Buzzworthiness: Hocus

Thanks to Grant Rodiek and Hyperbole Games for providing a review copy of this game.

I am not a Poker player.  I got into watching it back in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker, but I never have been very good at it.  I just can’t get the hang of the betting/bluffing aspect.  Now, here’s a game that takes the basic idea of Poker and turns it on its head, taking away much of the randomness and introducing strategic elements.  It’s called

image by BGG user HerrohGrant
image by BGG user HerrohGrant

Hocus is a game that was published in 2016 by Hyperbole Games, as designed by Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek.  It’s for 2-5 players and takes 30 minutes to play.  The game purports to be a game played by wizards throughout the centuries that has now been streamlined into a game us Muggles can now play.

The game comes with a deck of 60 cards, numbered 0-14 in four suits – you’ll use numbers 2-12 in a two-player game, 1-13 in a 3-4 player game, and 0-14 in a five-player game.  Additionally, there are eight sets of 3-card advanced spells; five player aids showing the basic spells and Poker hands; and five pairs of cards used to track score.  To start, each player gets a set of advanced spells and a hand of 9-10 cards (depending on the number of players).

On your turn, you cast one spell.  You have six available to you, three Basic and three Advanced.  The rules suggest that you leave out Advanced Spells in your first game, which means you would only have three.  Once you have cast your spell, you simply do what it tells you to do.  Here are the Basic Spells:

  1. Build Community: You play one card face up into one of two Communities (three in a four-player game).  A community is basically a four-card set that is placed in the middle of the board, and will be common cards you will use to make your Poker hands.  It’s kind of like the five community cards dealt out in Texas Hold ‘Em, except these are chosen by the players rather than played randomly.
  2. Build Pocket: You play one or two cards face down into one of your two Pockets.  Pockets are like your hand in Texas Hold ‘Em, and will be how you try to get a better Poker hand than your opponents.  Again, the difference is that it is chosen rather than randomly dealt.
  3. Build Pot: Play one card face down next to one of the communities.  Each card, along with its value and suit, has a circled number between one and four.  This is how many points it is worth in the Pot.  This is essentially your bet, though you don’t really lose anything if it doesn’t pay off, you’re just giving points to your opponents.

Once all communities are full, each player gets one more turn.  Then, you assign your Pockets to Communities – you only get to use one Pocket per Community, and you can’t use the same Pocket twice.  Then your resolve the Communities one at a time, with the winner getting the Pot.  The winner is determined by a standard Poker hierarchy – straight flush beats four-of-a-kind beats a full house beats a flush beats a straight beats three-of-a-kind beats two pair beats one pair beats high card.

Once both Communities has resolved, the game ends if anyone is over 25 points (high score wins the game).  If the game is not over, shuffle up all of the cards and deal a new hand for the new round.

image by BGG user HerrohGrant
image by BGG user HerrohGrant

There are a couple of advanced rules.  First is the Owls.  This is a suit that plays like normal, but if you win any Owls in a Pot, they are played in front of you and give you a one-time bonus spell for the next round only.  If not used in the next round, they go away.  An Owl can be used before or after your regular spell, then is discarded.

The other thing is that there are eight different Advanced Spell sets – Alchemy, Chaos, Chronomancy, Darkness, Enchantment, Flame, Illusion, and Storm.  Each one has its own flavor and gives you some thematic advantages.  Illusion, for example, gives you the option to play Community cards face down or Pocket cards face up, while Chaos has a more random feel.  Chronomancy and Enchantment are recommended for experienced players.

image by BGG user HerrohGrant
image by BGG user HerrohGrant

COMPONENTS: Hocus is a card game, so the cards are the main focus.  The art, as you can see above, is very nice.  There is a color scheme for each suit, but there’s also symbols to help differentiate, as well as different art (it’s the same within each suit).  The cards are good quality as well.  There’s a double-sided player aid for each person, with one side describing the basic spells and the other giving the hierarchy of Poker hands.  The included scorecards consist of one card numbered 1-9, and another double-sided card that can be rotated to 0-10-20-30.  These cards are functional, but are also easily bumped.  The rules do say that poker chips work just as well, and I would say that you should probably go that route.  It is nice that they included a score solution in the box rather than just tell you to use pen and paper.

THEME: The game is essentially Poker, which has no theme.  But some work has been done to attach this magical theme.  You’re not really supposed to be wizards playing this card game, you’re just playing this card game that wizards have played.  Some good work was done in making all of the advanced spell sets thematic, so while the theming doesn’t matter, it does work.

