Was Sticht?

Moskito, £8
Designed by Karl Heinz Schmiel
3-4 Players, 60-120 mins
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

If like me you have bought a large number of small German card games with a success rate of about one in five, then this is the game for you. At last we have a reworking of a traditional card game that is worth the cardboard it is printed on. Was Sticht? is essentially Solo/nomination whist (the one where you say how many tricks you will win) with a considerable number of interesting bells and whistles added on. The net result is a clever, tough, thought provoking game that should appeal to card players and gamers willing to think on their feet. I rate it very highly, there are those that don't I think this depends almost entirely on your card playing heritage or lack of same.

The idea of the game is to complete five tasks, which come printed on large counters. These will be instructions such as win the least tricks, win exactly three tricks, win the last trick, win no tricks containing blue cards and so on. Each task is numerically rated for difficulty which is used to split ties (but I can't remember exactly when! presumably if two players complete all five simultaneously). When they have their cards, players choose one of these tasks to complete during the hand and lay them face up on the table for all to see.

The two diversions from the norm are that there is no traditional deal and there are two types of trump. The cards are numbered from 1 to 9 and come in four coloured suits. Any one of these colours can be trumps, and there can also be no trumps. Additionally, there are number trumps and, again, there can be no number trumps. Painfully for dyed in the wool card players, number trumps rank higher than colours which requires quite a rethink of your hard-learned trump play. The best card in the game therefore, known as the Supertrump, is not always the highest card of the trump colour, but could be, say, the Red 3. In this case, Red cards are trumps but all 3s rank higher than Reds and the Red 3 beats everything it cannot lose even if following the lead. No trumps requires different tactics again, mainly in the 'deal' as we shall see.

The game starts by appointing the first dealer. The dealer, who will rotate after each hand, has an advantage in that he knows what the trumps are (he looks secretly at the trump stacks) but doesn't get to choose one of his own task counters his only chance to complete a task during this round is for one or more of the other players to fail in their aim and for the dealer to achieve it instead. In this case he will put aside one of his own tasks which counts towards victory.

The dealer's task is to lay out the cards, face up, in three or four columns down the table, depending on the number playing. Starting at the top row, each player takes a card, with the dealer drawing last initially. Again, the first draw rotates on each pick up. The dealer then 'scores' the pick up saying which card would win the trick if played in the forthcoming hand. The players thus have to work out, taking into account who picked up first or 'lead', what trumps are. Sometimes you can guess early on, sometimes (especially with no/no trumps) you can spend the whole draw in the dark. This Mastermind style deduction progresses down the card columns until they have all been picked up, and so the hands are formed. This hand building phase is rather reminiscent of the pre-game from German Trumps though with more importance, I would suggest. The skill of course is to spot the two trumps as soon as possible and select cards with that, and your remaining tasks, in mind. For instance, if your two remaining tasks are to win a large number of tricks, you will be looking to pick up high cards and trumps, especially the number variety. If however you want a low, mis¸re, hand to try and win no tricks then it is equally important to know what trumps are to avoid collecting winners.

Play then proceeds in a fairly straightforward trump fashion (ie must follow if possible, usual trumping rules excepting the number wrinkle) with each player trying to achieve his task and defeat other efforts at the same time. If all the other players manage their tasks, then the dealer is left in the cold and must wait until the next hand to try and catch up. However, if our early games are anything to go by, that is a somewhat unusual situation. It is entirely possible for no-one to complete their task, including the dealer. The reasons are simply that the number trumps throw a large spanner into the works, the pick up inevitably gives you some duff cards and the tasks can be very hard. I consider myself quite proficient at Solo and would happily execute Mis¸re Ouverte or Royal Abondance contracts, but Was Sticht? is a pig to get right. The times I have sat there with a 'certain' master only to be stumped at the end by an uncounted number card is already far too high and long suits, once established, are a major liability. Pretty much the only card you can be sure of is the Supertrump, and you inevitably hold that just when you don't want to win any more tricks.

Was Sticht? is, to my mind, an excellent but difficult game occasionally horribly so. For me that is a plus point and I am happy to play it and learn how to beat the challenge. I certainly don't think it is too hard or I would put it on the transfer list now, but the side effect is that the game can sometimes take a while to play. The hand building phase is time consuming, though vital, and play tends to be much slower than the equivalent trump games because of the added dimension afforded by the rogue numbers and the Supertrump. If you play to five tasks, while learning or with non-card players, the game can take close on a couple of hours it rather depends on how lucky or skilful the play is. With experience and astute card players, it comes down sharply towards an hour which is perfectly acceptable. However, I do sympathise with the view that two hours is excessive for a card game but ultimately this game is best suited to the specialised breed of card player. Other gamers can play it, but I would suggest that a degree of card sense, and even card counting, is essential to get much apart from frustration out of it. If you like it but still find it too lengthy, may I suggest cutting the tasks from five to three, or perhaps allowing any three from the five. To tamper with anything else would be a shame and likely to ruin the balance. I liked Was Sticht? a lot, will certainly play it again and suggest you at least try it, particularly if you are a card player.

On to the review of Backpacks & Blisters or back to the review of Rette Sich Wer Kann.

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