5 Stack is a chip-stacking boardgame that is currently up for funding on Kickstarter (project link). This game has been created by Jackson Robinson, an award winning designer of playing cards from Kings Wild Project. The game is described as follows: 5 Stack is an exciting chip stacking game with the perfect mixture of strategy and chance. 5 Stack is simple enough that a 5-year-old can play it and interesting enough to captivate the seasoned board game veteran.
Jackson is highly experienced with crowdfunding, having successfully produced many decks of quality custom playing cards with the help of backers on Kickstarter. But he is relatively new to the board game industry. An earlier attempt to launch this project was Jackson's first experience with publishing table top games, and it quickly became apparent that his original plan to manufacture everything in the USA, plus the high cost of fulfilling international shipping, would put the cost of the published game out of reach for many people. So he decided to cancel the project, with the goal of taking what he learned to present a new and improved version for a relaunch, and it's this relaunched version that I'm here to tell you about. It's the same great game-play, but the board design has been modified in order to allow it to fit into a smaller box, thus saving a significant amount on shipping costs. Overseas production has reduced the cost even further, as has eliminating the extra costs required for safety testing necessary that would allow a suggested age of less than 13 on the box. Partnerships with international shippers also help make the price more attractive for international backers.
In the interests of full disclosure, this is both a preview and a review. At the end of last year, I enjoyed some correspondence with 5 Stack's designer, Jackson Robinson, who is also the guy behind the playing card publishing brand Kings Wild Project. Jackson's main claim to fame is in the world of custom playing cards, where he is regarded as one of the biggest names in the industry, as the creator of highly sought-after collectable playing cards. Our exchange of communication about playing cards led to a discussion about board games, and when Jackson told me about the 5 Stack game he was working on, I immediately expressed interest, and he was happy to send me a preview copy. So I've had a copy of the game since the start of this year, and have been able to get in enough plays of it in order to post a review. I like the game enough to want to tell others about it, in case you want to consider support it; otherwise I wouldn't waste time writing this review!
The originally planned box for 5 Stack was very large (see on left), similar in dimensions to the size of a large boardgame like Kingdom Builder or Ticket to Ride.
It's now much smaller in size (see on right), which is great given that this reduces the cost to something far more manageable.
Inside the box we get the following components: ● 1 game board ● 2 dice ● 4 sets of wooden chips (25 in each set) ● 4 cloth bags ● instructions
This describes the "Lite" edition, which can cater for games up to four players. The Kickstarter project also offers options for a "Standard" edition, which costs an extra $10, and has two extra cloth bags and two additional sets of 25 wooden chips, to cater for 5-6 player games.
Note that in the majority of the photographs below, I have included pictures of the version of the game that I have, which may differ slightly from the final published version.
The game board consists of a 6x6 grid, with columns labelled A through F, and rows labelled 1 through 6. Each square has been given an alpha-numeric designation, which will correspond to what is rolled on the two game dice.
Each column has the alphabet letter at both the top and the bottom, and each row has the number at both the left and the right. This makes it very easy to find the square in question, particularly since each square is also labelled with the 36 different alpha-numeric combinations.
Two dice will be used to determine on which square of the board players can place their chips at different stages of the game. One die has the letters A through F on its six sides, while the other die has the numbers 1 through 6 on its six sides.
The dice that came with my copy of the game are large over-sized wooden dice, and are much bigger than standard D6 dice. Given that you are constantly passing these from player to player, the larger-than-normal size of these is welcome.
Each set of wooden chips consists of 25 chips in the same colour, plus a single wooden chip with gold painted edges (the "gold" chip that must be played last). The chips are quite large and round (roughly poker sized), and deliberately quite thin, so that they can stack pleasantly on top of each other.
The colours in the Lite version are red, yellow, green and blue, while the Standard version also includes black and white chips.
Cloth drawstrings bags are provided to assist with storage. This keeps the chips of each player colour separate, thus avoiding the need to sort out all the chips at the start of each game.
The rules are relatively straight forward, and fit on a single sheet of paper.
