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Introducing Clubs

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of North Star Games' series of popular party games. Wits & Wagers, Say Anything, Crappy Birthday - we own them all, love playing them, and particularly enjoy introducing them to non-gamers and folks unfamiliar with modern games. For each copy of these titles that we own personally, we must have "sold" at least another half a dozen copies by introducing them to other families who've gone on to buy copies of their own! North Star certainly knows its niche and its target audience, and their lineup of games really hits the spot with this market. They've deservedly enjoyed the kind of success that has seen their games make their way onto the shelves of big box stores like Walmart.

Clubs represents somewhat of a departure for North Star, because it's a card game that is more about strategy than about laughs. North Star's Dominic Crapuchettes may be breaking character in some respects, but this game still fits one important criteria of his tried and tested formula: Clubs is a game that can be played and enjoyed by almost anyone, including non-gamers. I'm pleased to report that Clubs achieves this objective admirably, and even though it's certainly a very different breed of game from the rest of the North Star stable, it is certainly the kind of game that will go over very well from everyone like your fellow workers at the office party or lunch room, or your great-aunts and second cousins at the family get-together.

Inevitably, comparisons are going to be made between Clubs and Tichu, because both are climbing games. Clubs was unashamedly inspired by Tichu, which is extremely popular and well known by most gamers. Dominic loves it too, but in his words: "Even so, I have a big gripe with it. It's the same gripe I have with most games: People get over-whelmed when I try to teach it to them." His objective was to come up with a simpler game, one that remained portable: "So I set out to distill the essence of Tichu into a game with one quarter of the rules." Clubs was never intended to replace Tichu or to scratch the same itch, but rather, Dominic's goal was "to design a strategy game that could be enjoyed by the "typical" North Star Games customer." In other words, an easier game, that drew on concepts and mechanics familiar from well-known classics like Hearts, Spades, and Gin Rummy, and simplified the core elements of popular climbing games like Tichu and Haggis to make them palatable to the average person. Congratulations, Dominic, I think you've succeeded! Let's go find out more about Clubs!


Opening hand for a 2 player game

COMPONENTS

Game box

The box immediately shows that one of the design goals has been accomplished: portability. It's a nice compact box, the kind of thing you'd expect from something that contains a deck or two of cards. The crisp tag line is catchy and clever: "If you like Hearts & Spades, you'll love .... CLUBS." I also like the fact that the cover includes all the relative information to help folks make an informed decision about the game: It's Family oriented, suitable for ages 8+, handles 2-6 players, and plays in around 30 minutes.


Game box

The blurb on the back of the box is worth repeating, because it neatly summarizes the core idea of the game:

"Clubs has joined Hearts and Spades as a classic in family card games. The goal is very simple: get rid of all your cards as fast as possible. At the same time, you'll want to take tricks with clubs in them, because those are the only cards that score points. The suit of clubs finally gets some respect!"


Box back

Component list

So what do you get inside?

● 60 game cards (4 suits of 15 cards each)
● 6 bonus point cards
● 2 sets of instructions


All the components

Playing cards

The main ingredient of the game is a deck of 60 cards. First of all, I have to gush for a moment or two about the production quality. You'll notice immediately that the cards feature an extremely attractive design on the back, which not only gives a thematic nod to the game's title and core concept (i.e. clubs), but is both artistic and classy. I love it! But perhaps even more importantly, the quality of the cards themselves is outstanding. I dabble a bit in card magic as a hobby, and I've also long enjoyed traditional card games, so I've held an awful lot of decks of cards in my hands over the years. But these have to be among the best I've seen. They shuffle just beautifully, with exactly the right amount of flex, precisely in the sweet spot between the undesired poles of being too flimsy or too firm. Given that they are made out of casino grade paper and have a quality linen finish, I have good reason to assume that they are also extremely durable and should be able to withstand the many games of use they'll likely get. North Star, superb job on the quality of these attractive cards!


A new shrink-wrapped deck

But now about the cards themselves. There are four different suits: hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs. This will help make a connecting bridge for traditional gamers. But in a somewhat unusual twist, North Star has opted to give each suit its own colour. I'm guessing that this is to give Clubs a unique brand that makes it stand apart from a traditional deck. And perhaps it assists with playability, by helping distinguish the suits more clearly, although whether cards are red or black really isn't important in this game as they are in classic card games like Canasta, and all that really matters is being able to pick out the clubs easily. The red hearts and orange diamonds are somewhat close in colour, but they're distinguished easily enough by shape as well, and in the end the distinction between these suits doesn't really matter to anyone except the card counters. Another thing that makes them look different than a regular deck is that the icon for each suit also occurs down the side of the card in an amount corresponding to the value of the card. It's also not important for game play, but it's another small touch that makes the cards feel more unique than a traditional deck.


