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My 2011 in Review: Card Games

This is the seventh installment of a series of articles, in which I take a look back at some of the new games I've played and explored in the past year. Card Games are one of my favourite genres.

Of all the new games I was introduced to in the past year, I'd have to give the Card Game of the Year award to Biblios as the pick of the bunch. But don't go away just yet, because some outstanding titles emerged over the last 12 months which also deserve to be highlighted, and you'll find several of them in this list! Of the card games you learned this year, what was your favourite?

Biblios



Biblios has to be the card game that Reiner Knizia wanted to make - it's that good. But unfortunately for him designer Steve Finn beat him to it! Originally published as "Scripts & Scribes", this game was one of those cult hits that became a kind of underground phenomenon among those who could get their hands on it. Described by some as For Sale type filler on steroids, it uses familiar mechanisms in interesting ways to create a fun experience with surprising depth in the short time it takes to play. It all comes together in a very successful and deservingly popular package, and the good news is that in the past year Scripts & Scribes was elevated from its humble VHS case status, and joined the world of real games under the name Biblios. With the help of publisher Iello, Pinocchio has become a real boy at last, making this great little card game widely available with new artwork and quality components, and fortunately not changing a thing about the great gameplay.

At its core it is a set collection game, but it begins with a drafting phase where players create an auction deck and give cards to their opponents. Ten follows an auction phase as players compete for the cards in the auction deck, trying to establish point-scoring majorities in the five different suits. Oh and did we mention that there are ways to manipulate the points each category is worth by changing the dice totals corresponding to each set type?

Biblios gets just about everything just right: mechanics, rules, length, interaction, scalability, luck, strategy, tension, fun factor and surprise factor. It's all very well balanced, and will thus appeal to a broad range of people. It also combines a variety of mechanics in a delightful and satisfying way. Admittedly the theme is pasted on, because really all that matters are the numbers and suits, so it could be set collection for anything. In that respect Biblios reminds me a great deal of the best of master designer Reiner Knizia - cards with numbers, pasted on theme, but rich and rewarding game-play that makes me come back again and again. In fact, few would have questioned it had Knizia's name been on the box, because it's that sort of game, and right up there with some of Knizia's best fillers and auction games. Outstanding for its class, and very highly recommended!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: The super filler that Reiner Knizia wishes he had designed


Haggis



Designed by Sean Ross, Haggis is the second entry in Indie Board & Card's marvellous Postcard Box Games series. It is not a trick-taking game in the conventional sense, but is part of the climbing game family, along with the immensely popular Tichu, which can rightly be considered an esteemed parent of Haggis. Unlike Tichu, which excels as a partnership game for four players, Haggis is designed for 2-3 players, and is widely regarded as doing a superb job of bringing Tichu-like play to a table with less players.

The object of the game is to try to be the first to empty your hand of cards, thus earning points for the cards left in your opponent's hand. In the course of play, you capture the specific scoring cards in the tricks you win. But to really ramp up the fun factor and the excitement, the points that you acquire in this fashion can be further supplemented by betting that you will be the first player to divest yourself of all of your cards. The `betting' at the start of each round just increases the stakes and adds to the tension. Tricks require playing combinations of cards like sets and sequences - concepts that will be somewhat familiar from games like Rummy. But in Haggis each player also starts with three wild cards, and not only can these help you make sets and sequences, but they can also be played together as `Bombs' - essentially big trumps that beat all other combinations of cards, and virtually guarantee you the trick. Bombs help you retain the lead, but come at the cost of giving up the cards from that trick to your opponent. In most cases retaining the lead is worth this cost, because it can help you ensure that you go out first, and so make your bet or stop your opponent making his.

If you are already familiar with climbing games or are an ardent Tichu fan that's looking for something to play with just 2 or 3 players, then you most definitely want to check out Haggis. If you enjoy traditional type card games, you should also give this a close look, because it could well become a modern classic. There are quality components with attractive artwork, and the gameplay itself is tense and exciting, and leaves a lot of room for skill. Haggis has proven to be a real hit with most people it's introduced to, and if you like the gameplay of traditional type card games, you'll probably find yourself just loving this.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Introducing a Tichu-inspired Haggis You Won’t Want to Hurl!


Barons



With Barons we get more card-game goodness from the same company that brought us Glory to Rome. I wouldn't quite call it a "new" Glory to Rome, even though it's from the same publisher, because it's lighter in feel, and the mechanics are quite different from both games. But cards still have multiple uses, and when played as buildings they will give you ongoing abilities and benefits. And it's definitely still a strategy card game, which is why the publisher is marketing it as part of their "Extreme Strategy" rather than their "Family" series.

