Monday, April 17, 2017

Bottle Recap

I've finished regaling (or boring) you with tales of skiing in Steamboat Springs, but most of my time on the trip wasn't actually spent on the mountain. Board gaming was also a big part of the trip, and I got to try several new things. Peppered in with other posts over the next few weeks, I'll write about some of the new things I tried. (Well, new to me, anyway.)

Bottle Imp is card game inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's short story of the same title. The tale revolves around a cursed bottle. The imp inside will grant your every wish, but if you should die with the bottle in your possession, your soul is damned to Hell. The biggest catch of the curse: you cannot give the bottle away. The owner must sell it, and for less than the price for which they purchased it, making it ever more difficult to offload.

The card game is quite the oddity. It's a trick-taking game, which should be quite familiar. But the rules are a major departure from the norm, which in turn has a major impact on the strategy.

The "19" is removed from a custom deck of cards containing one of each number from 1 to 37. That 19 sets the starting "price" of the bottle. The remaining deck, containing three suits that are distributed in an irregular pattern across the spread of numbers, is shuffled and dealt fully to the players. Players pass one card to each of their neighbors, and also dump one card into "the bottle's trick." Play then begins.

As in most trick-taking games, you must follow the suit that is led. The card that takes the trick, however, has nothing to do with suit at all. The highest number played, regardless of suit, wins the trick... unless one or more cards is played valued less than the bottle's current price. In that case, the highest valued card under the bottle's price takes the trick, and that card also becomes the new price of the bottle.

The bottle itself is a hot potato you don't want to be stuck with at the end of a round. Everyone else counts points for the cards they've taken (in the form of gold coins also printed on the faces of the cards). The person stuck with the bottle instead loses points -- the number of coins found in the "bottle's trick" that was created at the start of the round. You play as many hands as it takes to reach an agreed upon winning score.

Some of the strategy here will feel familiar to fans of Hearts, Spades, or other trick-taking standards. You can try to force people to play bad cards by making them follow the suit you lead. You can attempt to rid your hand of a suit during the passing at the start of each hand, if you're willing to risk having the same suit passed back to you.

But a lot of the strategy is hard to wrap your mind around if you're used to any of those games I mentioned. There's no actual trump suit in play here. You may think you're used to having your high-valued card lose a trick (to a trump, traditionally), but it takes a while to wrap your head around that winning card being "closest to the bottle's price without going over." You may think that low-valued cards spell doom, but if you can dump one off on a trick where someone else has played a card closer to the bottle's price, you'll be doing fine.

I rather enjoyed Bottle Imp when I played it, but it seemed equally frustrating for some of the other players. It is wacky, that's for sure. It's both intriguing and potentially quite off-putting that the game seems so familiar on the surface, yet is revealed to be so unfamiliar when you actually play it. The twist here on trick-taking card games is either a selling point or a turnoff. It's possible you don't exactly need a game like this when you could just play something with a standard deck of playing cards. Yet I do think the game's designer has provided a custom experience to justify the custom deck. (And, from what it seems to me, has captured the short story inspiration fairly well.)

I'd give Bottle Imp a B. If you're a fan of card games, particularly ones you could play over drinks and conversation, you might want to check it out.

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