African folklore is rich and vibrant, filled with all sorts of colorful character and perhaps none is more well known than Anansi the spider. As a cunning trickster, he is able to get the better of enemies by using is intellect and clever planning. His ability to turn the tables on those with more strength and power also served as a source of inspiration for the people brought over the Atlantic ocean as slaves. These stories could make great fodder for a board game setting. And what better way to showcase the rich tapestry of tales than a trick taking card game?
How it Plays
If you’re unfamiliar with trick taking games may I suggest reading a short primer on the subject? Now that you’re an expert, we can dive a little deeper in what makes Anansi it’s own game.
Anansi is played over a series of five rounds, after which players add up their points and whoever has the most is the winner. To begin each round, players are dealt a hand of cards and a number of role cards are placed on the table for players to select in order. These role cards have a number and an ability on them. The number is the amount of points you will score this round for every trick you manage to win and the ability will give you a unique power available for you to use.
Play begins and takes the form of a typical trick taking game. One player will play a card to and, in order, everyone else must play a card of that initial suit if possible. If you cannot play a card of the same suit, you can play any other card in your hand. Whoever played the highest valued card of the initial suit wins that trick, collects it and starts the next trick.
Play continues until one card remains in everyone’s hand which carries over to the next round. Players count up the number of tricks they collected that round and multiply it by their scoring number on their role card and write down their scores. Additionally, whoever collected the most cards with Anansi on them will be given a fool card. Each fool card subtracts five points from your score at the end of the game. If any single player collects their third fool card that player automatically lose and the game immediately ends.
I’m a card game neophyte. I’m not sure what rummy is and I’ve only played Poker for Oreos. I have, however, recently been on a mission to rectify this glaring hole in my gaming lexicon by trying my hand at some trick taking and ladder climbing games. I’ve been having a lot of fun navigating the waters though I’ll readily admit I’m a beginner and may need a life jacket from time to time.
Thanks in no small part to a Geeklist I came across, I’ve become more and more appreciative of beautiful, well made cards going so far as to order multiple custom playing card decks. While I don’t expect premium cards from every game, I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the overall card quality in Anansi. The colors and graphic design are muddied and not easily distinguished at a glance. The suits are separated by color and a symbol below its value. Some of the colors are very similar and the symbol is difficult to distinguish without taking a close look. The card body is a lighter shade of the suit color and lowers the contrast that can make it easy to parse your hand at a glance.
The cards lack a linen finish which isn’t the worst thing in the world. What is less acceptable is the coating used on the cards. They don’t glide in your hands or on the table like a good quality playing cards do. There’s a certain softness that they lack. Normally, I wouldn’t harp these types of things in a typical board game, but for a game that is played exclusively from your hand it’s harder to forgive. A not insignificant reason that I play tabletop games is for their physicality. I like touching things, moving bits, and tossing objects. Shuffling a deck of Anansi cards, dealing them out and holding them in your hand was never a pleasant experience for me.
All this could be forgiven if Anansi was a truly great game. Unfortunately, it’s not.
The strongest aspect of Anansi are the role cards. They allow you to take stock of your hand and make a value judgment as to how strong it is. If you have a strong hand, you might go for a high scoring role even though it’s ability won’t aid you much in the round. If you have a weak hand, you’ll probably go for a strong ability to help you win some tricks even though they won’t be worth as many points. It’s reminiscent of some the card games that I’m started enjoying where you declare how confident you are this round and wager points. It’s a moment of bravado that can pay off in huge points or disappointing failure.
The fool cards are another successful design element that creates another decision point in the game and I’m all for more decisions in games. It’s not uncommon to be in a position where you know you just can’t win very many tricks in a round. As far as I know, this is common in trick taking games and in simpler ones you just go through the motions and play out your hand as you watch someone else clean up. The fool cards give you something to think about all game, but particularly when you have a feeling you will lose a trick. Tossing in your Anansi cards to spike a player who threatens to run the table is a good way of taking their score down a peg. I do find it odd that the value of Anansi cards are seemingly random across the suits. In one suit the Anansi card is a nine value (highest in the game) while in another suit it is only a three value. I’m not sure how the distribution was determined and it would be helpful to know, but that knowledge would only seem to come from the intimate knowledge that would build over many, many plays.
There are also some odd design choices due to the number of players the game accommodates. With lesser players counts, up to two suits are not used in the game. The problem is that one of the suits is designated as trump be default. So if it’s removed, a large part of the game can just go missing. Also, not all of the cards are dealt out unless playing at the highest player count. This means keeping track of what can be played isn’t as satisfying as it could be. Figuring out that you can’t be beat with a certain play of the card makes me feel smart and I’m robbed of that somewhat when I know there’s some cards I just can’t know about. Then there’s the wild cards. They can be played as any suit and there are two them. They are fairly low value and are Anansi cards so they’re mainly played to spike a hand, but there are only two of them so they never felt too impactful.
Maybe you caught that I mentioned a trump suit previously. If you’re a trick taking veteran maybe you just nodded and read along. But if you’re a trick taking neophyte, you probably just took it for jargon. I’m firmly in the neophyte camp and I’m still not entirely sure I know what it means. The rules included in the game due a poor job in explaining the concept. I read them over and over before I threw in the towel and headed to online forums to figure it out. Turns out I wasn’t the only one having trouble with the rules. Only by perusing these forums was I able to get a clear understanding of the game. And that’s just unacceptable.
The rules are the game. Without them, it’s just a collection of cards. I don’t mind having to search online for clarifications or edge cases, but I expect to at least have a base level understanding of the game from the included rules and be able to muddle through a game or two. Anansi is a thirty minute card game and the ambiguities and typos in the rules left me with no idea how trump works. I had to do my own research to figure it out and I only hope that what I read elsewhere is right.
My first experience with trick taking games was with a computer version of Hearts during boring lectures. I couldn’t understand why I kept losing even though I had the most points (for reference, you want to have the lowest score to win). So clearly I’m not the most well versed when it comes to trick taking games, but I can learn. Perhaps I don’t get the nuance of the game or appreciate the variety the game offers as much as I should have. But we all have our own tastes and maybe you like Anansi a whole lot more than I do. That’s fine. It’s fine. Anansi is a fine game. It is, however, not a good product. From it’s poorly written rulebook to its muddled graphics, Anansi just doesn’t cut the mustard. Anansi doesn’t respect your time with a well thought out rulebook and I can’t recommend it for that reason.
Review copy provided by Level 99 Games.
Individual powers and scoring multiples are fun and add an enjoyable element of strategy
Muddy colors and graphic design
Poor wording in the rulebook
Design choices that don't jive with my tastes
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