60 cards in four suits

All the cards have a white background except the clubs, which are yellow. That's important for the game-play, because these are the point scoring cards, and this visual and identifier helps make them stand out from the other cards. It's a nice marriage of function with aesthetics. The clubs also have a point value beneath the value of the card, i.e. the ace is worth 5 points, the 2 & 3 are worth 4 points, the 4-6 are worth 3 points, the 7-10 are worth 2 points, and the 11-15 are worth 1 point; these are points you'll earn by winning tricks that contain these cards.

What really does distinguish these cards from a regular deck for the purposes of gameplay is the fact that each suit runs from 1 through 15, instead of 1 through 10 plus a jack, queen and king. We've seen this concept before, for example in Rook, which has suits with cards from 1 through 14. But in Clubs using numbers instead of picture cards is even more important, because it makes it easier to identify sets and runs. Going up to 15 also means each suit has a larger number of cards, and has the additional benefit of making the game playable with up to 6 players.

It's worth mentioning the highest valued cards in the deck (the 15s) feature a unique picture that captures the members of the North Star team: Hearts = Dominic, Diamonds = Amber, Spades = Luke, and Clubs = Satish. Some may find this a little cheesy, because the cartoon-like artwork seems to detract just a little from the classiness implied by the artwork on the reverse of the cards. But then again I do love games with inside jokes, and it does help make the top card in each suit more visually identifiable as the most powerful cards in the game.


The top dogs in the game

Bonus cards

These six bonus cards indicate the amount of bonus points players will earn, depending on the order they go "out" by playing all their cards. They're all used in a 6 player game, but for example in a 4 player game you'd just use the 8, 5, 2 and 0. Note how the 0 states that if you are the player to go "out" last, your clubs are worth zero points!


The six bonus cards

Instructions

Clubs comes with two small instruction books. The main instructions only consist of a few pages, and are easy to learn. There's some helpful examples of "sample plays" that helps introduce the basic concept to people who are completely unfamiliar with climbing games. The main rule booklet also includes a number of variations to the regular game. Initially I didn't quite understand the rationale for having the rules for the Crazy Clubs variant as a separate booklet, since they consist of only two panels, and so I'd have preferred to see them included in the main rulebook in place of the four panels of promotional material for the company and their other games. But from this post by the designer, it appears that the intent was to give Crazy Clubs increased validity as a separate game, since during development and playtesting both forms of the game seemed equally popular. Time will tell which form of the game people enjoy the most - I think my own nod does go to Crazy Clubs!

You can download the Clubs rules here: Rules - English
You can download the Crazy Clubs rules here: English Rules to Crazy Clubs


The two instruction books

GAME-PLAY

Flow of Play

Clubs is a breeze to learn, especially if you have any experience at all with climbing games. The overall aim is to get points by being the first player to "go out" by playing all your cards, and by winning tricks with the point-scoring clubs.

Setup: First put appropriate bonus cards out on the table - which ones these will be depends on the number of players. For example, in a 6 player game you use all the bonus cards, but in a 4 player game you use the 8, 5, 2 and 0.

Deal the cards: The dealer gives 10 cards to each player from the shuffled deck. The player on his left will lead to start the game.

Lead cards: The leader plays a card or cards, which can be a single card, a set of 2, 3 or 4 of a kind, or a run of 2, 3, 4 or more cards. Runs don't have to be cards from the same suit.

Playing a trick: In turns in clockwise order, players have the opportunity to pass, or to play cards. You can only play cards if you can beat the current meld with higher valued cards. For example, a single 5 can be beaten by a single 6 or 7 or higher in any suit; a set of three 5s can be beaten by a set of three 6s, 7s, or higher, and a run of 4/5/6 can be beaten by a run of 5/6/7 or best of all by a 13/14/15.

Winning a trick: The trick ends when everyone has passed, or if someone plays cards that include a 15, the highest valued card. The player who played the highest valued card(s) in a trick gets all the cards - and you especially want to try to get the point-scoring clubs in this way!


A series of sample plays

Going out: When players manage to play all their cards, they are considered to have "gone out", and get a bonus card. The first player to go out gets the highest valued bonus card available, the next player to go out gets the next highest bonus card available, and the last player will end up with the 0, which comes with the additional penalty of any points from clubs cards being worthless!

