At first glance, recognizing a good game is simple. Most of the time, you can go with your gut. If you feel good after playing it and look forward to playing again, it must have been a good game. If you don‘t, the game must have been bad. It‘s now up to the passionate game connoisseur to find incisive and entertaining ways to justify that gut feeling.
If you were to play Push with a group of typical games, you are likely to find one of them praising and commending the game, while the rest would love to see it rot in the darkest corner of your game shelf. Because Push grabs players and shakes them up.
Push is – as the title slyly reveals – a push-your-luck game. It’s the type of genre, where you collect points by repeatedly taking a risk. You can keep doing it, until you overreach and all your accumulated points go up in smoke. Or you do it until you tuck your tail between your legs and run; abandoning the juicy opportunity to earn more points.
This phrasing might be pushing it (hah!), but it’s necessary to explain the psychological bear trap that the game continuously presents to its players. On your turn you draw a card from the deck and place it into one of up to three stacks. You can keep doing so until you’ve reached the desired number of points you’d like to score. Or until you can’t fulfill one of the placement rules. When that happens, i.e. when you can’t place your card into a row without having two of your card’s number or color in a stack, you’re busted. Instead your opponents take turns picking up one of stacks, you’ve put together, and place them into their own scoring area. The realisation that your own hubris has given other players a leg up on you, simply adds insult to injury. Especially with groups that are highly competitive, it will be difficult to keep your composure at all times. Or to keep you from beaming with schadenfreude.
If you choose to play more reservedly, you simply pick up one of the three stacks and end your turn. The other two stacks still go to your opponents. But moderation doesn’t necessarily lead to a calmer and more easy-going experience. Because Push has one last ace up its sleeve to really get the blood boiling. The deck of cards you use doesn’t merely consist of cards in one of five colors. There are also black dice cards. They seem to make up 1/3 of the deck and only show up in quick succession, when it’s your turn.
Those cards are placed by the same rules as before. But they function as a poisonous rose thorn in the multi-colored points bouquet you arrange before the eyes of the other players. If you ever take ore receive such a card, you immediately have to roll the die (OF DOOM!). It will determine which color in your card tableau has to be discarded in full. Your carefully collected or swiped points are wiped off the table in an instant. If you’re indecently lucky to roll a black star, or simply don’t have the rolled color in your tableau, you make it out unscathed. If that much risk or danger is more than you can handle, you can always sit out your turn to save all cards of one color in your tableau. Thereby putting them out of reach of the die or your own hubris. At least if you’re willing to let other players decide over your point fate for a round.
Push is brightly colored and rules light, and quickly becomes a competition to see whose nerves of steel will bend first. With each drawn card you increase the point score of a stack, but also reduce the chances of being able to place the next card you draw. Because you’re not just punished with zero points when you overextend yourself, you also have to roll that infernal die.
On your turn, you have to continuously weigh the dangers of drawing another card with the prospect of getting more points. This way every turn rapidly approaches its own end, if the active player doesn’t stop before that. If you’re mean enough, you may purposefully leave a stack for your fellow players consisting solely of black die card. The burst of expletives that follows such a move tends to be what some groups would call the irreverent charm of this game.
There is no doubt that Push is an elegant game. It’s entertaining and memorable. The rules are almost as quickly explained, as the reasons why you’re sleeping on the sofa tonight.
It’s not always easy to recognise a good game. If you only go with your gut, you run the risk talking more about your group than about the game itself. If you only look at the rules, you often miss the way they affect how players relate to each other because of them. The ambitious critic has to reconcile both approaches, and then explain why that game is either good or bad.
Push is probably best described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I’d have to reach back to the classic “stab your friends in the front”-game Intrigue by Stefan Dorra to find a game that manages to evoke such strong emotions with so little effort. The capriciousness of the card deck and the die helps to spread the moments of frustration among all players somewhat. More importantly it keeps you from blaming just one person for any major setback.
The design craft in Push leaves little to complain about. The rules are precise and purposeful. The game’s concept is easy to grasp and allows players to dive right in. If this game will remain in your collection, though, depends on whether Push’s mix of gambling thrills and explosive schadenfreude registers as joyful or stressful with you. Push centers competition in its design, but doesn’t offer that little bit of camaraderie that other push your luck games use to bring people together. Not every one will miss it, but some people might.