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Subject: Combit: A Battle of Numbers and Wits for Two rss

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[This review originally appeared in Counter Magazine]

COMBIT
Winning Moves
2 players, 20 minutes
designed by Klaus Palesch and Horst-Rainer Rösner
reviewed by Larry Levy

You might think that a game with a title like “Combit” would be a war game or something, but you would be wrong. Actually, the German word for “combat” is “kampf”, as most gamers know; Babelfish doesn’t have *any* translation for “combit”. So what are we left with? A cerebral two-player card game that is quite combative in its own quiet way.

Combit is the creation of a pair of veteran designers. Klaus Palesch is best known for his innovative card games, such as Sticheln, Hattrick, and Mit List und Tucke. His ludography also includes such board games as Fossil. Horst-Rainer Rösner *should* be well known as the co-designer of the excellent economic game Tycoon, but the only person I’ve ever seen receive credit for that title is his partner Wolfgang Kramer. Rösner has also created a few other games with Kramer, along with the nasty card game Nicht die Bohne.

Combit is played with two decks of cards. The Point Card deck consists of 35 cards and each card has a point value and a color. There are seven cards in each color, with the point values ranging from 2 to 6 (there are two 2s and two 3s in each color). The Cash deck has 29 cards with the values ranging from 1 to 10 Euros. There are also two Jokers, each of which has a point value of 2.

Each player begins with 20 Euros in their hand and one of the Jokers, which is kept face up. The Point cards are then shuffled and dealt face up in the middle of the table in five overlapping columns of seven cards each, so that all the cards can be seen.

On their turn, each player must take one of two possible actions. First, he can buy a card. Any card at the bottom of a column can be bought. To do this, the player simply takes the card, places it face up in front of himself, and gives its point value in Euros to the bank. The other option is to sell. This involves taking a pair of cards in front of the player of the same color and discarding them. In exchange, the bank gives the player Euros equal to the product of the point values on the cards. For example, if the two cards are a Blue 3 and a Blue 5, the player would receive 15 Euros (3x5) from the bank. Note that the player only payed 8 Euros (3+5) when he purchased those cards.

The Joker can be used in a sale if the player wishes. It can be turned in with any other card the player owns, regardless of color. The player receives twice the value of the card from the bank and, of course, loses the Joker.

That’s about it. The game ends when there are only two remaining columns. Each player is allowed to make one more sale. All remaining cards are discarded and the player with the most money wins.

Combit belongs to the family of games where the key to winning is the concept of zugzweig--leaving your opponent with a position where no matter what he does, he helps you. In Combit, this would be where all five columns have low-numbered cards covering higher numbers, or even when a 5 is covering a 6 which matches the color of a high-numbered card you had previously chosen. Combit adds a wrinkle to this strategy however, since players can choose not to pick a card by selling. This means that it often pays to make a low profit sale--the small return on investment is more than compensated by gaining tempo. One result of this is that chosing a matching pair early on, even if the cards are low, is valuable, since it gives you the option of selling. The Joker can be very useful here as well, although sometimes the threat of a sale is all that is required.

Another interesting aspect of the game is the cash supply. The designers did a good job with the players’ starting capital--20 Euros is high enough to pursue just about any early strategy, but low enough so that you soon have to worry about running out. Letting your cash fall below 6 Euros can be a critical mistake; your opponent can freely expose a high card and then snatch it up next turn after you either pick something you can afford or sell. Assuming, of course, that *she* has enough cash on hand to buy the card. This is another reason why selling early can be so important, although you’d obviously rather meet your cash needs with one large sale than with three small ones.

With many games of this sort, the endgame is often anticlimatic, with most of the choices being automatic, but the climax of Combit is one of its best features. Two things must be considered: the game ending conditions and the limit on selling. A player with a sizable lead can push a game to an early conclusion, although she must be careful not to provide enough juicy cards for her opponent that he can catch up. After about ten turns, with almost every selection you have to consider how this might assist in ending the game and decide if you *want* the game to end or not. The fact that each player can only make one sale after the last card is chosen is a critical concern here. It does you no good to have a pile of paired cards if your opponent has fewer cards but more cash and is poised to ring down the curtain. All of this can slow down the last few plays a bit, while the players ponder the possibilities, but in a game this short, I don’t think that’s a serious concern.

Combit, therefore, should appeal to those who like thoughtful, studious games, particularly since it’s unusual to find such a game with a twenty minute duration. It is a game of perfect information (a good computer program would kick butt), but between buying and selling, there are enough possibilities that choices are rarely automatic. At the same time, the number of choices each turn is relatively small, so that downtime is not excessive. Players who like games that require thought and looking ahead, but who prefer smaller, less intense designs, should like Combit.

There are actually two ways of playing this game: with closed or open cash holdings. Since money cards are provided, it’s clear that the designers intend the game to be played with hidden cash. However, it is so easy to keep track of your opponent’s holdings and doing so is so important that it’s hard to imagine a serious player not putting forth the effort. For such players, it makes sense to keep track of both player’s finances with pencil and paper; it speeds the game up and relieves the players of the chore of memorization. For those who are worried about analysis paralysis, using the cash cards is a good option, so I’m glad that they are included. But I find that playing with open holdings makes the game more interesting and more enjoyable. It can make the end of the game move even slower, as players struggle to inch ahead of their opponent, but I find this makes for a very tense and satisfying endgame. Besides, we’re *still* only talking about a twenty minute game.

The components neither add to nor detract from the playing experience. The point cards are featureless, showing only the card’s value in a large hexagon at the top. Obviously, some illustration would have been nice. However, the values and colors are very clear and easy to distinguish. As one who has always preferred function over form when it comes to components, I can’t really complain very strenuously over this design decision.

I’m not sure how available Combit is in Germany, but for most of the English-speaking world, it seems to have flown under the radar. This is a shame, as I feel it is a worthwhile game. If you do have a chance to pick it up, and you like two-player games with a bit of meat on them, I would recommend doing so.
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