How to win Set

To find sets in Set,

  • use your naturally powerful visual pattern recognition to scan the board holistically
  • If one feature is very common, systematically analyze only that subset
  • continue analysis when sets are being removed and cards are being dealt
  • anticipate useful cards or categories before they are dealt
  • analyze new boards starting from fresh cards
  • develop a method for finding difficult sets on nearly deadlocked boards

Set is one of those fun casual card games that anyone in the family can play. It’s definitely not a game that’s supposed to be studied, practiced, and mastered. Doesn’t matter, did it anyway!
My win percentage in real life was fairly high for a while (close to 60%, average group size 4). It wasn’t because I could find every set quickly as sets are naturally harder to spot than others. No, I played antagonistically, ensuring I found type kind of set faster than anyone else.

There are 4 features on every card, and interestingly the features seem unevenly weighed for most people. From most to least significant: number, color, shape, shading. I adopted the same order to try to outrace my opponents. Sets can match in 3 features (easiest to spot), 2, 1, or 0 features (hardest to spot).

Consider this example.

Use your vision. Don’t focus on one card at a time. Let the entire board wash over your visual field and your brain will automatically spot features that are more common and naturally yield the easy sets. Ovals, Three, One, Hollow is what I think in a fraction of a second.

Explicitly check large subsets. There so many ovals (7) that I ignore the other 5 and check all the combinations. With 4 Three ovals, I’m sure there’s a set there, and indeed there is. The Purple ovals happen to be a set too, but I can’t take both. Let’s suppose I call the Three-ovals, leaving this board:

The time between deals when the board is partially empty is vital. Before the next cards are dealt, pay attention and scan the board. Sets are much easier to find with 9 cards, and it’s actually quite common for two mutually exclusive sets to be present.

Anticipate useful categories and cards. As I’m waiting for the next few cards to come down, I note that there are 5 Ones present and that a fresh One is extremely likely to trigger a set. I’m waiting for the solid purple squiggle, the striped purple squiggle, striped red diamond, hollow green oval, etc. to appear. Hollow sets are dying to be triggered too, so I watch for those too.

Focus on each card as soon as it’s flipped. Dealing takes finite time, after all. Hey look, One Green Hollow Oval. I was waiting for that! Hey look, another Hollow, and the Hollow Purples are another mutually exclusive set! I’ll take both, thank you very much.

These nearly instantaneous Sets are how I won most my games. I kid you not.

If I’m pretty sure a fresh card will complete a set, I sometimes call Set immediately and spend the 1-2 seconds between speaking and collecting to find the other two cards. This risks the false alarm penalty, so I only use it when catching up is the only chance or if I’m really ahead.

But say that didn’t happen. In general, start analysis from fresh cards. You’ve been looking at the old cards before and are pretty sure they don’t contain sets, so any possible sets will be new and obviously involve the fresh cards.

Next, take the following example, where scans of Green, Solid, and every other characteristic seemed to yield no sets. I suspect there may be a set with 0 shared features, so I search for difficult sets by “pivoting” around unusual cards.

Here, I choose the One Green Diamond as the “pivot” because it just looks different (indeed One, Hollow, and Diamond are rarest in their respective categories). I then iterate through the board by setting a second card, the pivot’s elbow, then attempt to find the requisite third card on the board. I do this systematically from the top left. The green cards can be skipped because I checked for Green sets already. Two Red Diamonds need Three Purple Striped Diamonds, which aren’t there. Two Red Ovals require Three Purple Striped Squiggles. Hey, what do you know!

Other notes:

With 15 cards, focus on the 3 fresh cards. The deadlocked 12 cards didn’t have sets, after all. Even after one set is cleared and you move around cards to close holes, remember which cards are new and keep on working off those.

Always play with the same card orientation. I got used to seeing the cards horizontally and changing that screws with my pattern recognition, and so I sat down or dealt the cards accordingly.

In the end, I’m not that fast. Apparently people can clear decks in around a minute, but I hovered around 2:30. Still, mastering games that shouldn’t be mastered is one of my hobbies, and I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into how I approach games.


— yes, these are my newfound illustrator skills at work. originally written for Quora here: