Buzzworthiness: Pod-X

Thanks to Button Shy Games for providing a review copy of today’s game.

Button Shy is a company that has been really focusing on producing small games.  Their Wallet Games line features games with a very small footprint that come in their own vinyl wallet.  Their current Kickstarter project for one of these games is

image by BGG user jtagmire
image by BGG user jtagmire

Pod-X is a game by Daniel Solis for 3-4 players.  It is a reimplementation of Solis’ 2013 game Suspense.  In Pod-X, your starship is going down and you are trying to find the last working escape pod (think the big climax scene in Spaceballs).  The game plays over several rounds, with players trying to figure out a secret win condition that only one player knows.

The game comes with only 17 cards.  These are divided into 8 Port cards and 8 Starboard cards as well as one Hub card.  Each grouping of Port and Starboard cards is numbered 0-8, but the only 4 in the game is the Hub card.  Each card gives three pieces of information – its value (0-8), the points you will earn if it is the winning card, and a secret win objective if it is the escape pod.  Cards are also color coded to differentiate between Port and Starboard (there is a label as well).

At the start of each round, the dealer gives each player four cards.  There will be one card left over (in a 3-player game, you’ll remove the 0s and 8s).  This last card is the winning condition and is left face down on the table.  Only the dealer may look at it.

The dealer is the first to play, and takes one card from his hand and places it on the table, face up.  Each other player will do the same, and this will continue until the end of the round.  After your first play, you may choose to play, pass, or fold.  If you fold, you’re out of the round.

Once all players have passed consecutively, or all but one player has folded, or a certain point threshold is crossed on the table (20 in a 3-player game, 27 in a 4-player game), the round ends and the escape pod is revealed.  Whoever has fulfilled its secret objective will score the points as listed on their own winning card.  So if the objective was to have the highest public Port pod number and you played the Port 7 with no one playing the Port 8, you’d get 2 points as that’s what is listed on the 7.  If you folded and would not have won, you’ll score one point.

After the round, the dealer passes to the next player.  The game continues until someone scores 10 points.  They win.

image by BGG user petrix
image by BGG user petrix

COMPONENTS: I played a prototype, so I can’t speak to final quality.  The wallet case it came in was just a generic Button Shy labeled vinyl case, and I suspect the full version will be nicer and more customized to the game.  The cards seem to be in pretty much final form, at least graphically.  The winning condition is located at the bottom of the cards, and that makes it to tell people that when a card is in their hand, ignore the bottom half.  The only confusion you really run into is with the 0, 4 and 8 cards which have text for the scoring conditions.  As you see on the cards above, most just have stars.  The 0, 4 and 8 cards all have text in the scoring area which can throw people off.  Other than that, the cards are all easy to read and understand.

THEME: As I mentioned, this game is a retheming of Suspense: The Card Game, which really didn’t have a theme, just a general thriller tone.  In that sense, this theme is an improvement, but I don’t think it works very well with the gameplay.  I like to bring up Spaceballs when introducing the game, but after that, it’s just a numbers game and no one seems to think about the theme at all.  When I first heard that the original was called Suspense, I immediately thought of a spy game where one player (the dealer) was trying to protect some crucial information, and all other players were trying to figure it out.  That might work better, but in the end, it’s all about the numbers.

MECHANICS: This is a deduction game, but there honestly isn’t a whole lot of deduction going on.  The only way for you to get any information about what the secret condition is is to watch what the dealer is doing, and that doesn’t even give you all the information you need.  There are, after all, 13-17 different win conditions (depending on the number of players), and it could be high, low, port, starboard, public, private, or even a sum.

That’s not to say there’s nothing you can do if you’re not the dealer.  You can pass, which just puts off your next play, or you can fold, which gives you the opportunity to score a point if you wouldn’t win.  Folding is a nice extra mechanism to give you a strategic option beyond just playing a random card.  And the game really boils down to whether or not you want to play a card (on the first round, you must).  There’s not a whole lot more to it.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This game is dependent on a lot of luck.  It tends to be weighted towards the dealer, and the non-dealing players are often just throwing out cards to see if something will stick.  It seems to me that this is really a dealer’s game – as the dealer, you’re trying to figure out how to maximize your score, or how to manipulate the other players into letting you win a round.  I think of it like a tennis match – as the dealer, you want to hold serve, and as a non-dealer, you want to break serve in whatever way you can.

image by BGG user petrix
image by BGG user petrix

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a tough game to learn, but it is much more complicated in a four-player game.  The 0s and 8s that are taken out of the game add some more complex win conditions and scoring rules that add some uncertainty to the game.  For example, if you’re looking for the lowest sum of public stars and you have a Starboard 0 and Port 8 in play, you officially have zero stars.  So you would win, and must use the lowest ranked card as your score, which means you need to use the Starboard 0, Winner’s Lowest Private stars.  So you then count the remaining two cards in your hand and the lower of the star values is your score.  There can be some mental aerobics to figure it out.  I’d say that the three-player game is probably best for teaching to people, and then you can move on to four-player later.

