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Subject: Pickomino: Playing the odds, one worm at a time! rss

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Larry Levy
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(This review originally appeared on the Gamers Alliance web site)

PICKOMINO (Zoch/Rio Grande, 2-7 players, 20 minutes, $17)

Dice don’t have a very good reputation in gaming these days, primarily because a lot of us grew mighty sick of them due to our childhood exposure to designs like Monopoly and Risk. But I think that true dice games, where the gameplay revolves around judging probabilities and pressing your luck, are far too rare a commodity. The superstar in this category is Sid Sackson’s wonderful Can’t Stop, which combines simple rules, quick play, and more than a little strategy into one luscious whole. But until recently, there was virtually nothing to compete with it.

That may be changing thanks to the efforts of one man. In addition to his other talents, Reiner Knizia has established himself as the leading promoter and designer of dice games. He has written a book called “Dice Games Properly Explained”, which I feel is the definitive work on the subject; it contains over 100 dice games, many of which you’ve probably never encountered before and quite a few of which are of his own design. In addition, he’s also responsible for several published dice games, including the light-hearted Exxtra and last year’s Easy Come, Easy Go. His latest effort is Pickomino, which I think is easily the best of the lot. In fact, it’s the first dice game I’ve played which I think can seriously give Can’t Stop a run for the money, and that’s pretty high praise coming from me.

One small warning before I begin. Pickomino is themed around chickens eating barbequed worms. This bizarre notion comes from Zoch’s desire to follow up their earlier chicken-themed hit, Pick Picknic. (By the way, these are the Rio Grande titles. For those more familiar with the original Zoch titles, Pickomino’s original name was Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck and Pick Picknic was originally called Hick Hack in Gackelwack. Now you know why I’ve been using the Rio Grande names!) Besides the chickens, the illustrative style is very similar in the two games. All this is fine, but you should be warned that you’ll be hearing a lot about worms in this review. My apologies ahead of time to the squeamish.

Pickomino is played with eight special dice and 16 tiles. The dice are regular six-siders except that the 6’s are replaced with a picture of a worm. The tiles resemble Mah Jongg tiles, a little smaller than those usually found in the Oriental classic, and each shows a different number from 21 to 36. In addition, each tile has from one to four worms on it, with the higher numbered tiles having the larger worm totals.

At the beginning of the game, all 16 tiles are placed face up in the center of the table. The start player rolls all eight dice. He then must lock in one of the values shown. Those dice are set aside and he then rolls the remaining dice. For example, if Herb rolls 1-3-4-4-4-5-5-worm, he could lock in the single 1, the single 3, the three 4’s, the two 5’s, or the single worm. He couldn’t lock in just one or two 4’s – he has to use all the dice which show that value. On a player’s subsequent rolls, he must again lock in some dice, but these can’t be of any value he’s locked in previously. So if Herb decided to lock in his two 5’s, on his next roll, he’d have to lock in some value other than 5’s.

This continues until the player is satisfied with the total of his locked-in dice or he is forced to stop. If a player decides to stop, he totals up the values of his locked-in dice (worms count as 5). If the tile with that sum is still in the center of the table, he can take it. However, in order to do that, at least one of the player’s locked-in dice must show a worm. In subsequent rounds, if he takes another tile and still has the first one he took, he stacks the second tile on top of the first. There is no limit to how high this stack can go, so the only exposed tile each player has is the last one he took.

If the locked-in total is equal to the value on an opponent’s exposed tile, the player can take that tile and add it to his own stack. Tiles which are covered are protected, so players never have more than one vulnerable tile at any one time.

Finally, if the tile that corresponds to the locked-in total isn’t in the center display and isn’t on top of an opponent’s stack, the player can still take the highest tile in the display which is less than his total. Note that this only applies to the central tiles; in order to steal a tile, the player must match the value exactly.

There are a few ways in which a player can have an unsuccessful turn by failing to take a tile. First, if all the dice he rolls show values he’s already locked in, he unable to lock in any dice, so he has to end his turn. If all eight dice are locked in and none of the dice show a worm, his turn is over. Finally, if he’s locked in all the dice, or all six values are locked in, and there is no available tile for him to take (meaning the tile matching the sum is covered and none of the lower valued tiles are in the display), he ends his turn unsuccessfully.

On an unsuccessful turn, the player must return the tile on top of his stack to the central display. In addition, he turns over the highest valued tile still in the display; this tile is now out of play.

After a player takes a tile or has an unsuccessful turn, the turn passes to the player on his left. Players continue taking turns until there are no available tiles in the display. Each player then adds up the worms on all the tiles in their stack. The player with the most worms wins the game (and I bet you never thought you’d see that sentence in your lifetime!).

