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Happy Dog is a filler card game from Alan Moon that was released in Japan by Gakken in late 2005. Due to its country of origin, it’s kind of flown under the radar (hell, it’s flown under the carpet!), so I looked forward to trying this out. We played the first of the two types of games (the Stream game) with five players.
If you didn’t look at the box, you’d probably assume this is a Knizia game. Indeed, the game has a lot of similarities to Reiner designs like Schotten Totten. However, it’s very much its own game. Since few have had the chance to try this one out, let me briefly cover the rules.
Each player has their own deck of 18 cards. 12 of these cards are number cards, with values from 1 to 9, while the other six are special cards. Each player shuffles their deck and draws five cards to form their hand.
Turns are play a card, draw a card. There are a number of rows (about twice as many as there are players) that the cards are played to. Any number can be used to start a row; after that, each succeeding card must differ in value by exactly 1. Half of the special cards are Happy Dog cards, which can always be played and assume a value equal to the higher of the two cards it lies between. Any card can be played after a Happy Dog card. Of the other special cards, the Dragon lets you discard the last card in any row and the Phoenix lets you either take back one of your own cards or freeze a row. The game ends when the players run out of cards to play. Each row is won by the player with the highest value of cards in it. That player wins all the cards in the row. If there is a tie, the cards are split evenly. The winner is the player who captures the most cards.
This is a nice little game. The hand size means your options are often limited, but you usually have a few choices each turn. Hands are also big enough that you can usually save a card or two for an opportune moment. The game is kind of the opposite of Great Wall of China (ironically, a Knizia game) in that you want to get involved in major battles with lots of cards — as long as you can win them! Knowing when to hold them and when to fold them is pretty important, although you can sometimes be at the mercy of the cards you hold. Skillful use of the special cards is important as well.
Interestingly, Happy Dog really doesn’t lose much control with more players, since most rows come down to a shootout between two players and three players per row is pretty much the maximum. With more players, you’ll probably find yourself involved in battles with multiple opponents, which adds to the tension and yields some interesting decisions. Where the loss of control can come in is if two of your opponents decide to throw massive numbers of cards at a single row. One of those folks is going to make a killing (barring a tie) and there ain’t nothing you can do to stop it. I’d like to try this with two or three, but I think it will play well with all numbers.
The balance between luck and skill (about even) is pretty much want you’d want from a filler. I don’t think this is the next Bohnanza, but it’s a pleasant game with some meat on it and seems like a solid filler. If you can find it, I’d recommend giving it a try.
By the way, the other variant (the Position game, which is strictly a 2-3 player game) is very similar to the Stream variant, except that there are exactly seven rows and the object is to win the most rows. Obviously, that will lead to very different strategies.