MECHANICS: Hocus uses Poker as a jumping off point, and adds strategic and tactical decision making to replace the pure luck of its predecessor.  Spells are employed to give you actions to choose which cards go in a community, pocket, or pot.  Each spell is different and gives you different advantages at different times.  The advanced spells add their own advantages, and they all seem to be pretty well balanced.  Certain spells do seem more advantageous from time to time, but all can be useful in the right places.  Some of the spells allow you to draw new cards; others allow you to replace cards.  Having the choice of whether to play into the community, pocket or pot means that you can take your time in trying to play cards, but still have to figure out when the best time to attack is.

The Owls are a good addition to the game, providing bonus spells that can be played in the next round.  It gives a little extra bonus for winning a community beyond just the points.

Regular Poker is best when played for money.  Hocus is played for points, and to me, that’s a much better way to play.  Less stressful.  The endgame condition of playing until someone has 25 points helps emphasize the points, but it also means that the game length will be quite variable.  It is entirely possible, if people aren’t careful, that the game could end in one round if someone has a killer hand and feeds lots of points into the pot.  It is also possible that the game could be pretty long if people slowplay the pot.  I imagine that you can choose your own end condition – play to 25, or 50, or three rounds, or whatever – and the game will work just fine.

Overall, Hocus does a great job of taking the familiar mechanisms of Poker and translating them into a more modern, more strategic game.

STRATEGY LEVEL: As mentioned, the relative luck of Poker is removed from this game due to player choice in how to build communities, pockets, and pots.  You may be dealt a perfect Poker hand, but you somehow have to figure out how to get it played so you can score some points off of it.  You have to be able to react to what other players are doing, and try to build your Poker hand off what they give you.  Drawing cards and peeking are two ways you can try to gain some information about what’s out there, but the reading of your opponents is still very important.  For example, when I played my wife, I was excited that I had a full house in one community – three 5s and two 10s.  I was using the Illusion spells set, and I had been using my Mirage spell to play community cards face down, so there was no way for my wife to know that there were two fives in the community.  However, after I had put a few high cards into the pot, it dawned on me that she had played a pair of 10s into the community and was also putting points into the pot.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that she probably had another ten, which meant SHE also had a full house, and a better one – tens over fives.  So I quickly used my Prestidigitation spell to look at two random pot cards and replace a 4 with a 1 from my hand, but the damage was done.  She ended up scoring 13 points in that round to my zero.  Fortunately, I was able to score 19 on one community the next round by bluffing a straight when I actually had a flush (which is better than a straight).  But that’s the importance of paying attention to your opponents, which is an important part of Poker that translates to Hocus.

ACCESSIBILITY: The game will not be that difficult to pick up for anyone familiar with Poker, and not much more difficult for people unfamiliar with it.  I don’t know that it will replace Poker for the more serious players, but I know that I like it better.  It also does not have the pressure of money, and I think that will appeal to people who have stayed away from Poker for that reason.

REPLAYABILITY: The best thing that this game has going for it in terms of replayability is that there are eight sets of advanced spells.  This means that you can explore new strategies every time you play, and there will of course be new cards dealt to you each time.

SCALABILITY: Confession time – I have only played this game with two players.  When I took it with me to play it at game night, I mistakenly left the 0, 1, 13, and 14 cards at home (they are not needed in the two player game).  So I can’t really speak as to how it plays with more players.  I know that with two, it’s a little easier to build your Poker hand into at least one of the communities.  With more people, it will be more difficult as there are still only two communities with three and four players (there are three with five players).  I imagine it’s a pretty different game, and I do look forward to trying it out.

INTERACTION: There is a high level of indirect interaction in this game.  Your turns don’t affect each other in that you’re not attacking directly, but there are things you can do to mess others up, especially in playing to communities.  You have to keep an eye on your opponents and make sure you’re not playing into their hands.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This game is really fun, and it definitely replaces Poker for me.  There’s just more strategy and less of the mind games (which I know is the fun part of Poker for a lot of people, just not for me).  I encourage you to check it out – they’re currently running a special over at Hyperbole Games where you can get Hocus for $15, or you can bundle it with the new and improved version of Farmageddon for $28 (you should give that game a try as well – a lot of improvements have been made since the initial 5th Street edition in 2012).

Thanks again to Grant Rodiek for the review copy of Hocus, and thanks to you for reading!

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2 comments

  1. Great in depth review. I have been looking at picking this one up for a while now. I love poker and used to play Texas Hold ’em when I was younger. Like you I remember the moneymaker WSOP win! The art looks great and I really love small card games.

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