I was fortunate enough to receive a pre-production copy of Rapscallion a few weeks back. After several playings with more on the way shortly, this is certainly my new favorite addiction. Each game flies along so quickly that we've done the "just one more game" thing with Raps (as we now call it, as in "Raps?" "Sure, just one game though" which always turns into at least two) pretty much every time we've played.
The basic idea behind the game is to bid for playing cards to make the best poker hand possible. That sounds okay, certainly not earth-shattering, but what I like about the gameplay is that it's much more about bidding than it is about poker. There is constant bidding in this game, and two decisions to be made on each bid: what card to bid with and what card to take. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start with a basic rundown of the game itself.
The game contains two decks of cards: a standard deck of 52 playing cards with "themed" suits (I suppose the cards and suits are themed, at least in as much as a card game can be richly themed), a deck of common bidding cards, and each player also gets a small set of their own bidding cards and a color-coded reference card (which initially seemed stupid, and then when we were told by the rules to PASS the reference card along with our set of bidding cards seemed even "more stupider," and then finally made perfect sense, which I have explained below). And a score pad which has a handy little scoring reference on it for the first few times you play (well, because mine wasn't a real copy I only got Xeroxed pages of the score pad pages, but that doesn't really have a bearing on this review).
Each player is given a set of bidding cards (three numbered cards and two rapscallion cards) and the colored reference card: one side has scoring details, the other shows the phases/steps/stages/you-call-it-whatever-you-want of each hand. Each player is initially dealt one playing card as well (their "hole" card, sort of kind of). Then each player takes one his bidding cards (either a number or one of the rapscallion cards) and places it in a pile called the side bet. At the end of the hand the highest played card in this pile wins this bet.
Your goal is to score the most VPs (actually, I think it's just points, not Victory Points, but really, it's the same thing). Once at least one player reaches 100 points, whomever has the most victory points wins. You get points in the following ways: 20 points for a Straight Flush or Four of a Kind, 15 for a Full House, 10 for a Flush and 5 for a Straight. If you have the best hand (there are no ties possible thanks to suit ranks), you get an additional 20 points. If you have the worst hand, you lose 10 points. If you win the aforementioned "side bet" you get an additional 15 points. For each of the rapscallion cards you don't use, you get another 5 points. After each hand points are totaled and written on the enclosed score sheet.
All of this seems okay, somewhat mundane at this point. But where the cool part kicks in is in the game play…the bidding process itself, which is in many ways like the second part of Stephen Dorra's For Sale game. Cards are placed in the center of the table equal to the number of players (if there are five players, there are five cards, etcetera). All of them are turned face up except one, and then each player chooses a bidding card and places it face down in front of them. All the players reveal simultaneously, and the highest number bid takes the choice of playing cards. Then the next highest number takes one, etcetera. Any player may take the face-down card (the player doesn't show it to anyone else). The bidding card that was played is put under the player's reference card (this keeps the table from getting all cluttered), and then another round of bidding for a card takes place.
So at this point, each player has 3 playing cards, and only two bidding cards in their hand. Here's where the crazy part happens. Remember those common bidding cards? Well, now those are placed in the center of the table (as many as there are players), with all but one turned face up. And you use a PLAYING CARD to bid for those new bidding cards, which is then removed from the game!!! Hope you didn't have three-of-a-kind, John-boy! Then each player picks up all their bidding cards, bids for more playing cards, there's another round of bidding for a bidding card (that's a tongue twister), and then more bidding for playing cards until each player has eight playing cards. And then the showdown happens (you use the best five card hand you can make from all your cards) , the side bet is shown, and points are handed out.
I forgot about the rapscallion cards. See, the rapscallion cards are the "trump" cards. These cards are higher than any numbered bidding card, so they are guaranteed to win a bid. That is, unless more than one rapscallion card is played. Then, instead of winning, these cards cancel each other out and the players have to play another bidding card. Of course, each player who played a rapscallion card gets to see what the other players have played, but it still blows to lose your card, because once a rapscallion card is played, it is out of the game for the rest of that hand. And you don't get the five bonus points at the end of the hand for not using it. The rapscallion cards work the same way in the side bet, but the result of a tie is a little harsher: they just cancel each other out and the highest number played wins; you don't get to play another card into the side bet after-the-fact.
Between hands, there's a bit of maintenance going on; we've found it best to assign one person as the scorekeeper, another as the playing card guy (that's usually me for some reason) who gets the playing cards back from everyone and deals, another for the common bidding cards, and then each person gathers their bidding cards and passes them to the left, WITH their reference card. The reason that this is important (we thought it was stupid the first time and didn't do it) is because the color is keyed to the side bet colors, and it makes it really easy to see who won the side bet. Also, each of the individual sets have different numbers in them, so it evens out to everyone to move them around to different players. In a five player game--we have yet to play a six player game--the reference card helps to keep track of the player and the cards he is bidding when all the other stuff is happening on the table. In fact, that is my biggest complaint with the game: there's a lot of cards out and because the game moves so fast, occasionally we could get a little lost. Though that doesn't happen much anymore, it did with those first couple games.
Once you get into the rhythm of the game, with the different bidding cycles shown on those reference cards, each hand takes about 5 minutes to play. At least, it did for our group, which consists of grizzled gamers. So a game takes about 20 minutes, typically, though I could see it taking longer if you have a thinker in your game who likes to analyze everything. Our first game was longer because we weren't sure what we were bidding for and when it changed, but by the end of that game I think everyone "got it" and the second game probably took half the time.
There is a luck factor involved; sometimes you start down a path looking for certain cards that never show up. Other times you'll select the face down card praying for the right card and actually get it. But the variety of options for scoring and strategies keep the luck mitigated enough so that it feels like you still have a lot of control over the eventual outcome.
The building up of your hand is the aspect that seems so addicting and rewarding. By the time you have four or five cards, you've hopefully committed to a strategy of where you'd like your hand to be, and you'll use rapscallion cards to ensure it. At the same time, sacrificing high playing cards to obtain high bidding cards is a calculated risk that some people will take all the time, while others will stick with those same high cards hoping to fill in the rest with fewer options.
To compare this to other games, there's the For Sale-like bidding mechanic, a Ra-like thing with the numbers you're given initially and the acquisition of sets of VP-creating objects and a Havoc-like building up of your hand. Even though you're building poker hands, there's very little poker here; Rapscallion is a bidding game first and foremost.
Really looking forward to this, thanks for the overview.