Balloon Cup is brought to us by relative newcomer Stephen Glenn. Although he has a few web published games, I believe that Balloon Cup is his first offered by a major game publisher. And to make it into the Kosmos 2 player line is an achievement in and of itself.
Production is typical of the Kosmos 2 player line. A small, easily portable box with a plastic inset that has a space for all game components. There are non-descript colored wooden cubes and a cloth bag used for drawing the cubes randomly, or for game storage. The cards themselves are of a medium size and have some pleasant artwork. There are also 4 large cardboard tiles that are used in card play. They are also very sturdy.
There are 4 "hops" that must be completed, and they are represented by each of the large tiles. You play cards to these tiles to win the cubes on them, then you trade in cubes for trophies. Whoever gets 3 trophies first wins.
The tiles are numbered 1-4, and have a picture of mountains (high) or plains (low) on them. The number determines both how many cards must be played to each side for that hop to be complete and also how many cubes are placed onto that tile. The picture tells you whether you want the highest or lowest total on the cards on your side of the hop to win. When a hop is completed the winner takes the cubes, the tile is flipped to show the opposite type of terrain, and new cubes are drawn to be put onto that tile.
Each turn you play one card then draw one card. There are 5 different colored cards with different numbers on them, 1-13. You can play a card to either your side or your opponent's side, but it's color must match that of one of the cubes on that tile. By playing cards to your opponent's side you can be offensive; if it is a Plains picture on the number 1 hop (meaning you want a low number to win it), you can play a 12 card you your opponent's side. Since only one card can be played, the only thing your opponent can do is play an equal or higher card to your side in order to win that hop.
You exchange different numbers of cubes in order to obtain a trophy in one of the 5 colors. There is only one of each trophy, and the more plentiful the cubes are the more expensive the trophy is. Once a trophy is taken, you can exchange 3 of that color cube for 1 of another color cube. The first player to obtain 3 trophies wins.
Gameplay is fast and very easy to pick up. A new player will have it down in one turn if the frequency of cubes is explained. A game can be finished in under 20 minutes, making this very suitable as filler or a quick game at lunch.
There is the much maligned "lock-up" issue, but a reply from the designer has been posted fixing it. I have never had the lock-up occur, so I do not even consider that an issue.
Gameplay overall feels very robotic to me. You simply have to play your card to the correct position and draw another one. It usually seems pretty obvious where you need to play the card, and I don't feel the agonizing decision making that I love to torture myself with when gaming. In addition, if there aren't many (or any) cubes of a color matching cards in your hand you cannot do much of anything except discard and redraw. Or, worse yet, you are forced to play a card because it is the only one you can play and you know that it will help your opponent and hurt you. I do not enjoy this aspect of the game.
Balloon Cup is a nice diversion, and should be enjoyed thoroughly by many. It is not, however, one of my favorites. I enjoy theme, and this one is painted on worse than many Knizia games. I also like varied decisions, and I just do not find that in Balloon Cup. At the moment it is relegated to the "girlfriend game" niche in my collection, and is only played when she won't suffer through another game of my choosing.
Rating out of 10, 10 being the best: