthly tournaments text one another to coordinate their schedules.
A particularly popular feature of the site is its daily “duplicate” tournaments, in which all of the players are dealt the same cards and then compete against the same automated “bot” opponent.
“It removes the luck factor and leaves just the skill of the player,” Carl said.
There is nothing on the line aside from bragging rights, yet players keep coming back to see if they post the day’s best point total, Carl said. Almost half of the games played on the site are the “duplicate” variation, according to Carl.
While there is a free version of Hand & Foot Friends & Family Edition — after a 30-day trial period, users can keep playing by viewing ads between rounds — Carl said most of the game’s regular users have chosen to pay a nominal fee of either $1.29 a month or, much more frequently, the annual subscription of $9.99. The revenue helps offset the cost of the server to keep the games running, Carl said.
Through its “Play It Forward” social giving program, HFFE encourages users to sponsor an annual subscription for a player in a nursing home or 65 or older so they can play the game with their family and friends.
Carl has good reason to believe that HFFE can bridge both generational and geographical gaps, as he has seen happen in his own family.
During the darkest days of the COVID-19 lockdown, HFFE was just one of many online card games people used to pass the time. Some of those games are no longer around. That HFFE is still here, even after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, is a point of pride for Carl.
“It’s great to see the game has had some staying power,” he said.