iOS and Android gaming is now a staple in the hobby. And while we here at iSlaytheDragon focus on tabletop board and card games, we have always kept our ears to the ground when it comes to electronic versions (and, yes, I understand the irony in my writing this review based on that link). We own and play some titles ourselves, but don’t really review them. However, I had a chance to check out a new iOS-only card game, in which fellow board-gaming guru, Josh Edwards, developed and we think it’s worth the attention. It’s not a physical, boxed card game, yet. But it’s so unique and challenging, that it ought to be.
How It Plays
Cahoots bills itself as a trick-taking game. Stripped of all its trimmings I suppose that’s essentially what’s at its core, with no bidding and no trumps. Each player does play cards to a round in order to win points. However, it’s not like any other trick-taking game you’ve played before.
First off, there are six suits with values 4-5-5-6-6-7-7-8 (in a 4-player game). These include familiar hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds, as well as stars and cups. Each game you’re randomly assigned three of these suits, as are the other players, so that you share one suit with each opponent. Players are dealt 12 cards for their starting hand and play begins.
The goal in a round – or trick – is to have one or more of your suits end up with the highest total value after all cards are played to the trick. Now, in most trick-taking games, everybody plays one card per trick. In Cahoots, however, each player will toss in two cards per trick. In turn order, everyone plays one card to the table like normal, but then will go around again, throwing in a second card. When all 8 cards have been played, the suit with the highest aggregate value wins. The two players with that assigned suit earn 2 points each. If two or more suits tie, their owners each win 1 point.
In a standard trick-taking game, you would then clean the table and begin a new round. But in Cahoots, players now alternate taking or discarding one of the cards from the previous trick. You must take one card and discard one card, but may do so in whichever order. So, the first time around you can take one of the cards, adding it to your hand. When the selection comes back around to you, then you must discard a card from the game. Or vice versa. After this process, a new trick may begin.
A full hand is played through eleven tricks. The player with the most points after all those wins. Or you could play a match of several hands, enough until one player reaches 100 total points for the victory.
The interface is clean and intuitive. I’ve only played on the smaller iPhone, so I’m sure the larger iPad version is even that much easier. Chubby fingers aside, double-tapping and/or dragging cards are generally not a problem. The colors are crisp and bright and help distinguish the suits, except in the case of clubs (white) and spades (grey), which I thought strange choices which such other vibrant colors. However, between the symbols and colors, you’ll have little issue distinguishing the suits once you’re familiar with it. It has three play options: a Tutorial to learn the game, a quick game of one hand, or a match with the winner the first to 100. You will want to turn the repetitive music down after a few minutes – if indeed you wait that long.
The main menu is short and sweet and there is only one info icon when playing the game, so there’s nothing to confuse you. The “set-up” screen allows you to adjust the animation speed and turn off the sound effects and/or background music. You can also assign one of three difficulty levels to the computer players. I’ve not really noticed a tremendous difference between the AI variations. My win-to-loss ratio seems to be just as poor on easy as it is on medium or hard! I have about a dozen card game apps, most of them also of the partner trick-taking style, and the AI and partner elements are just as questionable in those; so it’s probably more of a porting issue.
Lastly, the only rather major downside to the Cahoots app is a lack of human vs. human play. There is no online version, nor even a pass-and-play option. It’s just you against the computer. Still, the design’s unique depth of play is worth the $1.99 price point as you should get plenty of plays from it. Hopefully, a physical card game version will be published in the future, which would obviously rectify that one deficiency.
Nice Suit or Ill-Suited?
Cahoots isn’t your grandparents’ trick-taking card game. It certainly has a standard classic vibe, but game play is so unique that it’s really in its own category.
To begin with, the discard phase at the end of each trick adds some tremendous strategy. You need to decide whether it’s best to quickly grab more cards in suits that you want to score in subsequent rounds; or if it’s more important first to discard and get rid of those high value cards in the suits that you can’t score in? Basically, do you take what you need, or get rid of what might come back to bite you?
On the other hand, that discard phase can also hamper one’s strategy because it makes it difficult to follow card play. While card counting in a strict sense has never been required to win trick-taking style games, a strong awareness of what is still in play is always a huge advantage. Well in Cahoots, with half the cards in every trick going back into circulation, you can quickly lose track of what’s been trashed and what might still come out again to trump you up. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for particular cards to appear in multiple tricks over the course of the same hand! Traditional card players may find this frustrating, but it’s a fun little wrinkle that livens up the genre.
Card play in Cahoots is also markedly different from its classical cousins. Without trump, bidding, or requirements to follow a lead, it’s more difficult to force your opponents into certain plays or coax particular cards out of their hands. Therefore, you may find yourself playing a little more defensively than in typical trick-taking games. Especially considering that a trick can completely change in the span of a few cards. Indeed, a few cards are often all it takes to secure the win for a certain suit!
The app keeps a running score of total suit values within each trick as you play, so you need to use that to your advantage. If one of your suits is ahead, it behooves you to strengthen it by adding another. On the other hand, if one of your suits is guaranteed to win, you might slough off something from you non-scoring suits, hoping to get it discarded at the end of the round. If you’re behind in the trick, you might want to toss in a suit yet to be represented in order to dilute the pot. Then again, if you add to it, there’s more of chance cards from that suit will be trashed – and you can conserve your scoring suits for later. Decisions, decisions…
The partner play in Cahoots creates another uniquely distinct aspect. You have three of them. Oh, and they happen to be opponents, too! In other classic card games, partner play is one of the more appealing elements. It can be both robust and subtle, requiring savvy play and non-verbal (or in some cases, verbal) communication to feed and play off of your partner. That communication can still be possible in Cahoots (although it’d really require a physical game with other real people), but it’s a bit more incongruent. While you share one suit with each player, they all have their own agendas, as well. So in any given trick, you might be working with one, two, or even all players! However, it’s likely you’ll find yourself needing to push the round towards one suit. But is your “partner” who shares that suit wanting to go the same route?
The double-card play, discard and pick-up phase, and multiple partner aspect all mesh to create a really engaging game that is truly fresh. There can be a lot to keep track of. But that also makes it challenging and offers more nuance and depth than is typical in the genre. Essentially, this app is a no-brainer for passing and hardcore fans of classic card games especially those that love the largest category of them out there: trick-taking.