Dale Yu: Preview of Musical Chairs

Musical Chairs

  • Designer: Kelly North Adams
  • Publisher: Rio Grande Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: 30-45 minutes

When I first heard about this game, I had high expectations for it…

Before I get into the rest of the preview, I feel like I should start by saying that THIS IS NOT A TRICK TAKING GAME. Don’t get your hopes up, like I did – you’ll be disappointed. Now, I’m not saying that you’ll be disappointed in the game, it seems like it has a lot going for it. But it is not a “trick-taking card type” game. Unless you take this to mean that it has rectangular cardboard objects with similar backs and differing fronts which are identified by different combinations of colors and ranks. Sure it has cards, the same sort which are used it trick taking games. But they are not used to take tricks. If you are hoping for the “advertised” TT, it will surely fall short of those expectations.

After going thru the rules and playing a game, there are no tricks being played here. On initial glance, I thought that maybe this was a climbing game – a genre often mistaken for trick taking – but after further consideration, I don’t even think that this is true as you’ll soon see – the game is more about hand management and positioning on the board (which is mediated by card play).

In the game, there is a circular board of 8 color coded spots, each with a chair cushion token (randomly selected from a set of 16) placed on the exterior edge. A deck is created from suited cards (8 suits, one each matching the colors on the board) and white neutral Repeat cards, and each player gets a starting hand of 8 cards. Note that the cards have a varying number of treble clefs on the bottom portion (0-3) and this tells you how many VP the card is worth. Players place their figures next to a different space to start the game.

In each round, the current starting player plays a card to the central play area (again, note that this IS NOT a trick in the traditional sense). This card must be either the lowest ranked card in their hand, a Rest card or a Repeat card. Then after playing the card, the player moves 1, 2 or 3 spaces clockwise around the board; they are allowed to occupy the same space as another player.

The next player then has a few options:

1 – may play a card of the same number value – this goes to the central stack and is played on top of the previous card.

2 – may play a Rest Card – in this case, the player passes their turn, and does not move their figure. This card is actually not placed in the center of the table but instead is placed in front of the player, where it will score 1VP at the end of this round

3 – may play a Repeat card – this card is played to the center and it is treated as an idential card (suit and number) to the one it is played upon. At the end of the game, Repeat cards are worth the number of clefs shown on the actual Repeat card.

4 – if they do not want to take any of the above three options, they MUST play the lowest card in their hand that is higher than the most recent card played. If they can not play a higher card AND choose not to do options 1, 2 or 3, then the round ends.

So, cards are played to the center of the table – either in a single stack or, as I would prefer, in a splayed line – until someone ends the round by not playing a card to the table. When this happens, the following 6-step process is followed:

1 – the player who didn’t play a card and ended the round takes the Music Stops! token. This player becomes the new Start player in the next round.

2 – Remove a chair cushion if possible – look at the color of the latest played card on the trick, and remove the chair cushion from the matching colored area of the board. If that cushion isn’t available, go to the next card in the stack until you find a color which has a cushion to be removed. Any removed cushion might be bought later in this end of round sequence. If the last chair cushion has been removed from the board, the game will end at the end of this round.

3 – if two or more players ended on the same space, there is a Butt Battle. All involved players may choose a card from their hand and then simultaneously reveal them. The player who played the highest numbered card wins the battle. A Repeat card automatically causes a tie. If there is a tie, another round is played. It is possible to choose not to play a card. All cards played in a Butt Battle are discarded. Only the winner of the Butt Battle will take cards in the next phase.

4 – players now examine the stack of cards played in the center of the table. Each player takes the cards from the stack which match the color of the space they are standing next to. Remember that Repeat cards here match the color of the card they were played on top of! All collected cards are put in the respective player’s scoring pile

5 – players may also additionally score any cards in their hand which are in the same color as the cards they collected this turn AND are of lower value than the highest card collected from the center of the table.

6 – finally, any player who is standing next to a color of a removed chair cushion can “buy” the chair cushion by discarding any card from their score pile. Each chair cushion has a special rule breaking ability or scoring bonus listed on it. If a chair cushion is not purchased, it remains next to the board, and a player may buy it in a later round if he/she is next to that color.

