I've recently stumbled across Phil Foglio online and renewed my acquaintance with the Girl Genius comic and the travails on Agatha Heterodyne. And in doing so, it has renewed my interest in this card game by James Ernest.
The game is just a simple card game, so there's no board or bits to speak of. The card quality is just average. Definitely not high-end, but since the cards aren't being handled a great deal (read: left face up on the table instead of held in your hands and subjected to the wringing some put them through as they ponder moves), the card quality is sufficient. The artwork is Phil Folgio.
If you like his work, and this comic series in particular, it's fun watching different cards interact on a character-level. If you aren't familiar with the story or characters, they are just cards. Some of the art may be a little bizarre. I would guess it wouldn't be a draw or something that would put people off.
The mechanics (get it?)
Each card has a series of symbols printed on each of the four edges of the cards. Each edge will have all the same symbol in some amount from 1-9, but each edge will have different symbols and amounts from any other edge. Most cards will also have special instructions to follow when you score a card. They also have a point total that the card is worth and a bunch of types that the card may be (clanks, constructs, spark, etc.) that infulence some of how the cards interact.
The game starts with 12 cards laid out in a grid where they alternate between being vertical and horizontal so each horizontal card only borders vertically-lined cards and verse vica. Two of the cards on opposite ends of the grid are face-up and the rest are face-down. On a player's turn, they turn one card face-up without looking at how it lines up, then they rotate a card that is face-up and check all the edges of that card to those around it. If any of the edges has a symbol type that matches the edge of the card it borders, the card with more symbols gets scored. Sometimes multiple cards will score for you with one turn. Most games are won by being the first to 100 points, although some of the cards have special winning conditions for when they are scored. When a card scores, you replace it with a face-up card from your hand.
Get those gears a-turnin'
This is 100% a puzzle game. Seeing the patterns in the board is the biggest key. Just because there is a killer move to be had doesn't mean it is easy to recognize. In addition to lining up the edges, you also need to see how different special instructions chain together. Score one card, this leads to scoring another card, which lets you follow the instructions from a card on the board even though you don't score it, but that lets you score that card over there... etc. Chaining together the scoring options is the key to success with this game, and in my experience with this game, it doesn't come intuitively for many.
One key point to make is that with this game, the two-player game is vastly different strategy-wise from a three- or four-player game. With two players, you can set moves up for your next turn, usually by leaving two good options on the board so that while your opponent gets one, you get the other. Or, you can try to leave one move that will score on the board which leads to a negative effect, usually that player losing a turn. Two turns in a row is a huge deal in this game. But with multiple players, you can't set things up so long-term. What may be there one move from now most likely won't be there by the time your turn comes around. Playing more defensively, trying not to give anything away, seems the order of the day.
It has the Spark!
If you don't care for puzzle games, add this to your list of games you wouldn't care for right now. But if you like puzzles or pattern-recognition in your games, this one would be a nice filler for the occasion. Really, it is an abstract game with a theme that doesn't really tie into the gameplay, but for a 20-minute game of following moves and chains of moves out, it's a good lightweight.
7 out of 10