Pikoko

Designer: Adam Porter
Publisher: Brain Games
Players: 3-5
Ages: 10+
Time: 30 minutes
Times Played: 4 times with purchased copy; 1 time with demo copy at a convention

We used to have this movie theater that never played first run movies. It also wasn’t one of those discount theaters that plays things a few months after they come out. Rather, it seemed to only play things that were several years past their theater age. It would also play them with some frequency when they did. Not unlike going to see something that was just released where you can choose which day and time you’d like to sit in the dark for a few hours.

They had a sign up sheet.  It was a yellow legal pad that hung on a pillar in the middle of the lobby.  You could write down what you wanted them to show. I was fairly young when it was open and can’t report much on how successful these requests could be. What I remember going to see there was Gone with the Wind, The Princess Bride, and a Rocky and Bullwinkle marathon. My father probably took me to see more, but those are the ones I recall. It was a magical place.

They used to send this calendar in the mail. A black and white grid of what they were showing this month. Wait. I found something.

Horse Feathers. I would’ve gone to see that.

I also think they did shorts. Probably not during any of those that I recall above. My memory is more of learning what a short was. It’s like surprise course. Blood Orange Sorbet.

This review is going to have a surprise review.

I first learned of Pikoko from a link someone forwarded of the designer’s video on “Top 10 Trick Taking Types”. I watched delighted as Adam demonstrated a nuanced knowledge of the genre.

Pikoko starts with a conceit that comes with some baggage: what if you can’t see your own cards? Depending on your Hanabi feelings, this may be something that excites you or bores you, but I’d suggest it should do neither. You are playing from the hand of the player on your left: you never play from the hand you can’t see, so the feeling and the effect are much different.

(What if you were playing from the hand you can’t see?  I’m not going to tell you right now; you’re trying to get me to ruin the surprise!)

What Pikoko pulls off, and I’ll get a little more into the rules in a moment, is a game where you can see 75%-80% of the cards and need to predict how many tricks each hand can take.  Referring to things as “your cards” or “your hand” doesn’t really make much sense; the relevant portion is only that there is one set of cards you can’t see, and the person on your right will be choosing which cards that hand plays.

The deck consists of 5 suits, in total ranked 1-12, though this varies by player count.  There are also a few cards which are multi-suited and the suit may quantumly collapse into one or another by the player’s choice or by following suit fiat. Each player is dealt 8 cards, which leaves a few cards that won’t be dealt out, and one of these, flipped up at random, will be the trump suit for that hand.

Next, player’s use 9 chips from behind their screen to blind-bid, one hand at a time, wagering how many tricks each hand will win. Once each player has bid on the hands they can see, the players simultaneously bid on the hand they cannot see.  For correct bids at the end of the hand, the players earn 2 points each, and for bids that were off by 1, they’ll earn 1 point. The player’s also have a deck of “confidence cards” where they can choose a player color and “double down” on that hand – earning an extra 3 points if their bid is exactly right, but losing one point otherwise.

The trick-taking portion itself is straightforward, with any card being played from the starting hand (by the player on its right); subsequent hands following suit if possible; and the highest card of the lead suit winning unless trump was played, and then the highest card of the trump suit wins.  The cards are then gathered and given to the hand that won them. Play continues until hands are empty, and then points are awarded for bids and confidence cards. Three total rounds are played and that’s the game.

Shortly after Pikoko’s release, this tweet came across my timeline.

Designer 新澤 大樹 wanted you to know that if you like the conceit of a trick-taking game where you hold your cards backwards, you might try his 2014 game luz. So I went to the Moviola to see it.

ルイス (luz)
Designer: 新澤 大樹 (Taiki Shinzawa)
Publisher: 倦怠期 (Kentaiki)
Players: 3-4
Ages: 10+
Time: 30-45 minutes
Times Played: 1 time with purchased copy
Availability: The copy I have was purchased from Sugorokuya (https://sugorokuya.jp/gamelist?s=%E3%83%AB%E3%82%A4%E3%82%B9)

新澤 大樹 is the designer of maskmen from Oink, and a few other titles, including several trick-taking games, like Catty and dois.  (dois is currently not available, but it’s conceit is that the cards have only a rank or a suit – not both. In the first trick of each hand, each player plays one card of each type.  These cards remain in front of the players, and in future tricks, they play one card – covering up either the rank or the suit. He tells me that a reprint of dois should be coming in 2019. [I’ll add another note here to say that if you’re interested in trick-taking games that separate rank and suit, Transportation Tricks, by our own Joe Huber, does some interesting things with this as well.])

In luz, your hand really is your hand.  Yes, you can see 75-80% of the cards, but you are going to be playing cards from your own hand. luz also features cards where the suit is visible on the back.  The size of the kitty here can be large – with 20-25% of the deck not being dealt out. In order to add some control to what you play from your hand, there are subtle “>” (Greater Than) symbols in the rear card art.  You have an adjacent player arrange your cards, and from your view, while you won’t know the absolute value of your cards, you’ll know which are the smallest and which are the largest.

