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Subject: Instinct vs. Wizard vs. Oh Hell - the good and the bad of each rss

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R. Eric Reuss
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[This article is relevant to three games; I'm submitting it under Instinct because Instinct only has one review thus far, and is generally lacking comparison articles that the other two have already.]

Instinct, Oh Hell!, and Wizard are three similar games:
* All three are trick-taking card games;
* In all three, you bid how many tricks you believe you'll take in that hand, and you're trying to match that bid exactly;
* All three have some sort of trumping in the trick play.

The differences between the three aren't huge, but are enough for some perceptible differences in feel.

Gameplay, and Differences Thereof
Deck type
Oh Hell (and its cousin, Up and Down the River, which I've not played) are played with a standard deck of playing cards.

Wizard uses a four-suited deck very close to standard cards, but adds four Wizards (trump) and four Jesters (un-trump). You could probably hack together a Wizards deck with two identically-backed decks of playing cards, adding the two Jokers and four suited cards (with a big W scrawled on them) from one deck to the whole of the other - though the actual Wizard deck is prettier than this would be.

Instinct only has 12 cards per suit, but has 5 suits, plus an additional 6 "trump" cards. If you happen to own a five-suited deck of regular playing cards, you can play Instinct with it - leave one Joker in; it and the five Kings are the trumps.

Deal
Oh Hell and Wizard both use varying hand sizes - Wizard goes from 1 up to 10, adding a card each round; Oh Hell goes from 10 down to 1 back up to 10 again.

Instinct is always played with an 11-card hand. Rather than a set number of hands, it's played until someone hits 100 points.

Bidding
In all three games, you're bidding the exact number of tricks you think you're going to take; bids of zero are permitted.

In Oh Hell, the total number of tricks bid must not equal the actual number of tricks in the hand - so the final bidder (the dealer) is constrained in their legal bids. Instinct doesn't have this. The times I've played Wizard, we've used this as well, but I'm not seeing it in any other descriptions, so I suspect it was a house rule.

Play / Trump
Gameplay is standard trick-taking for all three; the only difference is in how trump / special cards are handled:

In Oh Hell, a random suit is trump for each hand. Trump beats the led suit; you may only play trump if it's led or you have a void in the led suit; higher trump beats lower trump.

In Wizard, there's a random trump suit (as per Oh Hell), but there are also four Wizard cards. You may play a Wizard regardless of suit led or whether you're able to follow that suit. The first Wizard played on a trick always wins. (There are also Jesters, which may be played regardless of lead, and which always lose, barring freakish cases where everybody plays one.) If the flip for random trump is a Jester/Wizard, then there's no trump/dealer's choice of trump, respectively.

In Instinct, there are six unsuited/unranked cards labelled "Trump". A Trump beats the led suit; you may only trump if it's led or you have a void in the led suit; if multiple Trump are in one trick, the last one played wins.

Scoring
In Oh Hell, you get nothing for missing your bid, and (10 + tricks taken) for making it. Practically speaking, making your bid is much more important than bidding high. If you miss your bid, there's no reason not to miss big, if it'll screw up other peoples' bids.

In Wizard, you get 20 points + 10 per trick for making your bid, or lose 10 points for every trick you're off if you miss it. Making your bid is still important, but bidding high makes much more of a difference. If you're going to miss your bid, there's some incentive to get as close as you can, although it still usually makes sense to try and get others to miss their bids if the opportunity arises.

In Instinct, you get nothing for missing your bid. Making a bid of 0/1/2/3/4/5/6+ earns 20 / 15 / 10 / 10 / 15 / 20 / 60 points. (There's an incentive to bid low or high, but not in the middle.) Like Oh Hell, if you miss your bid, you might as well miss big if it'll get in the way of other players.

Judgements
I'll take a break from being my usual positive-oriented self and start with the negatives:

Bad things
Small tricks (Oh Hell, Wizard): Oh Hell and Wizard both have many tricks with not-very-many cards in them. This ratchets up the level of uncertainty in bidding, and ratchets down the opportunities for intelligent/skillful play. If you enjoy playing "see what happens" games, or don't mind adding a large dose of chaos to a game that already has plenty of randomness, this won't bother you; if you'd like to actually strategize, it probably will. (Admittedly, there's a certain entertaining camaraderie-in-pain, since generally nobody knows what to bid - but that only goes so far.)

Misaligned scoring: (Instinct) The scoring mechanism for Instinct rewards bids of 0 and 1. Barring the six Trump cards, ducking tricks is generally much easier than taking them; this is especially true when playing with 5-6 players. If you have no Trump in your hand, you'll nearly always want to bid zero, unless you have a singleton 12 or something equivalently dangerous - but even then, with five suits, voids aren't unlikely, and you might well be able to pitch the 12 before ever having to play it. The reward for null bids is disconnected from the difficulty in actually making those bids.