REPLAYABILITY: This is not a game I can see myself pulling out over and over.  It is variable in that the win conditions change every round, but still, you’re using every card every time.  It really depends on how much you enjoy the game.  It is very quick, so that helps.  It is a game that I think benefits from repeated play – the better you know the possible win conditions, the more you’ll get out of it.

SCALABILITY: Suspense was originally a three-player only game.  Pod-X adds a possible fourth player.  In my opinion, they should have stuck with three only.  Apart from the added weirdness of the scoring and win conditions on the added 0s and 8s, your odds go down with four players.  In both player counts, you get four cards, which means you know 4 of 13 win conditions that are NOT possible in the beginning in a three-player game, and 4 of 17 in a four-player game, so your odds of guessing the right one are lower.  After the first round, in which everyone must play, you’ll know 6 of 13 in a three-player game (almost 50%) versus 7 of 17 (about 41%) in the four-player game.  This means that the four-player game feels like more of a lock for the dealer, whereas I felt that I had more of a chance in non-dealer rounds during the three-player game.  The four-player game might get better with time, but as for now, I’m not a fan.

INTERACTION: The interaction in this game is purely external.  There’s nothing you can do that will influence anyone else’s game.  The cards you get at the beginning of each round are the cards you’re stuck with, and playing them doesn’t do anything special.  During one of my plays, someone suggested a passing variant, where you have to pass a card after the initial draw, thus giving a little more information.  Or a drafting variant, where you choose one card from the initial four, pass the rest, choose one, pass, and so on until you’ve kept four.  These are untested ideas, but some ideas to increase interaction and information.  In the end, it’s a social deduction game that’s light on the deduction, so you need to make the most of the social part.

WHAT DO OTHERS THINK? I asked the people I played with for their opinions.  My four-player game was played with my game group, and they all agreed that there were a few too many win conditions, and this made it difficult to actually deduce anything.  One pointed out the confusion in having to follow a chain to see how you scored points and how you won.  The three-player game was with my parents, who are not hobby gamers and (especially my dad) tend to get frustrated with my games.  They were able to pick it up fairly easily, though I had to walk them through scoring the first several rounds.

I also looked at some of the comments for Suspense.  Fans of the game point out the “pass/play/fold” mechanism as being what makes the game interesting, while detractors tend to focus on the amount of luck.  One even advocated for the inclusion of many more cards, so I wonder what he would think about this new version.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? The three-player version is fun, and one I would recommend in a setting where you have three people and fifteen minutes to kill.  For the four-player version, there are many other good games in the pocket game genre (including a number of others in the Button Shy Wallet Games line) that I would point you towards instead of this one.  It’s not a great deduction game in that I don’t think there’s that much to deduce, but it is an interesting social game that you can have some fun with.

Be sure to check out the Kickstarter campaign, which runs until July 16.  Thanks again to Button Shy for the review copy of this game, and thanks to you for reading!

Bonus content!  Button Shy also sent me a sample of their Board Game of the Month offering.  This is a program they’re running on Patreon, where you give them a monthly donation and they send you games.  These aren’t giant Euros or anything, they’re just small stuff that they can fit in an envelope.  My envelope contained two promo cards for other Button Shy Games (including a new card for Wild Cats, a game I really like, and a new card for Movie Plotz, a game I don’t own), as well as a postcard game called Scrumdiddlyumptious.  This game is loosely based off of Willy Wonka, and is essentially Go Fish with special powers and candy.  Each player gets nine pieces of candy in different colors (you can either draft your own from a big bag or crack open a fun size bag and take your chances), and each color of candy is assigned to a different special power.  On your turn, you ask someone if they have a particular color.  If they don’t, it’s their turn.  If they do, they eat one and gain its special ability for their turn (which starts right then).  You want to be the last person remaining with candy.  It’s a cute concept, and I look forward to trying it sometime.

This is a really cool concept, and I encourage you to check it out for yourself.  You can pledge for $1-$20, and there are different reward levels for each, including discounts on games in the Wallet line.


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