Scoring: After all players have gone out, record the points that the players have won, which is the number of points for the club cards won in tricks (these points are printed on the cards themselves), combined with the bonus points for going out. The player left of the dealer becomes the new dealer, and this process is repeated until someone has at least 50 points, thus winning the game. There's a special rule that before playing your first card in a round you can call "Double or Nothing", which represents a bet that you'll be the first player to go out that round - if you're successful, you double your score for that round, but if you fail, you score a big fat zero that round!

Variations

The rules come with a number of different variations to try:

Two player game: For this, you play with a 5 Bonus card, and the player who doesn't go out first still scores points for their clubs.

15s Are Wild: With this variant, 15s can be played as any number between 1 and 15.

Partnership Clubs: Players play in teams, adding together their points at the end of each round.

Crazy Clubs: The Crazy Clubs variation is described in the additional rulebook, and even has its own BGG entry. Rules are the same with this change: a single card can be beaten by any pair or more of-a-kind, and any pair by a triple or more-of-a-kind; similarly a run of 2 can be beaten by any run of 3 or more, and a run of 3 by any run of 4 or more. This means that a 15 no longer guarantees winning a trick. Tricks still end when all players pass consecutively. For more on Crazy Clubs, see my separate review. It's definitely worth trying, and arguably just as good as the basic Clubs!



CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

Decisions and balance: As with most card games, there's definitely a luck element, and Clubs is no exception. Yet there's a real sense in which how you play your cards matters, and so the decisions you make are important. I especially appreciate the interesting dynamic in which there are two ways to earn points, firstly by winning tricks that include the point-scoring clubs, and secondly by going out as soon as possible. Sometimes these goals will clash, because dropping strong cards to win a lucrative trick can make it more difficult to play out the rest of your hand. You certainly want to avoid going out last, and thus not scoring any points at all! These two different objectives create a very fascinating tension, keep things dynamic and interesting, and seem quite balanced as alternative ways of scoring points, and the changing game state will often determine what your focus should be. It's a simple concept, but a good and effective one.

Easily accessible: One of the things Clubs really has going for it is how easy it is to learn. The rules are very straight forward and simple, and as such Clubs will be able to find play in groups where Tichu and Haggis just aren't going to fly. I've successfully introduced Clubs to youngsters and to seniors, and seeing as this is exactly what designer Dominic was setting out to do, I think he's succeeded admirably.

Broad appeal: For a game to hit the big time, it really needs to have a wide appeal, and I think that Clubs has got what it takes to achieve exactly that. My 8 year old daughter enjoyed Clubs, but so too did her 70+ year old grandmother. A non-gamer friend who prefers casual traditional card games enjoyed Clubs, but so too did a gamer friend who can't stand luck-driven games without strategy and decisions. Being able to appeal to a diverse cross section of groups like this means that Clubs has got real potential to be successful, and this success should translate well beyond the smaller niche of serious gamers.

Bridge from the familiar: Marketing the game with a tag-line that makes reference to Hearts and Spades has to be a stroke of genius. It's bound to arouse the curiosity of those who appreciate or are familiar with these time-tested classics, and the fact that it uses a traditional style deck of cards with the usual four suits (only with a larger number of cards in each), means that most people are going to have an easy and natural transition into the game. I think that this is a very clever move on the part of the publisher, and I'll go out on a limb by suggesting that it should work. It also means that you could play standard playing card games with this deck, and by taking a single Clubs deck you can still play your classic favourites as well if you really want to. This versatility that embraces the familiar should help Clubs extend its reach.

Tichu on a diet: Clubs is inevitably going to be compared with other climbing games, and even invites that comparison. In his blog on the subject, designer Dominic Crapuchettes openly acknowledges that Clubs is inspired by Tichu. But what makes Clubs stand apart from games like Tichu and Haggis is that it's easier to learn and to teach. For example, suits don't really matter (aside from the clubs), so you can just organize your hand in order of value; you also don't deal out every card in games with less than 6 players, so card counters won't have perfect information about the cards in the game. Ultimately Clubs doesn't have the complexities and nuances that makes Tichu appealing to serious gamers, but that's a very conscious design decision. Clubs is intended to be much more accessible, and so reach a much bigger market. Hardcore Tichu fans will undoubtedly consider Clubs a junior brother. But Clubs certainly does a very good job of being a more hip younger sibling, whose easy charm will find more friends than its arguably more distinguished and serious older brother. You'll find multiple threads where people lament their failure to introduce Tichu. Well friends, if you've been there, then Clubs is for you!

