Canasta is a very good card game — especially because it is eminently playable with only two players. Full rules can be found at John McLeod's excellent site, However, I find that some of the standard rules are unsatisfactory and wish to share some of our house rules.

7 Card Rule:
      - When you 'pick up the pack', you only take the top 7 cards
      - You should show everyone the cards you pick up
      - Note that this always uncrosses the pack, even if you don't get the wild

This rule makes a very large difference to play. Without it, picking up the pack has such a massive impact on play that the entire game can revolve around it: once the pack crosses a certain threshold everyone tries desperately not to give the pack to their opponents and this makes it grow even larger until one team picks it up and achieves an almost unstoppable position. Even with this rule picking up the pack is very important, but it is no longer so utterly dominating in the game. I think that this makes many decisions in the game more interesting, it reduces the number of hands where one team gets an unassailable position, and it reduces the effect of luck in the game.

Balance Rule:
      - The team that goes out gets to count all their bonuses as normal
      - The team(s) that don't can only count the bonuses from as many canastas
        as are possessed by the team that goes out

As mentioned above, some games of Canasta reach a point where one team has an unassailable position. Dette and I don't find these positions very fun, especially in the two-player game. This is exacerbated by the fact that it is in the dominant team's interest to prolong the game and not go out, as they can potentially get many natural canastas. We found ourselves just going out anyway in sympathy for the beleaguered opponent(s) instead of maximising our scores. The problem was that good play and fun play differ in such a circumstance. We added this Balance Rule to resolve most such situations, for it makes it risky to have many more canastas than your opponent(s) as you cannot count the bonuses for all of them if the opponent(s) go out. For example, if a team goes out with 2 canastas then the other team(s) can only count the bonuses from 2 canastas each. Note that the team gets to choose which of its canasta bonuses count and will typically choose naturals over unnaturals.

Canasta of 7s Rule:
      - A natural canasta of 7s is worth 700 bonus points (rather than the usual 500)

This little rule was introduced to me by my grandmother, Doreen Ord. It builds on the existing theme of sets of seven in Canasta and has a nice effect on play, breaking some of the symmetry between the different card numbers. It is very rare that anyone actually gets a natural canasta of 7s when this rule is in play, but it still shapes play and provides something special to try for.

Shortened Two-player Rule:
      - In two player games, only one canasta is required in order to go out

We had played with this for years before finding that the standard rules require two canastas in two player games. We tried the official rule for a while, but found the game to be more fun with the less stringent requirement.

Wilds Rule:
      - Don't play with any jokers
      - Red 3s are now wilds that are worth 30 points
      - Modify the points needed to 'go down' as follows:
            - 50 points     (<1,500)
            - 75 points     (<3,000)
            - 100 points   (≥3,000)

This rule is a response to two features of the game that we found frustrating. The first is the huge effect that Jokers have in the late game. When you need many points to 'go down', this becomes very difficult without jokers and quite easy with them. We like the difficulty of going down in the late game, but want it to be more consistent and less luck driven. We therefore considered making jokers worth 30 points and correspondingly lowering the required totals to go down.

We were also dissatisfied with the way that red 3s work. Indeed they seem like the kind of rule that would be made up for a children's game: they are superficially fun and exciting bonuses, but when you have been playing for a while, you see that they mostly just provide random swings in the score, which is an unsatisfying way to win and an unsatisfying way to lose.

We decided to kill two birds with one stone by removing jokers from the deck and having red 3s function as a wild card worth 30 points. They are thus like 2s in every way except that they are worth 30 points rather than 20 points. This change requires a slight downward adjustment to the points requirements for going down, so we lowered these totals to those above, which have the added bonus of being easy to remember. This rule simplifies the game and makes it more skill-based.

Update: We tried this rule a couple of times but were dissatisfied with the games, which seemed a bit mechanical. Perhaps the variability and 'sugar' of the red threes is needed? Perhaps we just weren't in the right mood. I'm not sure.