Designed by Uwe Rosenberg
Published by Queen Games
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Schnappen Jagd (Bargain Hunter) is the latest card game from Uwe Rosenberg, the designer of Bohnanza - a little game you may have heard of. The theme is plundering boot fairs and flea markets for bargain electrical goods - sometimes they are real gems and exactly what you want, but inevitably you will also acquire some junk. And in that ironic way life has, that is pretty much how the game pans out - in parts, outstanding, in others, rather less useful. The disappointment is amplified because the game is very nearly there, and because we see so many of these card games that when one comes along with clever ideas, a good theme and some ingenious systems, one hopes above hope that it will work. And because I am about to steer a tricky course through some unusual mechanisms and grumble about an already popular game, please remember that it is a game I still value. I just wanted it to work rather better, which I don't think is a crime yet.
To avoid accusations of being too harsh and of branding Schnappen Jagd as failing to be something it isn't, or perhaps over-analysing a simple system, I think I need to define 'working'. Schnappen Jagd does not function as a challenging card game (which is what it feels like, and might easily become) but it does work fairly well as a lightish game in which you play along, lay cards, don't think too hard and hopefully have fun. Those of you who have played Bohnanza will realise that it shares many traits. It too is essentially a fairly light exercise, with little real decision making and much reliance on drawing the right cards. It is also highly accessible, great fun, has some novel ideas, and simply flies along in play. The result is a game that is hugely popular but which punches well above its weight. Ultimately, and I stand to be corrected, I think both Schnappen Jagd and Bohnanza flatter to deceive.
There are sufficient complexities in the game to make it appear as a 'proper' card game, but the core mechanism is essentially no trump trick taking. However, like Was Sticht, Hattrick, Sticheln and Mu, it stands apart by virtue of its structure and clever tweaks. Indeed, were the game to function as I believe it can, I would be immediately placing Schnappen Jagd on a par with those games. Why? Because Schnappen Jagd has an interesting ancillary phase and secondary level of play, manages to cleverly incorporate aspects of Rummy into a Trumps/trick taking game and because it has some damn fine ideas on Trump/Rummy hybrid scoring.
Each player is dealt eight cards. The senior player (to the immediate left of the dealer) chooses one of his cards and lays it in front of him - this will be his 'bargain' number for that round. Each player does the same in turn - bargain numbers do not have to be unique. The senior player leads one of the six suits, numbered 1 to 9. The next player must follow suit if he can. If he can't he has an interesting choice. Playing a card of another suit, he either declares it as a trump or as a discard. If a trump, it sets the solitary trump colour for that hand. And since there are two identical packs in the game, an identical card following another can be designated as slightly higher, or slightly lower - so a red 3 on a red 3 can be 3.5 or 2.5 at the second player's whim. Clever. Note also that by definition the lead can never be a trump and that there are two Special Offer cards that win any trick, but permanently count as junk. Play proceeds for a round of eight hands, each player collecting all the cards he wins in each trick. Those matching his bargain number are placed immediately onto the bargain pile, scoring one point each come game end, anything else is placed into his junk pile, scoring minus one.
But scoring doesn't end there. In the second phase of play, 'clearing', you sort through your junk pile and see if you can make up sets of anything useful. You are allowed to convert a run of similarly numbered junk (say five 3's) into bargains - discard the first two back to the play deck, place the other three on the bargain pile. This has three effects. It reduces your junk pile (though usually leaving behind all sorts of rubbish), converts minus points into positives, and defines your new bargain number for the next round so you are no longer collecting the earlier bargain number. Note that you can only 'clear' a set once per round, except at the very end when you are allowed two clearances. In this way, from the second round onwards, your bargain points won in tricks are worth instant points, but you are also collecting a range of other numbered cards so that you can add to the junk, make sets, and eventually 'clear' for points. Play proceeds for four rounds, and at the end you simply add up your bargain pile and deduct your uncleared junk to determine the winner.
Because every card won therefore has a scoring implication, short or long term, good or bad, the knack is to try and win exactly what you need. More is usually okay, less isn't. While it may be appealing to win loads of cards to make huge sets of junk (which can easily be more valuable than the 'ouvert' bargains - especially if you collect, say, junk fours all game and dramatically clear them at the end), these literally become a liability if you run out of clearing rounds to convert them. And since there are just five opportunities for clearing, you need to be careful. Whatever, more often than not (with the help of other players and unwanted tricks), you will find yourself with odd cards. There is nothing worse than clearing seven 2's in the penultimate round, only to find that rivals happily let you win two more 2's in the last hand - no way of shifting them (you need three minimum) and you will almost certainly have bigger fish to clear.
