Pack O Game (Set 2)
Last year designer Chris Handy and publisher Perplext released Pack O Game, a set of 8 games with only 30 cards each that fit into a box the size of a pack of gum. Pack O Game SET 2 is now on Kickstarter with four brand new games in the same line: GYM, RUM, SOW and ORC. If the campaign is over-funded, other games might be added to the set as well. These new games in SET 2 are designed to be “fillers for gamers”, with a higher level of complexity and strategy in the same compact box. Apart from their size each of the games offers completely different gameplay, and so I will provide an overview and mini-review for each of them as well as an overall review of Pack O Game SET 2.
GYM is a game for 2 players (or more if the players split into two teams) where the goal is to score the most points in the events in gym class. Players will first choose the kids they want on their team, and then play them on the events to try to gain more skill points than their opponent. Most kids have skills in two different events, but some of them are bullies with much less skill who have the ability to manipulate the events and other kids.
At the start of the game, the six events are laid out and one at a time the players pick a kid from the table to take into their hand. The catch is that only four of the six events will actually be played in the second part of the game, and these events are (of course) decided by the bullies. If a player picks a bully, they can then move events forward. The four events that have been moved the most once all of the kids have been picked are used in the second part of the game, and the two that were not chosen are flipped over to become coaches.
Players will then play kids from their hand one at a time onto their side of an event, but the game isn't that simple! Every kid can use an ability and bullies have an extra power of moving the coaches around. After placing a kid, a player can choose to take an event action: either the event action where the kid was placed, or the action of one of their other skills. These actions will let the player swap kids between sides, steal kids from the opponent's hand, replace a kid at an event or other useful things. A bully can then choose to move one of the coaches to any side of any event, which prevents event actions from affecting the kids there. Once all the kids have been played the game ends.
I am genuinely impressed with the amount of depth and strategy in GYM. The game is based on a simple idea – drafting and then playing cards – but is implemented in a way that offers the players a lot to think about. When you're picking your team, you need to balance choosing highly skilled kids with choosing bullies who are less useful in events but powerful nonetheless. You need to keep an eye on which events are ahead, and which skills your opponent is focusing on. You need to decide whether to specialise in a few skills or attempt to choose a team that is good at everything, and you even need to consider which kids might be useful for the event actions they can do. That's a lot of strategy in just the first half of a 15 minute game. In the second half, timing is everything. The whole point is to manipulate your opponent's best kids onto your team, while preventing them from stealing yours. The gameplay feels very competitive, every move matters, and you need to be able to adjust your tactics quickly to outmanoeuvre your opponent. Not only is GYM an excellent game, but it is true to its theme which makes it engaging for players as well as intuitive to learn.
RUM is a light set collection game for 2-4 players, and I'd say the easiest to learn out of the games in SET 2. The goal of the game is to gain the most points by making sets of same-colour rum bottles and claiming the Captain card of the matching colour. The trick is that any Captain card can be taken at the start of the game with a “set” of one bottle, but opponents can steal it by making a larger set.
At the start of the game, the Captain cards are placed off to the side, three rum cards are placed face up on the beach and the rest are mixed facedown into a loose shipwreck pile.
On their turn, a player can choose to pick up a card or to play a set of rum if they're able to gain at least one Captain card. You can pick up a face-up card from the beach, replacing it with a face-down card from the shipwreck, or simply take a random card from the shipwreck. You have to be careful though, because searching the shipwreck might earn you the rum you need but you risk drawing the parrot and being forced to discard cards!
If a player chooses to play a set, they can use any number of the cards in their hand as well as the single bottles of rum that are currently lying on the beach. Each rum card can be used for either its single or double side, depending what colours of rum the player needs. The player then earns Captain cards for any colours of rum that haven't been claimed yet, and any colours that they make a higher set for. They place the Captain cards in front of them with the number of bottles they played in that colour facing up. It's also possible to steal a Captain card by playing all three single bottles of that colour, which gains the player the card with its value increased by two.
The game ends if a player reaches a certain number of points from the Captain cards in front of them, or if the parrot is drawn seven times from the shipwreck (then the player with the most points in Captain cards wins).
I really enjoy RUM, and I think it uses very clever graphic and game design elements to make the play as streamlined and compact as it is. Visually, I love that the face-down rum cards look like wooden planks and that they are used as a shipwreck to evoke the theme of the game when a stock standard draw pile could have been used – it might seem like a small detail, but it really brings life to the game. It's also great how the Captain cards can so easily track the highest set of rum in each colour, and each player's points, simply by their orientation. As a bonus, each colour even has symbols on the bottles to help out colourblind players.
RUM has a touch more luck than the other games in SET 2, but still has strategy and meaningful decisions to make. For example, taking a card on the beach means you know what you'll get, there are less single bottles on the beach for your opponents to use in their sets, and you don't risk finding the parrot in the shipwreck. On the other hand, the risk might be worth it instead of taking the last card on the beach (meaning that all three cards are replenished with face-up rum) and giving more options to the next players. There are also many different combinations you can play your cards in, and you'll almost always waste bottles, so you need to figure out which Captain cards to steal based on which player is ahead. RUM has more push-your-luck than I usually enjoy, but I had a lot of fun with it because it allows players to manage the risks they take. It is a fast-paced game with a lot of back-and-forth between players, and a great addition to the Pack O Game line.
SOW is a 2-4 player game where each player is trying to grow and pick flowers, to have the most valuable bouquet at the end of the game. The mancala mechanic is the core of the game, with hidden player goals adding variability and an element of bluffing.
