Buzzworthiness: Anansi and the Box of Stories

Thanks to Level 99 Games for providing a review copy of today’s game.

I like trick-taking games, though I don’t get to play them very much.  In fact, I don’t believe I own any specific trick-taking games – I do own a deck of standard playing cards, which means that I technically own Hearts, Spades, Euchre, Bridge, etc.  But as for specifically produced ones, I don’t own any.  But now I have

image by BGG user W Eric Martin

Anansi and the Box of Stories is a game by designer Ken Maher, published by Level 99 Games.  It’s a trick-taking game that is playable by 3-8 people.  In West African and Caribbean folklore, Anansi is the god of stories, often taking the form of a spider.  In this game, you will be using him and other archetypal animals in a trick-taking game where players are trying not to play the Fool.

The game comes with a deck of 56 cards – six nine-card suits and two Wild cards.  There are also 12 Fool cards, 9 role cards, 10 trait cards, and 8 off-suit variant reference cards.  For the standard game, you’ll only need the deck (removing one or two suits, depending on the player count), the role cards, and the Fool cards.

image by BGG user kenmgames

In each round, you’ll first deal a hand of cards to each player.  This will basically be most of the deck – there might be as many as 3 cards left over, and players will end up with a hand of 7-12 cards based on player count.  You’ll then deal out a number of roles equal to the number of players plus one, and each player (beginning with the last round’s Fool or the smallest player in the first round) chooses one of them.  Each one will give you a special ability for the round, as well as a number of points that your tricks will be worth.

Trump for the round is determined by the Leopard, with Cleverness Craftiness being the default suit if there is no Leopard in play.  The first player (the Hare or a random player) will lead a card from their hand (you may not lead from the trump suit unless someone has already played a trump card, or if that’s all you have left).  All other players must follow suit if able.  If unable to follow suit, you may play any card.  The highest card in the lead suit, or the highest trump card, will win the trick.  There are Wild cards that count as the lead suit, but are valued at 3 or 4 (and are Anansi cards – this will be significant in a minute).

If you win the trick, put it in front of you and lead the next trick.  This continues until all players have only one card left in hand.  It will go into your next round’s hand.  You’ll then score based on how many tricks you took times the point value on your role card.  After this, you need to find the Fool.  Players add up how many Anansi points they took – look at all cards you took with Anansi on them and add up the values.  The highest Anansi score takes a Fool card (a tie means no one gets it).  They get to pick the first role in the next round, but each Fool card you have loses you five points at the end of the game.

The game can end in one of two ways.  First, if someone gets the Fool three times, they are eliminated from contention (even if they had the highest score) and the game ends.  If that doesn’t happen, the game ends after five rounds.  The highest score wins.

There are three variants with the game, and I haven’t tried any of them.  But for the sake of completeness, here they are: in the Partnership variant, players work in teams of two, trying to win the most tricks and avoid being the Fool.  In the Traits variant, you’ll randomly pair character traits with each role, giving additional scoring conditions.  In the Off-Suit Abilities variant, you get particular abilities when you play the different animals outside of the lead suit.  For example, playing an off-suit Turtle gets you an extra point, while playing an off-suit Leopard allows you to remove an Anansi card from one of your captured tricks.

image by BGG user kenmgames

COMPONENTS: The cards in this game are pretty good quality.  It’s easy to tell what everything is/does, and the art is pretty fun.  The box is twice is big as it needs to be, which is a problem this game shares with Tomb Trader.

The large, glaring issue in the game components is that the Leopard special role chooses trump for the round.  If no one chooses the Leopard, then Cleverness is supposed to be the default trump suit.  The trouble is that there is no Cleverness suit.  In looking through the forums at BGG, I found out that this was a previous wording that slipped through in the final production, and the default suit is actually Craftiness.  That’s a pretty big oversight.  The rules are also quite unclear in several aspects, primarily in stuff that people who are familiar with trick-taking games already will already know (you can only lead with trump if someone has already played a trump card, wild cards can be used as any suit, etc.).  So those are big things that hinder the accessibility of this game, but can be overcome if you are aware of them.

