[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it. The final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]
So you want to defeat your enemy, huh? No, wait, you want to humiliate them? After giving them hope, maybe ceding a few battles to prop up their confidence, only to pull an unexpected surprise seemingly from under your sleeves? Then you want to laugh at them. Oh, yes. Your booming guffaws echoing in the ears of the vanquished. That’s right! There’s no doubt – victor and wretched – who’s place is who’s. But maybe you don’t want to actually fight. After all, that can be messy, tiring and painful. So what’s the next best way to crush and deface your unworthy foe, tauntingly boast about it, but keep your hands clean? Why, with a good old fashioned card game, of course!
How to Play
Indeed card games have been a traditional source of amusement and competition, as well as friendly and scathing bantering, for ages. The largest number of these classics are trick-taking games. Many survive today, especially as family or social gathering pastimes. Still, they have waned in popularity amidst broader forms of modern entertainment and the rise of the designer board gaming hobby. Thankfully (I’m a classic card games apologist) that hobby often pays homage to those roots by incorporating traditional elements in modern designs, attesting to their timeless nature.
Renown: The Game hopes to revive one such treasure. It is a reskin of Schnapsen, a once ubiquitous, primarily 2-player game in Austria that has fallen from its glory days. Renown: The Game implements a small tweak that ends up making a big difference, adds some play options reminiscent of contracts found in many other trick-taking titles and modernizes the classic with action cards.
At its core, Renown: The Game is a point trick-taking game with trumps. The main difference in play between it and its inspiration is that Schnapsen does not require players to follow suit until the stock (draw deck) closes or is empty. In Renown: The Game you must follow the lead card’s suit or play trump if otherwise unable to. If you have neither, then you may discard any card to the trick. The highest trump, or the highest card of the led suit, wins the trick and the winner leads to the next.
As a commercial deck, the cards are wholly unique – with artwork to boot! There are a mere twenty suited cards. But instead of the Ace, Ten, King, Queen, Jack (or the Daus, Zehner, König, Ober, Unter of German decks) in hearts, spades, clubs and diamonds (or hearts, leaves, acorns and bells in German suits), Renown: The Game simply numbers them I through V (Chief, Warden, Sorceress Soldier, Dork) in the races Humfrogs, Shiners, Ogres and Goblins. In addition to those twenty base cards, the pack includes eighteen action cards.
In a 2-player game, each combatant is dealt five cards. The remainder form a draw pile of which the bottom card is revealed. That one determines the dominant race (trump) for that hand. If one player holds the Dork (V) of that race, they may exchange it with the revealed trump card. Each player receives two actions cards, as well.
The goal of the game is to collect 48 overall renown (game points) by winning a number of rounds (hands). Winning a hand requires capturing at least 66 points worth of cards for that round. The Chief (I) is worth eleven, the Warden (II) awards ten and the other cards give four, three and two points respectively. You can end a round early if you’ve calculated in your head that you’ve collected the required 66 points and declare as much, ending that hand immediately. If you win the hand without your opponent winning any fights (tricks) during that round you earn 3 renown towards the 48 required to win a game. If your foe won only one fight, you get 2 renown for the game. If they garnered at least 33 points, you only earn 1 renown.
In addition to individual card values, you can also earn points through couples (marriages). If you hold both the Sorceress and Soldier of the same race, you declare the pair as soon as playing one of them. This awards 40 points for a couple of the dominant race or 20 if from one of the three recessive suits.
All of the above applies to the 2-player version of Renown: The Game which is essentially Schnapsen, except for the requirement to follow suit. There are 3- and 4-player variants, as well. The basic rules remain, though hand sizes vary. In the three player version, hands alternate in a 1-vs-2 format. The four player variant is a partner version. I’ve concentrated on the 2-player rules as that’s all I was able to play and that is the traditional form of Schnapsen that I know and enjoy. Indeed, that traditional format is one of the best 2-player trick-taking games ever, second only to perhaps Briscola.
