Designer: Friedemann Friese
Artist: Friedemann Friese
Times Played: 21, in a variety of formats
Here’s a photo from my birthday a few years ago. Six years ago, to be specific. It was the first year I decided my birthday should start before breakfast and last well into the night. In the afternoon, we’d gone to see an Omnimax movie at Cincinnati’s previously magnificent train station, now more of a museum complex, though the railyards are still there behind it. We’d left the movie (it was about lemurs), and there was a sign that said the train observation room was open. That seemed like the kind of thing my father would’ve told me about at one point, or something we’d do on the occasional Saturday when I was a child, but he hadn’t and it wasn’t.
While it was a nice view of a switching yard that was a fraction of its former self, what really excited me was what I saw when I turned around. Somehow this diagram of the yard was more intriguing. It had green lights and red lights and if only it had tiny holograms of the trains moving around.
In a sense, it’s the feeling of the type of sorting that happens in 5×15. It was an analogy that occurred to me lying in bed one night, thinking about what to say about this game. (Though when I went to write it, reading the extraneously jargon-filled Wikipedia articles on shunting, switchers, and a table of the diesel shunters used in Sri Lanka; watching videos of classification yards; and re-reading Friedemann’s blog posts about the game, I realized he had already made the Rangierbanhof analogy!) (Also, let me say that the German language Wikipedia articles on train yards appear far more interesting than their English language counterparts.)
Anyway, 5×15 is Friedemann’s new solitaire card game for 2020. It’s a game about sorting your cards, and based upon the folk solitaire game Montana, and its brethren. It feels a bit like what you think that train yard analogy means, but it feels like what the train yard analogy actually means. (I’ll explain that further below.)
There’s not yet a commercial release of the game, but on boardgamegeek.com the publisher has uploaded the rules and some tiles to print to play the game. You can also find an Excel file you could use and links for playing it on playingards.io. The game calls for 5 suits of cards (or tiles) with 15 ranks each, so if you have Voodoo Prince, David & Goliath, Rage, etc., you could play with that too.
The game takes place over a 5×16 grid, but you shuffle and deal to a 5×15 grid. In Montana, you’d gather up the aces and discard them and here, you gather the 1s, shuffle, and place them in a column to the left of all cards, creating the 16th column.
For most of the game your choice will be simple, move a card to one of the empty slots. The cards you can move are any card of a matching color and 1 higher than the card on the left, or a matching color and 1 lower than the card on the right.
For 2s and 15s that are out in the field, this creates a problem, as there’ll be nothing to set to the left of a 2 or the right of a 15. Friedemann has adding a shifting rule that enables a run of cards that ends with a 15 to be moved to the right. That is, at the easiest level, if you have a 13/14/15 of a single color adjacent, you may slide them as a group to the right if there are empty space(s). (In a harder setting, it takes 4 consecutive cards, and in the hardest 5.)
You win if you can sort all of the cards into their proper rows and orders and lose if you cannot.
So I tried Montana. I tried a few other games in the family tree too. They were…less good.
The Montana I tried only allowed you to place into a blank slot based upon the card on the left, so there was only 1 choice per slot; you were there simply to execute the algorithm the shuffle assigned you. It also knows that you’ll never pull it off in one go, so there are rules about picking up some of your cards and redealing.
I tried it after a dozen or so games of 5×15 and found it remarkable how much more I enjoy 5×15 with what feels like minor adjustments.
There is a strong puzzle feel, so, in abiding with my personal policy about discussing puzzle games, I won’t say much about the strategy or tactics, as I consider it spoilers, and that’s all a treasure I’m saving for you to find.
5×15 is a game of untying knots. It’s a logistics game.
I’m glad there are levels. At first, I couldn’t see the need for the 4 and 5 card shifts, as I was having enough trouble seeing through to the end of a 3 card shift game! Now, with a little more experience, yes, 5 card feels like the proper challenge.
This game is full of surprises though, so I encourage you to finish each one out, even if you think it’s lost. Sure, some games are goners, but in others you may find yourself backing up, with your back-up beepers on (I checked, there isn’t a more formal and concise name), for quite a distance, looking for any wide spot in the road to turn this strategy around…but you’ll find it!
If you do try this prior to any retail release, I enjoyed it the most with a physical deck of cards (though I haven’t tried it with the images 2F-Spiele uploaded to boardgamegeek, as I’m still experimenting with not having a printer at home.) It does, however, take up quite a bit of room. Each game I think I clear off a few more margin inches around a play area on my usual gaming table, but it still occupies the entirety.
What the physical experience, for me, has over the digital ones I tried, is both the kinetic act of moving the cards and the effort to survey the landscape. The table acreage the 6×15 grid occupies means your neck will get some exercise, as your head pivots to take in the scenario in front of you while you consider and calculate.
There is something unexpected in the amount of swaps that occur. Y’all gonna be moving a lot of cards around. It is some busy work -but in that, it is part of why I _like_ the physical experience. Your mind gets to think through how to untie this jumble of cards and your body gets to do it; this game is the total package! It’s nice to have something to show for your work: there’s a knolling pleasure in that finished state.
But those swaps are also what I was alluding to at the top. In thinking about what the game is like, the train yard analogy is appropriate. Even more so when I realized that train yards have the same expectation misfires. 5×15 is a lot of switches, and as for train yards, well, enjoy:
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!: James Nathan
I like it:
Not for me: