Dale Yu: Review of Chimera

 

Chimera

  • Designer: Ralph H. Anderson
  • Publisher: Z-Man Games
  • Players: 3
  • Ages: 13+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: at least 5 – with review copy provided by Z-man and with copies at Gathering of Friends

chimera

Chimera is a fairly complicated card game which I was first introduced to at the Gathering of Friends in April 2014.  One of my all-time favorite card games is Tichu, and it’s the kind of game that you will see constantly in play at gaming conventions.  While it is one of my favorite games, it doesn’t get played much at home (Actually, almost never!).  Tichu is a partnership game which plays specifically four players.  Additionally, there is a pretty decent learning curve to the game that keeps non-Tichu players away from learning it.

Having played many a late night game of Tichu with Ralph Anderson, I know how much he loves the game.  While there is 3-player variant ruleset of Tichu, the somewhat cleverly named “Three-chu”, it just doesn’t seem to capture the same fun as the base game.  Ralph took it upon himself to come up with a similar climbing game that is meant for just 3 players – the result is Chimera.

Chimera is played with a 54-card deck, which is similar to that used in Tichu – though with a few slight differences.  The bulk of the deck are 4 suits of 1-12.  Each suit also has a hero card, denoted with an “H” – though you can think of this as being of rank 13, but since it doesn’t have a number, you can’t use it in a straight.  There is a Pi Ya card, somewhat analogous to Tichu’s Phoenix, as it can be used as a wild card in straights –though it’s individual rank is higher than any other single card other than the Chimera.  That Chimera is the final card in the deck, and it is the highest single card in the game.

The Special Cards

The Special Cards

Each round, the cards are cut, and the card exposed from the cut is placed face up on the new deck.  Three cards are dealt to the table as the Chimera’s kitty, and the rest of the cards are dealt out – 17 to player.  The player who received the face up card is the starting player for the round.  There is first a round of bidding to determine the roles of the players in this hand.  Players bid for the right to be the Chimera; bids can be Pass, 20, 30, 40.  Bidding continues until either someone bids 40 and automatically wins OR someone bids and there are 2 consecutive passes.  If all players pass, the hand is thrown in.

Once someone wins the bid, that player is now the Chimera.  The other two players are called Hunters.  The Chimera picks up the 3 card kitty dealt out at the start of the hand, bringing his hand total to 20 cards.  While this is happening, the Hunters may be obligated to pass cards to each other (depending on the value of the bid).  The Chimera then starts a trick by playing any legal combination.  In general, further card plays on this trick much match the configuration of the starting play.

The legal combinations are:

  1. Single Card
  2. Pair
  3. Sequence of at least three pairs in numerical order
  4. Three-of-a-kind
  5. Sequence of at least two three-of-a-kinds
  6. Triplet with an attached card
  7. Triplet with an attached pair
  8. Sequence of triplets, each with an attached card
  9. Sequence of triplets, each with an attached pair
  10. Straight of at least 5 cards
  11. Four of a kind with two single attached cards
  12. Four of a kind with two attached pairs
  13. Four of a kind (called a Trap) – can be played on any combination
  14. Chimera Flight (Pi Ya and Chimera together) – can be played on any combination

Tricks continue until two consecutive players pass.  At that time, the player who has played most recently to the trick wins it and collects all the cards in that trick.  That player also gets to start the next trick, choosing from any of the legal combinations listed above.  The round continues until one player has played all the cards from their hand.  When this happens, the player whose hand is empty automatically wins the final trick and collects all those cards.  Any cards left in the other two hands are discarded; they are not considered in scoring.

Scoring can be complicated at first – first you settle the bid.

  • If a hunter was first to go out:  The Chimera loses the value of his bid. The hunters each score 20.
  • If the Chimera went out first: The Chimera scores double the value of his bid. He also scores 25 points for each bonus: each Trap played, if the Chimera Flight was played, for each Hunter that did not play a card.

After the bid is settled, then all players score their collected tricks.  There are only 2 ranks of cards that matter here: The rank 2 cards are called Fortune Toads, and each is worth 10 points.  The rank 11 cards are called Prosperity Cats, and each is worth 5 points.  The game goes until someone hits the target score – 400 points is what is suggested in the rules – though it can be any previously agreed upon total at the start of the game.  If no one is at the goal, the cards are reshuffled and a new hand is dealt.