The Great Dalmuti on steroids: My own experience with climbing games began with the classic President (more commonly known with less savoury names like A$$hole), and later The Great Dalmuti. These are great social games, and can be a lot of fun to play in the right group. But their novelty can wear thin quite quickly, because not only do they have a deliberately uneven playing field (by design, and part of the fun, I realize!), but they don't have a real objective, at least, not one that is measured by scoring points. Clubs takes the basic climbing concept present in games like President and The Great Dalmuti, but then adds a layer of strategy, skill, and scoring that makes it more fun to play, without making it so complicated like Tichu so that it becomes inaccessible to many. While I enjoy The Great Dalmuti, I do get tired of it quite quickly, and in contrast Clubs offers real room for skill, along with the challenge of scoring points, to make it something I'm more inclined to come back to. Clubs is the kind of game that you can find yourself playing multiple rounds over the course of an evening, and with the right people perhaps even find yourself spending a couple of hours straight playing it! Most people are familiar with games like President, so playing Clubs is a natural transition. I get tired of commercialized versions of classic card games, especially when publishers try to make a quick buck by merely re-skinning a traditional card game that's playable with a standard deck. But Clubs is something genuinely new, because adds some novel elements (the point-scoring clubs, and the bonus cards for going out) to the tried and tested concept of climbing games, in order to make it feel quite different and more strategic. To my knowledge there isn't a traditional card game quite like this, and the new elements of gameplay have the benefit of creative design that is backed up by solid development and high production values, resulting in a well polished final product.

Crazy Clubs: The Crazy Clubs variant merits special comment, since it has its own entry, and the designer considers it a game that's on par with the basic Clubs game. Having an additional rule that makes it legal to beat a set or run with more cards even if they are lower in value, does change the feel of the game significantly. I can see that you wouldn't want to play this rule with people new to climbing games, but after starting with the simpler Clubs, I highly recommend trying Crazy Clubs. It is full of surprises and arguably more fun, even if it is less calculating and more casual. While you can't plan your hand as carefully and in quite the calculated fashion as you can in Clubs, Crazy Clubs adds a welcome element of unpredictability, since you can't be certain if your high cards will be trumped. This means more choices, and more surprises, and the folks we've played had an overall preference for Crazy Clubs, although I imagine that more serious folks who like card counting prefer Clubs (perhaps even trying to play with all 60 cards in a four player game). Both games are fun, and it will be interesting to see which of the two styles of game will be the preferred choice for most people in the long run. For a more detailed assessment of Crazy Clubs, see my separate review here. For a poll to see which form of the game most people prefer, see this thread.

Other variants: The fact that there are other possible variants is promising, but at the same time new players will often find that having a ton of different options proves overwhelming and daunting. This happened to me when I first played Rook, for example - it turned out that there were all kinds of ways you can play, but I just wanted the publisher to tell me the best way! Having said that, it's nice that there are different ways to explore the game for diehards, and it will give people the option of taking this deck along with them and being able to play multiple games. Just don't roll out too many variations too soon.

Variable player numbers: Another great thing about Clubs is that is can handle anything from 2 through 6 players. Most of the games we played were with 3, 4 or 5 players, and each of these were good. Two player games weren't quite as much fun as games with more players, and when playing with just two you'll want to opt for the Crazy Clubs variant, otherwise you'll find yourself being too hamstrung by the card draw. Even so, it works well enough with two players as a casual and light game. Being able to play with as few as two players or as many as six players gives a highly desired flexibility, meaning that the game will work in a variety of situations. We didn't try the partnership play yet, but there are going to be folks who really enjoy exploring such options.

Compact and quality components: Clubs is a handy sized game in a small box, making it easy to bring along anywhere, and this kind of portability is welcome. The overall component quality is very good. The artwork on the face of the cards is going to be a matter of taste, but one can't deny the quality of the components themselves, which feature high quality production values, are attractive, and should prove long-lasting.



Recommendation


So, is Clubs a game for you? I can think of very few groups that Clubs will not work for. Of course more serious gamers are going to prefer Tichu, but the reality is that there are often situations where there are more or less players than the required four needed for partnership Tichu, or where you want to pull out a game that is more relaxing and casual, or is more suitable for non-gamers. And for that, Clubs hits the mark just beautifully. It fills a beautiful niche right between more casual games like Great Dalmuti and more serious games like Tichu and Haggis. Clubs isn't going to replace Tichu for fans of that game, but it will give you a climbing game that you can play in groups where Tichu is just never going to work. Mark my words, if this game joins the other titles of the North Star lineup in big box stores, you're going to see a lot of it in years to come! At a low price point, you can hardly go wrong in picking this up. Highly recommended.



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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Pablo Schulman
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Another wonderful review as always, Ender!

