What is a card game worthy of the wizards in your life? Some might say Cribbage, or even Canasta. Poker can be an interesting diversion, if the wizards don’t cheat, but keeping wizards honorable is a difficult task, especially when money and prestige are on the line. And besides, the wizards I know tend to prefer something more…exotic. Something that gives them more control over their actions. Something that lets them use their magical prowess to alter the flow of the game in their favor.
In a word, they prefer Hocus.
How It Works
Hocus is a hand management set collection game for two to five players. Players compete to win points by making the best Poker hands. The player with the most points when the 25 point threshold is broken is the winner.
In the standard game of Hocus, at the start of the game, each player receives a set of three matching advanced spells. At the start of each round, players receive 9-10 cards. The player with the fewest points begins a round.
On a turn, a player must cast one spell (take an action) and may play one owl wizard card previously collected. There are three basic spells:
1. Place a card from hand into one of two communities.
2. Place a card from hand into one of two pots (one pot is associated with each community).
3. Place one or two cards from hand into one of two personal pockets.
In addition to the basic spells, each player also has three advanced spells that only they can activate. (These usually give some variation on the basic spells.)
The round end is triggered once both communities have four cards in them. Each player (including the player who triggered the round end) gets one more turn, and then there is a showdown for each community. For each showdown, each player may assign one of their pockets to the community where the showdown is happening. Once pockets are assigned, players reveal their pockets and combine them with the cards in the community to form the best set of five cards they can. The best set (measured by mostly traditional Poker hands) wins all the points in the pot associated with that community. In addition, any owl wizard cards in the pot go to the winner for play in the next round.
The game ends when at least one player has 25 points. The player with the most points wins.
Know When to Hold ‘Em
When I read the rules to Hocus, I assumed the game was a straight Poker variant (and my rules explanation above probably gives the same impression). The player aid shows a list of various Poker hands, and the similarities to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker are obvious: a common pool of cards combines with a personal pocket to form the best hand; winner gets the points. But while the similarities are obvious, the differences–some subtle, some more overt–are what set Hocus apart and make it what it is: a fun, thinky, compelling hand management game that has a very different feel from its predecessor.
The emphases of the two games are the main point of divergence. In Texas Hold ‘Em, the forming of sets involves no player agency. Players are dealt cards, cards are dealt to the center, and there’s no way to better your position (at least in terms of the set you can make): the cards you’ve been dealt are what you must work with. The game is all about the betting. The game is trying to read other players–whether their betting style truly matches the cards they hold or whether they are bluffing. Better hands don’t necessarily win the pot, and worse hands don’t necessarily lose it. The agency (and satisfaction) comes in reading your opponents and betting appropriately.
In Hocus, players are given agency over the entire game. Each player has a hand of cards to choose from, and cards can be assigned to the communities (a common “hand” similar to the flop in Texas Hold ‘Em), individual pockets (a player’s secret cards), and pots (where points are stashed). Players have control over where their cards go and how they should influence the game. Whereas the emphasis in Texas Hold ‘Em is the betting and bluffing, the emphasis in Hocus is hand management.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there’s no bluffing or reading other players in Hocus. Since each player has only one action per turn, while you control where your cards go and what function they serve, there’s no way to guarantee that the other players will cooperate with your vision of the hand. You may play a green 3 to one community with the hope of creating a good full house. Another player may see the green 3 and try to construct ideal conditions for a flush. Another player may see the green 3 and think straight. Since each player, via a pocket, can contribute a maximum of two personal cards to a community to form a set, divining what other players are up to is a must. Further, if one player is building a super hand in one community, it might behoove other players to seed the community with junk cards that don’t matter, or to prevent the pot from being too sweet. Since pots and pockets are played face down, there is enough secrecy in the game to allow space for bluffing.
