Buzzworthiness: Pentaquark

Thanks to Button Shy Games for providing a review copy of Pentaquark.

In particle physics, a quark is known as the smallest particle.  This is basically what makes up things like protons and neutrons, which is what makes up an atom.  Quarks are never found in isolation, but are part of composite particles known as hadrons.  Ever since quarks were first postulated in 1964, there has been talk of a hadron consisting of five quarks, rather than the 2- or 3-quark varieties.  This hadron is known as a

image from

Pentaquark is a game by designer Mike Mullins that is going to be published by Button Shy Games.  It is a solo card game in Button Shy’s Wallet Games line, and will be launching on Kickstarter on September 6.  In Pentaquark, you are a particle physicist that is trying to discover the pentaquark through the use of a particle collider.

The game comes with 18 Quark cards, 3 Annihilate cards, and a vinyl wallet to carry the game around.  The Quark cards come in three colors (red-green-blue) and five flavors (up-down-bottom-strange-charm).  They are double sided, with the Anti-Quark on the back.

To start the game, you’ll shuffle the Quark cards, then flip half the deck over and shuffle again.  This deck is known as the Beam.  The three Annihilate are set to the side for now.  Draw three cards from the Beam and place them face up in an area known as the Collider.  From here, you must distribute the cards.  One will go to the area above the Collider, known as the Scattered area.  Another will go to the area below the Collider, known as the Detector. And the third card will be placed in a discard pile to the side.  These cards should always be placed in that order – Scatter, then Detector, then Discard.

Here’s the thing.  Quarks are unstable.  If you put a Quark and its Anti-Quark in the same area, they will both be annihilated and removed from the game.  So you need to try to get quarks into color confinement.  So if there’s a red Quark, blue Quark, and green Quark, you can color confine them, and they are all safe from annihilation.  Additionally, if you can get a color and its anti-color together (i.e. red and anti-red), they are also color confined.  So if a Quark comes out that would annihilate a color-confined Anti-Quark, nothing happens.

When you have reached the end of the Beam, several things happen.  Any free Quarks in the Detector are moved to the discard pile, and you can choose to discard any other Quarks as well.  If there are any free Quarks in the Scattered area, they are annihilated.  Any confined Quarks in the Scattered area are moved to the discard pile.  You then add an Annihilate card to the discard pile, flip the pile over, shuffle, and you have a new Beam.  When an Annihilate card enters the Collider, you immediately annihilate one free Quark – from Scattered, from the Detector, or from the Collider.  The Annihilate card is then discarded.

In order to win the game, you need to build the Pentaquark – two Up Quarks, one Down Quark, one Charm Quark, and one Anti-Charm Quark.  If you ever have two Ups, two Charms, or three Downs in the Annihilated pile, you lose.  You can also just be mathematically eliminated if what you need is no longer in the game.

image by BGG user Fairway3Games
image by BGG user Fairway3Games

COMPONENTS: I got a pre-production copy, but I think the cards are pretty much in their final form.  And they work – it’s easy to tell what everything is, both due to the colors and the symbology.  If that’s too much for you, there’s also text on each card that tells you what the cards are.  The game will come in a custom wallet, though I don’t know what that will look like since mine came in a generic Button Shy wallet.

THEME: I was ready to shrug the theme off as a unique idea, but not something that really tied into the gameplay.  But then I did a little bit of research into pentaquarks, and completely changed my tune.

Now, I’m not a particle physicist (my wife would like me to point out that when I said this to her, I said I was not a particle physician – which proves how NOT one I am).  So I don’t claim to know exactly what I’m talking about here.  But, as I mentioned, quarks are the smallest known particle, and a pentaquark is a grouping of five of these.  Up until recently, the existence of pentaquarks was purely theoretical, but within the last year or so, they have been proven by scientists at CERN.

It turns out that a lot of the stuff that I thought was abstracted and just arbitrarily included for game purposes – the flavors, the colors, color confinement, the makeup of the pentaquark – is actually scientifically based.  Quarks come in six flavors – up, down, top, bottom, strange, and charm.  Quarks group together according to a process really known as color confinement.  Particles are often said to have a color charge, which is commonly analogized as red, green or blue.  A pentaquark does have a red-green-blue confinement (separately known as a baryon) and a quark/antiquark combination (separately known as a meson).  Additionally, the only known pentaquarks have been observed to be two up, one down, one charm, and one anticharm.

I got all of this from Wikipedia, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of the actual science involved. But I have to say, I’m pretty impressed at how the theme was woven into this game.  The parts that I thought were abstracted were in fact actually scientifically based.  So bravo to Mike Mullins for that.

MECHANICS: Play is actually fairly simple.  You just draw three cards then distribute them. It is important that Scattered goes first because, if there happens to be just one quark in the Collider, it’s not going in the Detector even if you really need it.  The order is important.  Also, the act of annihilating quark-antiquark combinations keeps you on your toes because if too many cards get annihilated, you’re going to lose.  Other than that, it’s just set collection as you try to put cards where they’re going to be the most effective.

It’s very interesting that the deck, despite being only 18 cards, ends up being 36 possible cards since they are double-sided.  And every card will be on its other side during the next round, which feeds into your decision of what to do when Scattering, moving to the Detector, or Discarding.  Adding an Annihilate card every round really shakes things up – if you don’t end up winning in the first round, things are going to get a lot tougher.  And if you get to THREE Annihilate cards…look out.

STRATEGY LEVEL: This is generally a puzzle game.  As such, there’s not a lot of strategy.  You choose the distribution of the cards, but there’s not a lot of preplanning.  The top card of the deck is always visible, which means you know what the next card will be, so that will help a bit with preplanning.  Still, there’s more push-your-luck as you hope for the right cards to come out at the right time.

ACCESSIBILITY: Once you get your head around what’s going on, the game flows pretty easily.  The rules that I got were pretty rough, but fortunately the designer did a great how-to-play video using the flip chart method of teaching (which works REALLY well).  Watch that video, and anyone can play this game.

SCALABILITY: This is a game for one player only.  So, no scalability.

REPLAYABILITY: The game is very short and very engaging.  It’s the kind of thing you can play several times in a row and get the same amount of challenge every time.  Plus, because it’s small, portable, and solo, you can play it anytime and anyplace.

FOOTPRINT: This game’s small size means that you can play it on just about any surface.  It’s probably an ideal airplane game – it will fit on an airplane tray, and you don’t have to play with your seat mate.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Absolutely.  It’s got a great theme, it’s quick, it’s challenging, and it’s portable.  Pentaquark is a game I will definitely recommend to anyone looking for quick solo challenge that provides a good alternative to using a deck of cards.  The Kickstarter campaign launches tomorrow, and I’ll update this post with the link when it goes live.

EDIT: As promised, here’s the link to the campaign, which has already funded and has broken Button Shy’s previous record for Day One pledges.  You can get the game for $10, or $13 with an extra six-card expansion that looks pretty cool.  Also, if you want a playmat, you can pledge $30 to get all of the above.  The campaign ends September 17, and I highly recommend you check it out.

Thanks again to Button Shy Games for providing the review copy of Pentaquark, and thanks to you for reading!


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