The very first thing you’ll notice about Chris Handy’s (Cinque Terre) Pack O Game is the size. Each complete game of 30 cards and a single rules sheet fits snuggly into its bubblegum sized box. Probably the smallest boxes I have seen in board games. So does size matter? Do these games fill bigger shoes that the box size indicates they possibly could?
Each game is individually numbered, and Chris was kind enough to send me the first 5 games to review. Games 1-4 will initially be available as part of the Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the self-published games (under Chris’s publishing house Perplext), and more games will become available as overfunding goals are met and broken.
The next thing you might notice is that the number 3 is prevalent in the design of these games. From the more obvious fact that all the games names are only 3 letters long (GEM, FLY, TKO, HUE, BUS, TAJ, SHH, LIE, etc., etc.), to the fact that Chris has graded the “difficulty” of the games into three levels, based on the experience level of the players; Casual, Intermediate, and Challenging. Even the box length measures 3 inches. The first time I played each game, instead of playing them in number order, I took them from a spin in order of difficulty.
(Link to Conclusion)
Pack O Game: 4 Level: Casual
Players: 2-4 Age: 8+ Length: 10 mins
Mechanism: Set Collection; Dexterity
Fly was actually the first of the Pack O Game games that came to my attention, when its checkered tablecloth made an appearance in an image on my Twitter feed. For some reason it stood out, and I was intrigued how the game played as an abundance of flies is one of the banes of my summer, and heck yeah I want to swat them!
The game is, as suggested by the difficulty level, a basic set collection game combined with dexterity. The skill comes in the fact that you are dropping your fly swat (a card) onto the tablecloth (made up of a grid of cards), in order to completely cover the image of a fly, or two (or three). If you succeed, you collect that card. Each fly has a symbol and a color associated with it. You score points for every fly that has 3 or more of either a matching color or symbol. The game lasts until only two (empty) tablecloth cards remain and is over pretty quickly.
The dexterity element obviously comes from dropping the swat from a minimum set height above the cards. It’s possible that this height setting is one of the cleverest parts of the game. When setting up the game, one of the cards, which has an image of the sky on it, is tucked into the top of the fly box, this is then stood up against one end of the tablecloth (we had to insert a small coin to keep the box stood upright, as suggested in the rules). When releasing their swatter each player must have their arm at a minimum height, level with the top of the skyline, indicated by the box/sky card. No quibbles, it’s clear as (ahem) daylight. In fact, I wish Rampage (Terror In Meeple City) had adapted this approach, and in fact in future games of Rampage I might house rule standing the box lid on the edge of the game board as a minimum height.
As well as the sky card, there are two fly swats, so passing around the swatters is reduced somewhat, especially in a two-player game, where each player has their own. There are two tablecloth cards with no flies on them, and the remaining 25 cards all have a single (unique) fly on them. The box also comes with a fold away rulebook, which clearly illustrates and informs of the rules. No questions.
The game is a very light fun filler game, but for me, it breaks down on one single issue. When tablecloth cards are removed (following a player successfully swatting a fly), the missing voids must be filled, and this is the most irritating part of the game (but a necessary evil). All the cards to the right of a void, on each of the 9 by 3 grid, are first shifted left (towards the box) and then moved from row three to rows one and two until the grid is as equal in size as it can be. Each time I’ve played this game, I’ve become increasingly irritated by this action, as keeping the cards straight seems strangely fiddly. I have played on both a wooden tabletop and on a cotton tablecloth, and keeping the cards aligned was much easier on the wooden table.
As I say, a light but fun filler. Whilst I enjoyed the game, the fiddliness of the setup between each turn where one card was removed meant I was ready to try the next game in the series.
Pack O Game: 2 Level: Casual
Players: 2 Age: 8+ Length: 10 mins
I don’t own any other boxing games (Mexican wrestling yes, boxing no) and so was quite looking forward to seeing what TKO could possibly offer me in such a small box, and I wasn’t let down.
Yes, this is another light filler game (let’s face it they are all “filler” games as they don’t play longer than 20-30 minutes as a maximum). The game is very basic, again following the pattern indicated on the box.
In TKO you take on the role of a boxer (there are 8 to choose from). Each boxer has a unique set of 4 stats: Uppercut, Head Block, Body Blow, and Body Block. In a best-of-three competition, you will try and gain a technical knockout (TKO) over your opponent by out guessing them to score 5 points.
The above mentioned boxer stats mean that different boxers start with a different set of advantages in order to reach that goal of 5 points. You gain points by out smarting your opponent. Both players have an identical card listing each of the 4 actions (Uppercut, Head Block, Body Blow, and Body Block) and under the table put their thumb over any one action. Both players reveal simultaneously and then resolve as follows. If both players have taken the same action, nothing happens (although the Power resets – more on that in a bit). If both players chose a different punch action, they will both score one point (and Power resets). If one player selects to punch, and the other player blocks it, the blocking player can advance that stat one closer to victory (and change the balance of Power). If one player selects to punch, and the other player fails to block it, the punching player can advance that stat one closer to victory (and change the balance of Power). So every turn you are trying to guess what your opponent might do, whilst also trying to improve your chances of wining the game by scoring one of those vital points.
