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Straw, designed by Richard James and produced by Evertide Games, is an excellent card game with a difficult to achieve blend of cheerfulness and strategic play. Considering the simplicity of the rules, this game has depth and plenty of playability for even a serious Euro-gamer. Originally when I saw the box showing the cartoon camel over-burdened with packages, I thought, “Okay, this is a cute game, worthy of a filler-slot in my collection, but not much more.” Well, Straw proves one should not judge a book by its cover, or in this case a game by its box. This is a light-hearted game that still gets the strategy juices flowing.
The “straw that broke the camel’s back” is the underlying theme. Basically, players play cards representing different objects: jewelry, baskets of fruit, monkeys, bags of bricks… Each of the different objects weighs a designated amount, and the camel can only carry so much. Eventually, someone will overload the camel and “break the camel’s back.” In addition to objects weighing the camel down, players can play magic-carpet cards which effectively reduce the weight on the camel. Other cards reverse the direction of play, copy the previously played card, or can have a weight chosen by the player. Finally, there is one “straw” card which weighs nearly nothing, but if a player uses the straw card to overload the camel, that player wins the round. Conversely, if a player breaks the camel’s back with any other object, that player loses the round and the others score.
Play is simple. The camel is placed in the center of the table, and each player is dealt four cards. The first player lays a card on top of the camel, announces the weight, and draws a new card. Then, the next player plays a card, announces the new weight, and draws a card. (Now you now how to play – I told you the rules were simple!) Each time a player adds either an object or a magic-carpet onto the camel, the weight changes. For example if Joe plays a monkey weighing 3, he says 3. Next, Mary plays a jug of water weighing 7, she says 10. And then, Jack plays a magic-carpet with -4, he says 6. This goes on until a weight over 50 is reached. Simple rules and simple math.
Once someone breaks the camel’s back, the round is over, and the winner(s) of the round add up the card weights in their hands. The game continues until someone reaches 100 points.
Enough of the simplicity of the rules, let’s focus on the strategy inherent to the game. Since each player can only hold four cards, you must pay close attention to card management. You don’t want to have all heavy cards, because as the camel gets close to the breaking point, you won’t be able to make a play except to break the camel’s back. You don’t want to have all zero point cards like “reverse” or “copy” because you won’t score any points even if one of your opponents breaks the camel’s back. Finally, you definitely don’t want too many magic-carpet cards because they are worth negative points. Instead, the strategic player needs to manage their hand to maintain a healthy balance of cards that keep you in the game without being so conservative that you can’t score points. Of course this is a card game, so even the best strategy can be overcome by lucky (or not so lucky) card draws. I personally have found that although an individual round can be lost due to luck, over the course of the entire game, which usually requires several rounds, sound strategy and hand-management will ultimately win.
The cards are of good quality, and the artwork throughout the deck is top-notch. The rules are printed on a card, so the entire game fits in a box about the same size as a standard deck of cards. Combine the portable size with the quick play and easy to explain rules, Straw becomes one of those games that you can keep with you at school, work, on business trips… and you can get in a quick, light-hearted, but strategic game. I recommend you get a copy of Straw – fun, great replayability, and well-designed!