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Maik Hennebach
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Fairy Tale by Yuhodo Games was one of the surprise hits of the Essen Spiel’04, and it also became a favorite at our place – my profile information here on the Geek tells me that I played no game more often in 2005 than Fairy Tale. I also like Fairy Tale‘s elder (and considerably uglier) stepbrother Masquerade quite a bit, although fewer folks share that enthusiasm. With such a track record, it is no surprise that Phantom Rummy, Yuhodo’s latest offering, was one of the games that I actively sought out at the Spiel’05. Read on to find out how my great expectations were neither dashed nor quite fulfilled ...

Oooh, shiny - confusing, though
At first glance, there are a lot of similarities between Fairy Tale and Phantom Rummy: both are card games with exactly 100 cards, both have a fantasy theme and – the best news – both are graced with illustrations by Yoko Nachigami. Since the illustrations get more elbow room on Phantom Rummy’s cards and the layout is a bit less cluttered, looks have even improved a bit from the already beautiful Fairy Tale.

Sadly, once you want to learn what to do with this extraordinarily nice pack of cards, you’re in for a bad surprise: instead of providing rules in both Japanese and English languages, the rulebook offers Japanese and gibberish. By now, a corrected translation is up on the publisher‘s website, but I won’t deny that the catastrophic original rules and the frustrating attempts to extract some kind of working game from them did not endear me towards Phantom Rummy, to say the least. I’m reasonably sure that what is presented below is the way the game is supposed to be played, but I would not bet my life on it.

The rules, I guess
There are three main suits of cards (red, blue and yellow), each of which has four copies of the values from 1 to 7. The cards depict personages from three fantasy factions: blue for the undead, red for men and yellow for the angels. In addition, there are the item cards: four copies each of book, crown, sword and ... a bouquet. The last one puzzled me quite a bit, too.

Anyway, what you are trying to do is building sets of these cards, and there are only three possibly kinds of set: a Small Set with two cards of a kind (e.g. Red 4, Red 4) and Big Sets with either three of a kind or a run of three (e.g. Blue 2, Blue 3, Blue 4). Since the item cards are not numbered, they can never be used in a run of three, which makes it a bit harder to construct sets with them. Armed with this knowledge, let’s see how a round of the game plays out:

Each player is dealt a hand of seven cards. In addition, a pool of (x+1) cards are placed face-up on the table, x being the number of players. The player sitting left to the dealer picks one card from the pool and then may play a Big Set in front of him. If he does, he draws to cards from the stack to refill his hand back to seven cards. If he doesn’t, he has to discard one card face-up in front of him to, again leaving him with a hand of seven cards. A discarded card may be used by another player to immediately build a Big Set with it (in combination with two cards from that players hand, obviously). If several players make a grab for it, the one sitting closest to the left of the active player gets the discarded card. Otherwise it stays in the personal discard pile of that player, which is should openly display all cards placed in it during a game.

Once everybody’s hand is refilled to seven, the next player takes his turn in the same manner, and when the cards in the pool are depleted, it is refilled to (x+1) cards. This means that the player who can pick the first card from a fresh pool will also be the one to take the last card, which is not necessarily a good thing.

This is how it works, so I should explain how it ends: the Big Sets played out during the game will score points, but only for the player who manages to finish the game with the inventively named Goal Hand. This Goal Hand consists of two Big Sets and a Small Set (in case you wondered what they were good for), and if you are the one to complete it, every Big Set you played will gain you one point at least. Everybody else will get nothing, zero, nada – no matter how impressive the number of Sets they played might be.

More about scoring a bit further down, but before I’ll go into that, one last rule: if you should only be one card away from a Goal Hand at the end of your turn (at which point you should have exactly seven cards in your hand, unless something went awry), you may say „Ready“. Or something else that you and your gaming buddies can agree upon, like „Check“ or „Nonkertompf“. Declaring your „readiness“ has, like most things in life or gaming, a good and a bad side. It’s good because you may use a discarded card to complete your Goal Hand, even if somebody else would like to use it to biuld a Big Set. It’s bad because you may not change your hand anymore: if the card you draw during your turn is not one of those you needed to build your Goal Hand, you have to discard it right away.