Now for me, apart from the bluffing and outsmarting that can go on (I love a bluffing game), one of the clever aspects of the game is the Power bar that I mentioned above. The Power bar starts placed equally between both players. However anytime a player scores a point, where the opponent doesn’t also score a point, they may swing the Power bar towards them (or back to the middle if it was pointing at the opponent). If you ever score a point whilst the Power bar is already pointing at you, you then can select which of your stats you wish to increase (and not necessarily the one you just scored with), and that’s handy (pun intended) as not all boxers start with the same stats for each action. It’s a case of taking advantage of having the momentum and hitting hard whilst the opponent is down.
In my opinion, this is certainly one of the more fun games that I was sent. It’s not brain challenging in anyway; it’s just outsmart-your-opponent fun.
Pack O Game: 1 Level: Intermediate
Players: 2-5 Age: 8+ Length: 10 mins
Mechanism: Pattern Making; Tile Placement; Hidden Goal
Both my children are colorblind, so a game that uses color as a core concept is always a bit of a concern. For that reason, I played it with my eldest first. I’m happy to report that he didn’t have any issues at all with the colors.
In Hue, each player can control their destiny and select their own end goal, even changing it with their last turn of the game. Players alternate playing 5 of the 6 cards in their hand to the table whilst trying to increase the contiguous size of an area of color and trying to guess what color their opponent is attempting to increase. Cards must be laid square edge to square edge but may also overlap one third of an already played card. The cards are made up of either 3 large square areas or 9 smaller rectangles (where color follows a different direction).
The remaining card in your hand will be your objective; the two outer colors scoring you 1 point a piece for each small rectangle in the largest contiguous area and 3 points per square. Whilst the middle color on your objective card will double the value of the points in the corresponding area.
Oh, using your cards to block your opponent or overlay a colored area they are creating isn’t the only way to control the points your opponent may get. One of the cards each player has is a poison card and effectively disqualifies the entire central colored area it from counting as the largest contiguous area.
Yes, this game is a small step up in the level of complexity from the level one games, but it’s still very accessible for both gamers and non-gamers. The idea is very much to try and optimize the colored area you are collecting, without letting your opponents know said color, and at the same time trying to guess what colored areas they are trying to build. Additionally, the final two cards you have in your hand can be key to you making a final switch from one tactic to another.
I enjoyed Hue way more than I thought I would, and it was possibly my favourite pack in this review so far. Whilst TKO was more “fun”, this was more “game”.
Pack O Game: 3 Level: Challenging
Players: 2-4 Age: 10+ Length: 30 mins
Mechanism; Auction/Bidding, Set Collection, Hand Management
Gem is the first of the self-claimed Challenging games from Pack O Game, and I honestly believe that I could feel the step up from the previous two tiers when playing this game. Generally games with an auction/bidding mechanism are more challenging for younger games. The activity itself is easy enough to understand: buy low, sell high, but to do it well is an art form. It’s why people working the stock market earn what they do. It’s also a mechanism that I’m not hugely fond of, and yet Gem is, well it’s a gem of a game. It takes the timing of “buy low, sell high” to a new level introducing the idea of Invested cards, to give you more money and score you points at the end of the game, and Leveraged cards, that won’t score you points or provide you with much needed money.
Money, money, money. It’s all about the money. So setting up the game, I was slightly bemused to see that each player only gets 3 coins, one of value 1, one value 2, and one value 3, and that’s it. 6 money, 3 coins, er… great. This could be interesting.
There are 18 “gem” cards that are set up to auction off over six rounds, the first round will auction 4 cards, the next four rounds 3 cards, and the final round just 2 cards. (At this point, I should say I have only played Gem as a two player game, so I don’t know how competitive the last few rounds get when playing with 4, but someone WILL lose out).
Each gem card that is up for auction is made up of one, two, or three gems of various types, a leveraged value, and an invested value (always 1 more than the leveraged amount). During the auction players will bid on one of these cards, without telling the other players which of the cards he is actually bidding on. The highest bidder pays his debt, and will then get the choice of which card to take, taking it to their side of the table leveraged side up. At the end of the round, players can then take turns to leverage gems or use unspent coins to create a pool of money, which can them be spent to turn leveraged gems invested side up (Reinvest). This is the second part of the act, as you need money, and only non-leveraged gems can be used to pay for auctioned gems later on. However it is also always worth spending leftover money on reinvesting as they are always reset at the end of the round. (So that’s where you get the extra money from to reinvest in higher bids).
Now the actual purpose of the game is to score points, and you score points at the end of the game, 1 point for each invested gem, 2 for sharing the majority of one type of gem, and 3 for having the most of one gem type. So this is where the set collection comes into play. Getting the most of a variety of gems, and ensuring they aren’t leveraged at the end of the game.
