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The Dusty Dragon #3: Coloretto (review)

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Coloretto boxIn modern board gaming, we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Six of the top ten games on Board Game Geek were published after 2010. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.

In The Dusty Dragon–a monthly column on iSlaytheDragon–my goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150. The goal of the column is to balance out the more immediate board game coverage on iSlaytheDragon by reminding us of some games that might have slipped through the cracks. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)

Coloretto is a game I had heard praised many, many times before I finally broke down and bought a cheap copy in an auction. The accolades heaped upon the game were enough to buckle its tiny box, yet despite the great expectations that would no doubt cause disillusionment, Coloretto has managed to meet and even exceed those expectations. Here’s why Coloretto is so great.

How It Works

Coloretto is a set collection game for 2-5 players. Players try to collect deep sets of various colors but must avoid collecting too broadly. The player with the most points wins.

Coloretto set up for four players.
Coloretto set up for four players.

One row card is placed in the center of the table for each player in the game. Each player is dealt a starting color card, and the end-of-round card is inserted toward the bottom of the draw deck

A player must perform one action if still in the round:

  • Draw a card and add it to an existing row
  • Claim a row that has at least one card and leave the round

Rows can only hold up to three cards, and once a player claims a row, that player cannot perform actions until every player has claimed a row. Cards in the deck are mostly color cards, but there are a few joker cards (can be any color) and several +2 cards (worth 2 points straight up). Players add cards claimed to their tableau.

The cards in Coloretto. There are nine each of seven color chameleon cards, four wild cards, and ten +2 cards.
The cards in Coloretto. There are nine each of seven color chameleon cards, four wild cards, and ten +2 cards.

After all players have claimed a row, the row cards return to the center of the table, and play continues. The game ends at the end of the round when the game over card is revealed. Players score positive points for their three best color sets and all of their +2 cards; they score negative points for everything else. The player with the most points wins.

A Lizard of a Different Color?

Coloretto is one of the most brilliant filler games you’re likely to play.

What makes Coloretto so great is its pruned decision tree and yet the depth of decisions players can consider. The rules are simple enough that you can explain the game in less than a minute (without hyperbole), yet every turn produces a compelling decision for players. Players must weigh several things. First, the decision to draw a card or take a row. If you draw a card, you have to add it to a row, meaning that if you really like that card and want to keep it, there’s a chance you won’t get to, or that when it comes around to your turn again, it might be saddled with all manner of junk cards you don’t want. If you choose to claim a row, you might be limiting yourself: do you take a small row now that has only cards you want, or do you push your luck, hoping that more cards you want get added to the row? Will a better assortment of cards be available if you hold on? Then, of course, the decision becomes where to place a card if you draw or which row to take if you claim a row. And it’s not often obvious what the best course is.

The scoring table is double-sided and lets players see at a glance what each color is worth. Only three colors score positive points--everything else is negative!
The scoring table is double-sided and lets players see at a glance what each color is worth. Only three colors score positive points–everything else is negative!

Coloretto is, at its heart, a variation on the “I divide; you decide” mechanism, only the divisions happen piecemeal throughout the round as players push their luck to get the cards they want. The goal is to make appealing lots for yourself and unappealing lots for your opponent, which might work at cross purposes except that available cards really do differ in value to different players. Chalk this up to the many colors of cards available and Coloretto’s fascinating scoring system: collecting many cards of the same color is great–for your best three colors. Any colors after those three best score negative points at the same value as they would have scored positively. This small twist makes the entire game compelling, since there are seven colors to balance, and sticking to just three colors is nigh impossible. Taking one card of an off color is usually okay, but the situation quickly deteriorates from there. The scoring table is simple enough to learn, but the fact that the table is included with the game as a player aid makes this game even easier to teach.

The brief rules explanation.
The brief rules explanation.

I don’t think I’ve ever played a game this short and simple that is this compelling. I didn’t care for Love Letter‘s distilled bluffing, and even For Sale takes more teaching effort than Coloretto. Coloretto is definitely a filler game (according to my definition), but it is a meaty filler in that it offers players compelling choices. The system also makes players feel clever as they maneuver the cards placed in the center rows to optimum advantage.

If there’s anything negative to say about Coloretto (aside from the usual caveat that not everyone will like it–although Coloretto, even more than other games, really seems like a game for everybody), it’s that seating order and player attentiveness can play a factor in determining the winner. The problem is not as pronounced as it is in, say, Puerto Rico because the game system is simple enough that most players will understand what’s going on. But if a player is checking their phone or not fully engaged in the game, it’s possible to hand the round to the next player unwittingly. Luck of the draw also plays some factor, but this is hardly a criticism since the game lasts a mere 10-15 minutes. Coloretto is a fairly themeless exercise, despite the adequate chameleon artwork, so players who must have minis or spaceships for components may feel less enthusiastic about a set collection game.

Three special row cards are included for the two-player game. I've not tried this, but I imagine they would work fine.
Three special row cards are included for the two-player game. I’ve not tried this, but I imagine they would work fine.

I’ve not played Coloretto with two players, but the game works well at all the other player counts, and looking at how the two player system works, I think it’s probably a fine way to pass the time. Coloretto was later reimplemented as a full board game, Zooloretto, where players try to collect animals into zoo stalls but are penalized for not being able to house extra animals. I’ve not played Zooloretto, so I can’t comment on it too much. I did, however, own it for a short while, and I eventually sold it, unplayed, because I didn’t see it overtaking Coloretto in any gaming situation. (I will appreciate being told I was wrong to sell it in the comments. 🙂 )

Watch out for the end of the round. It can come quickly!
Watch out for the end of the round. It can come quickly!

Coloretto is one of the very best small-box games. It’s clever, it’s quick, the choices are meaningful, and most of all, it’s fun. It’s fun to try to deprive your opponents of what they need. It’s fun to try to manipulate the cards in your favor. It’s fun to push your luck and hope you get the card you need (and not the one that will plummet you into negative points territory). Coloretto is a game I’ve played with people who don’t know much about hobby games, people who play a lot of hobby games, and everyone in between, and it has gone over equally well with all groups. The game is small enough that it always remains in my backpack, and it is fun enough that it’s one of the first games I suggest if there’s a hole to fill in the gaming schedule. Coloretto is truly a gem worthy of your consideration.

  • Rating 9.0
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 9
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Summary

Pros:

  • Simple rules take less than a minute to explain
  • Gameplay is tense, fast, and exciting
  • Compelling core mechanism is fun to manipulate

Cons:

  • Seating order and luck of the draw can occasionally play a deciding role
  • It's hard to trick Futurewolfie into playing a game that doesn't have spaceships, minis, or, really, any relevant theme
9.0 Awesome

I’ll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. I love Coloretto! It really is a great game to teach to newer/younger gamers AND still be enticing for seasoned gamers. I can still remember getting my butt kicked by my (then) 6-year old niece with her self declared strategy of “I only want the purple!” (I know the official game has no purple cards, but I had purple in a print and play set I made.) I believe she only had 1 card that wasn’t purple at the end. =)

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