In the world of hobby board gaming, there seems to be a wide gap between what is coming out today, and the classics of ancient times. Which, given the speed that things seem to move these days, “ancient times” starts at about 1942.
Some of those games have aged decently well, others have been far surpassed by modern design and production value. But sometimes, designers go back to those classic games for inspiration, and come back with brand new twists on an old formula.
One such game, Diamonds, takes on classic playing card games like Hearts and Spades with a fresh, modern gaming eye.
How it Plays
Diamonds is a new take on classic trick-taking games like Hearts or Spades. The goal is to score the most points by winning (and losing) tricks.
The game covers between four and six rounds, depending on the number of players, which ranges from 2 to 6.
Each round, players are dealt a hand of ten cards out of a 60-card deck. This deck is similar to a standard playing-card deck with the four suits – hearts, spades, clubs, diamonds – but instead of 2-10 and face cards, you’ve simply got numbered cards 1 through 15 in each suit.
After dealing, the dealer gets to choose between 1 and 3 cards to pass to the left; each player must pass the same number of cards. Then, the player to the left of the dealer begins.
For each trick, players play one card from their hand. You must follow the leading suit if possible, and the highest card played of that suit wins the trick and takes all the played cards. Simple, right? But there’s a twist, and it’s tied to how you score points.
No particular card is tied intrinsically to points, and tricks alone get you nothing. However, each suit is tied to a specific Action that does score points:
- Hearts: Take 1 diamond token from the center of the table and place it in your showroom.
- Spades: Move 1 diamond from your showroom to your vault
- Clubs: Steal 1 diamond from any other player’s showroom
- Diamonds: Take 1 diamond from the center of the table and place it directly in your vault
I’ve highlighted the words showroom and vault – each player has a screen, representing their vault, that hides any diamond tokens placed inside. Diamonds inside the vault are worth two points each, whereas diamonds in the showroom– outside the vault and visible to other players – are worth only one each, and at risk of being stolen.
These actions activate in a few different ways. Primarily, when you win a trick, you activate the action of the winning suit. Easy, right? However, whenever you don’t follow suit during a trick, you get to activate the action of the suit you do play.
Finally, at the end of each round, each player counts up the number of cards they’ve collected of each suit. Whoever has the most in a suit gets to activate that suit’s action; ties mean no one gets it, and if you manage to not win any tricks at all, you get two free Diamonds actions.
When the game ends, everyone counts up their points and whoever has the most wins!
Playing It Close To The Chest
It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of trick-taking games. Maybe it’s just that I’m downright awful at them, or that they’re just too much of a blank slate thematically, but even some of the recent gamey twists on the genre (see: Chronicle, Little Devils. Spoiler alert: I hate Chronicle) have failed to entice me. Yet I’ve been on the lookout for a trick-taker I could enjoy, mainly to try and bridge the gap between those people set in their trick-takingly ways who are less than eager to broaden their horizons with other games. Plus, trick-takers tend to be accessible and easy to learn, so they’re handy to have in certain situations.
Diamonds is a game that sort of snuck up on me; I hadn’t given it much thought, nor did I know much of what it was about. But while waiting in line at Gen Con for a demo of another game by the publisher, the Diamonds table was open and we decided, why not? Even though the rules were taught to us incorrectly at that time, the experience piqued my interest, so I sought the game out later. Since then I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
Whereas other trick-taking games often leave me feeling as if I’m doing it completely wrong (and have no real idea how to do it better), Diamonds awards player with immediate feedback thanks to the immediacy of all the actions. If you get stuck following suit frequently (and not winning), you learn to try and rid your hand of an entire suit as quickly as possible. When you win a bunch of spades in a row but don’t have any diamonds in your showroom to store, you learn to pay attention to which suits you actually want to activate. That means you actually have choices when deciding which cards to pass along at the start of each round, and you’re not necessarily dead in the water if you don’t get the luck of the draw.
It helps that you can score points both by winning and losing. While it is ideal to win every trick if you can (thus scoring points every trick AND getting all the bonuses at the end) or lose every trick by playing out of suit (you probably won’t score every trick, but a lot of them, and then you get the two diamond actions), actual results tend to be a mix. Winning a few tricks when you’re trying to lose them all doesn’t kill you; you can often land an end-of-the-round bonus with even just two tricks of a single suit, and of course winning scores you immediate points.
So I guess what I’m saying is that there are far fewer drastic sweeps and tilts in the points. In hearts, I can plan and strategize my hand but a single bad play (or unfortunate deal) can completely screw up a round with a large swing of points going in one direction. In Chronicle, I feel like I can’t really plan anything or figure out what I’m doing wrong, so I simply sit in the dust while everyone else gets to play and score. Diamonds rather prefers to serve up a variety of points round after round. Even if I’m losing, I’m engaged in trying to figure out how to max out my score in a given round, and there are enough options and enough clear ideas that I can keep having fun. And also keep scoring points. Those player screens also help, because with a hidden score you can never be too sure how far behind you are. You feel less hopelessly behind. I’ve played enough trick-taking card games to absolutely loath the feeling of falling impossibly far behind, of staring at my unfortunately dealt hand and glancing over at the ever-increasing gap between scores.
It seems like every time I open the box, some jokester asks “Are they real diamonds?” I always jokingly say ‘yes’ but truthfully, they’re real enough. Collecting those shiny diamond tokens only adds to the fun, and to the interactive feel of the game. Not only do you play cards in direct competition with each other, but you’re stealing diamonds and trying desperately to keep your diamonds from being stolen. For such a simple game, these components really enhance the experience. As far as other components go, the cards are sturdy although perhaps the design is a tad dark (it can be mildly difficult to distinguish certain colors and numbers from across the table, depending on the lighting), but not terribly so. The vault is a nice touch.
Diamonds might not be as deep a game as other trick-takers, and players used to the strategies of Hearts or Spades might get thrown off by their instincts here, but it’s more friendly to players of all skill levels. The nature of the luck of the draw helps ensure that everyone will score some points as long as they’re paying attention. Still, there’s enough strategy and enough choice for players to feel like they’re having an impact on what happens to them. It is possible to play your hand poorly and lose no matter what you’ve drawn, but no one can help you if you’re just that bad. It’s balanced enough so that a few mistakes won’t ruin your chances of winning.
Once players get into the flow of the game, and are familiar enough with the actions to grab them quickly as they go along, the game clips along at a nice pace. You’re looking at 45-60 minute games here, although 6-player games might run a little longer. It is nice that 6 people can play, though. I don’t know about you but I always seem to have at least 5 people when it comes time to play games. The 60-card deck does mean that with fewer than 6 players, not every card will get dealt out. That leads to some uncertainty, and serves as another “luck” factor to even out the game a little more, although some people aren’t a fan of this extra level of uncertainty. The game does include instructions for how to modify the deck based on your player count to remove those extra cards if you like.
So, if you like trick-taking games and are looking for something new; or, if you don’t really enjoy trick-takers but have a gaming group or family that does, I highly recommend giving Diamonds a try. While it maintains the classic structure of a trick-taking card game, it adds a lot of balancing out to keep players involved and reward good play immediately, and adds the diamond tokens in for a nice touch.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold games for providing a review copy of Diamonds.