Quick Reviews of Card Games

Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Middle Earth: The Balrog

(ICE, 2 players, 26 for two double packs)

There is good and bad news. Middle Earth, one of the two top games to emerge from the CCG blitz, is no longer a collectible. Hurrah. The Balrog expansion marks the first set of cards that can be bought, complete, for 26. If you want enough cards for a serious play deck, rather than the pre-built decks provided, you need three times that - not a sum to be sniffed at, but still much cheaper than collecting, and no tiresome trading or dealers. That is all good then. What isn't so good is that I am disappointed by the expansion. Firstly, there is considerable 'common' duplication with previous sets - essentially to provide ready-to-play ability, but lots of dead weight if not. There are very few cards of interest to the fan of Wizard decks (ie the goodies), most being Balrog specific (as one might expect) but we have been better served in the past. The art is pretty poor overall compared with previous releases, though there is the odd gem. But perhaps worst of all is that we have a load of new rules added to the system, where I think most of us wanted was a smooth transition and some rationalisation. I am reminded of the situation back in the days immediately before Advanced Squad Leader. What I hoped for was a clear master rule set covering all the changes and additions including all the Squad Leader expansions. What we got was an entirely new game. ICE are apparently about to make the same strategic decision and word is that they will go the Portal route - making the system simpler, and much more approachable (certainly one of the issues hindering METW's acceptance) and re-issuing all the basic cards (which I for one ain't buying, unless perhaps they have new art!). With the Lord of the Rings film coming along, it is absolutely essential to get this policy right and encourage new players - which in turn will hopefully promote future expansions usable by owners of old and new versions. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a huge demand amongst fans for new, interesting cards - witness the many amateur efforts on the Web, even I designed some last year - and new scenarios such as Far Harad. As WotC know, an expandable card game is only as interesting as its last expansion, and I can't say I have been much moved by The Balrog - for new recruits though, moving on from the excellent Starter Set, this could be ideal.

Zircus Flohcati

(Reiner Knizia for Amigo, 3-5 players, £5)

How does he do it? Last year we put Katzenjammer Blues on the table and, despite it being somewhat short of perfection, we are still happily playing a year later. And in many ways, Zirkus Flohcati (Flea Circus) is its ideal and logical replacement. Rather similar in feel and weight, at heart it is also a system of turning cards and deciding which to acquire, though I feel there is much more skill in this new working of the core idea. It is certainly less prone to Katzenjammer's problems - namely the luck of the draw and the feeling of forced inactivity. The key difference is that instead of a bidding sub-system, Flohcati takes its lead from Rummy. You are trying to collect cards in ten suits to put on a circus. The high card points are the most valuable, and 'going out' to end the game with all ten suits gains a bonus. But there are also bonuses available for 'trios' (prials of three identical numbers), which one could call sideshows, that confer the lower value cards similar or even greater value. So, as usual with Mr Knizia, you want to do two things at once and he forces tactical choices based on the cards available and other players' hands. This also encourages greed when it is your turn to pick up, and that may mean you miss your turn - flip over as many cards as you want, but turn two of the same colour and your turn is forfeited. Simple event cards, thinly sprinkled, add a level of uncertainty. Light, fun, and very quick, we have already played more than ten games of this since Christmas and it is likely to stick around as an undemanding filler of choice.


Why wait? Buy it now from FunAgain Games!

Mystery Rummy

(Mike Fitzgerald for US Game Systems, 2-4 players, £10)

But for the dark and perhaps ill-advised theme (Jack the Ripper), this could be an outstanding family card game. As it is, some gamers I have tried it on have looked askance, and one was not at all keen on his kids trying it. Even so, if we just take the system at core value, there is plenty here to get excited about. Mystery Rummy is a straightforward traditional game (moribund round these parts) made to shine again by virtue of some clever card sequencing and structure. Essentially each player is trying to find out who the Ripper is, and not to be caught. The grisly theme is triggered step by step, in logical fashion. First there is a body, and the scene of the crime. Evidence builds in up in the shape of melds, which both score points for the player and, more generally, lay the blame at one of six suspects' doors. Primary suspects may change due to alibis, or new evidence appearing, and there are other cards that throw in a surprise or two - the documentary evidence being the clever, dual edged, exception. Each level of card play escalates the game until either the Ripper escapes undetected or he is identified. Points are awarded and deducted, and on we go. A game is played over several hands, luck seems to be tolerable, and once into the slightly daunting system and difficult subject matter, players really seem to enjoy it. And considering we have a themeless card game onto which a thick, and often believable, veneer of theme has been added, it all works very well. There is but one hitch. Ultimately, Mystery Rummy is essentially rummy with just a little more depth - you still have to sit there waiting for the last card you need to go out, which rather breaks the atmospheric spell that distances you from the overly familiar cardplay. But there are unexpected twists, and sudden endings, and everything bar the conclusion of the hand is first rate. Full of neat ideas, all nicely combined, it reminded me very much of Gibson's Sherlock Holmes in weight, innovation, care over design, artwork and replay value - and there can be no higher praise. I am pleased to have this one on the shelf, and for fans of card games who can handle the subject matter, this is a must buy.


Why wait? Buy it now from FunAgain Games!

