Game Night Verdicts – Lockdown edition

Corona restrictions have led to a significant lack of game nights recently. Several of my reviews were affected by this. While I can‘t guarantee that I won‘t change my mind about these games as I get to play them more, I want to at least write down my preliminary assessment of the games I played since October.

Let‘s start with something small. Anansi by Cyril Blondel and Jim Dratwa, illustrated by Emmanuel Mdlalose and Dayo Baiyegunhi, published by Heidelbär Games. It‘s a remake of an older trick-taking game previously published as Eternity. This edition comes in a nice shiny box, similar to the one used for Spicy. The first thing you’ll notice about Anansi is that there are only three suits. The next thing you’ll note is how they’re presented thematically. The suits are called hornet, snake and leopard. This decision is explained by way of an unusual background narrative. While it may not affect gameplay or your understanding of the rules in any meaningful way, it does give the game a unique, albeit exotic, touch.

Anansi’s art is both colourful and stylish

The real hook of Anansi isn’t its background narrative, though, but the way to score points. In each of the three rounds you play, you score points when winning as many tricks as you declare. So far, so average. The first interesting wrinkle is that you declare by discarding cards from your hand. Those very same cards also affect the winning suit in the current round. This leads to amusingly brain-pretzely turns as you try to evaluate the strength of your hand of cards. There are little to no dull rounds in Anansi. You can’t just mindlessly play down your hand, but have to constantly keep an eye on your fellow players. As is often the case with trick-taking games, they thrive on the meta they build up over time, i.e. how you learn and anticipate your group’s specific patterns and account for them in your decision-making. I’d need a few more games of Anansi to figure out how well this actually holds up over time.

Another game published by Heidelbär Games covers similar albeit distantly related ground: Coyote by Spartaco Albertarelli, illustrations by Zona Evon Shroyer. Another re-release of a previously published game. It was released as Pow-Wow in Germany in the mid-00s. In that game players stuck cards to their foreheads and, just as in Coyote, players had to estimate the combined sum of those cards. Its tone-deaf presentation wouldn’t be fit to publish today. With the exception of people who are upset that baseball fans can’t cite tradition to cling to offensive team names or co-workers who keep asking the guy with the odd name where they’re “really” from, nobody would want to publish Pow Wow now as it was back then. It’s both commendable and reasonable to hire cultural consultants for the game, who are themselves members of the Cheyenne and Apacho Tribes. That doesn’t make Coyote a deeply thematic game depicting Native American culture. It remains a light-hearted and eminently hilarious bluffing game. Players try to goad each other into overshooting a certain number, without exactly knowing that number. Bringing in cultural consultants may seem excessive, but it’s absolutely not. Especially when using the visual language and history of foreign cultures, this should be industry standard.

Standees have replaced headbands. Still clever, though.

That aside, Coyote does not fully unfold its charms until you’ve played it a few rounds. It’s precisely when our understanding of probabilities (or rather the gut feeling we use in its place) is refuted by the actual card distribution that we laugh the hardest. The more you play, the more the capriciousness of the cards gets to trick you. Those are the stories that Coyote gets remembered for. The unique player dynamics unfold when it starts to become clear who is about to be fooled into overshooting this round. Again only repeated plays will show if this mix of secret and open information, deception and mental arithmetic is really interesting or just unusual.

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