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Subject: The Game of Life Card Game: A Very Pleasant Surprise rss

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Geeky McGeekface
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(This review first appeared in Counter Magazine)

The Game of Life Card Game (Hasbro)
2-4 players, 20 minutes
designed by Rob Daviau

I recently discovered this 2002 design thanks to Joe Huber’s 9-year-old son Ben. At the latest Gulf Games, Ben was challenging anyone and everyone to play this game. His efforts were so persistent that it was easily the most played game at the event. The only reasons that people didn’t run screaming at the sight of young Ben are: 1) Ben’s a good kid and a good gamer; 2) Gulf Gamers genuinely like playing games with children; and 3) The Game of Life Card Game turns out to be quite a nice little game.

The last statement is less surprising when one discovers that the game was designed by Rob Daviau. Daviau is one of Hasbro’s in-house designers who has been quite successful in inserting some German-style mechanics into the American conglomerate’s games. He has designed or co-designed such well received games as Queen’s Gambit, Epic Duels, Risk 2210 AD, and last year’s big hit, Heroscape. He also had success in converting another “classic” boardgame to cards with the Battleship Card Game. So don’t be concerned that this is the card game version of the boardgame “heartily endorsed” by Art Linkletter--this is the product of a designer who knows his craft.

The game is played with 90 smallish cards (about the size of the Wyatt Earp cards). 72 of these are Life cards (about equally divided between “Early Life” and “Later Life” cards). 14 of them are Career cards. The other four show if players are students or are married. The Career cards are the game’s battery. Each player will acquire a career at the beginning of the game. Each career has a Victory Point value, along with a Time total and a Money total. For example, the Doctor makes a lot of money (Money total of 8), but doesn’t have much free time (Time total of 3), while the starving Artist has a Time total of 7 but a Money total of 2. The Life cards show life events, like “Get a Promotion” or “Take a Cruise”. Each card has a VP value and either a Time cost or a Money cost.

To start things off, each player is dealt four Early Life cards; the remainder of the Early Life cards are then placed on top of the Late Life cards to form the deck. The players’ first decision is whether to go to college or not. College graduates have access to the better careers, but they have to spend three relatively unproductive turns to get their degree. Players begin normal turns once they have a career. There are four parts to each turn. First, you draw cards to get your hand size up to five. The first card can be the top card of the discard pile. Next, you decide if you want to spend Time or Money. Third, you play cards from your hand. If you’re spending Time, you can only play cards with a Time cost, and their total cost must not exceed your career’s Time total; similarly, on a Money turn, only Money cards that together don’t exceed your Money total can be played. Finally, you discard a card.

Some cards can permanently modify your situation. For example, you can have a kid by playing the appropriate card, but each child you have reduces your Time total by one (hey, a touch of realism!). Similarly, playing the Get a Promotion card adds one to your Money total.

Adding spice to things are the prerequisites some cards have. Some high point cards can only be played if the proper foundation is in place, which means that with experience, you realize that playing some otherwise unattractive cards can be useful. For example, the children cards do give you some points, but not nearly enough to justify the lowering of your Time total. But with kids, you can now play the lucrative Your Child Goes to College and Your Child Gets Married cards--these not only give you nice points, they undo the Time total penalty. And once your kid gets married, you can play an even better card: Grandchildren! But setting up this sweet parley requires that you have the kids in the first place, and you need to be married in order to do that (this is an American game, after all!). Another example is the Athlete career; its VP, Time, and Money totals are pretty low, but it does allow you to play some nice cards, like Swim the English Channel and Climb Mt. Everest, and some of these can even be played at a discount. These chains of cards add variety to the game, by allowing different paths to victory based upon early plays, and give you something to think about other than just playing the highest scoring cards in your hand each turn.

Player interaction comes principally through the choice of your discard. In addition, there are some Change of Heart cards which you can play on an opponent, which allow you to discard one of their played cards (6 points or less, so you can’t trash any of their really expensive or hard-to-play cards). You can just go for the big points, or you can target a card that’s a useful prerequisite, particularly if you’re planning on discarding a card that has just such a prerequisite!

Mixed into the Later Life cards are four cards that show an L, I, F, and E. When one of these cards are picked, it’s set aside and a new card chosen. When the fourth such card is revealed, the game ends immediately. Whoever has the most points wins.

Since most of the cards you draw in this game are from the face down deck, the luck factor is reasonably high. But there are definitely things you can do to improve your chances. Knowing and planning for the card combinations is one. Properly managing your hand is another. It’s hard to set yourself up so that you can take full advantage of either your Time or Money total, while at the same time keeping that card you plan to play on a later turn, and also leaving a discard that won’t help the next player. It isn’t rocket science (and sadly, there is no Rocket Science card), but it does require some thought and the decisions aren’t trivial. Alternatively, you can just play the cards that land in your lap and have a perfectly good time doing so.

Although it’s nice that the game gives you a little bit of a mental workout, to me, the design’s big attraction is that it’s just plain fun to play. Both adults and children will find it irresistible to do some roleplaying while you play the cards that change your fictional life. Gloating at the cardplay of your hapless opponents is great fun as well (“Hey Chuck, I just cured the common cold! What are you doing? Oh…taking an art class, huh?”) This aspect makes this an ideal family game, as the game can be enjoyed between parents, with a parent and a child, or between two kids. The game works well when played at different levels, a big plus for a family game.

The Game of Life Card Game definitely plays best with two, as that gives the players enough time to set up the more interesting card plays. It works with three as well, as long as you stick to less ambitious plays. The four-player game uses partners, which really adds nothing to the gameplay. But it does allow a parent to be partnered with a child, which is useful if more want to join in the fun, or if played with younger children.

The components are better than you might expect. The box and inner insert could have been better designed (I had to fold the corner of the top flap in order to get the box to close easily). But the cards are stiff and sturdy and should last a while. The illustrations are colorful, stylish, and appropriately cartoony. All the information is clearly laid out, letting you pretty much play the game out of the box.

The Game of Life Card Game is a pleasant surprise and only enhances my opinion of Rob Daviau’s design abilities. Working with a pre-ordained concept is always a challenge. Daviau took the basic concepts of a very simple game and worked them into a completely different card game. He then built on that foundation by adding colorful and quirky cards and giving multiple routes to victory. It all adds up to a very enjoyable filler that you’ll be happy to play with your family and with your gaming buddies as well. Besides, if your long suffering Significant Other tires of your game playing and tells you to “Get a life!”, you’ll know exactly which game to buy next!
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Steve Oliver
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Great review! Nice to see that someone appreciates how much better this game is than its boardgame predecessor.

Hasbro did a few other card game versions of "classic" board games around the same time as this one. Sorry! Card Game is also very good (especially when playing with kids) and we've never played the board game again since getting the card game. Players have many more choices and usually can get back at someone who has gotten them first. Battleship Card Game is also very good.
 
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Rob Rob
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I liked that the game actually taught you some life lessons as you go along.
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Wong Stephen
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The game seems good. But where can I buy the game?
 
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John Burnson
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Ebay often has copies (though they seem to have fewer than I remember). Here is one link -- a package deal with the Sorry card game --

http://rover.ebay.com/rover/1/711-53200-19255-0/1?type=4&cam...
 
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Wong Stephen
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John,
Thanks. I have bought the game through your link.

Ckwong
 
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Richard D
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It's shown up in Wal-Mart - Feb.2011
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