Traditional card players often have a strut about them. Playing them right requires a certain…demeanor. The way they hold their head saying, “I got this.” Revealing little with the eyes, except poise and confidence. It’s in the flick of the wrist. The way they throw cards down like it’s all business and they’re going to take the next trick. And then the next. Some may even wildly slap them down. It’s not just a game. It’s a show. An experience that demands attention. So, yeah. They can strut around a little. Just like a peacock.
How To Play
Okay, so card players may not be as pretty as the flamboyant peafowl, but Pikoko dresses up the traditional card game with some eye-catching components. At its core, it’s a trick-taking game that follows a pretty standard structure for the genre. Yet there’s one massive twist that might be enough to set traditionalists on their feathered heads.
Pikoko’s closest classical cousin would likely be Oh Hell! It is a plain trick taking game, meaning the goal is simply to win tricks and not specific point producing cards. It also employs exact bidding in which you’re trying to guess precisely the number of tricks you and other players will win. It does utilize trump, a suit that beats all other suits in a trick, which is determined randomly before each hand by drawing the top card of the leftover deck. The lead plays one card and all other players must follow suit, unless they don’t have any, in which case they can play any card. The highest card of the suit led, or otherwise the highest trump card, wins the trick.
Sound familiar? It would be. Except. You. Don’t. Play. Your. Own. Hand!
Queue traditionalists running and screaming toward the hills.
Indeed, you can’t even see your own hand, ala the gimmick in Hanabi. When dealt, you’ll place your cards in a nifty little peacock holder. The faces face toward the table. You only see its backside, which thanks to the cards’ backs, looks very pretty. Like the fanned out feathers of the male peafowl.
After that, and based on the knowledge of trump and whatever EVERYONE ELSE AT THE TABLE has, you will bid on how many tricks you believe each opponent will take. To do this, you begin with one player. Everyone takes a number of their colored tokens secretly in hand, only revealing when everyone is ready. You’ll put those in front of the player’s peacock and repeat for each one at the table. You only bet on yourself after this process, using the information of what others believe your hand is capable of. And put a number of your own tokens in front of your own peacock equal to the number of tricks you guess you can manage.
Finally, you’ll take your personal stack of confidence cards. If you have no clue whether or not your bids are reasonable, just play the +1 card. It’s worth an automatic point at the end of the hand. However, if you’re feeling lucky – and what traditional card player doesn’t? – you can play your confidence card corresponding to the player color that you’re most sure will hit the exact bid that you laid down. If you’re correct, you win three extra points. If not, you lose one.
Now play out the hand. When it’s “your turn” to play, meaning your hand is next to add to the trick, the player to your right will actually choose the card to throw in the middle. Cause you can’t see them! Then when the player’s hand to your left is next, you get to choose the offering. In this way, each player will always add a card to the trick from the player’s hand on their left. The player’s hand who won the trick will lead to the next, which actually means the player to their right will lead, but from the correct peacock, of course!
Sound confusing? It’s not really, after a couple hands.
When a complete hand of eight tricks is finished, players check to see how well they bid. Compare the number of tricks each player won, including yourself, to the tokens you bet on them. Exact bids win two points. If you’re off by one, you earn one point. Anything further eschew is worth nothing. Add, or subtract, the points from your confidence card and record the total. A game lasts three rounds, or hands, and the player with the most aggregate points wins.
Worth Strutting About? Or is Something Fowl?
I’m a big fan of trick taking games. I’ve mentioned here and there around the ‘Dragon that I grew up playing classic games likes Hearts, Spades, Pitch, Pinochle and Euchre with family, especially my grandparents. I like plain old Whist and All Fours. Then thanks to computers and smartphones, I dove into a number of European games like Briscola, Tressette, Preference, Belote, Jass and Schnapsen (and even bought several European card decks for which I can’t find anyone to play with me). Then there are scores of designer games that I’ve enjoyed as the mechanism has invaded the hobby…and not just recently.
I say all of that to point out that I don’t think Pikoko is meant for traditionalists like me. Though if it’s not, I’m also not sure who for?
Many readers might immediately think of Hanabi when reading about Pikoko. So maybe that social, more casual or family crowd is the intended audience? It takes the “can’t see my own hand” gimmick and even feels sort of cooperative, in a sense, which makes for an amusing trick taking rabbit trail. Specifically, it’s fairly common for multiple players to bid the same number on a certain hand (or more), and so many of the tricks often see players “working together” to ensure that various hands hit the exact bid. Nay, even some strategizing, wink wink.
