Each year at the Spiel in Essen, there seems to be a card game that generates some excitement amongst gamers. Geschenkt, which became No Thanks, was one such game. San Juan was another. This year, the card game that was my most pleasant surprise was Null & Nichtig from designer Reiner Stockhausen and Amigo.
The deck of cards contains five suits (colors), with values of 0 – 11 in each suit. There are two zeroes in each suit. Each player is dealt 13 cards, with the remainder being removed from the game. Players each place three cards of their choice face-up in front of them, separating them by color.
Game play is exceedingly simple, as each player in succession takes turns playing one card face-up. There are no standard ‘trick-taking” requirements here; each player may play whichever card they desire. The player who laid the highest valued card takes all of the cards – but they must take them in clockwise order, beginning with their own card. Each card is placed atop the corresponding stack in the player’s face-up cards. For example, red cards go atop the player’s red stack, yellow cards atop their yellow stack, etc. Thus, the previous top card in a stack will be covered if a card of the same suit is taken. This may increase or decrease the value of the top card on a stack.
This is important, as at the end of a round, players will only score the TOP card on each of their face-up stacks. As such, the goal is to take high-valued cards and avoid taking low-valued cards. Certainly this is FAR easier said than done! Indeed, your opponents will be thrilled to stick you with low-valued cards, taking glee in watching you cover that “10” with a lowly “1” – or even a zero! As in games such as Mit List und Tucke, Sticheln and Nicht die Bohne, Null & Nichtig has a deliciously evil mean streak.
Leading in this game is NOT the preferred position, as you are truly at the mercy of your opponents. If you lead with a high card, they can slam you with low-valued cards, forcing you to take them and reduce your score. If you take a chance and lead with a low card, they may still be able to stick you by playing low cards, as any ties in value are broken by the player who played first. The ideal position is to be last in the playing rotation, as you can control the “trick”. The bad news here is that if you opt to take the trick, you will be forced to lead the next hand!
For all its simplicity, there are some tough decisions to be made. Of course, you must adapt your strategy to the hand you are dealt. Sometimes it is wise to play three low-valued cards at the beginning of the hand, and then try to take tricks with your high valued cards. Other times, you may want to play high-valued cards before the round begins, and then try to avoid taking any tricks. Choosing which cards to conserve to the end of a hand is also tricky, as it could result in feast or famine.
Null & Nichtig has quickly risen to one of my favorite card games of the year. It is easy to teach, plays quickly, yet packs a mean punch. Don’t judge this game by its name, which translates “Null and Void”, as there is MUCH more here than the name implies!
Rhonda, Gail and I opted to play three hands. Rhonda jumped off to a big lead after the first round, but we managed to hold her in check in the second round. She prevailed again in the third round, however, to capture the victory.
Rhonda: 45 + 23 + 43 = 111
Greg: 32 + 27 + 40 = 99
Gail: 5 + 26 + 12 = 43
Ratings: Greg 6.5, Rhonda 5.5, Gail 5