I reviewed Reiner Knizia’s LAMA earlier this year, and despite its being nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, I wasn’t very impressed. While it takes familiar, tried-and-true card game mechanisms and spins a slightly more complex game from them, I didn’t think the result was all that interesting. To me, Heul Doch! Mau Mau achieves this goal much better.
Heul Doch! Mau Mau takes its cues from Uno and Crazy 8s: each card played must match color or number of the previous card played. This is familiar to anyone who has played card games as or with children. Heul Doch! Mau Mau’s twist is that, rather than players trying to get rid of their cards to a communal pile, they’re trying to play them to their own individual pile, and each card’s number is its points value at the end of the game. This on its own doesn’t seem that revolutionary, or explain the “Heul Doch!” (German for “Go on and cry!”) moniker affixed to the traditional German game Mau Mau. The revolution here is that players can (and even must) play cards on their opponents’ score piles.
The brilliant twist to Heul Doch! Mau Mau is that your score pile isn’t sacred. You might be planning a big move on your next turn only to see it foiled by another player. You see, you can’t play a card on your own pile if that same card could be played on a neighbor’s pile. You can always choose another card to play if you want to–you aren’t forced to play on an opponent’s pile just because you can–but this will mean either holding cards in your hand to play later or perhaps playing suboptimally on your own pile.
You always have the option to play a card face-down on your own pile. This has a few benefits: it keeps you from having to give opponents big points, it keeps opponents with messing with your score pile, and it allows you to start fresh with your next turn. As long as your opponents can’t claim the card you want to play, you don’t have to worry about matching your own color or number. But the crying onion on the back of every card should clue you in that you also have to be careful using this option. If you have too many face-down onions in your score pile, you may have to throw out big points.
This is another clever twist in Heul Doch! Mau Mau: at the end of the game, once you’ve counted up the number of face-down onions in your pile, you have to discard all cards of the matching value. Only have one? All your 1s are out of your score pile. That may not be so bad. But maybe you had four face-down onions, so all your 4s are gone. Or your 5s. And even though values are only 1-7, having eight or more face-down onions won’t help you. If you have eight, you get rid of your 7s and your 1s, or nine, your 7s and your 2s.
“Go on and cry!” is right. Some games present you with a smorgasboard of good choices and ask you to eschew the good in favor of the best. Heul Doch! Mau Mau asks you to find the least bad option between harming yourself and helping your neighbor. You won’t be able to always and only help yourself, so in those moments of decision, what will it be?
One of the best superfluous components in a game, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t that giant Kickstarter mini that arrived without instructions or the gold-encrusted first-player token you paid extra for. It’s the handkerchief that comes standard-issue in the Heul Doch! Mau Mau box. Thankfully, I haven’t had anyone actually use it, but it is a visual reminder that the game is one of choosing the lesser of two evils and of schadenfreude. Each time a player is complaining about their options or the poor state of their hand, one of us at the table will subtly, casually either pass them the handkerchief or direct their gaze that way. It’s all part of the game.
Choosing between bad options might seem like a recipe for an unfun experience or a mean game, but Heul Doch! Mau Mau is surprisingly entertaining. Part of this is because the game is so light and breezy. The twist that you can’t play on your pile something you can play on a neighbor’s is really the only rule players need to have explained–the rest are fairly standard to anyone who has played even mass-market or card games. And each game seems pretty evenly divided between making good plays on yourself and having to make tough decisions that might benefit others. We’re all inhaling onions, here, and everyone’s going to cry. It’s fun to see other players’ taxed expressions as they make their own devil’s bargain. No one is off the hook.
Heul Doch! Mau Mau is definitely a game of tactics rather than strategy. Each turn, you’re in damage-control mode, trying to do the most you possibly can to minimize the potential for ill and maximize the potential for gain. But there are a lot of unknown variables here. The cards in your two neighbors’ hands, for a start. You might be planning to go on a 7-spree, playing high card after high card, only for one neighbor to cover that 7 with a 1 and another neighbor to play a 7 on their own pile. These moments result in audible groans–again, this is a game of schadenfreude, and the groans are half the point–and there’s not a lot you can do about it.
