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.


Cooperative Fireworks Puzzles: Hanabi


Try this: set off a totally awesome fireworks show without every being able to look at your own hands, relying instead on what your friends tell you about what your hands are doing..  I can’t say that Hanabi is exactly that in game form, but it does a good job of approximating it.  It’s can be difficult, but that very difficulty also makes it rewarding.  Sometimes, of course, you misunderstand what others are telling you and everything blows up in your face.  Read on for more detail.

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Finance, Ponzi Schemes, and Cards: Liar’s Poker

Lying to your friends can be exceedingly fun.  Unfortunately, other people are often angry when you mislead them in everyday interactions.  This is where Liar’s Poker comes in handy; it gives you all the satisfaction of lying to your friends, with none of the insalubrious repercussions!  I was first treated to this game last night, when I played it with my brothers and cousins, and I’m now a staunch advocate.  Please note that this is not the same as the similarly titled bar game played with $1 bills.

Liar’s Poker is very simple.  Much like in Ponzi schemes (or even the stock market), the idea of the game is to be one of the first people in, and be the very first person out.  You never want to be caught holding the overvalued collection of rubbish that is methodically working its way around the table, and you most certainly want to convince the next person in line that the crap in your hand is actually worth something.  Like I said, it’s very simple.  It also has the potential to be hilarious.

The first player is dealt a hand of five cards, looks at them, and declares a hand (anything from high card to royal flush).  They then offer the hand to the next player.  The second player (and every player after them), then has the opportunity to decide whether the offer is believable.  If they accept the offer, they receive the hand and now have the opportunity to discard face down up to three cards from the hand and draw cards to replace them.  They must then declare a hand of greater value than the one they recieved and offer it to the next player.  If they reject the offer, the rejected hand is revealed and evaluated; if the revealed hand met or exceeded the declared value of the hand (and the declaration did not substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents), the person who rejected the hand takes a point.  If the rejected hand was, in fact, the load of rubbish which the discerning player believed it to be, then the liar who tried to pass it off as something better takes a point.  The first player to 10 (or whatever you decide on for your preferred length of game) ends the game, and the person with the lowest point total wins.

While you are in possession of the hand, you may say whatever you like about its contents.  Once the hand is no longer yours, you should not declare anything about what had been in it except to repeat what you had claimed when you passed it along.  Table talk is otherwise encouraged.  Remember that all discards are done face down, so you can’t see what has moved in or out of the hand.  Also note that the next person must always claim a higher value than the one you gave them, and the only way to hurt people further around the table is by allowing a hand to keep moving.

What did I mean by “substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents”?   If you’ve got three aces in your opening hand, you could say “the highest card is an ace,” and not be in danger.  If you had a pair of twos and a king, you could simply say “pair of twos.”  If you wanted to turn up the heat, you could get more specific and claim the higher value hand, which would also narrow the range of claims available to the next player.  But if you have a straight in your opening hand and instead claim a pair, you would be in danger of taking a point if someone calls you on it, regardless of the fact that your straight certainly outdoes a pair.

So why do I like this so much?  It may simply have been a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol, but I suspect that I would have similar results when playing this game with the right group of people.  That’s an important note: there are certainly people with whom you will not want to play this game, which may be a larger (or different) group than the usual people with whom you don’t want to play games.  Make sure that you have players who will be willing to laugh at being duped, even as they take joy in lying through their teeth to the next person in line.

Liar’s Poker requires only minor memorization, and will quickly teach familiarity with the values of poker hands, but it really shines when it comes to creating hilariously improbable situations and forces you to judge just how deep the lies really go.  It’s great fun.

To be perfectly clear, there are other games which are also called Liar’s Poker, and there is a book by Michael Lewis with the same title.  This game bears only passing resemblance to the others, but it seems far more interesting to me than the bar game.