Scoring and how it does not work
The exact number of points a completed Goal Hand is worth is the main difference between the basic and the advanced rules of Phantom Rummy. In both cases, each Big Set you played during the game scores one point. In addition, you may turn over the first card on the draw pile and see whether it matches a card in your played Big Sets or your Goal Hand. If it does, you score a point and may turn over another card. Obviously, this will work out better if you played a large number of sets. Less obviously, three of a kind will score far worse in these bonus draws than runs of three will.

Lastly, one copy of each card has its number printed in red instead of black – in the basic game, these cards in your sets or your Goal Hand will score an additional point each. The item cards are printed in red, which makes them rather attractive in spite of being a bit more difficult to play. In the advanced game, you only get bonus points for these cards if you fulfill certain conditions (such as „no 1s or 7s in your cards“), but then you get more than just a single point.

As might be gleaned from this summary of the rules, the central decision in the game is either going for small and safe points by setting up your Goal Hand as soon as possible, or going for big and risky points by playing a lot of sets before trying to still finish first. This is good; I love it when a game cajoles me into greediness and then punishes me for giving in. I’m strange that way. My sad and so far unsurmountable problem with Phantom Rummy is that the balance between the fast and the risky approach is completely out of whack: since you completely deny victory points to all your opponents by finishing first, the only sensible strategy is to build a Goal Hand right after playing the one Big Set that is the other (and so far unmentioned) prerequisite to finishing a round.

The advanced game is only aggravating the problem, since the time you lose in trying to build a Goal Hand within the constraints imposed by the bonus conditions are simply not worth the points you might eventually gain by fulfilling them. Which is all rather frustrating, because I feel that Phantom Rummy is only one tiny step away from being a great game instead of the pleasant, but rather mindless short filler that it is now. And I’m pretty sure that the solution lies in the scoring, not the game itself. Which runs rather smoothly, and I really should mention that a lot of folks I introduced to the game liked it a lot and did not seem to see the same problems with it that I do.

So, if you want an undemanding, original and extraordinarily beautiful little card game, Phantom Rummy is wholly recommended. Leave out the advanced game, since it only adds a lot of chrome that the game can’t really carry. If, however, you are hoping for a unique set collection game with depth and real strategy, you will have to do as I do and watch this space in the hope that somebody will find the one trick that turns Phantom Rummy into that game.




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Alex Brown
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Thank you for the indepth and well done review. As a fellow fan of Fairy Tale and Masquerade, I was looking forward to this as well.
 
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Mikko Saari
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Nice review, and I agree with what you said. It's a nice game, but I'll probably rather play Mhing, where the balance between finishing quick and the big scoring hands is way better. So if that's what you're looking for, try Mhing.

It's out of print, but as it's basically a card version of Mahjong, it's easy to find Mahjong cards (there are some you can print off the web, for example) and the score hands are available at the Geek (they are a very good simplification of Mahjong, much like Phantom Rummy).
 
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Maik Hennebach
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Thanks for the kind words, and thanks to Mikko for mentioning Mhing - I can see how scoring points on an exponential scale would help to make finishing late a lot more worthwhile. And I’ll certainly hold my eyes open for a copy of this at the Spiel’06 or game stores round here.

I am, however, not quite ready to give up on Phantom Rummy, since Mhing with its 18 scoring options does appear to be a bit less immediately accessible. Since I’ve written the review, I pondered the possible solution to the scoring dilemma a bit more. I’ve placed some untested ideas in the Variants folder in the hopes of striking up a discussion that might, eventually, lead to a workable fix.

Cheerio,
Maik
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Mikko Saari
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Mhing isn't that difficult, actually. Most of the scoring options are fairly unusual, so the players don't have to know them by heart. Knowing stuff like "less suits is better" and "similar sequences of cards are good" goes a long way, as long as there's one player who knows the game and does the scoring.
 
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♪ Isaäc Bickërstaff ♫
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I'll second the "Mhing isn't that difficult" sentiment. It takes a few hands to get the scoring combinations, but once you get them, you remember them. And I made up a handy-dandy two-page summary that includes the different types of scoring combinations....
 
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Alan Kwan
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The problem is because the designer derived his game from Modern Japanese mahjong, which is ultimately a game of quick wins over building high-value hands.
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