It’s a surprisingly heavy game for its size (and card count). What gems will you buy, what will your opponent buy, what will she bid, what can you afford to bid or reinvest, when should you splash out, and when should you play more conservatively. This little game is a hit and probably the star of Pack O Games. But there is one more that I played…
Pack O Game: 5 Level: Challenging
Players: 2-4 Age: 10+ Length: 20 mins
Mechanism; Voting/Bluffing, Hidden Goal, Hand Management
In Taj, the players are showcasing rugs of different colors on the walls of the Taj Mahal. Like Gems before it, Taj lives up to its Challenging complexity level. It is another example of a game where timing is everything.
Each player starts with a secret goal (there are 10 in total). In this case, as with Hue, you will be collecting points based on the colors indicated on your secret objective. This time, however, there is no chance of changing your actual goal, and to make matters worse, your secret goal not only includes a way to double the points (top most color), gain regular points (middle color), but also encourages you to remove certain colors from the wall by allotting negative points to the bottom most color. At the end of the game, the player with the most points will win the game.
Along with your secret objective card, you will receive two additional cards: the Yay/Nay card and the All/Nix card. The Yay/Nay card can be used in multiple rounds to vote in approval or disdain of your opponents suggestions. The All/Nix card can be used once during the game to allow a player to overrule a majority decision.
Ten rugs are laid out on display at the Taj Mahal, three to the left, three under, and four to the right. All are considered to be on display, but at the end of the game, only the three rugs under the Taj will count towards the scoring. The left most of these will be the most valuable, offering a bonus +1 point on each of its colors. However, if the Taj card is ever flipped, this +1 moves to the right most side, and that rug position will become the most valuable. Each rug is also laid out with the “Curator’s Eye” on the bottom edge of the card. This is part of the game’s inbuilt timing mechanism.
Each rug will have any 3 of 5 colors on it. The inner color is worth 3 points, the middle color is worth 2 points, and the outer color is worth a single point (so on the left most position of the Taj, they are worth 4, 3, and 2 points respectively).
During a player’s turn, they will select any two rugs, anywhere along the line and draw them slightly forward. The proposal is to swap the position of these two rugs. That is all. Each player will then either vote Yay if they agree with the proposal, Nay if they disagree, or All or Nix if they want the overriding majority decision and still have the opportunity to use them (remember these are one use only, so…timing!).
Depending on how everyone has voted and what the majority vote was the round will be resolved. A reminder card is included in the game to help with simplifying the resolution.
If the majority vote is FOR the proposal, swap the position of the two rugs, ensuring that the Curator’s Eye is now uppermost on these two cards (regardless of whether the card has been swapped before or not).
If the majority vote is AGAINST the proposal discard the outermost rug, and ensure the Curator’s Eye is uppermost on the cards involved in the proposal.
If there is a TIE, simply ensure that the cards involved in the tie have the Curator’s Eye in the upper most position, before returning them to their previous position.
In addition to this, if there is a neutral tie, between a unanimous vote (using All/Nix cards), then the proposer must flip the Taj card (moving the profitable +1 location) or move the Taj one space to its left or right. However, if there is a unanimous decision (either All or Nix), the voter discards one of the outermost rugs and must also flip the Taj card, or move it one space to the left or right. In any case, all used All/Nix cards are removed from play.
Play continues until the end game condition is initiated, either when there are exactly 5 rugs remaining in the display or when all the Curator’s Eyes are in the uppermost position. Regardless, the game ends immediately, players reveal their objectives and tally up their points. This end game timer is a great way to ensure that the game doesn’t run for too long, and players can use their potential power in a vote, and which rugs are moved/removed, to control how long the game continues, and hopefully optimize their end score.
Taj has a lot of gaming elements that I enjoy: trying to guess what your opponent will vote, trying to guess what colors they need, when to use your one time power, and not least of all where to move the rugs so that they will optimize your final score, minimize your opponent’s score, and not give any clues as to which colors you are actually after. It’s a tricky balance where timing and positional play is everything.
Having played all five games multiple times, it’s safe to say that there is a lot of variety shared between these tiny tuckboxes. The games really do live up to their declared levels of complexity.
The size of these games means that they are extremely portable. You can easily slip one, two, or maybe even three into a shirt pocket or carry them all in the POD carry case that is available. The actual footprint of each game is a very small.
I’m not going to rank which one(s) I liked best, doing so wouldn’t help anyone else decide if the Pack O Game series is something for them, suffice it to say that there is a mechanism in here for every type and level of gamer.
Pack O Game truly is a micro-gamers wonderland.
I was going to conclude with another comment about the size of these games, but from the tiniest fly, to the vastness of the Taj Mahal, these card games pack enough of a punch, that there’s bound to be a gem in there for everyone. At least, that’s my hue…
Pack O Game will be available on Kickstarter from August 4th 2014 until August 30th 2014.
(I make no apologies for the bad puns at the end of this review; the games just seemed to sum themselves up!)