There’s something brilliantly simple about Pairs. This is probably because it’s a very well designed pub game, from the experienced designers at Cheapass Games. Pairs is in some ways a departure from the style of their other games, but it shows their collected experience: it’s a snappy game with simple rules that pushes you to go big or go home and gives you quick excitement with good replay value. It rewards you for smart play, yet it’s just random enough to make flirting with risk a rewarding experience, especially when you can force your fellow players into even riskier territory. Succeeding in Pairs means balancing your untenable position with your knowledge of the deck and the mental states of your fellow players, and somehow staying in just long enough for someone else to crash and burn first.
While the composition of the game’s deck is very easy to understand (there are ten 10’s, nine 9’s, eight 8’s… all the way down to two 2’s and one 1), counting cards has been actively discouraged by means of a few careful tweaks: each deal starts with five cards being dealt off the top of the deck into a burn pile, all cards removed from play during the game are discarded face down into the burn pile, and a cut card is used to cover the bottom of the deck in order to restrict player knowledge. Players gain points (a bad thing) when they are dealt a card matching a card they already have in their hand, and all players play with open hands. Points are tracked by leaving cards you’ve scored visible in front of you, separate from your hand. Because of how the deck is constructed, you have a roughly 50-50 chance of being dealt an 8, 9, or 10, limiting the amount of time that you can last in any given round. But it’s possible to fold before you are forced to take points, scoring any one card in play instead of risking being dealt a higher value pair. The moment you score, regardless of how you do it, you discard whatever remains of your hand. This means that by folding you to both avoid taking a high value card (e.g. by having a matching 10 dealt to your hand), and deprive other players of opportunities to score low-value cards (either from your hand, or from whatever you picked elsewhere in play). In play, this means that players’ turns cycle quickly around the table as players choose to either fold, accepting that they will take some points, or hit, accepting risk for the chance of taking no points at all.
Once you’ve taken points and your hand has been emptied, you check to see whether your score has passed the threshold set for your number of players (31 for two players, 21 for three, [or 60/(number of players) + 1, with a minimum of 11 for 6 or more players]). If you haven’t lost, play continues and you are dealt in once again starting with your next turn, while you hope desperately that someone else will lose before the game gets back around to you.
All in all, rapid and easy play combine with just enough chance to make Pairs an excellent game for laughing at your friends. If you’re looking for more easy pickup games or pub games, check it out and enjoy scrabbling to take as few points as possible while everyone else does the same.