The basic concept is that players are building up their personal barony by playing lands (which allow you to draw new cards by taxation) and buildings (which have special abilities), and there's interaction with other baronies by using knights. Cards are used as lands/buildings/actions/knights, but are also used as `money' (by discarding) in order to `pay' for the cards that are put into play.

There are four different coloured decks that are shared by the players, and each deck has unique cards with its own feel. There are certainly different strategies to explore by building around certain cards or colours. Barons also has the advantage of scaling well as a two-player game, and plays quite quickly - so you can play a couple of games back-to-back. I've played it many times, and find that many of the nuances only become apparent after multiple plays - I believe it's been somewhat unfairly the recipient of criticism from those who have judged it too harshly after just one or two plays, without taking the time to explore it more fully. So bear in mind: 1. don't expect it to be like Glory to Rome (it's lighter, and different); 2. don't judge it too quickly after just one or two plays (there's more strategy and tactics going on than meets the eye!)

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Introducing Glory to Rome's younger brother - and easily one of the best strategy card games of 2011!


Wildlife Safari



Wildlife Safari is a rethemed version of the simple and elegant Knizia classic Loco, with the addition of some wonderful animal miniatures.

A small deck of cards contains six cards (numbered 0-5) in five suits corresponding to the animal miniatures, of which there are five of each: rhinos, leopards, lions, zebras, elephants. The cards are dealt out to all the players, and in turns each player plays a card and takes an animal. You keep playing cards until one animal has all six of its cards played, at which point the game stops and the last card played for each animal represents how many points those animals are worth.

If you are looking for a first rate family game that can serve double-duty as a quick, light, social filler than Botswana should be on your radar. In terms of fun, ease of learning, replayability and simple good value, you would be hard pressed to go wrong with a game of this sort. It is very accessible, has a good fun factor, plays quickly, and has gorgeous components. Featuring a very elegant design, despite some luck of the draw it also enables you to make clever and tense choices, especially in the closing stages of a game. Attractive and high quality components round out an excellent all-round package that's good value.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Lions and Leopards and Elephants... Oh my, what a great new edition of this classic filler!


Potion-Making: Practice



Potion-Making: Practice is another game from our gaming friends in Russia. After enjoying much success and winning all kinds of awards in that country, it's made the jump to the wider gaming world with the help of an English edition released at Essen 2011.

The core of the game is about collecting and combining elements to make different potions, and then combining potions that you and other players have made to make even more powerful and higher point scoring potions. The cards in the game represent both the raw elements and the formulas for higher level potions, so you'll need to make careful choices about managing your cards.

I'm told that this game has made a huge splash in Russia, and has been considered the top game there over the last five years - and I can see why. In the more crowded market of games outside its native country, Potion Making Practice got a lot of competition from other quality card games, but it holds its own well and has an addictive quality about it. It would classify as a solid filler, but it does its job well, and there's enough interaction and decision making to make the game enjoyable without it becoming nasty or entirely cerebral or for that matter entirely luck driven. This game has proven to be very popular in our family, and has seen a lot of play over the last few months, being enjoyed by both young and old alike.

Want to know more? See a full review: mb "What are the three most crucial ingredients in a Forgetfulness Potion?" - A game where you can make your own magic Potions using beautiful ingredients


White Elephant



In White Elephant you excel in bad gift-giving. You have three not exactly highly loved people on your shopping list (e.g. The Crazy Neighbour, Mother in Law, Great Uncle Irwin), and so you haul out some `junk' out of your garage or attic, then attempt to exchange what you have with other players for better stuff, trying to be the player who is the best gift giver.

The main mechanic of the game is borrowed from the popular holiday party game "White Elephant Gift Exchange", also known as Dirty Santa, Yankee Swap, Chinese Gift Exchange, or Parcel Pass. Everyone chooses a Gift card and places it face down in the middle of the table. The starting player then chooses a gift from the middle and "opens" it by placing it face up in front of him. Then the next person in clockwise turn order may either choose an unopened gift, or steal an opened gift from another player. This continues until everyone has a gift, and then the process is repeated with new cards. At the end of the game the winner is the player with the highest valued cards for the three recipients on their gift list.

White Elephant is definitely a very light and fluffy card game that best excels with a casual group of players, especially non-gamers, and really thrives with groups of 5 through 7 players. It can be explained in little more than 60 seconds, and is highly interactive and fun for the 10-15 minutes it takes to play. But the real strength is the theme. I've always liked the White Elephant concept and it works really well in this game, because the game essentially is the traditional gift exchange, but simply played with cards and points. There's also fun to be had in having some laughs about the silly gifts themselves, because the cards feature items that are completely kitschy, gaudy, tacky, and cheesy. A fun little filler that's ideal for introducing to your family and friends.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Why bad gift-giving can make a good gift these holidays


Musketeers



Musketeers has been around for a while, but has just had a major component upgrade with the benefit of a new release that's a special felt-lined tin box edition. It's not a meaty filler by any means, but has real potential for those who enjoy elements of bluffing and simultaneous selection, and are looking for something light and quick.