At the start of the game, the wheelbarrows are placed in a square and the seed cards are randomly laid out in groups of two in a circle.
Each player secretly looks at the wheelbarrow card closest to them to discover their favourite flower colour (red, white, blue or yellow). Flowers that the player has picked with this colour are worth more points at the end of the game: 3 points if the favourite colour is in the centre, 2 if it is on the petals and only 1 for flowers without it.
On their turn, a player will choose a row of two or more cards, pick them all up, and place them one at a time around the circle. If the last card placed is a seed, then it is immediately flipped over to become a flower along with all the other seeds of that colour in that row. If the last card is a flower and is placed under any player's wheelbarrow, the active player chooses a colour on that flower and the player who controls the wheelbarrow gains all flowers in that row with that colour.
There are also special actions that can be taken if both of the garden cards end up in the same row after a move. If this happens, the player chooses one of the cards, takes the displayed action and flips the card over. The windmill changes the directions the flowers move (to clockwise or counterclockwise), the gopher lets the player remove all flowers in any row from the game, and the watering can lets them instantly pick a flower in one of the rows under their wheelbarrow.
The game ends when each row has only one or zero cards, and the player with the most points from their picked flowers wins.
SOW is an absolutely fantastic game. I love games that use the mancala mechanic (Trajan and Five Tribes are two frontrunners in my ratings), and SOW takes the mental challenge at the heart of these types of games and boils it down into one that plays in 20 minutes. The rules aren't difficult to pick up (seeds turn to flowers, flowers earn points), but there's an incredible amount of factors to consider when you make a move. Ideally you want to pick flowers with your favourite colour at the centre and the best way to do that is to turn seeds of your colour into flowers (seeds will have their colour in either the petals or centre), but you also don't want to give away your colour to your opponents and give them the opportunity to take points from you. You have to be watching out for moves that benefit you, while also blocking profitable moves for your opponents and making sure that you don't set them up for a wheelbarrow of points when you place cards. In order to manipulate the flowers and garden cards where you want them you usually have to plan a few moves ahead, although a four player game becomes much more tactical, and you definitely need to be able to analyse the state of the board quickly because there are so many possibilities in carrying out just one move.
SOW is packed full of strategy and is my favourite of the four SET 2 games I've played (or at least a tied first with GYM). It is challenging despite its size, and even benefits from its compact nature because every card and gameplay element feels necessary. The game is elegant, streamlined, and simplified without being simplistic, which speaks to its excellent game design.
ORC is a 2 player game where each player is battling to control orc territories with the armies in their hand. There are six different types (colours) of orcs in the game, with each card showing two orcs on one half and a single orc of a different colour on the other half.
At the start of the game, cards are placed between the players as territories, and a stockpile of four cards is placed next to each of them.
On their turn, a player will deploy orcs from their hand to a territory (or discard a card if they don't want to play). The player has to choose which orcs on the card they want to use, and from then on can only play orcs of that colour onto that territory. Orcs cannot be played onto the territory of their own colour, and each player must use a different colour of orcs to fight for a territory. After placing, the player draws 1 or 2 cards from any stockpile, depending on whether they played 2 or 1 orcs.
When a stockpile is depleted, the orcs at that territory battle and the player with the most orcs wins. Once all the stockpiles run out (and all territories have been conquered), the game ends. Players earn points for the territories they have conquered (2 or 1 points depending on how many orcs are depicted on the card), as well as a point for each orc in their hand native to one of their conquered territories.
ORC is a fun game with a lot of tension between the players. The challenge of the game lies in balancing winning territories with keeping cards in your hand for scoring at the end, and you'll often have to choose between using a card to deploy orcs of a particular colour to a territory or saving it for the end-game for a territory you've already conquered. You have to be careful not to overcommit your orcs because every extra card played are less points you can earn at the end, but if you're too cautious your opponent could earn not only the territory points but also more points for the orcs they're holding. You also have to weigh up whether you need to deploy two orcs, and earn less cards, and carefully time when you deplete stockpiles in order to disadvantage your opponent. In terms of complexity, I found ORC was slightly easier than SOW or GYM to learn but heavier than RUM.
ORC is all about efficiently managing your cards and timing your moves to strike territories when your opponent is underarmed. There are tricky decisions to make throughout the game, and I really enjoyed how close the gameplay was. Every move mattered, because your opponent can turn around the situation quickly if you let your guard down in a territory.
You can probably already tell that I'm a huge fan of Pack O Game SET 2. I am genuinely impressed with how cleverly each of the games is designed to pack an unbelievable amount of strategy and depth into a package so compact. While I enjoyed the original set of Pack O Game, SET 2 definitely shows Chris' growth as a micro-game designer with games that are more complex and challenging. As well as being fun to play, the games have excellent graphic design with cards that are both functional and beautiful, and are easy to learn with clearly written rules.
I will definitely be backing SET 2 on Kickstarter, and I'm crossing my fingers that the campaign is successful enough for additional games to be added to the set. These games are perfect fillers for regular gamers who are looking for short games with meaningful decisions and strategy, but they're also great for non-gamers or casual gamers looking for something with a bit more depth and a low time commitment. All of the games are a pleasure to play, and I highly recommend taking a closer look at the project on Kickstarter here. The games in Pack O Game SET 2 are interesting and engaging with a wide variety of gameplay, and they are the best games in a small package that I've played.