The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Anansi and the Box of Stories
When I hear the phrase “trick-taking game,” it brings me back to my childhood, and my parents having various aunts and uncles over, shooting the breeze at the kitchen table, drinking percolated coffee, eating Stella D'oro cookies, and playing cards for hours. They liked to play Pinochle, Hearts, Spades, and many, many other card games I can’t recall offhand, but probably had localized, colloquial names that wouldn’t mean anything to most people, anyway.
These card games all had three things in common. For one, they were all trick-taking games. Second, they all used decks of playing cards. Some used Pinochle decks, some used standard poker decks, and some required multiple decks of playing cards to be shuffled together. But the third, and most important thing, at least to me at the time, was that they all played exactly four players, most often with partnerships. So when my parents sat at the table with an aunt and an uncle, I was left out. This is one of the reasons Anansi and the Box of Stories, which can play between three and eight players, will have a place on the table for many fans of trick-taking games.
Because yes, my rambling two-hundred word introduction aside, I am here to review Anansi and the Box of Stories, a trick-taking game from Level 99 Games that plays in about half an hour. This small box game, which was designed by Ken Maher, takes the framework of a standard trick-taking game and adds a lot to it -- including variable player power cards that also determine how many points per trick a player will score, penalty cards for whoever takes the most Anansi cards, a variant that gives players different suited cards to pursue as a way to score additional points, another variant that gives off-suit cards their own special abilities, and a partnership variant that is playable assuming there are an even number of players.
This may sound a bit complicated, and well, it kind of is at first. But, while I wouldn’t call this a gateway trick-taking game, it is not too difficult to figure out either, especially if you leave out the variants at first, or entirely. Here are the basics:
There are six different suits in total, and each is named after a trait, such as Strength, Craftiness, or Bravery. In the case that a special ability does not determine the trump suit, it will default to Craftiness.
Depending on the player count, hands of between seven and twelve cards will be dealt out. In games with less players, up to two suits will be removed from the game, and players will have larger hands of cards.
There are nine different animal role cards. Each player will draft one before the start of a round. The role will give the player a special ability -- such as choosing the trump suit, leading the first trick, protection from becoming the Fool, etc. Each role has a number on it from three to five, with the lower numbered cards having better special abilities and the highest numbered card, the Anansi role, having no special ability at all.
Then the game will begin, with each player adding one card to each trick (a distinction that separates trick-taking games from climbing games). Players must follow the lead suit as long as they have cards that match it, or wild cards, which always count as the lead suit. The highest card in the lead suit wins, unless the lead suit was trumped, in which cast the highest trump card wins. The winner takes that trick and sets it aside, and they become the lead player. Play continues until each player has one card remaining, which is not played. Each player then multiplies the number of tricks they won by the number on their role card, which is their score for the round.
Each player then sums up the value of all their Anansi, or spider, cards in the tricks they won. Whoever has the highest total takes a Fool card, which is worth negative five points, and if any player gets three Fool cards, the game immediately ends and they automatically lose. If the game does not end by a player taking a third fool card, it will end after five rounds, and the player with the highest cumulative score wins.
The addition of the Fool card is probably my favorite part of this game. In a lot of trick-taking games, there comes a point where someone has control of the lead and cannot be stopped from winning tricks. Everyone else is stuck dumping off-suit cards and it becomes a rote activity until the round ends. However, in Anansi and the Box of Stories, you can choose when to dump losing cards that have Anansi spiders on them, which can quickly add up to make the person winning the tricks into the Fool, and potentially costing them the game.
Pros: Plays between three and eight, doesn’t require partnerships, but does have a variant that features them. The addition of the Role cards and the Fool cards adds depth to the game. There is a lot of added variability in the box with the multiple different variants, which can be played separately or together. The theme is interesting, and not entirely pasted on, as the Role card abilities did thematically fit with the archetypical animals -- e.g. the Hare gets to lead tricks, the Tortoise is protected from becoming the Fool, the Chameleon can change card suits, etc.
Cons: The game is a bit too convoluted to use as an introduction to trick-taking games. The graphic design is muddled and unattractive. The rule book is poorly worded and vague at points.
After having a few issues with the rule book, I contacted the designer, and had him clarify a few points, which I am sharing here so others don’t have these same issues.
• In the case where there is no Leopard chosen to set trump, the rule book says to default to "Cleverness." It should read "Craftiness," as there is no Cleverness suit.
• When removing suits to play with less players, you may remove the Craftiness suit. If the Cleverness suit is not in the deck, and no Leopard chosen to set trump, there is no trump suit.
• There are no suggested or required suits to remove when playing with less players, any suits may be removed as the player count requires.
• A player cannot lead trump at the beginning of a round, unless they have no choice. Players must follow in the lead suit, and cannot trump unless they do not have any cards in that suit (including wild cards). Once a player plays a trump card, because they did not have a card that followed suit, all players can then lead trump cards.
• A player may choose to lead a wild card. When they do, they declare what suit that wild card is played as.
Rules ambiguities aside, Anansi and the Box of Stories is a solid game, worthy of exploration for fans of trick-taking, and a great next-step for players with some limited experience in the genre. As is the standard for Level 99 Games, there is a ton of game in this box, with many additional cards that enable multiple variants and play modes to ensure plenty of replayability.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Anansi and the Box of Stories from the publisher.