This will frustrate some strategy-first, strategy-only players. But despite this, I wouldn’t call Heul Doch! Mau Mau all luck. You know exactly how long the game will last: every card must be played. And you can put yourself in a better position to capitalize on options or a worse one, either based on the cards in your hand or based on what other people have on top of their score piles. Over the course of the game, it’s up to you how much you should risk, and the risks and the consequences are well delineated: If you give this 7 to your opponent, you are helping them earn 7 points. Then again, if you play a face-down onion on yourself, you might increase the number of points you have to lose.
But even that’s a big might. While players aren’t allowed to look through their score piles to see how many onions they’ve played or what numbers they’ve collected, players can have a general sense of this while they go. In one recent game, I knew I had collected lots of 3s and 5s, and I was pretty sure I had already played three onions, so on my second-to-last turn, even though I could have scored a card, I played a card face-down as an onion. As a result, instead of tossing eight 3s, I tossed a single 4. Plays like that are so satisfying. But it’s also fun to participate in the schadenfreude of seeing players lose track, thinking they were losing their few 4s when actually they have to discard their treasure trove of 5s.
Yet, again, while Heul Doch! Mau Mau is a game of brutal choices and sometimes unforeseen calamity, it remains light and breezy. There’s enough luck in the game that you can always use that as an escape hatch for poor play, and a game lasts a mere 15 minutes or so, so it’s easily swept up and forgotten if you do terribly.
Heul Doch! Mau Mau is a great filler for this reason. It’s simple enough that I’ve played it with my nieces, and I’ve played it both with casual players and gamers, and it has generally been well received–if it’s not among their favorites, it is at least entertaining and diverting. My wife, sister, and I laughed our way through recent back-to-back games, with my wife giving it her endorsement of “hilarious.” The game can support from three players up to six; I’ve played with three and four, and those counts are great. I think it should scale decently well considering that you are always measuring yourself against your two immediate neighbors, and each turn is just drawing and playing a card, and the same-size deck is used no matter the player count. With smaller counts, though, you can be sure that each play affects you.
The game also includes several special action cards, which I haven’t used. These do things that add further uncertainty in the game, messing with the top card of your or other players’ score piles. I generally steer clear of these in other games, and I haven’t seen a need for them yet. That being said, I wouldn’t be opposed to trying them sometime in the future.
Obviously, Heul Doch! Mau Mau is a filler, and everyone has different opinions on snacky games. Lots of people whose opinions I respect prefer LAMA to this, and some prefer even meaty games for their fillers. For me, the biggest barrier to getting this one played is its title. It isn’t out in English, and there’s not really an English title I could offer that would make this one attractive. (“Let’s play Go On and Cry Crazy 8s, everybody!”) It’s similar to the trouble I had getting people to play my German copy of Die Quacksalber von Quedlinburg. Language isn’t much of a barrier in rules, but it is a sizable barrier to perception. “That’s something arcane and not for me!” So you just have to sit down and get people to play it, letting them form their own opinions.
The components here are mostly well done. It’s a little strange that there are two blue suits, but each suit has different onion artwork, so they’re easy enough to tell apart if you look at the illustrations. And the illustrations are very nice. I like seeing the many different kinds of onions, and while there is no “theme” to the game, onions are a great choice to illustrate a game where so much of the play is about choosing the best option from among poor outcomes. And again, the inclusion of a handkerchief (even a cheap, napkin-style one like this) is inspired.
Heul Doch! Mau Mau is one of my favorite fillers that I’ve learned this year. It’s built upon a simple, recognizable game (and is thus easy to teach and learn) yet has enough unique twists that it feels different and fresh. I generally like games with more positive decisions, where everything you do builds you up, but because Heul Doch! Mau Mau is equal opportunity in the way it forces players to choose the lesser of two evils, and because it’s so short, it makes for a game that often dissolves into heavy laughter. There are usually lots of tears around the Heul Doch! Mau Mau table, but they’re the happy kind, and any game that produces that kind of emotion is doing something right.