The Cardboard Hoard: Review of NMBR 9
NMBR 9, designed by Peter Wichmann, is an abstract tile-laying game originally published in Europe by Abacusspiele and brought to the U.S. by Z-Man Games. It is a competitive game that can be taught in under five minutes and takes about 15 minutes to play.
It can play up to four players with what’s included in the box. With more copies of the game, it can play an unlimited number of players, only requiring one player to call out the numbers on the cards “bingo style.” It also plays solo using the exact same rules, although the solo game is simply a point chase.
NMBR 9 features eighty oddly shaped polyomino tiles numbered 0 through 9, with eight of each tile, and a deck of twenty cards that are also numbered 0 to 9. To play, a card is flipped off the top of the deck, each player takes a tile that matches the number on the card, and places it in their personal tableau. This is repeated for each card in the deck, and at the end, each player will have two tiles of each number in their tableau.
To score points, players must place tiles on top of other tiles. There are a few rules that need to be considered during placement.
Tiles must be played number-side up, but can be rotated.
Tiles placed on the same level as others must orthogonally touch.
Tiles placed on a level above other tiles must touch at least two tiles below it.
Tiles placed on a level above other tiles must not have any gaps below it.
The tiles on the base level score zero points. The tiles on the first level above that score their value. The tiles on the second level above the base score their value x 2. The third level above the base scores x 3, and so on, until all tiles are tallied. The highest score is the winner. That is not just a “brief overview” of the game, it’s the entire ruleset. The game is elegant in its simplicity, although it sacrifices any attempt at theme as it is entirely abstract.
NMBR 9 relies heavily on spatial reasoning and planning for future tiles, but due to its limited amount of turns and the placement rules, it does not often cause analysis paralysis. It has no player interaction whatsoever, and becomes a puzzle of who can find the optimal tile placement to maximize point scoring. However, due to the random nature of the card drawing -- which is the only random element in the game -- that optimal placement is never a certainty.
Pros: Very quick and rewarding game play. Excellent puzzle that integrates spatial reasoning, probability, and risk/reward. The number tiles are easily identifiable and differentiated. The game has a custom insert that allows the game to be played out of the box with no setup time. The game can play with an unlimited number of players (with enough sets).
Cons: The gameplay is 100% abstracted, with no attempt at theming. Scoring is initially unintuitive due to base floor not scoring any points. There is no player interaction at all. There is nothing to stop players from creating identical tile layouts. Due to the strict placement rules, the game can occasionally feel limiting and, as a result, players can sometimes feel frustrated.
Promo Tiles: While this review is focused on the game as it comes in the box, I feel it necessary to mention that there are two sets of promo tiles available on BoardGameGeek Geek Store, available for $5 each, as these sets each address a complaint I had about the game. The first set, the Starting Tiles, contains four unique tetrominoes. These tiles give each player a different starting point, which forces each player’s board to be different from the start. The second set, the Extra Tiles, provides players with “wild” tiles. While they do not score points, they can help to open up the play space, allowing players to potentially score more points on the upper levels of their tableau. I think both of these sets are excellent additions to the game, and my only complaint is that they do not come with the game, and cost an additional $10 to acquire.
Overall, NMBR 9 is a phenomenal abstract puzzle game that succeeds where abstracts must -- it is incredibly easy to learn how to play, tricky to master, and rewarding to explore over multiple plays. I highly recommend this, with the caveat that it certainly will not appeal to those that gravitate to thematic and/or high-interaction games.