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Just recently I reviewed the game Parlay, which successfully merged Poker and a word game. Dead Hand Chaos Poker (Smirk and Dagger Games, 2004 – Curt Covent) purports to be “an unholy union of Poker and Russian Roulette”. Smirk and Dagger is known for its dark humor (Hex Hex and Run for Your Life, Candyman), and this carries through into both the artwork and theming of Dead Hand Chaos Poker.
Unfortunately, the “Chaos” part of the game is simply too much. Since nothing is really added to the game of Poker other than a chaotic element, the game is really only for Poker enthusiasts. And the ones that I’ve played with were quite annoyed at the random elements thrown into the game. In fact, I was the only person that did enjoy the game! My enjoyment of the game is simply that I get a kick out of the chaotic element – and I know that I’m probably a rarity in that regard. I will admit that normal Poker and other variants, such as Parlay, are certainly better. Dead Hand Chaos Poker is good for a laugh but doesn’t have any long term replayability.
Players play a game of Poker, using the special deck provided in the game. Any variant of Poker can be played, with the following changes:
- If a player so desires, they can declare that a “Dead Hand” is part of the rules for a specific hand. Players play out the hand like normal – according to whatever other rules they may have indicated. After all the hands have been revealed, the top card from the deck is flipped over. By tipping the card a certain way, there is a possibility (60%) that the card has a secret message – declaring a card or hand “dead”. Examples include “The hand with the Black Queen of Spades is dead”, “All Pairs are dead”, “The hand with the low diamond is dead”, etc. The hand(s) or card(s) that meet this condition are considered “dead” – and are out of play. The winner is then determined using the remainder of the cards.
- The “Dead Man’s Hand”, which consists of two black Aces and two black Eights is the highest ranking hand possible – even higher than a Royal Flush.
- Any player who has a hand of two aces and two eights, regardless of suit, receives one poker chip of the smallest denomination from ALL other players and is immune to the card drawn for the “Dead Hand” rule.
The rest of the rules of the game simply follow those of standard Poker games. There is a variant game, “Shootout”, which allows players to use only the cards needed to win a hand, and pay a couple chips to use one of the cards from their hand, using its “Dead Hand” ability.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The game looks like a standard deck of playing cards with a few noticeable distinctions. Each card backing and border of the front features small skulls, adding to the “dead” theme that pervades the game. More importantly, and probably more gruesomely, the artwork on the Kings, Queens, and Jokers is particularly ghastly. The drawings are black and white, with rivers of blood providing a stark contrast on them for a shocking effect. Pictures of a skeleton holding his eyeball, and a doleful queen with her wrist slit and blood running down, really made the game a little darker than I would have liked. Some people, though, may enjoy the illustrations by Robert Mag. All the cards fit into a small box with flaps. The “secret” messages on the cards are printed on raised black ink on a black background and can be seen easily seen in good light. In low light there can possibly be some problems, but I haven’t run into any yet.
2.) Rules: The rules come on a series of cards – something I’m not awfully fond of. However, since they basically just explain the differences between this version and normal poker games, it wasn’t a big deal. Explaining the game is no trouble at all, as long as the person understands normal poker. It’s a bit startling to traditional poker players to have cards “killed”, but they can and will adapt. Two cards are included with the game that show the secret messages on all the cards, so that players can reference them.
3.) Strategy: These two cards are meant to play into the strategy of the game. A player can look at the cards in their hand and those that they’ve discarded, and compare them to the two reference cards. By doing this, they “might” be able to statistically eliminate some of the hands and cards that might “die”. And some cards are certainly more dangerous, such as the One Eyed Jacks, the “Suicide King”, etc. But after having seen the game in practice, this statistical analysis means absolutely nothing. You can sit there and think all night, and still just hope that the random card that is flipped over doesn’t affect you too badly.
4.) Bluffing: Bluffing means a lot less in the game when you don’t know if your hand is good or not. The only hand that is set in stone is the Dead Man’s hand, and getting that is a bit of luck. Having a high pair might be good – if it isn’t dead; having a single high card is probably bad, but the higher hands might be dead. In fact, the idea that one or more hands might be rendered useless pretty much destroys any prior Poker knowledge that a person might have. Why fold?
5.) Fun Factor: Now, from my previous two paragraphs it may appear that I hate everything about the game. I really don’t, I simply bemoan the game’s lack of strategy and its severe departure from normal Poker. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have fun playing the game. For me, it’s very fun and interesting to see what cards die each turn. It’s hilarious to watch someone who has finally gotten a full house to have it be “killed”. Yet even in my enjoyment of this, I realize – from the comments of the other players and from knowing my gaming partners well, that this is not a common enjoyment. Most people won’t enjoy the massive amount of chaos that the “Dead Hand” adds to the game. If people take it too seriously, and begin to analyze the two reference cards too much, the game will degenerate into lengthy paralytic sessions. So while I had fun, I’m clearly in a small minority.
And even though I did enjoy my playing, I’m not likely to play Dead Hand Chaos Poker too much. For one thing, the artwork is probably just a bit too dark for me, as I enjoy games with slightly lighter themes. And if I really am in the mood for Poker, then why not just play with a normal deck of cards, in the normal way? And finally, if I really do want a variant of poker, something to shake things up – I would rather play a game like Parlay, which really does add something different to the mix, rather than this game, which just adds a Heap ‘o Chaos.
“Real men play board games”