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Game Preview: Loser, or The Game of Existential Amphibian Despair

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game: Loser
It's impossible to hear the word "loser" without having the Beck song come to mind, especially when someone out-and-out references the Beck song directly. Sorry about that!

Loser is a card game from the design duo of Bruno Cathala and Vincent Dutrait in which 3-6 players compete not to lose the game. At the end of each round, after everyone has played all but one of their cards, you put out your fist, thumb extended. If you think you hold the highest card, you're going to raise your thumb on the count of three; otherwise, you'll turn it down. If the person with the highest card doesn't raise their thumb, then they lose the round; if more than one person raises their thumb, then the thumby player with the lowest card loses; and if the correct person raises their thumb and no one else does, then the player with the lowest card loses.

How will you know where you stand? Some cards (the red ones) are played face down, letting you know their value is either 1 or 15-19, while others are played face up — and when you play a blue card face up, you take one of two actions face up on the table or you play a special action card in hand. These basic actions let you look at someone's hand, draw a special action card, or swap a card from your hand or an opponent's hand with a face-down card.

The special action cards cover all the ground you think they would, with them swapping cards, changing the value of cards, ending the round early (in which case you're puzzling over whether you have the highest sum of multiple cards), ejecting you from the round, and so on.

If you lose a round, you flip one of your human cards to its frog side. Yes, a frog! You and your fellow players are sorcerers, as it turns out, and whichever one of you turns completely into a frog loses the game and is mocked by all. It's a sad life for you, but at least you're not a bug because then you'd be eaten by whoever loses the game next time.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
"Work it, frog!"

Russian publisher Lifestyle Boardgames released Loser in Russia in mid-2018 and has been looking for licensing partners since then, with the game likely to appear in different languages down the line. I got a mock-up copy in English and German from them at SPIEL '18, and I've played it a handful of times since then, mostly at BGG.CON 2018 in November.

The setting is perfect for the game design because you know that any game in which you can turned into a frog can't be taken too seriously. You kind of expect everything to go topsy-turvy during game play, and it does — and if you turn out to be a frog, well, that's probably not the worse thing you've been called.

I've played with all player counts, and only the six-player version seemed off to me. All nineteen cards are in play each game, so the hand size is either three or four cards with the remaining ones being face up or face down. With six players, you have only a single face down card to start, which means almost all the hidden information is in player hands, which leads to that single face-down card being swapped a lot before red cards are dropped and people try to claim those. With fewer players, you have more options for what to do and a few face-up cards to mix up the feel of the game since those numbers are effectively out of play, changing your thoughts as to which cards are best and worst.

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