With the game-board in the center, players all get 25 chips in their colour plus a single matching gold chip.
Dice are rolled to create a random set-up that adds five chips per player to the 6x6 game-board.
For example, here's how a three player game might look after the initial random placement to set-up the game.
Flow of Play
In clockwise order players take turns to do one of the following:
● Move a chip/stack
You may move a chip or a chip stack under your control (i.e. with a chip of your colour on the top) in a straight direction on the board. You can move horizontally or vertically as far as you like, but you can't jump over chips. You can also use this movement to join a stack that is under your control with another stack that is also already under your control.
● Place a new chip
Alternatively, you can decide to roll the dice, and place a new chip of your colour on the location determined by the dice rolled. This is the only way to "capture" a stack that is being controlled by another player, and bring it under your control.
Clearing a Stack
Points are scored by "clearing" a stack. This happens whenever a stack under your control (with a chip of your colour on the top) reaches 5 or more chips. When this happens, you immediately remove that stack from the board and place those chips in front of you; you will count up these points at the end of the game. A stack might include chips of other players - that's fine, because these will also earn you points.
Buying Back In
In the event you have played all your chips but don't have enough on the board to create a stack of 5 or more to end the game, you can choose to roll the dice and place one of your "cleared" chips on that location. However Buying Back In isn't mandatory - for strategic reasons you might elect to not do this and instead move your existing chips on the board to block your opponents.
Your gold chip must be played last. This chip is worth 5 points, unlike the other chips which are worth 1 point each.
The aim of the game is to score the highest number of points. The game ends instantly when someone has played all their chips and cleared all chip stacks that are under their control.
Your final score is the total number of "cleared" chips, minus any of your unplayed and uncleared chips at game end. Watch out for that gold chip: it is worth 5 points if you have cleared it, but will be worth minus 5 points if it's still on the board or in front of you at game end!
Here's a scoring example where someone ended up with 24 points.
The instructions suggest that you can play a single round for a quick 20-30 minute game. Alternatively, you might want to play several rounds, by playing as many rounds as there are players, cumulatively adding up the points from each round. For a longer challenge, play as many rounds as needed until one player reaches 100 points.
Here's an official video that gives an overview of how to play the game:
Besides the two basic levels at which you can support this game - Lite (4 players) or Standard (6 players), you can also get a few other optional extras.
The deck of custom playing cards adds an extra $10 to the cost. This deck is a Kickstarter exclusive limited edition, and won't be available separately.
For just $10 extra, I'd suggest that picking this up is a no-brainer. Jackson Robinson's playing cards are in high demand, and it wouldn't surprise me to see these selling for at least double this on the secondary market a year or two from now. Many playing card collectors will be super eager to complete their collections of Jackson Robinson playing cards, and since these playing cards are only going to be available as an add-on with this project, they're likely to be highly sought after.
Of course, for the extra ten bucks, it's an opportunity to get for yourself a deck of quality custom playing cards from a highly regarded designer. From what I've seen, these are practical playing cards, and yet have the kinds of design elements and style that have made Jackson Robinson so popular in the playing card world.
Gold coin set
The wooden "gold" chips that come with the game are perfectly functional. But if you have money burning a hole in your pocket, and really want to throw some extra dough at this project, you can add in an extra $30 for a set of six special gold collector's coins. These are weighted chips that add a real touch of luxury to the game - but obviously you are paying for this premium addition.
What do I think?