The Scoring Cards

The Scoring Cards

My thoughts on the game

Chimera was in wide play at the Gathering 2014 – partly due to a contest run by Z-man that gave you an entry for each game played and partly because there are simply a lot of Tichu players in the room at any given time, and who doesn’t want to learn a new game?

The game plays quickly, and while some of the rules will be familiar to Tichu players, I would almost contend that the game is better learned by a Tichu-naïve gamer because that gamer will not bring any pre-conceived notions/rules/ideas to the game.  When we played with Tichu veterans, we were constantly having to remind each other that a Trap (four-of-a-kind) cannot be played out of turn and that the Pi Ya was not worth “X-and-a-half”.

A few issues that I had with the game (being sure to note that the problems do not necessarily lie with the game but may be due to my stubbornness in trying to apply Tichu rules and tactics to Chimera):

Hand size – the hands in Chimera are big at the start of the hand.  You will have either 17 or 20 cards in your hand at the start of a hand, and it’s definitely a handful. I have tried to play this with my boys, and at ages 13 and 11, both of them have issues with being able to fan all the cards and see them all.  Admittedly, you can usually shuffle through the cards when playing, but it’s cumbersome.

The combos are hard to remember – The legal card plays just aren’t intuitive.  Lots of extra cards and pairs hanging off of things.  After 5 or 6 games, I still find myself having to leave the rulebook out on the table so we can look at the cheat sheet to remember which cards can be played with which others. It seems clear that the rules allow you to play these extra singles and pairs to help the game move along – without this play, there would be far too many tricks that were just single cards.  Clever play and careful calculation will allow you to shed unwanted singles to give you an easy path to going out first.  I would often miss a great play because I forgot that I could throw two pairs onto running trips – though this highlights the fact that the problem was me and my Tichu experience…

The scoring is convoluted (at first) – The bidding scoring and bonuses could have used a player aid – ideally with the legal card combinations on the back.  Once you have played a few games, scoring becomes easier – though I still miss a bonus or two along the way. I would definitely recommend marking off the Traps and the Chimera Flight on the score sheet as you play.

What I liked about it

Well, it’s the best three player Tichu variant or Tichu-like game I’ve played, and though I just listed a bunch of things that I had issues with, it is nice that the game does actually differ from Tichu enough to stand on its own.  The bidding gives you an interesting risk-reward calculation at the start of the game as does the unknown contents of the Chimera kitty.  I find that the actual playing of a hand in Chimera is more extemporaneous as it is harder to plan out an entire hand when you have 20 cards to play.

Game length can go a bit long when you play to 400 IMHO, but the rules easily accommodate for that by allowing you to play to any target score.  The game length can be an issue here because someone must hit the target score in order to win, and it is definitely possible (or in some games, likely) to lose points when you are the Chimera.

Chimera is an intriguing game that tries to capture the magic of Tichu.  While it comes close, mostly because it shares many of the same rules and mechanics, it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Tichu.  It is better than Three-chu though, and it is a viable replacement when you only have three to play.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Larry (1 play):  Chimera is obviously the product of a designer who feels that the choices in Tichu just don’t go far enough.  There’s a price to be paid for that additional complexity, though.  For example, there are no fewer than 14 different legal card combinations you can play and in my game, all of us were constantly consulting the player aid to determine which idiosyncratic combination served us best.  Then there’s the special cards, different kinds of games depending on how the players bid, some unusual scoring rules, and on and on.  I have to admit, it had my brain spinning.  I like difficult card games, but I’d prefer the difficulty to come from figuring out optimal plays, rather than struggling with a weighty rule set.  The game has some appeal and figuring out how to best play a hand is reasonably interesting.  But it’s really not a game I’ll be seeking out in the future.

 

Ben McJunkin (1 play): I have still not managed to play the final production version of Chimera, though I believe the pre-production version I played at the Gathering was very near the real thing.  As a huge fan of Tichu, I’m always by games that claim to approximate that experience at other player counts.  (In times past, I’ve been so desperate as to teach a friend Tichu by playing both hands of a partner team myself.)  Chimera is not simply three-handed Tichu – if you know what to look for, it is quite a different game – but it does the best job of any game I’ve played of replicating the Tichu dynamic.  It is very cleverly built, creating lots of room for player creativity, and is different enough that experienced Tichu players can’t simply play on autopilot.  I plan to pick up a copy at some point.

 

Craig Massey (2 plays): Like Ben, I’ve yet to play the final production.  I enjoy Tichu, but I don’t often seek it out or suggest it even if there is a group of four.  If someone else suggests Tichu, I’m quite happy to play.  I think I’ll be more likely to suggest Chimera.  As Larry says, it does have a fair amount of complexity with the additional card combinations which means you will be looking at the player aid card a fair amount in your first few plays.  I found the same to be true of Tichu when I started playing that as well so this is really a non-factor from my perspective. The evaluation of winning hands was challenging and required significant thought.  The bidding decision also made things more challenging.  Finally the play decisions are really tough as you have to balance making a bid or setting a bid verses scoring individual points.  At times this leads to some very counter-intuitive play which felt refreshing.

 

Brian Leet (3 plays): I’m a Tichu fan, so I was intrigued by this game. I, like the above reviewers, played the pre-production version. With the author there to confirm rules I’m sure we got it right. What I learned in playing this game is that a key part of why I really enjoy Tichu is the partnership play. For big groups there are climbing games I learned in a social environment (college parties) that again work well because of the social aspect. But, that leaves the three player version of this genre as a tough nut to crack. I think this is a noble effort in that it provides for a variety of ways to bid and play hands with only three players. However, I’m just not convinced there is such a game that will ever grab me as a pure card game. Perhaps with the right theme?

 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. – Craig M., Ben McJunkin
  • Neutral. Dale Y, Larry, Brian
  • Not for me… Joe H
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About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2014, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Dale Yu: Review of Chimera

  1. I play Tichu one weekend a year at Great Lakes Games, and I’m often carried by my astute partner Allison Vander Ark, so I wouldn’t consider myself a Tichu expert. I still have to be reminded of the rules before each game. I also played the pre-production version of Chimera at The Gathering and I found it overwhelmingly complex. Like Larry, I was constantly referring to the player aid to figure out what card combination would best serve my hand. With so many possible card combinations, It felt like the “point salad” of trick taking games. Trick Salad?

    A larger disappointment for me was the use of more special cards with no iconography or text to indicate their purpose. It bugs me in Tichu, but that game has been around long enough that it starts to become ingrained. Chimera has more special cards than Tichu with differing points values, etc. I can forgive a game like Sheepshead for having a strange trump and point structure, because it’s designed to use with a standard playing card deck. If you’re creating a new deck from scratch for a new card game, please, please, please help me play it! Give me a reminder on the cards as to what they do, how many points they’re worth, etc. North Star Games got this right with Clubs. Chimera doubles up complexity with opacity and that’s just a barrier to entry I’m going to have a hard time justifying.

  2. rsomerstein says:

    It’s kind of interesting to see people’s reaction to this one. As a casual Tichu player, I tend to shy away from playing because of the big skill differential between my play and that of the huge number of people who play regularly. As such, having something new definitely helped level the playing field a bit when I tried it at the Gathering this year. I played one game and quite enjoyed it.

    After a few hands, it really didn’t seem that difficult to remember the legal combinations. I think the biggest hurdle is definitely the fact that while it is similar to Tichu, it is a different game and people need to treat it as such.

    I like the fact that each player is a bit more on their own than in Tichu and teams are temporary on a hand-by-hand basis. There still seems to be some room for skillful play, but I felt like I could actually play reasonably without dragging my partner down. I plan on purchasing this one at some point and look forward to playing some more.

    • Dale Yu says:

      Rodney — I agree with you that the biggest thing with Chimera might be making sure that you remember that it is NOT Tichu. Unfortunately, the game’s target audience seems to be those who love Tichu – and those are the people that seem to be most disappointed that it is NOT Tichu!

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