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SPIEL '17 Preview: Cuckooo!, or A Blackjack to the Head

W. Eric Martin
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Every day with every play I relearn the folly of thinking that you can play a game once and understand how it works, especially when you make small rule errors that destroy the effect the designer intended to create. Even if you manage to avoid making such errors in the first place, the second play is almost always better than the first simply because you start the game already embedded in the experience.

The latest game to retransmit this lesson is Cuckooo! from József Dorsonczky and Mind Fitness Games, a card game that will debut at SPIEL '17. I've loved Dorsonczky's Six Making and Hack Trick, both two-player-only games that reward heady thinking and outreading your opponent.

Cuckooo! is for 3-5 players, and your goal each round is to come as close to 21 as you can without going over that total — but don't mistake this game for a Blackjack variant as the two games share only that magic number and nothing more. Each round, you'll sum the numbers on one of the two owl cards in front of you, 0-2 sparrow cards that you play from your hand, and possibly a cuckoo tile that you were forced to take from the table. That cuckoo is your nemesis, but if you literally play your cards right, sometimes the cuckoo can turn out to be your savior.

The game uses a unique deck seven-color deck in which one color has sparrow cards numbered 1-8, another 2-8, another 3-8, and so on up to the seventh color with cards 7 and 8. With four players, you strip out the 8s, and with three you also remove the 7s; this ensures that you deal the cards at the start of the round, each player has exactly seven cards, and you know all the sparrow cards in play. You also start with two randomly dealt owl cards, with these going from 7 to 18. A number of cuckoo tiles equal to the number of players are revealed at random, with these tiles being numbered 1-6.

After looking over your hand, you pass three cards of your choice to the player on your right and collect three cards passed to you. What will you want to pass? You'll have no idea until you've played a few rounds, so just roll with it and learn as you go.

Whoever has the highest card in the longest suit places this card in a discard row, then the player to their left takes the first turn, and on your turn you can:

• Discard a sparrow face down in front of you as part of our flock; you can have at most two sparrows in your flock.

• Discard a sparrow card to the discard row as long as it matches the number or color of the most recently discarded card in this row.

• Discard your entire hand, but only if you cannot discard a card into the discard row; place these cards face up by the cuckoo tiles, then add the highest-valued cuckoo tile to your flock.


Components


Once only one player has cards in hand, this player takes one final action, then everyone reveals their hidden sparrows, discards one of their owls, and sums the value of their flock. Why does this matter? Because you then reveal the topmost card of the magpie deck, an eight-card deck in which cards numbered 17-20 appear twice. If you fail to sum higher than the magpie, then you're out of the round and score nothing; sum higher than 21 and you also get the boot. But if you beat the magpie without going over 21, then you get a share of the magpie's loot, which is 5-7 silver coins depending on the number of players. Anyone who hit 21 exactly gets a special gold coin in addition to some (or all) of the loot.

You then reshuffle the sparrow cards and play three more rounds, with each player drafting a new owl before the round begins. After four rounds, anyone who has collected four gold coins — i.e., hit 21 each time — wins the game immediately. If no one has, then you convert gold coins to silver, and whoever has the highest total wins.

Like Dorsonczky's other designs, gameplay in Cuckooo! is easy to understand, but having some idea of what to do is not. You want to pass cards to your right-hand neighbor that might help you discard cards to the central row so that you can avoid taking a cuckoo, or maybe you want to void your hand of a color so that you can't play and can instead grab a cuckoo, or you want to do a little of both to leave yourself options. I've played only twice on a review copy sent by Mind Fitness Games, both times with three players, so I have no idea for sure right now. Your choices will depend on the cards you hold, the owls in front of you, and the cuckoos — in other words, on everything that's present in the game. Take the entirety of the game, evaluate it, then do the right thing. Good luck!


Artwork on the seven suits


One small error on my part nearly destroyed the game. I missed initially that you had to take the highest-valued cuckoo tile when you discarded your hand, so in the first two rounds of our initial game, we were placing down lots of sparrows, then discarding and grabbing the cuckoo tile we wanted, the one that would boost us to 21. Easy-peasy, but also wrong. (I also overlooked the last player rule, giving them the opportunity to play as they wished, which again made things far too easy.)

Once we started playing with the correct rule — a teensy change from what I initially thought was correct — the game improved a hundredfold and all three of us were tense throughout the round. Suddenly you had to balance all of your plays. Which cuckoo will you collect, if you collect one at all? Which owl will you use? Which sparrows in hand might combine with which cuckoos and which owls to get you to the magic total of 21?

Every time you commit a sparrow to your flock, you're boosting your sum on a one-way path, possibly cutting off future discard possibilities since you have only seven cards in hand, which means you're voiding colors and numbers fairly quickly. You want to time the plays so that you can pocket the sparrows you need and grab the cuckoo you want, but you can't discard your hand if you have discardable cards in it, so what did you give the RHO? Which cards have they played, and which do they still have in hand — except they might have played one to their own flock, which means you can't rely on them to play that pink 3 so that you can discard the pink 4 and stay in the round longer to grab the lower-valued cuckoo since you have owls 16 and 18, so now what?!


Optional action tokens


In our second game, which started immediately after the first, we made smarter plays, paying more attention to which numbers are present in each suit so that you can try to finesse your hand exactly as you need, so that you can discard in the central row and try to influence what others do so that you can hit the next play you want to make. Such plans didn't always pan out, but we now knew the game enough to attempt such things, which is a plus.

We also used the optional action tokens in this second game. When you draft an owl, you take a token as well, and these give you options such as picking up cards passed to you before deciding what you'll pass, or swapping two owls (ideally to stick others with high numbers as those seem to give you little leeway), or looking at magpies to see the target number for the next two rounds. These small tweaks don't make a huge difference in the gameplay, which is all about the challenge you face when you stare at those cards and wonder what you're going to do this time...


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