When I first opened my copy of LAMA, my kids were immediately drawn to the colorful artwork and the “funny” llama on the cover. So you’ve got to hand it to Amigo: they nailed the look of a game that will appeal to the whole family. But how far does that appeal extend?
How It Works
LAMA (which is a German acronym roughly translated “get rid of all your minus points”) is a card-shedding game for two to six players. Players try to play their hand of cards to get the fewest points. The player with the fewest points when the game ends wins.
To begin, the deck of cards is shuffled and a hand of six is dealt to each player. The top card of the deck is flipped up to become the discard pile. Players choose someone to go first and begin.
On a turn, a player may either play a card, draw a card from the deck, or fold, leaving the round.
To play a card, the player must play a number that is either the same or one higher than the current top card. (The llama card is equivalent to a 7, and a llama or a 1 can be played on a llama card.) If a player can’t or doesn’t want to play, they may draw the top card of the stack. If a player doesn’t want to play or draw, the player can leave the round, meaning they lose the opportunity to play cards but also are not forced to draw any more cards, which may add points to their score. If all players fold but one, that player may still play cards or fold but may no longer draw.
The round ends when either one player has played all their cards or all players have left the round. All players who have cards in their hand score points for the face value, taking chips, but only once for each value (so, for example, three 3s is worth 3 points.) If a player plays all their cards, they may hand back one of their chips, which come in 1- and 10-point denominations.
The player who played the last card in a round begins the next one.
The game ends whenever one player has forty or more points at the end of a round. The player with the fewest points wins.
Points and Counterpoints
Small card games don’t usually attract a lot of attention, so I would guess that most people who are now interested in LAMA were likely introduced to it by its nomination for the Spiel des Jahres, the most prestigious award in board gaming. But for some of us, the designer’s name was enough to draw us hither: Reiner Knizia. I’m an unabashed fan of Knizia’s games, large and small, and while LAMA certainly has its charms and clever innovations, for me the package is too slight to become a favorite.
First, the charms. You might hear LAMA derisively compared to UNO, but LAMA has several clever innovations working in its favor. Like most of Knizia’s games, LAMA is all about risk: how much are you willing to risk for the prospect of getting rid of your worst cards? Because players may only play the same number or one higher, they have to evaluate the likelihood of being able to play their cards and the timing of when that play might happen.
This is interesting because the timing is never certain. Players don’t necessarily have to climb by one number with each play. A single number can be played again and again, meaning it’s not possible to calculate exactly where the pile will be by the time your turn comes around again. Yet there’s not so much variety that you can’t make a ballpark estimate: each player can advance the pile by just one number. This gives players a little more control over their risks.
The risks in LAMA are evaluated through points, and the main decision usually happens when you don’t have a card to play. Should you draw at the risk of adding more points to your hand simply to stay in the round until you can play? Or should you fold, losing the opportunity to play further in the round but not increasing the points you’ll have to take? You could also risk drawing even when you have a card to play to possibly put you in a better situation later in the round (but potentially being stuck with more points if someone else goes out before you). Because each player has just three options on a turn, with no option to pass, players have to determine whether it’s worth the risk to add more cards to their hand.
And the risk evaluations change from round to round. In early rounds, playing all your cards isn’t that big of a deal. If you go out, you don’t take any points, which is its own benefit, but the biggest benefit of going out is being able to hand back points. If you’re playing especially well and have less than 10 points, you can only hand back 1 point. As the game progresses, and especially as players become bogged down with points, it behooves them to change their calculus, to push their luck just a little bit farther, in order to potentially get rid of lots of points at once.
Another clever innovation funneling players toward the fun of risk assessment is the llama cards, which are worth 10 points instead of what would be 7. It may not seem like a big jump from 6 points to 10, but there’s something psychologically alarming about the 10-point cards that makes you almost desperate to get rid of them. This is one of the most fun parts of the game–watching as the pile slowly climbs up to the llama and hearing the sighs of relief as players ditch as many llamas as they can before someone finally brings the fun to a stop, inevitably before each player who wanted to has fully shed their cards.
That, to me, is probably the main draw of LAMA: the ups and downs of trying to play your cards in time and the inevitable obstacles that result from other players getting in your way by trying to do the same. There are choices in LAMA: Should you keep drawing, trying to allow yourself to stay in the round? Or should you cut your losses and fold? Should you play the same number? Or should you play one higher? These choices are not taxing, and while you can make somewhat informed decisions–how many cards are other players’ holding? how many of that number remain in the deck and other players’ hands?–LAMA is less a game of strategic choices and more a game of (minimally) calculated risk, and your enjoyment of the game is likely going to come down to how comfortable you are with making several small gambles and seeing how they pay off.
