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Subject: Katz Blues: Underrated, Misunderstood...and very, very good rss

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Larry Levy
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(NOTE: This is one of the first reviews I ever wrote. Subsequent to my writing it, it became obvious that many people did not share my enthusiasm for Katzenjammer Blues and I feel the principal reason is that they were playing with too many. Unlike what I wrote back then, today I would never play this game with more than four people and would prefer three or less. I think it's marvelous with two and all indications are it's just as good with three. I think the fact that this is usually played with too many explains its criminally low Geek rating. Anyway, here's my review as originally written.)


Like a child with his nose pressed against the candy store window, I have enviously read the accounts of Reiner Knizia's many game creations. As glowing review piled upon glowing review, I yearned to sample from the master's handiwork myself. Alas, the tastes of my gaming group are strictly American: any game that doesn't involve some epic objective, such as taking over the world either by force or by credit card, might as well be Candyland. And any contest that takes less than two hours is automatically derided as a beer and pretzels pastime. So there has been much resistance to the ideas of Herr Knizia. Even my copy of the highly acclaimed Modern Art lies languishing on the shelf.

Thankfully, I have finally breached this iron wall. I have introduced one of Knizia's latest efforts, Katzenjammer Blues, to my hidebound group. The experiment was successful and I can only hope that more of the gentlemen's titles will find their way to our gaming table. But before I go any further, I should probably acquaint you with the rules to the game in question.

Katzenjammer Blues (which I will cleverly refer to hereafter as KB) is a card game in which the players attempt to assemble quartets of blues-playing pussycats. These musical troupes are awarded mice for their playing skill. This bizarre theme has no real bearing on the game, which is fine with me. The game comes with 24 mice, which must be separated prior to play, and a deck of 90 cards. The deck consists of Ones, Twos, Threes, Fours, Fives, and Jokers, 15 of each type. Each card displays a feline musician. There are no suits.

The object is to have the most mice at game's end. All 24 mice are used in the five and six player games; only 20 mice are used with four or fewer players. Each player is dealt six cards. One of the players is chosen to be the first "bandleader".

Every turn of the game plays in the same fashion. The bandleader exposes cards from the stock until he gets two cards of the same rank or until he turns a Joker. Thus, if he turned a 3, 1, 4, and 3, he would stop. If a Joker is turned, every player draws a new card from the stock.

The players now bid for the exposed cards. Players can only bid cards in their hands. Bids have the following rank: the lowest bid is one 1, followed by one 2, one 3, one 4, one 5, two different cards (for example, a 3 and a 5), two 1s, two 2s, two 3s, two 4s, two 5s, three different, three 1s, three 2s, and so on. The auction begins with the player to the bandleader's left and continues clockwise. Each player must either make a higher bid or pass, which eliminates him from the auction. After all the players but one have passed, the remaining player shows the bid cards from his hand, discards them, and takes the exposed cards into his hand.

After a player wins an auction, he has the option of melding. Melds consist of exactly four cards of the same rank. The player shows the meld, discards them, and takes as many mice from the pot as the rank of the cards. A player can make as many melds as he wishes. Whether or not the player melds, he becomes the next bandleader and starts another auction by exposing more cards from the stock. The game ends when either all the mice are taken or when the stock is exhausted.

I haven't mentioned Jokers so far and they're a key element of the game. Jokers can be substituted for a card of any rank, in either bids or melds. However, when a Joker is played, it is not discarded but placed in a dead pile in front of the player. At the end of the game, the players take any Jokers remaining in their hands and add them to their Joker stack. Each player counts up the Jokers in his stack and (wait for it, here comes the famous Knizia twist) the player or players with the most Jokers must subtract five mice from their score. To help avoid that fate, a player winning an auction during the game may discard a group of four Jokers from his hand. These Jokers yield him no mice, but they are not counted against his Joker total either. The player with the most mice wins the game.

All of the games of KB we've played were with two or three players. This is a little unfortunate, since the game is likely aimed at a larger crowd. However, our games played just fine. The luck element is present, but not abnormally so. It's more of a case of arranging your hand to handle as many possible outcomes as possible. I have little doubt that skilled players would win the vast majority of games over average opponents.

