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Review: Aviary

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Class is in session, kids, and today’s word is the bird!  The teacher is letting you and your mates fly the coop as you flock to the local aviary for a little birding, aka bird-watching.  So grab your Audubon notebooks, because this isn’t just a leisure field trip.  You’ll need to make precise ornithological notes to complete your assignments.  What, all of the sudden getting out of class doesn’t sound so exciting?  Hey, it beats math!

How to Play

Your task in Aviary is to observe a number of birds with specific characteristics according to three assignment cards which determine points.  But instead of honey seeds and binoculars you’ll be using good old fashioned trick-taking to prove that several birds in your hand are actually pretty useful at catching more of them in the bush.

The design consists of 58 bird cards, 28 assignments and a handful of cubes to mark which observable birds affect scoring.  Birds come in one of four suits – Owls, Raptors, East Aviary and West Aviary – in values of 1-14.  The cards also identify which continent(s) the bird is endemic to.  There are two pigeons which don’t really do much when played from your hand – plus they incur a penalty when observed.  I guess pigeons are too commonly boring.

Got binoculars?
Got binoculars?

Each round, players receive twelve bird cards.  Then ten birds are laid out on the table face-up in two rows of five.  These are the “observable” birds.  An observed bird is simply one taken in a trick.  Which feathered friends you’re trying to catch or avoid are determined by assignments.  Three of these are revealed each hand – two yellow and one orange – to determine scoring.  Yellow assignments stipulate a particular suit or continent and whether you earn points for winning birds with those characteristics or by observing the fewest of that type.  You can mark the observable cards of those characteristics with cubes.  Orange assignments have a broader goal generally affecting the entire hand’s play.  Finally, an extra credit card is attached to one of the observables and is worth two points for whoever captures the trick associated with it.

After set up, each player discards two cards and the lead player throws out the first bird.  Successive players must follow suit.  If they can’t, then they are allowed to play any card.  Owls are permanent trump, so the winner of the trick is whoever played the highest card of the suit lead, or the highest owl.  The winner of the trick observes – or takes – the next card in line among the observable birds on the table, then leads to the next trick.  After all ten tricks, players count the values of their observed birds according to the three assignments for that hand.  You’ll keep a running tally in order to play four total rounds.  The student with the highest aggregate scores gets an A+ while her mates don’t do much but carefully watch out for little bombs from birds flying overhead.

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A Whole New Meaning to Giving the Bird?

I’m a big fan of trick-tacking card games.  Traditional fare like Pitch, Euchre, Pinochle, Hearts and Spades were commonly played at the grandparents’ houses and during larger family gatherings.  I remember them fondly enough that I lament the style seems to have waned in popularity.  And I’m still amazed that many people aren’t familiar with even the basic tenants of the genre.  Unfortunately “trump” means something egregiously different these days…

If you enjoy the time-honored trick-taking classics and are looking for a fresh, commercial variant that will both satisfy fans and initiate new card players, this snappy design may just be your bird in the hand.

Aviary’s structure is extremely clean which makes it an intuitive gateway design into the genre.  It’s a straight plain trick game in the vein of that granddaddy of them all – Whist.  Rather than worry about capturing particular point-producing cards within each trick, you simply want to win the trick (or avoid it in some cases) regardless of what’s actually played.  And since you must follow suit, one of the first major decisions concerning card play is determined for you.  Now you’ll still need to decide when to jump on tricks by beating the lead or when to let them slide by and throw in a low card.  Plain trick games are ideal for learning the ins and outs of that most fundamental  and universal tactic in the family.

Teacher's pet!
Teacher’s pet!

The presence of a permanent trump suit is also helpful for new gamers, even if somewhat less interesting for the more experienced.  As is the case with permanent trump game Spades, there is a limiting rule to using Owls.  Changing trump from hand to hand can cause confusion and missteps for even the most dyed-in-the-wool card players.  The use of Owls bumps Aviary a step up from something like Whist without having to inject bidding, which can be a real roadblock to accessibility – or more accurately an obstacle to learning a game’s intricacies for effectively savvy play.

The design also includes an element of avoidance trick-taking, a rare and curmudgeonly aspect in the genre, central to Hearts and within variants of some European classics likely obscure to most American readers.  The goal in this category is to lose tricks.  In Aviary this consists of avoiding pigeons as well as trying to capture the least amount of certain categories when dictated by assignments.  The twist here is that the avoidance angle intermixes with the normal trick-taking component and the two goals might force you to work at cross purposes!

oassign

Now what?!
Now what?!

That’s where Aviary should appeal to veterans.  While the trick-taking aspect is straight-forward and nothing new (but to be honest, can it be after 500 years?), its scoring mechanisms are fluid and interact in interesting ways to make this one fresh.  Some observables may not be worth anything.  Others could be one or two points depending on how they meet the yellow assignments conditions.  Then again, some may only be valuable based on the orange assignment, relative to the other birds on the table.  In rare cases, you find two tasks countering each other.  For example you might be awarded one point for each bird from Europe, but can earn three for observing the least number from the same continent.  So it’s not uncommon for a trick to simultaneously affect all three assignments and means of scoring.

The only glaring omission is the lack of an official partner variant.  Partnership play is one of the overwhelming advantages that classic cards games have over modern board games.  The synergy and chemistry you build with a teammate as you read, lead, support, and build upon one another is rewarding, exciting, and often the source of much social bonding, as well as bragging and derision.  I’m sure you could add that element here and just play as normal, but some variation and maybe even tweak to the normal structure would serve the title well and add even that much more reach.

The game is currently available only through the Game Crafter.  As such it’s production values are rather bleak and Spartan, while the component quality itself is just fine.  The design has enough to offer that hopefully it will find a publisher for development and polish in order to reach a broader market.  It would prove a versatile seller, even if not a flagship title.   As a traditional style card game, it’s not meant for heavy strategy or brain burning churn.  Instead it will satisfy the light, casual, card gaming crowd with its crisp play, portability and good form.

birds

Aviary is an enjoyable little title that combines easy trick-taking with variable scoring that both changes every hand and is often at odds even with itself during specifics rounds.  Those moving target goals create engaging decisions and quirky card play as players decide which tricks to pounce on and which ones to let fly away.  It offers a unique twist on the genre’s staples, because winning a trick can influence up to three ways to earn points.  Light, accessible, even a gateway into the family, this smart design deserves a nest to roost in the collection of trick-taking fans and those looking for commercial variations of old-school card games.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Frost Forge Games for providing a review copy of Aviary.

3 Dorsal Guiding Feathers

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Summary

Pros:

Fast simple trick-taking game
Could use to introduce the genre
Scoring goals change up and interact interestingly
Portable

Cons:

No official partner play
Grows stale if not a fan of traditional style card games

8.0 Very Good

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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