As told in the well-worn myth that has been passed down through the ages, Icarus looks at his hand of cards, makes a bid, and hopes that his wings, flying neither too high nor too low, carry him along to victory without the people on the ground (who never had much imagination anyway) challenging his bid and causing him to take burnt feather tokens.
Did I get that right?
How It Works
Icarus is a bidding and bluffing game for three to seven players. Players compete to make outrageous (and also safe) bids while challenging their opponents’ bids. The player with the fewest negative points when the game ends wins.
To begin, players shuffle the seven different colored decks and place them where indicated on the board. (The decks are the same, featuring fifteen number cards from 0 to 7.) Players also place the feather tokens on the board and draw one card from each deck. Then one card from each deck is drawn face down and placed back in the box.
A turn consists of three phases:
- The player may discard a card to draw a card from the matching deck.
- The player must bid higher than the last bid, either in the same or in a different color.
- The next player must either accept the bid and take a turn or challenge the bid.
Discarding a card gives all players at the table, but especially the player whose turn it is, more information regarding what cards are still in the deck, which can help with bidding and challenging bids.
When a player challenges a bid, all players reveal the card they hold of the challenged bid’s color. If the total of the revealed cards is equal to or greater than the amount bid, the player who challenged the bid receives a feather token–a -2 token if the bid was within 2 of the total, or a -5 if not. If the total is less than the amount bid, the bidder receives a feather token. In either case, the deck of the challenged bid’s color is removed from the game. After the challenge is resolved, the challenging player takes a turn.
When challenges have been resolved in all seven colors, a new match begins: players shuffle the decks, draw a card from each deck, and begin again.
The game ends immediately when any single player acquires a fourth feather token. The player with the fewest negative points wins.
Note: Several game variants are included in the rules, as well as additional components to support these variants. I deal with these in the review below.
High Flying, or Die Flying?
Icarus is in some ways an odd game to bear Reiner Knizia’s name on the box. First, it’s published by Victory Point Games, which styles itself as “the little game company that could,” and Knizia is one of the hobby game market’s top designers. Second, it’s a bluffing game. Reiner Knizia has made a broad spectrum of games, but is mathy tension conducive to a full-on bluffing game?
It turns out, the answer is yes. And Icarus is exactly the kind of bluffing game you might expect from Knizia: the theme is more of a guideline, there are lots of numbers, the decisions are honed to balance on a knife’s edge, and it won’t please everybody.
What makes Icarus enjoyable is what’s at the center of the game: bidding and bluffing. For each player count, there is a range of “acceptable” bids: with four players, for example, the distribution of the deck provides that the lowest safe bid is 1, and the highest safe bid is 23. Within that range is where the game is played. Information, at least at the start of the game, is low, so there is a large window in terms of what might be acceptable. Within this window, players want to keep their bids as modest as possible so they won’t be challenged, but they also want to take as few turns as possible when the bid is high, so they have to bid higher than they feel comfortable doing. Players look at the cards in their hand, look at what has been discarded, and try to make a bid that, if not exactly safe, at least looks safe enough that it won’t get challenged.
And here’s where the bluffing comes in. I may be holding a meager 1 of orange, but if I hear all the players before me bidding orange up, I might think, Well, they have high orange cards, so I might be safe biddin in orange as well. No one needs to know that I’m holding the 1–until I’m challenged, that is. It may be that only one player was confident in their orange holdings and the rest of us were just piggybacking on their hubris.
Icarus is by turns tense and freewheeling. You have very limited information to go on–just one card in hand and whatever the players have chosen to discard–so you try to bid as conservatively as possible while also setting your fellow players up for failure. You desperately don’t want to be challenged, but you even more desperately don’t want the bid to come around to you again, when it will be harder to fly under the radar. That’s the tension. The freewheeling part is that if you are challenged, the bid resets, and you’re back to low territory again (maybe). And even when you lose a challenge, the penalty is a feather token, not (as in, say, Coup) immediate or imminent loss of the game.
The game cards all bear pictures of Icarus inching closer to the sun as the numbers ascend, but the real “theme” of the game (if you want to call it that) is just that tension I described above: you want to bid as high as you can without getting burned. This is surprisingly compelling. I admit that as I read the rulebook, the game didn’t look like much. How do you have enough information to bid accurately? I wondered. And really, you don’t. And that’s kind of the point.