Of course one unwritten commandment throughout trick taking games is thou shalt not communicate during play. Unless of course the game specifically allows it, say in Tressette, in which case it probably is a written rule then! You see that primarily with partner games, which is a stalwart characteristic of the genre, though a variant lacking in Pikoko. In any event, there’s nothing specifically in the rules against communication, that I could see. Therefore, with so much open information, we naturally drifted toward subtle or not so subtle suggestions. “Do you really want to play that card?” Or, “She’ll have troubling making your bid there, if you lead with his card here!” Between groans and sighs and devious smiles as others either mind your will or not, there were certainly some entertaining moments. Plus the ongoing revelation of what’s actually in your own hand yields a couple surprises.
The crux of maximizing your points is trying to bid differently than everyone, or else scores simply wash as players hit or miss bets fairly evenly. The problem is that bids are secret as you progress through each fanned out fowl. Guessing where to outguess your opponents is pretty random – and difficult to buck, especially given that some hands are good or bad, and all of the bidders know this. When trying to distance yourself with riskier bids, then figuring out how to manipulate the hands to achieve as many of those exact bids as possible, affairs turn more solidly solitaire. You can’t bluff, because so many cards and all your bids are visible. You simply try to manipulate the action silently, hopefully clever enough to envision multiple tricks ahead.
That would be cool, and an aspect appealing to more serious and experienced gamers who gravitate toward designs that reward such forward strategy. But Pikoko’s open information makes it difficult to control anything on your own. Equally savvy opponents will soon stalemate play because everyone can see how affairs will mostly play out.
Now and then your or another might manage to be surprised by a pull from their hand, or in your case yours. I won’t argue that it’s never a fun or funny moment, but it’s also not usually major, though ironically it could prove the difference as scores run pretty evenly. Alas, such moves eventually prove irksome over the general inability to control play. Further it can grow frustrating as such surprises are based on forlornly relying on what’s in your hand. I get why the entire deck isn’t used – that would make it too easy to deduce what you have based on process of elimination. Still, there are so few cards out of play, yet just enough to make guessing pointless. You just have to sit back and see what happens to you.
Meanwhile for the casual player, while it’s certainly catchy and unique, I think those attracted by the Hanabi element will lose interest pretty quick as the gimmick wears off. Trick taking isn’t anathema, by any means, but it’s also not gangbusters amongst the general gaming public. There are plenty of classic games that still survive among that crowd and a number of commercial designs that are more than successful. Those are all easier to play and make more use of their trick taking element. Pikoko’s co-op, not co-op nature eventually feels like you’re just playing your opponents’ game. And the added time need to set and fan out your hand in the peacock stand grows old, as does the constant reaching over to pull a card from you neighbor while they hold it down so you don’t accidentally tip the whole thing over.
Then there are the traditionalists, the experienced, the hardcore trick taking players. Okay, so it’s not some gang or secret society. And they don’t shake their fists at the clouds when any newfangled trick taking game hits the market. But to impress upon them something worth keeping, a new design needs to take the classic elements to a new level. It doesn’t have to be genre-shattering. In fact, the more it is, the less it feels like trick taking. Pikoko misses on that mark. There’s no deduction or slow revelation, since a lot of information is open knowledge. That makes it hard to act clever, coax opponents into hopefully playing certain cards before they’re ready, only to take advantage later.
Now, perhaps it’s all my perception? I mean, admittedly you can definitely lack control in any number of traditional card games. Though I think that’s often more a result of a bad hand, leaving it difficult to bluff or hard to manipulate. Still, with all the cards on the table here, so to speak, you never feel like you really have the chance. It’s all more mechanical and lacks that certain intangibly sophisticated play that have made trick taking games so enduring and lasting.
While Pikoko creates some fun moments, its twist on traditional trick taking takes it off the genre’s rails. Mechanically, that’s fine. It works and provides some amusement. Beyond that, though, the problem is Pikoko uses trick taking, yet doesn’t feel like a trick taking game. Perhaps that was the designer’s intent all along? If so, it will have a difficult time finding an ongoing audience. Casual gamers won’t relate to the trick taking, beyond the “can’t see my own cards” gimmick. And serious gamers will balk at its lack of control. Meanwhile there are the traditional card players who would seem the title’s logical target. Unfortunately for them, Pikoko employs the mechanism, but with so much open information from the start of a hand, it loses the genre’s classic personality – the bluffing, deduction, leading, prodding, tension, and the feeling that you’ve pulled the table and the deck’s string like a true puppet master. Which ultimately gets trick taking card players regally strutting like a peacock.
Brain Games provided a copy of Pikoko for this review.