Just pointing out that using different colors is not that unheard of. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-color_deck

I've been playing a heck out of Tichu these days (on IPad) and Clubs might be perfect to introduce to my non-gamer friends (on real life).
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David Smidt
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Thanks for the review, Ender! As usual, your review is top notch.
I'm glad this one is relatively inexpensive, because you've sold me on yet another game.
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Aron F.
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I just played this for the first time ever on Friday. Nice timing!

I've just decided how I'll compare this game to Tichu and President (Great Dalmuti / A$$hole), based to a large part upon your review:

1. Not as sophisticated as Tichu, but it accommodates more players.
2. More sophisticated than President, but it doesn't accommodate as many players.

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Gang of Four is the game of choice when we get together with our daughter and her husband. Perhaps this would go over as well and give us more flexibility when their daughter gets older or when our other friends are available to join us.
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sroney wrote:
Gang of Four is the game of choice when we get together with our daughter and her husband. Perhaps this would go over as well and give us more flexibility when their daughter gets older or when our other friends are available to join us.

I've never played Gang of Four, and it would be interesting to see some comparisons between it and Clubs. I suspect that Clubs might be more accessible to your average person, given that it uses more traditional style suits.
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Just played this tonight. Lovely card stock but seems a bit thin and potentially prone to accidental creasing. Have you noted that yet? Seems silly to sleeve this...
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clydeiii wrote:
Just played this tonight. Lovely card stock but seems a bit thin and potentially prone to accidental creasing. Have you noted that yet? Seems silly to sleeve this...

As I noted in my review when commenting on the components, I personally love the cards. Thickness doesn't necessarily equate to quality. I've seen very thick cards that were poor quality (and didn't last), and thin cards that were high quality (and proved durable).

One thing I didn't mention in my review is the idea of using all the cards in the deck by dealing out 15 card hands in four player games. I do think that Clubs might have a greater appeal than Crazy Clubs for the card counting people coming from Hearts and Spades, but having 20 of the 60 cards out of the game might only prove frustrating to them if they're trying to do carefully calculated series of plays. I haven't tried this yet myself, but I can't see why it wouldn't work - it could actually prove to be an excellent way to play standard Clubs with four players, whether playing alone or in partnerships.

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The climbing game I'm most familiar with is Lectio. They don't seem much different except Lectio is composed of very nice tiles vs. the cards with Clubs.

In terms of game play, are Crazy Clubs and Lectio much different? Is there are reason to have both?

Thanks, I enjoyed your review.

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EndersGame wrote:
clydeiii wrote:
Just played this tonight. Lovely card stock but seems a bit thin and potentially prone to accidental creasing. Have you noted that yet? Seems silly to sleeve this...

As I noted in my review when commenting on the components, I personally love the cards. Thickness doesn't necessarily equate to quality. I've seen very thick cards that were poor quality (and didn't last), and thin cards that were high quality (and proved durable).

One thing I didn't mention in my review is the idea of using all the cards in the deck by dealing out 15 card hands in four player games. I do think that Clubs might have a greater appeal than Crazy Clubs for the card counting people coming from Hearts and Spades, but having 20 of the 60 cards out of the game might only prove frustrating to them if they're trying to do carefully calculated series of plays. I haven't tried this yet myself, but I can't see why it wouldn't work - it could actually prove to be an excellent way to play standard Clubs with four players, whether playing alone or in partnerships.

The Great Dalmuti cardstock is way, way too thick, and very poor. Clubs' cardstock is lovely and fairly thin, making it quite easy to shuffle. I'm just wondering if you've noticed the thinness being an issue yet.
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FYI, Tichu is not an original game, it is a copy of the elderly Chinese game of Dou Dizhu (beat the landlord).
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I notice that on the game box, both Hearts and Spades get a ™ symbol. Who holds the trademark on these?
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Dominic Crapuchettes
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North Star Games designs party games that don't suck! Play them with your non-gamer friends over the holidays.
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First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we bring you Clubs. The suit of clubs finally gets some respect!
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David Goldfarb wrote:
I notice that on the game box, both Hearts and Spades get a ™ symbol. Who holds the trademark on these?


I have no idea why our graphic artist did that! We somehow missed it, but it is supposed to be removed in the 2nd print run (which is currently underway). No one owns the trademarks to those game names, and they are not trademark-able.
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"Clubs certainly does a very good job of being a more hip younger sibling, whose easy charm will find more friends than its arguably more distinguished and serious older brother."

Once again Ender, you find the most elegant and concise ways to describe games. I am going to use this from now on!
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I just tried to introduce climbing games to my friends the other night with Zhang Shangyou. It went ok, but this is EXACTLY the game I needed then.
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