THEME: There’s not a whole lot of theme here.  The background I provided on Anasi in Caribbean and West African folklore is based on my own research, not anything really emphasized in the rules.  The rules do a small amount of encouraging the stories aspect of this game by saying that, when trump is called, you are to say that “This is a story about Bravery” or whatever.  We didn’t do that, but it was fun to add in little personality things with the various animals on the cards.  So you could say, “There once was a friendly snake” or a “brave leopard”, and this led to some funny interactions as we debated how friendly a snake actually is (it’s a cuddly snake).  So, I’d say this game has external theme – you’re going to have to provide it yourself, but the bones are there.

MECHANICS: Anansi is a trick-taking that bears some similarities to classic games like Bridge or Euchre.  Players all follow suit, unless they can’t, and tricks are won by the highest card of the lead suit or the highest trump card.  The game does throw in some twists, like a role selection phase that gives everyone both a special ability for the round (unless you pick Anansi) and points for each trick (with more powerful abilities being worth fewer points).  There’s also the twist of Anansi cards that can be dumped on other players to potentially cost them points.  This is a bit of Hearts thrown into a game where the goal is mostly to get as many tricks as possible.

I do really enjoy the Fool mechanism in the game.  By having the most Anansi cards, you lose five points for playing the Fool in the round.  And if you get three Fools, you are fed to the crocodiles.  This is not a term used in the game, but what I generally refer to games where one player will lose automatically even if they have the most points.  It’s what happened in my first game – one player got his third Fool at the end of the fifth round, and lost despite having the most points.  The term “fed to the crocodiles” is in reference to Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, which penalizes someone for taking the most corruption.

The game works really well as a trick-taking game, and all the extra elements really help it to be quite fun.

STRATEGY LEVEL: Trick-taking games always have a surprising amount of strategy in them, particularly in games where you don’t necessarily want to take all of the tricks.  In Anansi, the strategy starts right from the beginning as you try to determine how your round will going through the initial role selection phase.  Even once you have the role, it’s very difficult to determine WHEN to use it.  You also have the Fool hanging over the game, so you don’t really want to take Anansi cards, unless someone else has taken more and you think you can afford to.  Obviously, there’s luck of the draw in this game, but there’s a lot of strategy and tactical play involved as well.

ACCESSIBILITY: Anansi is pretty easy to understand, even if you’re not that familiar with trick-taking games. It does have some more complex mechanisms than, say, Hearts, but it’s pretty easy to grasp.  I’d say after one round, everything will have clicked into place for everyone.

REPLAYABILITY: Fans of trick-takers would generally agree that they’re pretty replayable.  This one has a floating trump that will be different every time the Leopard is in play, as well as special abilities to keep it fresh.  As I mentioned, I haven’t tried the variants yet, but Level 99 always does a good job of packing a lot of replay value into a single box, and I look forward to exploring them.

SCALABILITY: The game is for 3-8 players, though I don’t think I’d really recommend the upper limit.  Each suit has only 9 cards, so with more players, there will be a wider distribution of the cards and therefore each player will hold fewer of the suits, resulting in more trumps and off-suit cards being played.  I’d say 5, maybe 6, is the highest you should really go.  It does work well as a three-player game, though in that you’re more likely to have a three-time fool.  For each player count, there’s a chart letting you know how many suits will be taken out and how many cards will be dealt to each person.

INTERACTION: Everything you play depends on what others play, so the interaction level is pretty high.  Trash talking is also natural, so have fun with it.

FOOTPRINT: The only space you really need for this game is an area in the middle for cards to be played and a spot for your tricks.  It can be played on a smallish table.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? This game is a lot of fun, and I’d suggest it to anyone who likes or is interested in trick-taking games.  If you don’t like trick-taking games, I don’t know that there’s a whole lot to change your mind, but there are some different things here, so I’d at least give it a look.  I think this would be a good game to introduce to some classic trick-taking game players to show them a world outside their standard deck of playing cards.

Thanks again to Level 99 for providing a copy of Anansi for review, and thanks to you for reading!

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