Here, you will bid on how many tricks you will take with your hand.  As with Pikoko, and with 新澤 大樹’s Catty, there is a confidence aspect – you can make a strong bid which comes with a larger pay off, but less tolerance for missing the bid exactly, or a weak bid which comes with a smaller pay off, but more tolerance for missing the exact bid.

The trick-taking portion is as you would expect, with the start playing leading any card, subsequent players following suit if possible, and the highest trump (always purple) card winning the trick if one was played – otherwise the highest card of the lead suit.  Once everyone’s hands are played out, scores are calculated, and the player with the highest score after 5 rounds wins.


The two games are not so similar. To the observer, maybe. Not to the players.

luz has the weight of a surprise course, and for me, the kitty is too large. We tried some rounds where we shorted each suit by the top card, resulting in half as many unknown cards, and I found it more to my liking. The decisions here feel more akin to die rolls – this card is either a 5 or a 10, here we go! (Tomorrow we’ll look at Thrown, a game from Pikoko’s Adam Porter that does use dice as the cards in a trick-taking game.)

In Pikoko, something else is happening.  Something closer to the emergent player alliances of Northern Pacific. You can see each player’s bids, and as a round develops, you’ll find yourself temporarily on the same side of a trick as another player as you both need a certain hand to win more or less tricks.

But things aren’t that straight-forward – as you haven’t bid merely on that hand. You’ve each bid on every hand, and so those alliances are not so bloodtight. When you choose which card to play from the hand to your left –should I trump in? What color should I play this multi-suited card as? Should I slough off with a high card so that it can’t win a trick later?– you’re also considering what the remaining players are going to play. But you can’t see one of the hands.  What decisions are they going to make? How will they prioritize which bids they’ll focus on?

The hidden hand is just the right amount of fog of war.

I don’t know if we’re going to do “best of” lists for 2018, but there’s a 75-80% chance Pikoko would be at the top of my list. (I was also going to include albums.  I think I would’ve picked New Music Detroit & Marc Mellits – Smoke)

regards,
James Nathan

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale Y: (2 plays) – Pikoko is an interesting game for sure, trying to figure out how to make a good bid with cards you can’t see AS WELL as the confidence bid part which can be, but does not have to be, an entirely separate decision from your own bid.  However, many people have claimed that Pikoko is a game where you have a hand that you can’t see. That is patently false. You have a hand that you can see. It is that of your left hand neighbor. You can see all those cards. You are the person who decides which cards get played from that hand.  For all intents and purposes, that is your hand, it just happens to be in front of the player to your left. What the game asks you to do is to make a bid on a hand that you can’t see, and to play a trick-taking game where each player can see most of the cards, but not all. Which makes for a lot of interesting decisions and inferences as the cards come out.  I do wish that the multi-colored cards in the game had a bit more graphical distinction to them. I often have to squint at a card to figure out what colors comprise it, and in the act of doing that, I am giving information to my opponents that I shouldn’t have to do were the graphic design more user friendly. Also, I strongly wish that the cards were doubled indexed.  It would just make life so much easier.

Brandon K: (2 plays) – Pikoko is a pretty fun and straight forward trick taking game, but that twist where you don’t see your own cards, only those of your opponents, and you don’t play your own cards, but those of the player to your left, takes that straight forward thinking and stands it on it’s head. While that twist is fantastic, the game is really all about the confidence bets and how you use them knowing all of the information that you know. It almost makes the game more of a gambling game than a trick taker. It’s just too bad the game ends up being a bit fiddly with those beautiful peacock card holders and sometimes the suit colors are a bit difficult to see when displayed.  

(JN: I do prefer to play with my own card racks rather than the peacock card holders due to the fiddlieness of using them, though in practice, another player is inevitably excited to use the peacocks and so we usually do.)

Dan Blum (1 play): Maybe this works better with fewer than five players. With five the bets were very similar most of the time so there were no emergent alliances – there can’t be unless the bets on some of the players vary a lot. There wasn’t anything else interesting going on, either. I wouldn’t play again with five. I could be talked into playing with fewer.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

Pikoko
I love it! James Nathan
I like it. Dale Y, Brandon K
Neutral.  Dan Blum
Not for me…

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9 Responses to Pikoko

  1. Martin Griffiths says:

    Excellent review! Very much agree about the ‘you can’t see your hand’ conceit being misleading.

    • xitoliv says:

      Thanks, Martin. If you didn’t see, Adam mentioned in a bgg thread yesterday that he has more TTs in the works. I’m very much looking forward to what else he has up his sleeve.

  2. The peacock art piqued my interest. I really enjoyed your thorough review as well!

  3. leemc13 says:

    A surprise review? How clever! Although, since you mentioned it…
    ♫ Your proposition may be good, but let’s have one thing understood:
    Whatever it is, I’m against it. ♫
    ;)

    • xitoliv says:

      Growing up, we had copies of Night at the Opera and Day at the Races at home, and I watched them endlessly. I saw the others only sparingly when a rerun would air on some cable station. As such, I’m much more of a “and two hard-boiled eggs” guy :)

  4. Pingback: T5: Day Four & これはトリテなのか? | The Opinionated Gamers

  5. Pingback: Patrick Brennan: Game Snapshots –2019 (Part 5) | The Opinionated Gamers

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