Saturday, October 15, 2016

Board Game Review: Cobras, by Cardboard Edison

Trick-taking games are straightforward: win as many tricks as you can, keep your opponents from winning tricks, and be sure that you keep control of the lead to make sure that happens. While there are roadblocks that other players can throw in your way, the upshot of most trick-taking games is that. Cobras from Cardboard Edison (Suzanne & Chris Zinsli) upends those rules in ways that lead to a compelling and highly-replayable game that offers meaningful decisions throughout - and just a smidgeon of push-your-luck.

In short, Cobras claims its place in the pantheon of trick-taking games next to Mike Fitzgerald's Diamonds as my favorite trick-taking game - and one that's more welcoming for and easier to teach to new players.

Thematically, there isn't much to the game. Your town is being overrun by cobras, so the government has put a bounty on cobras' heads. Wisely, you've decided that now's the time to start breeding them - but you have to be careful. If you turn in too many heads at once, the government will catch on and pay you less for your haul.

Mechanically, what this translates into is a peak number of cobras that you would want to turn in at once: seven. Turn in less and you'll earn less money. But turn in more and you'll earn less, too - and the drop off is steeper than the climb. In order to turn in cobras, you have to win a trick - at which point you turn in all of the cobras that you've collected since your last winning a trick. All players who lose, though, split the cobras in the center of the table from that trick.

In addition to the trick-taking standard of cards needing to be played (if possible) on suit and the highest on-suit card winning, Cobras adds one more piece of information to each card: 1, 2, or 3 cobras (with higher value cards having more cobras). Once all cards are played in the trick, cobras are added to the center of the table. The winning player turns in the cobras in their "basket" (the cobras acquired in previous tricks), and the losing players split the cobras in the center, adding them to their basket. The player who won the trick leads the next trick.

And, in a stroke of brilliance, each player gets one "King Cobra" card each hand: a card that the player can play to either win or lose the round automatically, allowing players to have a little bit more control over when they turn in baskets.

There are other rules that you can read here, but those are the important changes from standard trick-taking games: you don't always want to win a trick, and you have to carefully balance your plays against other players. For example, in one of my games, the winning player won not from her high score - but from carefully sticking her opponents with losses when they had a lot of cobras in their basket already, thereby dropping the points they earned for their baskets when they turned them in. This small change makes all the difference. In Cobras, there are multiple paths to victory.

Also, as anyone who has ever tried to play a two-player trick taking game knows, they break down below three players. Because of this, Cardboard Edison did the only logical thing: they lowered the possible player count to one. This variant, which relies on two dummy hands (one where the next card to be played is always known and one where the next card to be played is always a surprise), is one of the best single player variants I've played. You can read about that variant in the rules, but I loved it. There were plenty of difficult decisions - and this variant shifts the game to more of a push-your-luck game where you never know what one hand will play - and whether that will beat what you've played since dummy hands' suits don't matter in this variant except for tie breakers. (There's also a two-player variant that uses a single dummy hand, but I didn't have the chance to get in a play of that.)

With one exception where the player didn't like trick-taking games at all, everyone I've played this game with - from five-player games with teenagers who had never played any trick-taking games before to three-player games where all the players were experienced trick-taking players - all loved the game. Cobras is one of the best, smoothest, most polished trick-taking games that I've ever played. The rules are intuitive, the mechanics are simple, and the decisions are meaningful. I loved this game, and I'm confident that anyone who likes trick-taking games at all will, too. Cardboard Edison has done it again.

Full disclosure: I'm personal friends with Suzanne & Chris Zinsli, but I don't believe my friendship with them as influenced this review. I was provided with a prototype copy of the game so that I could do this review.

Doug Levandowski is a game designer who co-created Gothic Doctor, co-created UnPub: The UnPublished Card Game, and created You're Fired. He has other designs in the works, too - because that's what designers do. When Doug's not designing, writing articles, sleeping, or playing Star Realms on his phone, he's teaching English to a bunch of amazing high schoolers. You can find him on Twitter at @levzilla and on Star Realms as DougLev, where he'd love to lose to you.