The game isn’t about making the “right” bid, whatever that is. It’s about convincing the other players that you’ve made the right bid, or at least making them question their doubt enough not to challenge it. You don’t have much information to go on, but neither does anyone else, so every bid brings the insecurity of feeling like a fraud, and every time your bid doesn’t get challenged, you feel like you’ve pulled off a grand escape. In my groups, next to Medici, Icarus has produced the most raucous crowd for a Knizia game.
Like most bluffing games, the human element in Icarus is at the fore. In one four-player game, the “safe” bid seemed to be hovering around 12. I bid 12 in red, content that I would live to see another day. The next player challenged me, and it turns out the red total was lower than I had thought. You can’t always predict what your friends will do, how they will play, and what they will deem too reckless to stomach. Seemingly safe bids are sometimes rejected; outrageous bids are sometimes tolerated. It’s based on the whim of the next player in seating order. Which is also why Icarus works best, in my opinion, if you follow the suggestion in the rulebook to change seating order occasionally. You need “new blood” to keep the game interesting.
Icarus includes several game variants, which the rules are careful to point out were developed by Victory Point Games and not by Reiner Knizia. Knizia has a long history of game variants designed for his games–his games are usually mathematical affairs, and publishers (perhaps rightly) think that players won’t be interested in the game without a little spice, normally in the form of special action cards. And in this case, as in almost all the others (see, e.g., Battle Line and Tower of Babel), I prefer my Knizia undiluted. The variants provided for Icarus, which revolve primarily around the flight cards, take a game that involves a good deal of bluff and tension and turn it over to the winds of blind chance. Flight cards can add to a bid (making it thus more likely to bust), add to a total (making the bid more likely to be safe), or involve a number of other fancy maneuvers that…just don’t succeed in making the game any more interesting than it already is. All they do is make me mad that I drew a “subtract 2” from the total rather than a “subtract 4,” simply because you were more lucky than me. The cards inject more chance into a game that is already based around hidden information, and they throw off the delicate balancing point that Knizia has already found. They make my decisions feel less important.
The Flight cards do, however, illustrate the biggest negative about Icarus: it can begin to feel samey fast. The game doesn’t change much from round to round (although the tension in each match ratchets up as decks are removed from the game), and it’s a bit anticlimactic to begin a new match while playing the same game. I am most interested in a bluffing game that plays quickly, but Icarus lasts around 45 minutes. It’s true, you could maybe play just one match as a filler game, but the scoring system is such that it really does make sense to play a complete game rather than just one match, especially if more players are sitting at the table, since only seven feather tokens will be doled out in a single match. I suppose the real fun of the game is making outrageous bids and seeing the result of them, but I like that the long-term scoring of the game makes this a more strategic game in the bluffing space.
I suppose I can’t have my cake and eat it too on this point. Either the game should be short and less strategic, or perhaps a bit long and offer greater reward for playing well over the full game. Icarus falls into the second camp. Rather than leaving players wanting more once the game is finished, players are satisfied (perhaps overfilled) once the final feather token is earned, making them less likely to want to pull it out again, at least soon. So I understand the publisher’s desire to inject new life into the game somehow. I just don’t think the Flight cards accomplish this goal while doing justice to the original design.
The components in Icarus are standard Victory Point Games quality–the “board” is thin cardstock (but not that important to begin with), and the feather tokens have to be wiped with the enclosed napkin or they’ll leave newsprinty soot on your fingertips. However, since the game is mostly in the cards, this isn’t much of a criticism, because the cards are decent. I love the design of the card backs, and the art on the front is nice and thematic (as far as theme goes–see: Reiner Knizia). The final published version advertises linen finish on the cards; my prerelease copy doesn’t have this, so I can’t comment on that feature. The game also advertises play with three to seven players. Since the game naturally scales (by shifting the range of possible bids), this seems about right, although the more players you have, the longer it will take for one player to accumulate four feather tokens. I’m torn on whether I prefer the game with fewer or more players–it works equally well at both ends of the spectrum.
Icarus is a surprisingly fun game in a simple and elegant package. Despite being a bluffing game, it bears Knizia’s trademark mastery of finding the grueling decision and building a game around it. Icarus would be a great game if it were a little shorter than it is, but as it stands, it’s a good bluffing game that produces a lot of fun moments. It probably isn’t a game for every game night, and I doubt it will unseat anyone’s love for Coup, but it’s a good, Euroy bluffing game to play once in a while.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing us with a review copy of Icarus.