The first thing we discovered after playing KB is that it isn't just another bidding game. The cards you hold affect the way that you bid. This adds flavor to the auction process. It also means you can avoid that most dreaded of creatures, the Minimal Raiser. (Example: "I bid $25" "$26!" "Okay, $50" "$51!", with homicide as the inevitable result.) It's only a little more painful to bid an extra dollar, but it can be a lot more painful to bid "Three 1s" rather than "Three Different". This means it's important to get that Three Different bid in early, lest someone else bid it and put you in a bind.

In addition to such tactical considerations, strategic decisions must also be made. There are a number of possible routes to a win. The most obvious is to grab enough mice that your opponents can't beat you even if you used the most Jokers. (In the 20 mice game, the magic number is 13 mice--do the math.) Another strategy is to get a couple of quick melds down using very few Jokers and hope whoever comes in higher gets stuck with the Joker penalty. In a game with a lot of players you can go for an early strike and hope it holds up, but this is risky, since melding greatly reduces your ability to bid.

As we grew more experienced, nuances of play began to emerge--just like they're supposed to in a Knizia design. Using a few Jokers early in the game can make your opponents more aggressive with their Joker play, so that must be taken into consideration. Battle tested players tend to be more patient, often waiting until the last few turns to make their melds. You think less in terms of immediate melds than in the long term goal. You probably won't meld those four 2s in your hand but will try to use them to garner more valuable cards. And all this is tempered by the uncertainty of what cards will appear next.

The last game we played, a two-player affair, was a tense, grueling struggle. We were immediately making the highest possible non-painful bid for cards. Our evaluation skills had increased to the point that the gains from a winning auction were incremental at best. It was like climbing a mountain one inch at a time. The game approached its end with no melds having been made, each player unable to pull the trigger for fear of letting his opponent grab the remaining cards cheaply for an easy win. The melding decisions were agonizingly close, you were only a card away, but the bidding was so tight that you just couldn't gain enough of an advantage from an auction. Finally, it came down to the last auction. I had the first bid. If I could win the auction with six 4s (a very high bid), I could meld six mice, take the Joker penalty, and win 1-0. I could bid as much as six 5s, but the meld would only be five, and that would mean a draw. Since I dislike kissing Vince Lombardi's sister, I went for the gold and bid my 4s. After some frantic calculation, my opponent came up with a six 5 bid and still had enough for a win. You can't get much closer to the wire than that. A great game!

Another attraction of KB is that it should appeal to a wide variety of players. The rules are simple enough for older kids, making this a fine family game. Beer and pretzel gamers should enjoy it as a fluffy bidding contest, while serious gamers can use it as a cerebral filler. The English translation of the rules is clear and straightforward, thanks to the usual fine efforts of Herr Knizia and Kevin Jacklin. Unlike some Knizia designs, it is quite affordable, which is appropriate since we are essentially dealing with a card game. I believe the game can be picked up for considerably less in Europe.

I had to wait a long time to finally sample a Reiner Knizia game, but I wasn't disappointed. I don't think you'll be either. Recommended.
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Wow ! I totally agree that this is an underrated, misunderstood game. And it's so good to realize that I am not alone in the world. Thanks for letting everyone know (again) about this wonderful game.
 
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Todd Redden
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I came upon this old review in a roundabout sort of way. I was looking at Canal Grande, hoping a copy turned up in the marketplace, when I saw a link to Katz Blues on that page. I've long had a copy of KB and wondered if any copies of it were available for sale, so I clicked the link and ended up here.

I couldn't help but add to the love of this game. But it's not for everybody. I've played it with 3 players (the best mix) when one of them absolutely refused to finish. I just don't get it. It really is one of my favorite small card games. It's nice to see old reviews still holding up, one of the best things about BGG!
 
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Gary Heidenreich
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I am finally getting a copy of this after all these years. The artwork looks great and I'm really glad it plays 2 very well.
 
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