Another element that Renown: The Game adds to its classic model is special rounds, which are essentially the contracts in Bauernschnapsen, a popular 4-player version, an element also found in other classic European games like Jass, Preference and even the dizzying Skat. Instead of just playing out the hand like normal, each player in turn has an opportunity to call for a special round. If one does, the draw pile is set aside and play resumes with just the five cards each has in hand. You can declare Domination in which case there is no trump and you must win every trick, earning 9 renown if successful. Or you can try Power-Domination which includes trump, but requires the same sweep, earning 12 renown if you manage it. You can call out “(Screw) the System” in which your goal is to avoid all tricks, winning 4 renown. Or you can announce Wardens-Riot in which case the Warden is the most powerful card and the Chief is demoted below the Dork – but still worth the same points if captured in a trick. The winner of that special round receives 10 game points. There are two other special rounds for the 3- and 4-player variants, as well.
Finally there are the action cards, which give Renown: The Game a modern design vibe. There are two copies of nine unique actions, a few of which may only be used in 3- and 4-player games. Familiarly they provide for a beneficial rules-breaking ability and each specify exactly when and how they are resolved.
Classic trick-taking games have remained timeless for good reason. Most are perfect for social and casual circumstances. They’re quick, relaxed, and easy to play anywhere, since you just need table or floor space and a deck of cards. They can be perfect filler for those brief periods of downtime at conventions or in between plays at game nights. Many people have played one or a few of these games at some point in their life and so that familiarity makes it easier to teach new titles or variants. Plus, a few exceptions notwithstanding, trick-taking card games are accessible to a wide age range so that they’re ideal for the family.
But let’s face it. They are declining in popularity here in the 21st century under the onslaught of varied forms of modern entertainment and leisure activities, especially of the electronic kind. Renown: The Game endeavors to buck that trend.
Starting with Schnapsen is a good choice. While relatively obscure here in the States, the 18th century attested card game is tight and fast. Simple at its heart, it also allows for sophisticated nuance in forcing players to keep score in their heads, providing critical decision making regarding the stock and allowing the non-lead to discard without following suit. It also builds appropriate tension as there are a mere twenty cards, only five in hand at a time, and yet every card is worth points – although two ranks are far more valuable. Thus every trick you lose yields points to your opponent. Deciding what you’re willing to sacrifice now for potentially greater gain later creates a taut environment that’s difficult to achieve in a game where players are forced to follow suit or trump.
Now of course Renown: The Game requires the latter, but alas, for good reason. The design’s goal is to reach non-traditional card gamers. The rule to follow suit is generally simpler in play and eliminates the uncertainty over discarding, which has its own subtleties difficult for the unfamiliar to grasp. Based on Schnapsen as it is, the design is already prone to more calculated attention, as opposed to the laid-back social casualness that many associate with card games. So the rule tweak is fitting.
For connoisseurs of trick-taking games, on the other hand, Renown: The Game’s predominant structural addendum are action cards. Aside from those the play, suits, trump, stock and contracts are familiar enough to offer little new beyond owning a whimsically unique, if decidedly strange, commercial deck with some peculiar, borderline adult-only art. Although your mileage on humfrog breasts and ogre testicles will no doubt vary. It’s fresh…but different. I understand its purpose is part of the overall goal of attracting non-traditional card players. Perhaps it will work. Maybe not.
So the action cards serve as the modernizing mechanism, an element wholly foreign to classic trick-taking fare. While the genre naturally has always included luck of the draw, it’s otherwise possessed a certain steadiness and surety that has its appeal. Card players know the structure, the usual odds, count the cards and work within partner dynamics. There is certainly strategy, but it is routine. Traditional players gravitate towards that, but many find it monotonous and restrictively uniform.
The action cards break that up and inject a modicum of uncertainty, without completely upending the comforting structure. There are only two cards per player, and those individuals may never choose to play one or either. So the possibility is there in the background, yet the timing is unknown. Generally they offer benefits too good to pass up, so chances are you’ll resort to both. It’s a small touch, really, but one that will likely broaden the design’s reach to a more general gaming audience that has never heard of words like trick, trump, slough, stock and shoot the moon.
Renown: The Game retains trick-taking’s enduring and generally accessible structure, adds some modern elements and spruces it all up with a genially quirky charm – some may say bizarre. As such, it just might prove the marriage for lover’s of traditional card games to foist upon their gaming partners who tend to eschew outdated titles in favor of today’s designs. Now that would be some trick, eh?
Renown: The Game is currently on Kickstarter seeking your support. For a pledge of $19 ($15 early bird pledge) you can help this project reach its goal and receive a copy of the game (worldwide shipping is available). Estimated release is March 2018. Head to the campaign page now before this treat turns into a trick.