Friesematenten

(Friedmann Friese for 2F, 2-4 players, c£15)

Hmmm. Now this is a game I passed on at Essen because it looked more Foppen than Falsche Fuffziger in quality. Add in the fact that it was a collectible (well, varietal actually - no rares), for which they had managed to muck up the distribution, and which had computer artwork like Illuminati:NWO, and I considered myself lucky. Please note that anyone imagining the horrors of a German quasi-CCG with reams of text will be pleased to hear 2F have done a full English edition, cards and all. The English translation, and the rules, are sometimes 'unconventional' but you can get by. Anyway, time passed and I got to play it. And, well... yes. Indeed. If nothing else, it's interesting. Not a proper game as such, but fun to participate in for a while and I left the game in mental credit - not life enhancing, but well worth your time. I am reminded of Das Regeln Wir Schon in many respects. So I suppose you want to know what I am on about. Friesematenten is minimalist. Each player has some cash. Cards are turned over and each is bidded for in turn. This is a very neat mechanism for assigning relative values, I think you will agree - and even more pure if each card didn't stipulate a minimum bid! Some cards are Factories, and these produce VPs. You need 40 at any one time to win but can only hold three at once. Other cards include: Events, some with multiple or delayed use, some mild, some wacky; Status cards - which can help in any number of ways, and also usually confer VPs; and finally Coupler cards which can be attached to either another card or a player as an enhancer/detractor. You bid, you buy cards, you build up an open hand in front of you within which the cards are interacting locally, and globally with those of other players, and each card on the table can change the basic rules. Add in the fact that you know some of the cards are going to be bought, and you have a right pickle. Headache inducing it surely is and the resulting problems are those you might expect. After about 45 minutes, so many cards are out that everyone has ground to a halt due to processor overload. There is more fascination in looking at and discussing the cards than actually bidding for them - this latter becomes very repetitive, as does changing up money. If you are still concerned about winning, there are cards that are very powerful, and if another powerful multiplier card pops up, you may win (or lose) instantly. Some cards that are held in abeyance are going to have a major impact when deployed - so you have to remember them and what they do. And so on. It is all a bit unsatisfying. What shines is the cards. Some effects are very clever, and combined with other cards, can be cleverer still. Add in some loose interpretation of the English, and players' natural cunning, and you have some memorable stuff appearing before your eyes. So what we have is a 'game' evolving by turns. The cards come along, and build layer upon layer onto the rules. Deep down you are trying to get enough VPs to win, but the enjoyment is in how you do it - and it is usually by clever combination of cards. That is great, but what really appeals (like Magic, Ursuppe and the Mandelbrot Set) is that you feel you are exploring the game for the first time, because I am pretty darn sure that the designer has not considered and evaluated every combination. Now I love card combinations, I will think about them all day, and that is why I liked both the theory and much of the practice of Friesematenten. I suspect some of you won't like one, or both. With about 200 cards, and with many of those having minor or major rule tweaks, this is a game that will be infinitely 'different' (as far as I am concerned, those with a maths degree may object) but also containable to a point. That is fine, but what was needed was more of a framework onto which to hang them (though the natural bidding is kind of neat). Das Regeln had exactly the same failing. Changing the rules for the sake of changing the rules is not enough. Or is it more a case that the act of changing the rules means that the game ceases to feel like a normal game? Is it a meta- game? Is it, in fact, rather too late at night for me to be analysing this? Friesematenten will come out again, but this is more experiential research project than competitive game. The telling point is that having played once, I went straight out and bought loads of cards - if nothing else, it gets the old brainbox working.


Why wait? Buy it now from FunAgain Games!

Quacksalbe

(Volke Tietze for Feuer & Flamme, 3-5 players, £7 for the English edition)

Now this is an easy one to review. As a skilful game, it scores about 1/10. As a fun game, about 9/10. Oddly, the average comes out at 7/10, largely because laughter is considered good for you. Each player is a doctor practising a specific type of medicine - acupuncture, drugs, blood letting, electric shocks - all the very latest techniques, all neatly colour coded. Your hand of numbered cards may have some of your own colour, and certainly some of other players' colours, and both low and high cards are useful as we shall see. In the manner of Carry On Doctor, the hapless victim patient is wheeled in before the arrayed quacks. Every patient is different, but your aim is to cure him (by having the largest combined total of cards in your colour) without killing him (ditto, but exceeding the patient's specified limit). Your typical private patient is pretty weedy, so expires on a total higher than 14. You might play your own 8 card hoping to get close to the total, but your rivals will be only too pleased to play a 5 and a 3 to kill him off. The body goes into your mortuary (minus points) hopefully to be offset by cured patients (positive points). And that is it. The laughter arises from the patients - some reverse the usual rules, others come in job lots, the NHS patients take unbelievable amounts of stick before dying, VIPs are worth more positive points (hoho), the masochist wants the treatment to hurt, and one patient is actually DOA but you get to treat him regardless! This is humorous stuff and though it will pall in time, everyone seems to like it at the moment. I cannot however see the game premiering at InterGame in the near future, but on a serious note the patient card 'driver' is actually very imaginative and will, I am sure, be combined with a less frivolous mechanism in time.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell