I grew up in a family of card game players. Rook and Pinochle were our games of choice, but I’ve been known to play Euchre (grudgingly) and Pitch (not quite so grudgingly) in a pinch. Dutch Blitz, Canasta, Phase 10 (which I later disavowed): all of these have crossed my table willingly.
Because of this, there remains a soft spot in my heart for small-box card games. I love ones that facilitate conversation while also offering interesting gameplay. Does Little Devils fit into this ideal niche for me? Read on!
How It Works
Little Devils is a trick-taking game for 3-6 players. The deck is comprised of cards numbered 1-54, and each card has a number of little devils pictured next to the number (from zero to five). The game is a little similar to Hearts in that the lowest score will win, and players are trying to avoid collecting the little devils.
At the start of the game, the deck is formed by shuffling together nine cards per player, using the lowest numbers (for example, cards 1-27 are used for three players, 1-36 for four players, and so on). Each player is dealt a hand of nine cards.
The player to the left of the dealer leads the first trick. When leading, a player may play any card except a card that has five little devils pictured (unless, of course, that player only has five-devil cards).
The interesting twist on trick-taking games in Little Devils is that it is not the leader who determines how the trick is won but the second player. If the second player plays higher than the first player, the highest card above the lead card will win the trick. If he plays lower than the first player, the lowest card lower than the lead card will win the trick. The catch is that if a player doesn’t play the same way as the second player, the trick is reversed, usually meaning that the person who couldn’t follow the second player takes the trick.
So, an illustration: Phyllis leads the 18. Jordan follows with the 16, determining that the lowest played card will take the trick. Sherman plays a 17, and Timmy plays a 14, but Norman cannot play lower than 18. He plays a 20, and thus he takes the trick. (If Norman hadn’t been playing, Timmy would have taken the trick in this example.)
The winner of the previous trick leads the next, which ensures that it is impossible for a player to take two tricks in a row.
A round is finished once all nine tricks are played. Players count the little devils on the cards in the tricks they’ve won, and this is added to their running score. After the round when one or more players reach 100, the player with the lowest score wins the game.
Little Devils packs a great deal of fun into a small box. It’s an interesting twist on trick-taking games that offers great tension and interesting decisions in a compact play experience that is customizable to what players want. And behind all of that completely true jargon, it is fun to boot…and this despite the fact that I almost always lose.
What I like about Little Devils the most is its simplicity. Yes, the game is in many ways like Hearts, but it’s simpler than Hearts. There are no suits to deal with, for one thing, and the numbers follow a strict numeric sequence. You don’t have to remember, “Now which queen is it that’s worth all those points again?” Particularly bad players who seem like they just might inadvertently shoot the moon in Hearts are given a reprieve in Little Devils: it’s impossible to take two tricks in a row. The game is easy to explain (even if it takes a round or two to get the hang of), and the removal of extraneous game pieces (even just the suits!) makes the game feel streamlined and quickens its pace. The artwork, while not my style, is also more evocative than a traditional deck of cards.
I also like that Little Devils offers a good range of interesting decisions. Because the game is played with perfect knowledge of what’s in the deck, it allows players to make better choices about which cards to play. There is some cleverness in how the devils are distributed among the deck. For example, the five-devil cards all fall on the fives starting at fifteen (15, 25, 35, 45), and the cards that immediately surround the five-devil cards are zero-devil cards. Drawing out the five-devil cards to make a mess of your opponents’ score is easier with these surrounding cards, but it also can feel like a waste to lead a zero-devil card–leading is the opportunity to get rid of your high-devil cards. I like that the game has some aspects of uncertainty, because this keeps the tension level high.
The game scales pretty well from three to six players, though the game plays differently with each group. Because there are fewer cards in play (and fewer players to play them) in the three-player game, it’s possible to be much more calculating in your plays. The guys I played three-player with likened it to volleyball: bump, set, spike. Most turns in a hand followed this progression with very few upsets. The first player plays a higher-devil card, the next player hews as closely as possible to this card, the third player either threads the needle (if possible) or throws off whatever slough he’d like to get rid of. It’s not that this isn’t fun–because it is, surprisingly–but it’s a very different experience than playing with five or six players, or even with four. With more players, certainty is nigh impossible, especially at the beginning of the round, so there is a lot more tension. Each card played feels like the winding of a bomb. Will your card be the one that causes it to explode? Because of this added excitement, I prefer playing with more players. (Also, I think these short filler games almost all follow the “the more the merrier” philosophy.)
A brief word on the components. Little Devils comes in a tin box that protects the cards, looks nice, and seems high quality. The bummer about it is that the necessary game components for Little Devils (54 cards) are easily pocket-sized, but the container that comes with the game is not. (Of course, there’s an easy remedy: take just the cards with you.) The cards are on a very nice linen stock that’s easy to shuffle, and the design of the cards is clean, with all information being easy to read (though a few players commented on the 6s and 9s being hard to discern–I didn’t see a problem with these). The only negative is that because the cards are black, they show wear around the edges quickly. This shouldn’t be too big of a deal, though, as I’m guessing most people who play Little Devils won’t be searching for marked cards.
There are a few things that some players may not like so much. First, the game, while offering interesting choices, is also very dependent on luck. If you have lots of very high and very low cards, it can be harder to empty your hand without taking the lion’s share of the devils. Bluffing and clever game play can take you part of the way, but a lot of the game is determined by the cards you were dealt. (I should say, though, that because it’s impossible to take two tricks in a row, the points are usually spread pretty evenly over the course of a round.)
Another thing I’m not crazy about is the flavor (“theme” seems a bit too strong a word for this game). The artwork on the cards is playful, but it still depicts, as you might expect, “little devils.” For me, this wasn’t an issue: it’s very clear even from the artwork that you want as few of these devils as possible, and there’s nothing offensive about it. But it could be a stumbling block in the family context. Even though the artwork is playful, I’m not sure this is a game I would play with my niece and nephew, for example, even though I think they’re old enough to understand the rules of the game. Again, the only issue is the artwork, but it will be a turn-off to some.
Finally, the game length on the box says 15-20 minutes, but this hasn’t matched up with my experience. It’s true that a hand takes a short amount of time (five to seven minutes or so), but for one player to reach 100 points has taken consistently around 45 minutes (regardless of the number of players). Now, it’s possible to change the point threshold for the game to get it down into the 15-20 minute window (an easy way to shorten the game if you’re in a pinch, and really, the real fun is in individual hands), but to play the game as written has taken longer than advertised, and that was with us playing just about as fast as we could, short of mindlessly tossing cards from our hands. Again, this is an easy thing to fix, either by setting a lower threshold or by using a time limit.
These “cons” are mostly quibbles. Little Devils is easy to play, and while it isn’t the most strategy-intensive game, there are still interesting choices to be made. But more than this, the game is just fun. I like games like Through the Desert, but I’m pretty sure I’ve played entire games without saying a word to my opponents. Little Devils is not like that. It’s fun and fast, and while it’s not exactly a “take-that” style game, the tension of getting rid of devils (only possible by giving them to someone else) electrifies the atmosphere. I’ve not played the game at a silent table, even among usually reticent opponents. And that is why I think Little Devils will keep hitting the table again and again: it is a great facilitator for conversation, and everyone I’ve played it with has enjoyed themselves (some even asking, “Now where can I pick up a copy?”). It provides a fun play experience that offers enough choices to be satisfying and is quick enough to not overstay its welcome. In the short, small-box game category, especially among trick-taking games, Little Devils is a big winner.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing a copy of Little Devils for this review.