Components: The components are more than satisfactory: ● Box - The original box was way too big for a light and social game of this type, and would have ramped the cost up unnecessarily. I'm pleased to see that the publisher has gone to a folding type board so that reduces the footprint of the box, and so contributes significantly to lowering the price. ● Board - The board is very functional and works well. Often you're rolling the dice to see where you need to place a chip, and the alpha-numeric combination is a very practical mechanic, making it is very easy to find the location on the board, given how it is well marked for this purpose. ● Chips - The wooden chips are a nice size, and are surprisingly light for their size. They are also very thin, and stack on top of each other very nicely, and we had no issues with stacks falling over. I have seen a sample of the deluxe metal/gold coins, and they are absolutely outstanding, and super impressive - everyone loved them; but of course they do add quite a bit of cost to the game if you want to opt for this premium extra. ● Bags - Having player bags for the players was a nice touch for storage and for keeping the chips separate. To prevent players confusing their unused chips with their captured/cleared chips, I would suggest that players who clear chips put them inside the bag, to avoid taking and placing them by mistake. This would also help keep scoring secret as the game proceeds, so that players can't do the math in advance to calculate exactly how many points other players have, and this makes it more of a surprise as to who is winning and by how much until the end of a round.
Accessibility: The rules are very straight forward and easy to learn, and the fact that they fit on a single sheet of paper gives you an idea of how simple they are. The five minute video that explains game-play is particularly excellent, and you can use this to teach new players; after watching this video, they are genuinely ready to play and have fun. Not only is the game very easy to learn and understand, but it is well within the reach of children to learn and enjoy. Yet it is by no means a kids game, and there is enough going on for adults to have fun as well. The early version of the rules that we were using did require some edits and clarifications, and I have forwarded some of my own suggestions for improving things to the publisher. Undoubtedly the final published version will have the benefit of further polishing.
Movement: The horizontal and vertical movement of the chips on the board really adds a unique element to the game, and works well. Initially we were somewhat frustrated to find our stacks on opposite sides of the board, or blocked by opponents. But we quickly learned to use this to our advantage - and it became a positive tactical move to put your stack between two opponent's stacks so that they couldn't combine them on their next turn. The more you play, the more you become aware of such possibilities.
Luck: There is a big luck element in this game, because the placement of your chips is determined solely by rolling the dice, and there are 36 different possibilities, of which you have zero control as to the outcome. Somewhat surprisingly, none of our players found this frustrating, but it made the game a whole lot of fun and is one of its strengths. Our players all like strategy games and don't usually like high luck games, so why was this game different? Here are some reasons: 1. It has enough decisions. You still do have some control and decisions, e.g. should you add a new chip by rolling the dice, or should you move one of your existing stacks? And if you do move an existing stack, which one should you move, and where? So there is definitely some control over the outcome, and you aren't helplessly at the whims of fate. 2. It is a light game. It's not such a deep strategy game that the randomness ruins it. Add random elements to chess, for example, and it kills the game. Not with 5 Stack - the chance of stealing someone else's stack does come down to the roll of the dice, but it is enormous fun when it happens. And sometimes you will get a new chip added in just the right spot, while other times it gets added in just the wrong spot; either way it creates laughs and fun for all. The balance of luck and strategy seems just right, so that the luck elements never becomes overly frustrating, but helps keep the game fun. 3. It plays quickly. It helps that each round only lasts 15 minutes. If you do really get burned by a run of bad luck, on the next round perhaps you will be the one reaping the benefits of fortune! And quite frankly, when you are the first player to clear all your stacks, or if you do manage to steal a large stack from an opponent, even if luck played a role in that happening, it feels enormously satisfying when it does happen!
Audience: The relatively straight forward game-play and elements of randomness may frustrate some gamers who are looking for serious strategy with a minimal role for chance. Normally I'd consider our group in that category, but despite that, we enjoyed this quite a bit. It's very light and easy, and as such is best enjoyed as a filler or social game. As long as you come in with right expectations, and approach it as a casual and fun game, it lives up to that standard. 5 Stack has the greatest potential with non-gamers, or in a family context, and with people who don't play a lot of games, and are looking for something social and fun. It reminds me somewhat of the classic game Sequence, which also involves putting chips on a board (determined by cards rather than dice), and where the aim is to get five in a row. Even though 5 Stack has less decisions with respect to your placement, since there is no choice at all as far as that goes, it has more decisions due to the positional movement of the chips on the board, and in the end it feels less random and more fun than Sequence. It should appeal to a similar kind of market, and if given the right opportunity, could enjoy a similar success. My only concern here is with the Buy Back In rule; this might need some minor polishing, because there could be some unique scenarios that arise in which this doesn't feel quite right, even though in most cases it works well.
Fun: In the end, 5 Stack has proved to be a whole lot of fun. Our games of 5 Stack are typically accompanied by a lot of yelling and cheering, especially when stacks are stolen, or piles of chips are blocked/isolated, and the noise especially amplified in tense situations when rolling the dice. Sometimes the ideal right or wrong outcome was missed by the slimmest of margins, which created moments of amusement for all. The final stages of the game have their own feel, especially when you are trying to clear your remaining chips and stacks, and this creates its own tension in the closing phase.
Scoring: I like the scoring system, especially the gold chips played at the end. The gold chips do "unbalance" the game, because if you succeed in `clearing' your gold chip it's worth five points, otherwise it can cause you to lose five points (a ten point swing). But this is a deliberate design choice, and it forces you to think about your end game strategy. These give you a real chance to get some extra points, making some piles particularly important to clear. It also makes it more exciting if you manage to steal a pile that has an opponent's gold chip as well. In many cases, the player who clears their last chips will also be ahead on points, because they won't have negative points to deal with whereas all the other players will - but this won't always be the case. But for this reason, the game is best enjoyed either in a fixed number of rounds, or playing up to 100 points as suggested in the rules. Even so, it is still reasonably fun as a single round, although we found that the player who clears their stacks first was often the winner.
Length: In our four player games, we found that a typical round lasts 15-20 minutes, although once you're familiar with the game-play you can play quite quickly. We usually want to play again immediately when finishing a round, and tend to play around three rounds in about an hour. The length per round feels just right for the type of game this is.
Player count: With more players, you end up with more chips on the board, which creates more chaos and stealing of stacks, but this can also add extra layers of excitement. With just two players, in contrast, there is going to be far less interaction and excitement. Because of this, 5 Stack feels less than optimal with just two players, whereas with a full player count of six, down-time and chaos/randomness can start to become an issue. I would suggest that it is best with 3, 4 or 5 players. Certainly the number of players will affect how the game feels and plays, creating a different experience depending on the player count.
Variants: I can't help but wonder if there is room for a team variant, similar to Sequence, when playing the game with an even number of players, such as four or six. Players on opposite sides of the table could work together in a partnership somehow, and with slight adjustments to the rules, and this could introduce new elements of fun that aren't present in a game where everyone plays on his own.
Designer: This is Jackson Robinson's first game design, but he is no stranger to Kickstarter, having funded multiple projects and enjoyed great success as a professional designer of playing cards. That also means that this game comes with the benefit of his experience and skills in the world of graphic design and playing cards. I do think his experience comes out in the fact that this is a very clean and functional design, and everything about it has a professional look.
So is 5 Stack for you? This game will primarily appeal to people looking for a fun social game that they can play with friends or family, and which is easy to explain and play. It's certainly not targeted primarily towards gamers, nor is this a title intended to compete with serious strategy games. Rather, this is a lighter game that will appeal more to people who enjoy social games like Sequence, and is especially suited to non-gamers, families, and the mass market. Having said that, as a gamer I enjoyed this quite a bit, and it is the kind of game I'd pull out to play with non-gaming family or friends. The components also ensure that it has a colourful look and feel.
If you like the look and sound of this forthcoming title, definitely check out the Kickstarter to see if 5 Stack is a game you want to support. Fulfilment is expected to happen early next year.
Disclaimer: I have no official relationship with the creator of this project, other than being a fan of lively and easy-to-play games that are highly accessible and have a broad appeal, and having had opportunity to play and enjoy a pre-release version with my family and friends.
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Thanks for the review/preview! I have this one in my Saved/Remind Me queue. I'm not a card collector, so if I back, I'll have to decide between Lite and Standard. It sounds like the game isn't ideal at the higher player counts, but I do like having more color choices...
(Btw, I think your component list describes the Standard version, not the Lite. Wouldn't the Lite version have 4 sets of chips and 4 bags?)