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Chicago Poker (Mayfair Games, 2007 - Bruno Cathala & Bruno Faidutti) has a few world-weary people on the cover, looking as if they are simply waiting for the game to end. On the other hand, seeing the pair o' Bruno's as designers excited me, and I know that the poker mechanic has been used to great effect in games. I was quite surprised then, when I found that the game played closer to what I would imagine multiplayer Battleline to be. Yes, the game uses poker hands for scoring, but it was more about playing the correct combination of cards at the right place.
The theme is that of gangsters in the Roaring Twenties, and it works fairly well with the game; but it's mostly just a light game of placing cards down, trying to outbluff and outwit your opponents. While it has similarities to Battleline, it's not as refined; yet I had a lot of fun with the game and think it will see a good amount of play. Games are quick, the chaos that Faidutti brings to games is certainly evident, and the whole affair is one of light, amusing play.
The game revolves around business tiles – each player taking the role of a gangster from the area attempting to control these tiles. The tiles are hexagons, and players are going to play cards from their hands on one of the sides that pertain to them. A deck of cards is shuffled, and each player is dealt five cards for their starting hand. The business tiles are shuffled; and two to four of them, depending on number of players, are dealt face up on the table. Four bullet markers are placed on the table, and one player is chosen to go first.
On the first player's turn, they take one action – either playing or drawing a card. The second player then takes two actions (any mix of playing or drawing), and every player after that takes three actions per turn. When drawing cards, players must make sure that they have a maximum of seven cards in their hand at the END of their turn. When playing a card, the player may play it on any of the business tiles on the board. A player may have a maximum of five cards per business tile. Each type of business has cards played in a different fashion.
Speakeasy – First two cards are played face down; last three are played face up.
Jazz Club – First three cards are played face up; last two are played face down.
Gambling House – First card played face up, alternating after that.
Brewery – All cards are played face up.
When any player places their fifth card at a location, a bullet token is placed on the tile, showing that a "shootout" will happen at the beginning of their next turn. When this happens, all face down cards are revealed; and players see who has the best array of cards at the site, even if they have less than five there. Hand value is pretty much identical to that of regular poker, except that there are five suits (green, blue, red, yellow, and green), and the values go from "1" to "15". The player with the highest hand wins the business tile, and all cards played are discarded; and a new business tile is drawn to take the place of the card.
A few special cards can be played to affect the game, although a variant plays the game without them. These allow a player to take two extra actions or take a card from the discard pile, or move cards from one business to another, or look at hidden cards of another player, or discard one card another player put down. The game continues until one player either has won three businesses of the same kind, one of each of the four types, or five total businesses. This player has then won the game!
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: It's neat to have the four wooden bullet tokens; they are completely unnecessary but really add to the theme. The business tiles are very large; and having players play their cards to one of the six sides works very well, making it easy to remember who owns each pile of cards. The cards are of good quality, although the game is annoying for color blind people, since suits can't be told apart other than color. The pictures are all obviously based on famous actors from older movies and are well drawn, adding to the theme. Everything fits nicely into the box and is easy to pull out and set up.
2.) Rules: The rulebook, even with full color diagrams and pictures, still manages to take only four pages – and one of those is all about hand rankings and how to exactly break ties, which doesn't happen all that often. The game is a snap to introduce to anyone who has played poker before, and wonderful two-sided reference cards are included which show the poker hands and what each special card does. Players pick up on the rules quickly, and the game plays fast enough that people can have a "learning game" easily and play again.
3.) Special Cards: I'm not surprised these are in the game, given that Bruno Faidutti is one of the designers; but I'm not sure I see the point of them. They come up rarely in the course of the game and don't affect play much at all. One of them, Liquidation, discards the last card played by an opponent on a business – but NOT if they have five cards. Since players often play the last two or three cards on a business in one turn, this is very ineffective. So the cards are weak at best, and I say just chuck 'em for a more pure game or include more, powerful ones to make them worth something. Since the second half of that isn't possible without cutting and pasting, then I recommend the variant if only to put these weak cards to rest.
4.) Poker: This game has some similarities to Havoc: the Hundred Year's War, in that players play part of their hand at a time, thus building apprehension for all involved. However, the tension is much less in Chicago Poker, since players often build up their hands and only throw down cards when they are sure, or when they are desperately wanting to capture a business from opponents. This makes the game faster and more enjoyable for those seeking something light but may frustrate those who get tired of seeing "three of a kind" winning every business. I like both methodologies and probably like the slower, tension-building version better, but at the same time I like to just kick back and throw down a pile of cards, hoping I have the best hand.
5.) Fun Factor: I don't have as many things to say about Chicago Poker, because much of it is simply about trying to snag any business you can. The different victory conditions are nice, but they basically are in place to force players to stop someone from winning businesses quickly. Chicago Poker has a hurried, move-move-move feel to it, and really is NOTHING like an actual poker game – let alone one played in the gangster era. Still, that doesn't mean it isn't fun; I enjoyed it tremendously, although not as much as others did, who begged to play it again.
Chicago Poker isn't attempting to be a variant of Poker, or a successor; rather it's simply a card placement game that uses poker hands to determine area control victory. But that's enough to keep it refreshing as a light, entertaining game. The theme is fun, and players can use all the cheesy lines they've heard in movies while encouraging others to stop so-and-so, since they're winning! And at half an hour a game, it's quick, enjoyable entertainment. I may not be able to keep a good Poker face; but that's okay in this game, since I'm grinning much of the time.
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