But as I mentioned before, the real Hocus focus is hand management. Each player has nine or ten cards in hand, and those cards are assigned to communities, pots, or pockets, and it’s up to the players to decide where they go. And these decisions are grueling. Winning showdowns is obviously a priority, but if there are few points in the pot, your efforts at winning are fruitless. Orchestrating a good community is important if you want to win the showdown, but adding to communities moves you closer to the end of the round, and if you’re stuck without a pocket to assign, you can’t win the showdown anyway. Players have to carefully balance not only which cards to assign to which space, they must also manage the flow of the game, which is hard to discern at first. I have played several rounds where I focused on making a perfect community only to be caught without a pocket, or where I had perfect pockets but other players seeded the communities with cards that were more helpful to them than they were to me, or where I won a showdown with a paltry points pot. Players must manage all of these aspects while also watching what other players are doing. It’s tough. It’s also a lot of fun.
This tension of having only one action each turn but having three or four things that you absolutely must do is what makes Hocus so compelling. It’s much thinkier than I thought it would be because there is a good deal of planning involved. Which card played to a community is most likely to draw out other cards that will be helpful to you? When is it appropriate to put cards in pockets? How will the other players view your putting cards into a pot? Should I use these high-ranked cards to form better sets, or since they’re worth the most points, should I put them in a pot? The system is very clever, and because time is so short and the round end can come before you are in an ideal position, there is almost a push-your-luck element. You are very unlikely to get every piece into place before the end of the round, so where do you devote your efforts? You are pulled in several directions, and you have to make the best of the options available to you. Hocus tackles the “make the best of what you’ve been dealt” problem of Poker in a different direction as players scramble to accomplish what’s best for them before time runs out.
One clever way to give players more options (and often push their luck) is through the advanced spells included with the game. Variable player powers are anathema to some gamers, but in Hocus, I think they work very well. Usually the powers offer some kind of devil’s bargain to players. They may offer a more powerful action in exchange for less luck mitigation. Or let a player do something that usually isn’t allowed but at an added cost. In one of my games, I was assigned the Chaos advanced spells. One of these would let me draw two cards, one of which I had to add to a pot and the other I could keep in my hand. Other spells at the table offered a similar bargain, but the card drawn had to be added to a community or a pocket. There is always a risk in these kinds of spells that you won’t want to place the cards you draw anywhere, and yet this is what makes their inclusion so interesting. Do I take a potentially more powerful action at the risk of ruining what I am otherwise trying to accomplish? Sometimes an advanced spell pays off handsomely, seeming overpowered, but the equally possible outcome (a complete flop) balances these in hindsight.
Players may also play a simpler game that forgoes advanced spells. The game is indeed simpler in that there are fewer spells to contend with and it’s easier to learn the flow of the game without worrying what other players can do to you, but the “simple” game is in no way dumbed down. In some ways, it makes the game even more cerebral. (Think Battle Line without the Tactics cards.) That’s one of the great things about Hocus: the mechanics of the game are easy to teach, but they introduce a rich decision space that gives players room to explore. For my part, I prefer the standard game with the advanced spells (even though I usually eschew variable player powers), but both games are fun, and I think it’s worthwhile to play a round or two without the advanced spells, and maybe without keeping score–there’s a strategic learning curve because there are multiple factors to balance.
The art in Hocus is excellent, but it is firmly in the fantasy camp. I’m not typically a fan of the fantasy genre or fantasy artwork, but even I found something to appreciate here. I don’t own many games with fantasy themes (they aren’t of much interest to me or to those I usually play games with), but while the theme in Hocus is well chosen and the artwork apparent on every card, there are enough decisions in the game that I didn’t care much what the theme was–I was just trying to play the cards in my hand to greatest effect.
Hocus is a delightful card game that packs a lot of interesting decisions and clever gameplay into a short time frame with a small footprint. While it borrows some elements from Texas Hold ‘Em, Hocus is decisively its own game, worthy of consideration on its own merits. Familiar gaming concepts make it easy to learn, but Hocus takes these standard elements and transforms them into something new, something I (at least) like better. Hocus is pure alchemy.
Hocus is now on Kickstarter. You can head over to the campaign page to pledge for your own copy of the game. It’s $15 which includes free shipping within the United States (additional shipping outside the US).
This article is a paid promotion.