Because truthfully, even though you can base some of your decisions on data, there are enough unknowns in the game that will frustrate even your best-laid plans. You need players to climb through the numbers a little more quickly, but actually, everyone still has 2s in their hand, and you begin your next turn right where you were in your last. You need to play your last llama card, but another player plays the 1 right before you. You draw to stay in the round and hopefully play your higher numbers, but all the other players folded before your turn came around, leaving you stranded because you didn’t draw the card you needed.
None of these things is a deal breaker–these things happen, they’re even good fun in LAMA, and a game might last long enough for you to see your decisions pay off–but they do mean you probably should adjust your expectations. This is a far cry from Spiel des Jahres winners like Catan or El Grande, and it’s even much lighter than recent winners like Codenames or Azul. Player decisions matter in LAMA–you can usually point to something you should or shouldn’t have done that contributed to your victory or defeat–but you might not realize what was a good or bad play until after the round has been played out and you’ve seen what other players had in their hands.
This makes for a decent family game, where luck is tolerated or even welcome in mixed groups of kids and adults. In fact, I taught my five-year-old the rules to LAMA, and while she didn’t fully understand a good play from a bad one, she could participate in the game, which isn’t always the case. Her vocabulary probably isn’t big enough at this point for either Werewords or Just One, the other Spiel des Jahres contenders for this year, to be much fun, and even if it were, those games require more strategic thought. So there’s definitely an audience for LAMA, and it is a decent game for that audience. It also plays very differently within its two- to six-player range, and despite there being more control in a smaller game, I prefer the higher counts (four to six) because that’s where the tension is highest, and the risks are more exciting.
So LAMA is decent game, maybe even good for its audience, but for me, it’s a little too slight for me to be itching to return to it. I can appreciate that the game is a simple game of risk assessment that’s a layer deeper than it seems, but so many of Knizia’s other games simply do this better. Granted, I’m a huge fan of Knizia’s auction games, but they have more rules, fewer guardrails, and take up more space and time than LAMA, so they’re not really competing in the same field. But even many of Knizia’s smaller card games are more interesting exercises in risk assessment. Lost Cities has a wonkier scoring system than LAMA, but Lost Cities was recommended to me by non-hobbyists before I had ever tried it myself. So while it’s more difficult than LAMA, I don’t think it’s a lot more difficult, and the hand management decisions in Lost Cities feel both more meaningful and more within players’ control.
Fine. But Lost Cities only plays two, and to play it well, you probably need to be older than LAMA’s audience. But for a larger group or a younger audience, Knizia’s Circus Flohcati is another card game that I think is more interesting than LAMA. Rather than shedding cards, you’re collecting them, but the game is similarly based around risk assessment: you can keep flipping cards to get what you want, but will you get what you want before you go bust? The tension of flipping cards feels, again, more under players’ control than LAMA, and thus the tension is heightened.
But if you want something even simpler, Knizia’s Cheeky Monkey is a lowest-common-denominator press-your-luck game that is perfect for children. My five- and seven-year-old can play this with me and even win because the risks are intuitive, yet they want to play it because of the fun tension of pulling chips from the bag. Yes, this is pricier than LAMA, but for a good kids’ game (instead of yet another round of UNO), it’s worth the expenditure.
I hate to review by comparisons, but this is the reason why I don’t find LAMA all that compelling: it’s not arriving in a gaming vacuum, and there are simply better choices. I understand that for some people, whose friends and family have maybe never played games or who aren’t interested in lots of rules, LAMA will fit their particular niche. Yet I think even for this niche, there are other games I’d reach for. Last year’s Spiel des Jahres nominee The Mind is a slight card game with very few rules, yet not only did I bring it out again and again last year, it permanently remains in my backpack now, and I still look for opportunities to play it, with gamers and non-gamers alike. This year’s fellow Spiel des Jahres nominee Just One is a simple game that I have brought out and continue to bring out in various groups, gamers and non, and it has received rave reviews. The reason I prefer these games to LAMA is that players have more control over their actions and are thus more invested in the outcome. Even a game like 6 Nimmt!, which is another game heavily driven by the risks of the unknown, I like better than LAMA because the tension and the penalties are more pronounced–it’s a chaotic game, but it’s more rewarding when it goes right and more fun when it goes spectacularly wrong.
So while I can appreciate the clever twists that LAMA offers, and I understand that it’s not fully a mindless card game, I just don’t think I have much use for it. It lands in a similar category to Knizia’s Zero Down: It’s fine, I’m willing to play it, and I will probably even enjoy it, but I think there are better games that for the same or similar rules overhead provide more opportunities for clever play, more interaction, more laughs, and more fun.