Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Back from holiday

It's back to the grindstone today after three happy weeks in the sunshine of the Croatian Adriatic, my usual August retreat. As a family holiday, I always find it very useful to take along some card games to keep kids entertained in those quiet moments when they are not a) eating; b) sleeping; c) swimming. Due to a self-enforced restriction on the use of the Nintendo DS, which traveled out there with us unfortunately, I was able to get quite a bit of card playing in. We had a number of card games with us, which are light, compact, and easily portable. And we also found many of the kids of local friends and relatives keen to play as well. So a resounding success all told.

Here is a quick run down of the card games we played a lot of, roughly listed in order of the amount of time played:

1. Once Upon A Time

I played this at StagCon in July (about which I have tragically written nothing on this blog, due to being utterly embroiled in a work project at approximately the same time). This is a very rules lite game which takes very little time to explain, but can be quite challenging to play. Cards represent factors in a story - for example, King, Tree, Blind, It Comes Alive, etc. Most of these are common tropes of the fairy story genre, although in one tale I managed to get a Warhammer-esque steam tank into the plot, and another went off on a distinctly space opera direction featuring smugglers, a desert planet and an ancient order of warrior monks.

The other type of card is an ending card, which tells you how your story must end. You can only win by being the one telling the story when it ends in the way you want it. A typical example is "And the evil doers were thrown down a well." This was an ending of mine, which I came very close to winning with, but sadly was undone at the last moment. Players can interrupt the story teller using special Interrupt cards, or a card which is similar to a word / action / place in the story. They can then take over the tale. It is an awesome game for playing with kids of about 8+. A great deal of the hilarity comes from the stories being told and taking over someone else's tale to drive it in a new direction.

2. Jaipur

This is a two player game about commodities trading. It is played in three rounds. Both players seek to sell the core commodities in the game - leather, spices, gold, etc - in big enough quantities to earn bonus tokens. At the end of each round, the amount of goods sold, plus bonus tokens, is added up. The winner has earned the most. Players extract cards dealt from the deck into a pool of five face up cards and keep them in their hand until they decide to sell them. You score bonus points by selling at least three cards, and up to five. Bullion markets like gold and silver, require a minimum of two cards to be sold at the same time, while a more mediocre market like cloth will accept just one.


Players acquire tokens from each market using their commodity cards in their hands, but the tokens go down in value the more you acquire (the more lucrative ones start at the top of the pile). Once three out of the six markets are exhausted, the game ends. The key is to try to sell in bulk as soon as you can while the prices in a particular market are still high - nobody wants to be selling leather at one dinar a pop! In addition, you can use camels as wild cards. Your camel herd stays outside your hand, but can be used to trade for goods and bring new goods into circulation from the deck. My daughter has emerged as the dominant player of this game, which is a little unnerving, as she is only seven!

3. Nile

Nile is a game about farming in Ancient Egypt which my son owns because of his enthusiasm for all things Ancient Egyptian. Players plant crops by placing cards on the table in front of them. These include lettuce, flax, wheat, papyrus, etc. There are five crops, and you can't plant a crop if another player has more cards / fields down than you do. In addition, the flood card, which changes every turn, tells you which crop can be harvested. You can't plant a crop which is in harvest phase. Players can change the flood card by making an offering to the gods, and discarding a couple of cards from their hands. In addition, you can force another player to abandon his crop by planting more than them - e.g. if they have two flax cards down, I could force them to discard these - unharvested - by planting three.

Speculate cards let you bet on which crop will come out of the deck next. Each speculate card lets you bet on one of two crops appearing. If you're right, you can draw three cards from the deck, rather than the usual two. There is also a locust swarm card - luckily only one - which immediately removes the largest field on the table - much to the consternation of whichever player it happens to belong to! Canny players will tend to plant conservatively before the swarm appears, and then go long afterwards.  Scoring is based on whoever has harvested the most cards in each crop - the winner is the player who wins the most categories.

4. Guillotine

Guillotine is a fun and very fast game about executing nobles in the French Revolution. I've owned it for a couple of years, but keeping having to buy new copies, as every time I'm in Croatia, someone who plays it begs me to let them have my copy, and I end up getting a new one when I return to England. Luckily this year I came back with the same copy. In Guillotine, players execute 12 nobles every day for three days. The nobles line up in front of the guillotine, and each turn one noble must be executed. The trick is to try to change the order using action cards, which a player can play once per round. Some cards help you score more points, some make your opponents' lives harder.

The nobles are categorised by different colours - e.g. red for military, green for civil government, blue for clerics, grey for innocents. Some cards, like Louis XVI or the Master Spy, are big scorers, while innocents, like the Hero of the People, will cost you points. Playing action cards shrewdly can force other players to execute innocents. Many cards come with additional special rules - e.g. executing both the Count and the Countess wins you bonus points. After three days of executions, the player with the most points wins. I love Guillotine. The artwork on the cards is great, it plays quickly, and there's always plenty of banter going on around the table. There's even a 3D card model of the guillotine to help you see which end of the line is going to get the chop next, although we rarely use it these days.

5. Sole Mio!

This is my wife's favourite card game, and one we always play on holiday. It revolves around filling pizza orders. The game has two types of cards - orders, and ingredients. Each turn players can put down an ingredient - in any quantity, and an order. They can also pick up either more ingredients from the deck, or more orders. The cards are all put into a new deck, face up. The trick is to try to fill your orders from the available ingredients at the end of the round. Remember, orders are colour-coded: if I am the red player, I will have a set of red pizza orders to distinguish mine from other players.

At the end of the round, the deck is turned over, and cards are turned, with the ingredients being placed face up until an order appears. The player who owns that order must then fill it with the ingredients on the table already and ingredients in his hand. He can also appeal to other players for help - if you provide another player with ingredients, you share in the bounty by immediately being able to fill an additional order from your hand. I like to keep tougher orders in-hand for just such an eventuality. A typical order might be two pairs of any ingredient, or more specific, like four or more peppers. There are some horrendous orders, with four separate ingredients required in varying numbers.

The winner is the player who, after two rounds, has filled the most orders. We didn't play this game as much this year as Once Upon A Time and Nile took a lot of the limelight, plus when we did it seemed to provoke arguments more than it usually does. But it really is an excellent game, and kids can readily get to grips with it.