In the game, players must simultaneously choose a Musketeer card from their hand, in an effort to work together with the other players to defeat the Guard card that has been revealed. If the combined total is sufficient, the player who contributed the highest card gets a reward (Gem cards), while if the combined total is insufficient, the player who contributed the lowest card suffers a penalty (Prison cards).

It's a clever use of numbers that reminds me of the best of Knizia in its simplicity and genius - even though it's not a Knizia design. The simultaneous selection and bluffing elements are a real highlight, but the real genius of the game is the fascinating mechanic where you're working together but at the same time working against each other. This semi-cooperative element is thematic and truly fitting for the Musketeer's motto: "One for all, and all for one!" Luck of the draw does play a role, and the game is best enjoyed with 3 and preferably with 4, but it is super quick, light and fun, and yet has enough substance to make it something worth coming back to for another quick fix.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: All for one and one for all - a semi-cooperative musketeering filler that's a fast and fun surprise!


Adventure of D



It's a rather unassuming box, and is the home-grown creation of a designer in Indonesia. But don't underestimate small things, because Adventure of D is a fantasy adventure card game for 1-4 players that proves very rewarding, especially when played solitaire!

The Adventure of D is part of a series of games that are part of designer Jack Darwid's `The D-Universe’. In this particular game, a `board' is created by the variable set-up of 12 cards in a 4x3 grid, each corresponding to locations like Woods of Mana, Village of Dawn, and Tower of Death. The aim is to move around the map and complete a series of challenges in order to build up your character (and there are several to choose from, each with their own abilities) in three areas (strength, intelligence, and agility). Eventually you will reach the point where you're ready to risk entering the Tower of Death in a game-winning attempt of heroism to defeat the evil wizard Elzoof. The beauty of this game is that cards have multiple uses. The designer has come up with an original concept that he calls "The Power Card system" as a way of making the game move forward. In other words: no dice - but yet some random events and scope for player decisions.

While the production quality of the game might leave something to be desired, the artwork is charming especially for a somewhat homegrown job, and more importantly the Power Card system underlying the gameplay is very solid indeed, and really helps create a genuine fantasy adventure experience. The game does feel somewhat like a puzzle after a while, and perhaps that's why it's best enjoyed as a solitaire experience. But if you are looking for a lighter and fun fantasy adventure game that is both quick to play and eminently portable, then this might just be the game for you. A clever little game that deserves more attention than it has received until now, and a pleasant surprise from a somewhat unassuming package!

Want to know more? See my full review: mb Ender's Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: Because any fantasy adventure game that features Aldie and Derk as game characters has to be good!


Heroes of Graxia



Heroes of Graxia is another deck-building game that certainly owes a great deal to Dominion for much of its mechanics, but offers a very fresh approach to the genre by incorporating significant elements from games like Magic the Gathering, most notably the notion of player-vs-player combat. In contrast to the 25 different kingdom cards amongst the 500 cards of Dominion, the 240 cards of Heroes of Graxia feature more than 50 uniquely different characters, equipment, spells and monsters, and they're also packaged in a much more compact and portable box.

Heroes of Graxia clearly owes an enormous debt to Dominion in game-play, e.g. the basic concept of building up a deck; spending money from cards in hand to buy face-up cards and put them into your discard pile; discarding your complete hand and drawing five new cards at the end of your turn. But while the core of the game is something familiar and proven, from there it forges its own path in a new direction. First of all, cards can be used either for their gold value, or for their special ability as a unit, equipment or spell - so you'll rarely feel thwarted by the luck of the draw. But the biggest change is the addition of player-vs-player combat. Once you put characters into play from your hand, they remain in play, so that you can build up an army with units, improve them with equipment, and then use this well equipped legion in combat against monsters and other players.

It's a brilliant concept that's interactive and innovative, and has a lot to offer, and the artwork is quite stunning and attractive. Unfortunately the game itself is not entirely without flaws, and you will find some concerns about excessive math in calculating legion strength, and mixed feelings about how effectively the player-vs-player combat works. But there's some interesting and good ideas here, and we've had enormous fun with it in the dozen or more times we've played it, particularly with older boys and teens. There have been reports that the publisher is further polishing their product with improved rules and plans to add a sequel, and I am hoping that the game will only keep on getting better from here.

Want to know more? See my full review: mb A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: A Dominion-style deck-building game with MtG-style player-vs-player combat


Join the discussion: What is the best new card game that you learned in the past year? And if you have played any of above mentioned games, what did you think of them?

Read the whole series: My 2011 in Review: A look back at some new games
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