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Preview: Emu Ranchers

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Emus are a cranky lot.  You’d probably be, too, if you were a flightless bird.  I mean, as some unfortunate evolutionary defect, not only do they pine away their days jealously watching their aviary brethren soar high, like nature intended, but now humans want to herd and pen them, like common cattle.  Why?  I don’t know.  There’s not much meat upon them.  And they’re ugly.  Must be for the feathers.

[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, non-production prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product may feature some slight variation in game play, art, and components.]

How it Plays

Emu Ranchers is a 2-player, set collection, adding card game based on the unique Decktet system – an independent, non-traditional deck distinctive for its two-suited cards.

The goal in Emu Ranchers is to corral enough of the ornery birds to make a profit.  That’s easier said than done.  This is a stubbornly particular species that insists on sharing pens only with their own kind (read: color), and you can only herd them in a certain order (read: in ascending or descending value).  Not only that, emu-proof pens are surprisingly expensive for some reason, so you’re going to need to rustle up a whole passel of them to keep the red off the ledger.

Starting with a hand of 5 emus, both ornithological ranchers will take turns playing or discarding a card and then drawing a new card.  When playing a card, you may either begin a new pen, or play to an existing one.  Create new corrals with caution, though – if you can’t fill it with enough birds, you’re not going to turn a profit (read: lose points).

You’ll also want to start a new pen with as high or as low a card as possible.  Emus are valued at anywhere between 2 and 9 points in various colors, with special Egg and Feather cards in each suit. Essentially the Egg and Feather have numerical values of 1 and 10, respectively, when considering its order in the pen.  However, they are worth +/- 5 points when calculating your score at the end of the round.

Once you’ve started a pen, the next emu played there must be of higher or lower value, and then you must continue that trend for the remainder of plays to that collection of emus.  Not only that, but every emu placed in that stall must be the same color.

The unique and interesting twist for those used to a lot of traditional card games with standard 52-card packs is that these emus – thanks to the design’s history in the Decktet system – have two colors per card, except for the Eggs and Feathers.  So generally, you have two options with each card.  When playing a new emu to an existing pen, just make sure the numbered indices show the same colored background as you meld them.

If you don’t want to play a card, you’re other option is to discard.  After playing or discarding, you can draw a new card – either from the draw deck or the discard pile (assuming you didn’t just discard to it, yourself).  When the draw deck runs out, both players can finish out their hands as legally able, but may not start any new pens.  Then the round ends.

Here’s when you’ll see the wisdom to keeping the number of emu pens low.  Each separate corral costs 18 points.  This means that you must remove enough emus from that collection worth a total of 18 just to break even!  Plus, any change in the total is lost.  So for example, if you have to use four cards equaling 19 points in order to meet the 18 point requirement, all four of those are tossed out – you don’t keep the surplus point.  If you don’t meet the cost threshold, then you lose points equal to the deficit.  Eggs and Feather are minus 5 points.  Any emus remaining in profitable corrals are added according to their value, with Eggs and Feathers worth 5 points each.

15 point pen!

After scoring, you can play as many additional rounds as desired, totaling all scores.  The winner is the best emu rancher, for whatever bragging rights that may be worth…

Home on the Range or Two-Legged Stampede?

There’s a hilarious, slapstick scene in The Gods Must Be Crazy where a guy is trying to snatch an ostrich egg from momma bird and the two chase each other round and round through a bunch of tall grass, heads randomly popping up here and there, momma cracking him on the skull several times until he slams into an unseen Boabob tree!  He’s victorious in the end, using his wits to steal the egg later, but I thought of that scene will playing Emu Ranchers.  Sure, it was an ostrich in the movie and not an emu, but they’re close cousins.  The play has a bit of a madcap feel to it as you chase off the birds you don’t want while trying to collect the ones that will make you the most profit, but often prove slippery.

Not that it’s highly thematic.  Or even thematic, at all.  I’m mean there’s no reason for the order of gathering the birds other than it’s a card game.  And when reading the rules for scoring, my immediate reaction was, “Huh?  Why 18?  Why not 15 or 20?”  However, the cute emus are there for fun and to attract casual eyes.  The design’s real pull is its recognizable mechanic.

Which comes first? The Feather of the Egg?

I’ve been reviewing and previewing a lot of games lately with set collection as either the design’s central or secondary aspect.  Throughout the hobby – board game or card game – it is a common mechanic.  Many non gamers know and play Rummy and so grasp the concept of collecting and melding sets.

While Emu Ranchers capitalizes on that characteristic, it also adds a little twist to it.  These cards have two suits, or colors.  That can be an advantage by increasing the odds that a card will match a current set.  Yet it also can create a dilemma in deciding whether or not to keep it, and others it matches, for later use.  Often, one card could play to different pens and you’ll need to decide which is best.  Of course, as soon as you play, you’ll draw a new card that would have fit in that corral better!

In addition to the basic game as described above, there are a few cards you can toss in for a couple of advanced rules.  I recommend playing with both types from the start.  They add a bit more fun variety and there’s nothing particularly advanced about them.  One card is called a “buyout.”  If you’re lucky enough to draw it, you can play it on one of your pens that you know will not turn a profit.  The buyout cancels the pen so that you neither lose, nor earn, any points.  The other cards are wild cards.  Wild cards are another universally popular aspect to card games, so these should not trip up anyone.  For scoring purposes, it equals the highest possible value that it could represent in relation to its place within the pen.

Rounds are also quick as game play clips along at a nice pace, thanks to the “play one, draw one” structure.  You can play as many rounds as you and your partner like.  In many ways, then, it is as accessible as a number of other light games of its genre like Rummy, Gin, or Rook – and geared toward the same audiences that would lean towards that style.

The 4 wild cards and 1 buyout (advanced game)

Emu Ranchers is a light and breezy, family card game.  It doesn’t have the depth or decision-making to lure a session of gamer vs. gamer.  However, it is a wonderful option for a gamer to play with a non-gamer – spouse, younger child, mom, etc.  Both familiar and unique, the set collection mechanic makes it accessible while the two-suited cards add appeal.  With simple rules, ease of set-up, customizable sessions, and quick turns, you can play until you have to stop or whenever you’re tired of plucking feathers out of your hair!

Emu Ranchers will run on Kickstarter through November 6.  If you’re interested, mosey on over to the campaign page to pick up a copy.  You can get the basic game for a $25.00 contribution, which includes domestic shipping and all the birds you need to start your herd, with other perks possible at higher funding levels.  So even though they won’t fly away, you may want to hurry before the whole project stampedes!

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

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