This review first appeared in Episode 17 of The Five By Podcast. This is a transcript of the podcast segment that begins at minute mark 10:39.
In the late 1990’s I purchased a small plastic game console on a keychain that played one game: Tetris. The tiny monochromatic screen would feed Tetris pieces beginning at a sedate pace, and then drop pieces more and more quickly until eventually your reflexes failed. This game was a bit of a passion for our household, and at any random time two of us could be found sitting side by side on the couch battling the game to clear row after daunting row of pieces. Quick decision making and a deeply intuitive understanding of spatial relationships served us well in our quest for the highest of high scores. Similarly NMBR 9 is an abstract game that uses spatial relationships to confound solitaire players attempting to build pieces on higher more lucrative levels. Played with a small deck of 20 cards (consisting of two copies of each of the number pieces zero through 9) the game takes 10 minutes to play, but much longer to master. More importantly this game can be played one-handed, leading it to be our go-to snack game, played while drinking tea and eating toasted sesame bagels. We only spilled tea on it once, and one four piece came out a bit the worse for wear, I suspect this game will be a forever game, so who cares if it gets a little worn around the edges.
Published by ABACUSSPIELE and brought to the US by Z-Man Games, created by designer Peter Wichmann, and illustrated by the company Fiore GmbH, NMB9 is everything I want in a simple abstract puzzle game.
The rules of the game are quite simple. Each turn a new card is revealed showing a number piece from 0-9, you take the matching piece from the box and add it to your tableau connected to an existing piece on the ground floor or on a higher level. The only rule for placement is that at least one small square of each piece must be orthogonally touching another, and any pieces placed on higher levels must be completely supported by at least two pieces below them (no placing a piece directly on top of it’s copy.) When you have finished the deck of 20 cards, you add up your score getting nothing for pieces placed on the first level. 1 X the number for pieces on the second level, 2 X the number for pieces on the third level and so on. Regardless of where you put those pesky zeroes, they are always going to be worth nothing. Nines on the other hand are going to be quite lucrative if you can get them on the third or fourth level. Scoring at the end of the game can be an exercise in mental math. This is an excellent game for practicing multiplication and addition, I can imagine it being a great way to have kids practice math in a fun way.
This game is essentially side by side solitaire, so how does it deliver such compelling gameplay?
I like to say that NMBR9 was playtested to within an inch of it’s life, the diabolical ways that pieces do and don’t work together still surprise me 150 plays into this game. Obviously created by someone who thought a great deal about tesselations, and the ways that these shapes should and shouldn’t fit together shows this game for the masterpiece that it is. Twos and Fours connect beautifully, and each shape fits into it’s copy, but how long are you willing to wait for that second three to arrive? It could be the last card in the deck, severely hobbling your game. Leave a bunch of gaps and spaces on your first level, and you will be battling for the remainder of the game as the next levels are impacted. 9’s are tantalizing and blocky space makers, so placing them on the top levels for points makes creating a solid base more challenging, but it is almost always the right choice. As for wrong choices, this game has zero, but if I get really picky, I wish that someone would build an app for this game.
I don’t often like the way that apps are pushing their way into our analog space, but NMBR9 is a game that could use an app to good advantage. For one thing, the solitaire game suggests that 100 points or more is an excellent score. Depending on the order of the deck, 100 points is a pipe dream much of the time. An app could run the deck and then give you a range of achievements for that particular game. The app could also include a quick scoring system that would accurately add up the pieces on each level to score, it could keep track of your scores over time. That could be a positive or a negative for sure...
This game has fundamentally changed how I think about numbers. Before NMBR9 the number 7 didn’t send shivers of terror down my spine, now it does. Luckily I like a game with a little brain burn, and until next time you can find me @kibrarian on Twitter, or katlibrary on BGG.