So what scuppers this intriguing little game? The idea that you have a scoring stack of cards, and another pile of potential scorers, is original and I think works well in itself. The drawback is that a small amount of time can pass as each player checks his 'junk' pile before each lay - this means the game is not particularly quick. For the same reason there is a lot to keep an eye on - while Bob is overtly collecting fours, he may be piling up 'junk' sevens this hand and in previous tricks. This needs to be monitored otherwise some of your discards are going to be good news for him. This duplicity is another strength, but I will discuss below whether you can actually counter it.
The second issue is whether you have sufficient control, through the deal and trick play, to implement your strategy. This is also interlinked with your opponent's ability to prevent you achieving same. The crux though is the structure and size of the hands and their unsuitability for skilful trump play. Essentially, you don't get enough cards in each round to formulate a strategy, to know how to play a hand through, or to reliably secure the cards you want - if this were Oh Hell/Nomination Whist, you'd be hard put to make an informed bid. Eight cards and six suits means, likely as not, you'll start the hand with void suits. Playing cards to try and win is fraught with immediate trumping, or discards to opponents of cards you'd like to win. Indeed, despite trying very hard to gain bargain numbers, it is actually impractical much of the time - either you have the cards, in which case you need to lead (dangerous) or trump with them to win. If your opponents have them, unless they play pretty poorly, or are squeezed at the finish, they usually discard them on another's winning trick. And there is a real sense of not knowing which cards to lead, apart from the vague notion that voids are good. In fact, in some respects the game can take on a distinct misere quality - depending on your opponents it may actually be easier to try and win nothing at all (not too difficult) and try for a very low positive score which could be enough to win.
All this places the player to the right of the lead (ie the last to play to a trick) in a strong position, especially later in the round when many suits are void. He is often free to discard bargain cards to a neutral player, to trump with a bargain of his own and claim the stack knowing its contents (and exact value to him), or to simply discard safely. The resulting problem is that you can pick up so many negative cards through no fault of your own, yet you have no sure way of winning the cards you need or to get shot of most of the rubbish quickly enough. I agree that the tactics of the game can be to avoid too much junk as well as finding bargains, but I have yet to see anyone master the tactics required - if there are any - through the flak thrown up by the distinctly random nature of play.
The next angle is, rather like Extrablatt before it, that there is quite a bit to monitor, and certainly too many factors to reliably cover in play. You need to be working out which cards you want, how you are going to get them, what each trick is going to do for you, whether you are going to end up with too much junk, whether to go for trick wins early due to void suits (the small hand sizes indicate that if I am void it means little - someone else is just as likely to be able to trump). Another related aspect is the distinct possibility of card counting generally - both all cards moving through the game, and specifically the junk piles. I am okay at this, far from brilliant, and being a sad git I tried to do it in one game. It's hard, but you can do it. Just. But by the time you have tried to monitor Anne's, Biff's and Colin's junk piles it frequently hardly seems to matter what you throw off as discards - chances are you won't have enough cards in your hand to make it either harmless (giving them a card they are not collecting) or painful (giving them a card they have just cleared out) or they are collecting two or three numbers which you can't avoid handing over.
There seems little incentive, beyond going along with the game's ethos, to collect the bargain cards you need. Why pick up one scorer and three duds when it is an instant net loss of two points? Okay, long term you might get rid of the duds as scoring cards, but if you pick up too many the game is structured so that you cannot always get them 'cleared' before time runs out. In the first game I played I just collected anything I could, resulting in a large hand of junk. I had the scope to score a lot through 'clearing' but there weren't enough turns to get rid of them all. So, the next game I played on the basis that bargain cards were good, but junk was also useful (to a point) and that I needed to keep a selective eye on my junk hand. That is the policy I have pursued on and off since, but such is the random nature of play that you cannot always pick and choose numbers or volumes of cards won - especially when half of most hands is dumped on you by other players. I call this aspect the disincentive bug.
The cumulative effect of these issues means that there is an appreciable number of variables to take into account but insufficient control to achieve your aim. One tackles many hands with little hope of intelligent play and a lot of scope for others to hold back and deprive you of your bargain cards by intelligent discarding. Sometimes the cards run smoothly, and you pick up or avoid the cards you need to. At others, you really don't know whether to hold back or play or whether it will make any difference. It is also difficult to know which cards are out there, if you are collecting low value cards they are harder to get except by accident (eg someone leads or discards one, and you win), and because the play is very unpredictable (and the special offers are out there as well) you can never quite be sure of winning any trick. So collecting bargains is, frankly, a little hit and miss which like Go Wild! rather diverts one from the game's principle focus. Often you win bargains simply because other players find themselves stuck with them and having to discard, rather than you prising them out of your or their hands by skilful play.
The final quibble is almost irrelevant, but I just groaned out loud in the middle of our first game at the missed opportunity. This is so patently a system about collecting (logically something like multi-volume books but also stamps, records, porcelain, whatever) or even collecting games - finding those categories you want, collecting others that you can sell on or perhaps collect in the future - that I found it hard to believe it wasn't spotted by a game designer and publisher who presumably go to Essen every year. Oh well - the theme is largely inconsequential anyway. And I may as well mention here that the game is only designed for three or four players - this is limiting, but then I seem to recall a game called Settlers with the same restriction and that seems to have struggled into seven figure sales.
But so good are the underlying ideas, and so appealing the potential, that I have thought about the game a lot. My initial feeling was that although the whole package feels right the game is slightly 'off balance', thematically and mechanically, again in much the same way as Go Wild!. Trying to analyse exactly why, and there is a decent mix of inter-related mechanisms here when you dig deeper, I came up with a partial answer that at least satisfies my brain. I did it by substituting for Factor X. Let's say that instead of being worth one point, the bargain cards are worth three, or perhaps just two, or even one and a half - the fine tuning can come later (and this will also be different for 3 and 4 players). One may also need to value converted junk at a separate rate. This would fit the theme (you have found the item you wanted, it is therefore worth more than the junk) and it gives you a real reason to collect and a way of valuing your trick acquisitions. Is it worth collecting that extra five, three and six? Almost certainly yes if one of them is worth three points, probably if it is worth two, possibly not if only one - and there is the disincentive rub again. The reason it helps to think of it in this way is that when you come to the end, you feel very strange adding up your bargain cards and then taking off your junk at the same rate of exchange. If your bargain cards were doubled, the false parity would be removed and you'd feel better. As if you'd achieved something. Or is that just me?
Another tweak might be to have more cards per hand, drop a suit or two, lose the special offer cards, to reduce to 1 to 5 values instead of 1 to 9, to see your next hand before clearing, or allow two clear outs per round with three at the end, or perhaps even to have two bargain stacks, as in Hattrick. Fascinating stuff! I see the game as having a series of slider controls that you can move up and down to see what works and what throws the game out of kilter. The good news is that at whatever level Herr Rosenberg has decided to pitch Schnappen Jagd (the box age guide says 10+ which indicates that it isn't intended as frivolous, and it has the trappings of seriousness), we might be able to pull it up a notch with a little tweaking. And I suppose at that point we come full circle. If the game is aimed at hardened card players (I don't think it is), then it doesn't work. If it is pitched at your average gamer, then it may be a little cardy for them, it still has some hitches and a little too much randomness. And if it is pitched still lower, perhaps at Bohnanza level, and one is meant to play without much thought about how to do well, then it can probably be said to work.
So, to stress just once more, this is a game I really wanted to like. I think it shows potential, it has clearly been the subject of a lot of thought and design work, and it has some good ideas. It is also wrong to moan too much because even at the base level, at the very weakest it can be, Schnappen Jagd will still be a buy for many. For me it tries hard, and fails; and excites, but then disappoints. But so many card games don't get those first parts right either and from an analytical angle I have greatly enjoyed ten sessions, the post game discussions, and also tinkering with it 'off line' but the net result is a game I didn't enjoy playing - others will. So don't get me wrong. I think Schnappen Jagd will sell well and be popular, I think Rosenberg is a designer to watch, and I will be first in line for his next game. So Schnappen Jagd is a curiosity, but a desirable one - any game that makes me enthused, thoughtful, disappointed, analytical and keen to fix it all at the same time has to be worth a tenner of anyone's money. I love card games, I always want for more, and I'd dearly love to think that Schnappen Jagd was going to be a classic and get a lot of play. But it isn't as it stands, and overall I honestly have to come down to the view that it doesn't really work without tweaks - and that is how I must review it. As our American chums say; your mileage may vary.
The Game Cabinet - email@example.com - Ken Tidwell