Excessively good special cards (Wizard): The Wizard cards in Wizard are so good that they make for less interesting play. They're pretty much "a guaranteed trick whenever you want it" (unless you hold onto them for too long, or are playing in one of the nigh-impossible-to-predict early rounds); the ability to play them even when you're not void in the led suit is incredibly flexible, and since the first Wizard played wins there's no uncertainty or danger in using them. (Even the ace of trump in Oh Hell can only be played if you're void in the led suit - and there's just one of it.) The Jesters are almost as bad - they're nearly-guaranteed un-tricks, and are a practically risk-free way to ditch the lead; in a 5+ player game, they become entirely risk-free, since not everyone can have one.

Good things
Scoring (Wizard): Wizard's scoring is great - its incentives match up nicely to the difficulty of making various bids. (Making your bid takes work, but making a high bid is even more impressive.) It does mean that if you're dealt poor cards, you won't have the opportunity for big point gains - but generally speaking, ducking is easier, so you're apt to more reliably make fewer points. It also provides a disincentive for missing big; I find I enjoy this more, although it does lessen the "well, I've failed, might as well try to hose everyone else" dynamic.

Table tension (Oh Hell): The "someone must fail their bid" mechanic in Oh Hell (and possibly Wizard) is very nice - it adds some tension to the hand, as well as a prevailing leaning towards "you'll have to work to get your tricks" or "you'll have to work to avoid taking tricks you don't want", depending on whether the total bid was high or low.

Hand size (Instinct): With all hands being 11 cards, high-player games become more predictable (regarding what cards are likely to be in the game) than low-player games are, which nicely counterbalances the tendency for individual tricks to be more chaotic as the number of players increases.

Trump rules (Instinct): Instinct's trump rules work nicely - trumps are nearly guaranteed tricks, but are limited in when they can be played - and for best reliability, you want to play them when you're near the end of a trick, which involves trying to arrange for the player(s) to your left to get the lead.

Breakeven
Deck composition: While Instinct's card distribution is interesting - five suits means that voids are more common, but the relative scarcity of trump means that's less of a big deal - the greater number of suits does also increase the randomness of distribution in each hand. It makes play different, but I don't feel like it makes it notably better or worse.

My preferred game
My ideal game is a hybrid of the three, using the "good" points from above:
* The deck, constant hand-size, and Trump rules of Instinct;
* The scoring mechanism of Wizard;
* The "total bids may not equal total tricks" tension-inducer from Oh Hell (and possibly Wizard).
* Playing to some set number of tricks (since with Wizard-style scoring, points aren't guaranteed to rise over time).

Failing that, I'd prefer Oh Hell with Wizard's scoring, and hand-size(s) in the 8-12 range.

If I had to play one game straight-up as-written, I'd have a hard time picking between Oh Hell (better core game-play) or Wizard (better scoring incentives). While Instinct has the best core play, its scoring actively undermines some of the interest of the game.

[ED: Final preferences tweaked slightly after sleeping on it and reading comments - original as-written choice was "Wizard, due to scoring". I think I was over-valuing that good scoring out of sheer joy at how much better it was than Instinct's.]
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Brian Leet
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Interesting conclusions. I've never played Instinct, but agree with your assessment of Wizard and Oh Hell in terms of how they play.

The interesting thing to me is that I would much prefer to play Oh Hell than Wizard. I'd rather experience more interesting trick play and more table tension, even if the scoring is a bit wonky. It doesn't sound like I'd care for Instinct any more. A good example of agreeing on the facts, but disagreeing on the conclusion.
 
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Paul M
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It is an optional rule in Wizard to disallow the sum of bids to equal the number of tricks in the hand. The rule is relatively unnecessary, because it punishes you for dealing a small hand, and in a larger hand it's less than 50% for everybody I play with to make their bids anyway. If the rule said "Deal the first (number of players) rounds without the rule, then the rest of the game with the rule" it would be more fair.

Good review. I'm not sure I would like the Instinct scoring. Dumb luck might grant you an awful hand which has no chance to take a trick, and you get rewarded for that. It's not quite the same if you are dealt a monster hand, because you still have to bid and play correctly. Wizard encourages aggressive bidding no matter what type of hand you have, and I like that best. Now if I can just find a cheap source of the black-box versions to give to all my friends. laugh
 
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R. Eric Reuss
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PghArch wrote:
The interesting thing to me is that I would much prefer to play Oh Hell than Wizard. I'd rather experience more interesting trick play and more table tension, even if the scoring is a bit wonky.

Yeah, I can see that - and actually, thinking about it again, I may have misjudged my preferences. (I'm rarely offered the direct choice between one game or the other; it's more often a choice between one of them and some other game.) While Oh Hell's scoring isn't (in my opinion) as good as Wizard's, it's not screwy the way Instinct's is, so the basic incentives for playing the hand you're dealt are reasonably good. Hmm.

(I should note that even Instinct's scoring results in a reasonable game, just too much ducking once players suss out the relative risk:reward of doing so. There's a theoretical indirect cost of ducking - you may more easily enable someone to make a game-crushing bid of 6+ - but that's a minor concern in small games and pretty much a non-issue in larger ones.)

PghArch wrote:
It doesn't sound like I'd care for Instinct any more. A good example of agreeing on the facts, but disagreeing on the conclusion.

Yes! (Although I'm not entirely sure I disagree with you. :)
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