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The Bottle Imp

It’s a rare instance when a theme and game mechanics come together in such perfect harmony as they do in Bambusspiele’s The Bottle Imp, a trick-taking game with an impressive background.

The Bottle Imp is based on a short story of the same title by Robert Louis Stevenson about a bottle that grants the owner his or her every wish, with the catch that the bottle must be sold to another person at a loss or the owner’s soul is forfeit and condemned to hell. Game designer Gunter Cornett was able to take this premise and spin it into a fun and clever card game for two to four players.

The game involves a single deck of cards numbered from 1 to 37 in three colors (with the 19 card the neutral exception). There is also a small, wooden bottle (about an inch tall) that represents the cursed in bottle in from the story. At the beginning of the game, after all cards are dealt, the 19 card goes to the center of the table with the bottle on top of it; this is the starting price to buy the bottle. Before tricks are played, each player passes off a card from his hand to the players on his left and right, and then a third card goes to the bottle imp and his placed under the 19 card. These cards are called the Imp’s Trick and will eventually go to the loser of the hand.

With cards dealt, passed, and the Imp’s Trick ready, play begins. The first player leads the trick with other player obligated to follow suit if they can. The twist with this game is that the trick goes to the highest card *or* if someone undercuts the current value of the bottle, then the highest card less than the bottle’s value (which, at the start of the game, begins at 19). So if the first consists of 36, 24, 22, and 20, then the 36 would win. However if it were 36, 24, 22, and 17, then the 17 would win the trick. And whenever someone undercuts the current price of the bottle, that player gains possession of it until another player does the same. So as the game goes on, the bottle will be worth less and less, and the owners will be more and more desperate to get rid of it. The person left in possession of the bottle at the end of the hand is in trouble.

Scoring at the end of the hand is based on counting the value of the cards in hand (with each card having a number of coins from 1-6 which indicate their value). But for whoever is left holding the bottle at the end, he gets a negative score based on the value of the Imp’s tricks (remember, the cards placed under the bottle at the start of the game). Cards are then shuffled and redealt for another hand. Play can go for a number of hands or to a point total.

The Bottle Imp is a tremendously fun game that offers a nice twist on the trick-taking genre. Like Sticheln, it’s of such a different breed that it takes a number of plays to really get your head around it. The challenge is in deciding just how low you’re willing to go to in terms of buying the bottle to take tricks. Is 6 ok? What about 5? How about 4? At a certain point, you’re stuck with the bottle and the negative points it gives you (fortunately, the game comes with several reference cards that show the card distribution; these can make your decision easier).

As for the components, everything is top notch. The cards are nicely illustrated with art and some flavor text from the original story. The bottle itself is a nice piece of polished wood that stands up well on the table. And besides including the rules in the box, the game also comes with the entire Bottle Imp story! It’s quite a deal.

I can strongly recommend The Bottle Imp for anyone who enjoys trick-taking games. It plays well with 2, 3, or 4 players, and works well as both a filler game or as a longer activity. And rather then being just a minor variation on an established card game, it offers a unique and fun take on the style. It’s a winner!
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