Pickomino fits all of the prerequisites for a good dice game. The rules are pretty straightforward, it plays quickly, there’s a good deal of potential screwage, and there’s the excitement of meeting and missing goals. But what raises it up to the Can’t Stop level for me is that there’s some real decision making necessary. Best of all, many of these decisions are not particularly obvious.

Take a look at the sample roll I gave out earlier (1-3-4-4-4-5-5-worm) to see something of what I’m talking about. Which dice should I freeze in that roll? Well, I could freeze the worm, since I’ll need at least one to take a tile. But worms and 5’s are the highest values I can roll, so I’d prefer to have more than one in my final total. Freezing the two 5’s definitely seems preferable. I’d also consider the three 4’s, although that would only leave five dice left and now rolling a worm becomes a little more of an issue. With a mediocre roll, you sometimes think about freezing a single low value (the 3 or even the 1), because giving up on multiple copies of that number isn’t much of a sacrifice and you can now reroll a large number of dice, trying to get some high values. So as you can see, the process definitely entails more than just freezing the highest values you roll.

Another decision is how high a valued tile to go after early on. Usually, you don’t want to take too big a risk when your locked in dice already allow you to take a lower valued tile. But if you can get a juicy tile early on and then protect it by getting it covered, that can be a nice nest egg. Another strategy is to get one or more lower valued tiles and then cover them with a high valued one, figuring that it will be hard for your opponents to steal it and thereby protect the whole stack. Of course, all of these decisions are dictated to a certain extent by the dice you roll and what your opponents are doing.

The decisions get much more interesting with missing values in the display and particularly when you’re trying to steal tiles. Trying to work the probabilities in your favor makes for a nice mental workout. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not simplistic either, and the correct choice is often not the obvious one.

What’s so nice about Pickomino, just as with Can’t Stop, is that if you’d rather not fret over these choices, the game can still be a lot of fun. Just freeze some dice each turn, roll away, and hope for the best. Families should appreciate this aspect, and since you’re still dealing with dice, there’s enough luck to let every family member win a reasonable amount of the time.

The rule that lets you cover older tiles with newly won ones is excellent, since it keeps the game from being a swipefest while still giving players a clear goal to go after, particularly if they wish to steal from the leader. Another fine rule is flipping the highest tile in the display following an unsuccessful turn, as it ensures the game won’t overstay its welcome.

Actually, this leads me to the one valid complaint I’ve heard about the game. With more than five players, Pickomino can last an hour or more, since there’s so many more chances to steal opponents’ tiles, and these actions don’t move the game toward a conclusion. My one seven player game did indeed last about an hour and even though I enjoyed it immensely, in the long run the game is much better if the duration is 30 minutes or less. The simple cure for this is to limit the number of players to five or less. Depending on how the dice fall, six or seven player games can be short, but you should realize if you play with that number that there’s a chance that the game can last a long time. So my full recommendation would be to play this with from three to five players, while appreciating the fact that the game can accommodate up to seven.

The components for Pickomino are considerably nicer than was strictly necessary and this adds quite a bit to the playing experience. The dice are designed well and are appropriately sized so that you can easily roll eight of them at a time. But the tiles are the stars of the show. These are big and chunky, with a pleasing tactile sense. They’re cool to the touch and look very attractive, which is more than you can say about most items that include drawings of worms. Doris Matthäus is responsible for the physical design, so this kind of quality is hardly surprising. Her distinctive cover art (featuring those crazy Zoch chickens) also adds to the game’s appealing look.

The rules do a reasonably good job of explaining the play, but be aware that chickens grilling, plating, and eating worms is mentioned in practically every line. It’s theming gone mad and normally I wouldn’t mind, except that due to the subject matter, a thorough read of the rules leads to a slight feeling of nausea. Less of a case of the worm being turned than my stomach being turned. Fortunately, the game is easily learned, so that you should rarely have to refer to the rules and their worm-drenched text.

Of all the games that have appeared in the first half of 2005, Pickomino has been the biggest and most pleasant surprise to me. I love dice games and this is now one of my favorites. Play is highly interactive and rollicking good fun, but there’s plenty to think about as well. The game can be enjoyed by ten-year olds, as well as by sophisticated gamers. I honestly think this is Knizia’s best design since Amun-Re, which is pretty high praise given the man’s usual prolific release schedule. So roll over to your local game store and pick up Pickomino – this should be one purchase you won’t feel the need to worm out of!
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Kris Verbeeck
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I was thinking of sending a review for this in. After reading this however I don't have to anymore
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Pete Grey
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Ack! I've been screwing this up, rules-wise. I forgot that if you overshoot your roll, you can still take a available highest tile from the display.

I thought I might have been screwing something up. Glad I read your review. I need to play again to see if its worth keeping.
 
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