7 – all players now decide to either keep the remnants of their hand OR discard their entire hand. This is done in clockwise order from the new start player (the player with the Stop Music marker). All players then draw up to their full hand size – normally, this is 8 cards. If the draw pile is empty, shuffle the discards. If there are not enough cards to replenish all hands to their limit, the game ends.

End of game – the game ends when at the end of a round when the last Chair Cushion is removed from the board OR when there are not enough cards to replenish all players hands to full. At the end of the game, all players look at the cards in their scoring pile and count the number of clefs on those cards. In addition, any bonus points scored from collected Chair cushions are added to the total. The player with the most points wins. There is no tiebreaker.

My Initial Thoughts about the game 

Well, it’s not the trick taking game that I thought it would be.  It’s no more of a trick taking game than UNO is.  Once I swept that initial disappointment aside, it looks to have some interesting elements.  The biggest part seems to be a combination of hand and board management. There appears to be an interesting challenge of trying to maneuver yourself to the right space on the board (to collect high scoring cards) while keeping good cards around to help you in a possible Butt Battle or even to save for the next round. As the cards increase in rank, so does their VP value.

The value of each space on the board will change in each round. First, a lot will depend on which color cards are played by the players – clearly, a color with more cards played in it will likely be a better space to land. That being said, the chair cushions seem to have a widely varied power level. Some of them, at least in my reading/conjecturing, feel a lot stronger than others. For example, one cushion allows you a one-time action of exchanging one card from your hand for one that you have collected. This would be a max of a 3pt swing. A different cushion card lets you score the random top card of the deck at the end of each round. Given that most games look like they will go 8-9 rounds, this could provide many more points than 3vp. This shouldn’t be a big problem, as everyone can see the cushions from the start of the game, and no one should be blindsided by a particularly strong one. It may even turn out that for a particular round, a strategy might be simply to try to maneuver yourself to get a cushion that you want… I think that there will certainly be a bit of turn zero jockeying to examine the cushions and figure out which ones should be targeted early on.

There is a good bit of room for clever play with the rest and repeat cards. You’re never obligated to play them, but timely use of them will keep you in play which might help you set up a better move later in the round (whether to position yourself for a juicy color) or to let you save a card in your hand that you can then freely score later… Alternatively, I can see a strategy where you try to save up the cards from round to round to end up with a powerful hand later.

There are a few things in the rules which are a bit drafty/dodgy. Little things that slightly contraindicate each other; though not severely. The starting player is told to play a card, and then move their pawn. Playing a Rest card is allowed on this first play of the game. However, later, the rules state that playing a Rest card means that you pass and do NOT move your figure. This edge case is not considered in the statement about the initial play of the round. Sure, in the end, it probably doesn’t matter, but still, it’s a little loop that could be closed. (NB: after my fourth or fifth read of the rules, it is actually clarified in the FAQ on page 6 of the rules – but man, I managed to miss it in those first reads, so I leave this in my preview as a cautionary tale).

Likewise, in a Butt Battle, players MAY choose to play a card, but they do not have to. There is no method described on how to pass – because knowing whether your opponent is going to pass or not in advance might directly influence the card you would (or would not) choose to play. I have come up with a sort of house rule, like playing the poker variant Guts; where all players hold a card and then on the count of 3, players not wishing to Butt Battle would let their cards go. Again, little things, but things that would be easily clarified with a sentence or two…

The components are typical (good) RGG quality – nice thick board material, good cards with a nice finish. The artwork, done by Harald Lieske, is good clean Eurogame art. The way that “chairs” were made out of the eight different instruments is visually appealing. With the right expectations, this could be a good game for the family and for lighter gaming sessions. I hope to return with a full review once I’m able to play the game a few more times, but hopefully this piece gives you a feel for the game, and one that can give you the right expectatations to decide if it will be good for you and your game group.

Until your next appointment,

The Gaming Doctor

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.
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