Monday, June 20, 2011

A review of Bargain Hunter...

Lots of different card games come out every year, many of them rehashes of previous and often better ideas. The classic trick-taking game, for example, sees at least one new remix published every season. Which is great if you like trick-taking games - which I really do - but there are really only so many one should own (although they don't tend to take up much space). Wizard is a hit with every group of people I've introduced it to, as is the much trickier Bottle Imp. And, of course, Tichu, a remake of the classic Big Two/Asshole line of card games, has been a monster hit for us and I might even argue the best modern card game ever invented.

But however much I love my card games, trick-taking or otherwise, the one thing that is almost always missing in a game of multiple hands is a strategic arc. In most card games, including the aforementioned titles, players just play either an agreed upon number of hands or play hands until someone reaches a certain score with each round not really having any bearing on the strategy for the next. One might argue that players play differently depending on the score - take the gambling aspect in a 1000-point game of Tichu as an example - but each hand is still fairly independent from the last.

This is one of the main reasons I became interested in Valley Games' reprint of Uwe Rosenberg's Bargain Hunter (originally Schnappchen Jagd). Bargain Hunter is a trick-taking game in which the players play a fixed number of hands but the decisions they make during each hand have a direct effect on how they play the following hands and on the way that they score at the end. That interested me as well as the fact that Uwe Rosenberg has created many great games including Agricola, Le Havre, and Bohnanza (although I still think Bohnanza is WAY too long for what it is).

The basic idea of Bargain Hunter is pretty standard trick-taking fare with a couple of unusual tweaks.  The deck contains 6 suits, valued 1 through 9, with two copies of each card plus two additional "Irresistible Offer" cards which win the trick every time (exactly like a Wizard card).  Basic trick-taking rules apply:  one person leads to the trick and everyone must follow suit if possible.  However, if you play a card of another suit, you can declare that suit trump or not, thereby possibly winning the trick with the high trump card.  Two of the exact same cards played?  The second player to play the card calls whether it's higher or lower than the first.  Winner takes the trick, gathers up the cards, and leads to the next. 

Okay.  Sounds pretty boring/unoriginal, doesn't it?  Where the game gets interesting is what you do with the cards that you win each trick.  At the beginning of the game, every player picks one card from their hand to call as their "bargain" and places it face up to start their bargain pile.  From then on during that hand, each card of the same value that a player takes by winning a trick goes face up on their bargain pile.  Any other values go face down in a player's junk pile only to be looked at at the end of the hand.  Once a short hand of usually 8 tricks is done, spring cleaning occurs and players can sift through their junk pile and remove all of one value of card from their junk.  Two of these are discarded and the rest (if any) are placed on top of a player's bargain pile, giving them a new bargain to hunt for in the following hand.  After 4 or 6 hands, depending on the number of players, two final rounds of spring cleaning occur and then players add up the number of bargain cards and subtract the number of junk cards they have left.  High score wins.

Now, if my description made any sense, you can start to see the subtlety appearing.  Players want to start accumulating large sets of just a few values of cards in their junk pile so they can turn them in to points at the end of each round.  In fact, it's entirely possible to hold out on ditching a set of the same value until you've acquired a massive amount at the end of the game.  In addition, one is only allowed to look at one's junk pile between rounds so there is a bit of a memory component as you play your cards and win your tricks.  All this leads to a meta-game over the series of hands and some long-term strategy is required.  Do you aim to grab low cards as they are fairly easy to capture by playing high cards or trumps?  Or do you play for high cards as you know they are more likely to win the tricks?

Considering how easy it is to trump due the extra suits and the player's choice and how short the rounds are (8 or less tricks), the play of the hand almost feels secondary to the ongoing gathering of cards.  And maybe that's what makes Bargain Hunter so interesting - that the good old-fashioned trick-taking game becomes just a mechanic in the bigger set-collection meta-game.  Not to say that Bargain Hunter make for very complex strategies - the control over your card play is definitely not optimal and the two Irresistible Offer cards, which are dealt out entirely randomly, seem like kind of a useless afterthought. But what it does do, that most other traditional card games don't, is provide an ongoing story arc over the rounds of the game which causes players to not only plan ahead on what cards to try and take but also to adjust their strategy accordingly throughout in order to deal with the cards they actually end up taking.  And it even manages to do it all in a 20-30 minute play time which is quite the plus.

Will it change cards games forever?  No.  Is it intensely strategic?  Not really, but it can be surprisingly thoughtful.  Is it Tichu?  Well, no, definitely not.  But what it is is an thoroughly enjoyable little filler for people like me who love trick-taking games and want to try something a little different.  We've played it a lot in the last while and it's so short that everyone's usually willing to give it another go.  If you grew up playing Bridge like me or Wizard or Whist, you should consider grabbing this one.  But you might just wanna think about ditching those special cards as they're kinda pointless and more than a little unbalanced.

To trump or not to trump.....   Hmmmmm.

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