- Designer: Gary Kim
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 10+
- Time: 20-30 minutes
- Times played: 3, with review copy provided by Mandoo Games
In this partnership game, which was originally published in 2012 per my BGG background search by Wednesday Games, players play tiles to the table with the goal of being the team who earns the most points. Per the story in the original rules: “You become the Prince Siegfried and take a journey to save the nobles and Odette who have turned into a swan due to the cunning spell of evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Be aware of the attack of the black swan in the journey. If you aren’t you will have unrecoverable damages.” Umm, sure. Don’t be scared away by the story, because it’s a pretty interested trick taking game…
Rather than cards, this game has a set of 56 mahjongg like tiles. There are 4 suits: Orange swords, red roses, blue arrows and green feathers, each with 13 ranks, comfortingly labeled A-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-19-J-Q-K. There are also three (black) wild owls and a singular black swan. The tiles are shuffled facedown and each player draws a hand of 14 tiles. The standard way to play the game is as a partnership game, and the players should arrange themselves so that teams alternate around the table (i.e. partners sit across from each other).
On a turn, a player must play a valid combination to the table. You cannot pass on a turn – you must play at least one tile to the trick. The valid combinations are:
- Single (any tile)
- Matching group (2 to 7 same number or character – Wilds can be used here to match)
- Run (2 to 7 tiles in consecutive number in same suit)
- Jokers (can be played as wild to group or run, but can also be played standalone)
- Black Swan (must be played as a single)
In addition, you can never play tiles so that there would be more than 7 tiles in this particular trick.
Interestingly, when you play cards, you do not have to match or “beat” any previously played tiles. The only thing which matters is the physical number of tiles played because you cannot exceed 7 cards in the current trick. If you do play the 7th tile to the trick, you collect all 7 tiles played in that trick. The player who finishes the previous trick also starts the next trick.
If you have played all the tiles from your hand, your turn is simply passed until all players have played all their tiles. It is important to remember which player was the first player to play out their hand as he/she will automatically collect the tiles in the final trick, regardless of who plays the tile that completes the last trick. The one exception is that if the Black Swan is in the final trick, that tile stays with the player who actually finished the last trick.
When all 8 tricks are complete, the players score their hand based on the tiles they have collected:
- A: 20 points
- 5: 5 points
- 10, J, Q, K: 10 points
- Black Swan: -100 points
- Joker: -20 points
- Everything else: nothing
For lazy players, note that the total number of points available in any hand is exactly 100. So, if one team calculates their score, the other team knows they have scored whatever value would bring the sum up to 100. We try to speed things up by flipping over non-scoring tiles in a trick, and then cancelling out negative and positive tiles as we get them. This way, it’s fairly easy to see what the count is for the hand at any time. Partners simply combine their scores and track them together. The winning team is the first team to score 500 points.
My thoughts on the game
Black Swan is an interesting game, first brought to my attention by James Nathan who seems to scour the Interweb trying to find every obscure Asian trick-taking game that he can. In this case though, I wonder if it should really be called a trick-taking game. I mean, I guess there are 8 “tricks” in each hand here, but is it really a trick if the only thing that matters is who played the final card to it? I suppose I might have the same question about Funf Gurken and the other games of that ilk.
In any event, it really doesn’t matter what you call it – Black Swan is a card game all about timing and cunning play. There are going to be times when you want to win tricks – especially if you can play a high point card combo at the end to close it out. There might be times when you don’t want to win a trick – because it has already been seeded with the Black Swan, and thus you want to avoid the -100 penalty.
Thus far, all I know is that I try to avoid ending your turn with a trick that has 5 tiles in it. Because, if I do, the next player would surely play the Black Swan if he has it, and then my partner is obligated to play a single tile to the trick and “win” it. Again, as long as you have a tile in your hand, you will always have a legal play as you never have to match or exceed anything else on the table. Then, the corollary to this is that it’s quite interesting to play to have 4 cards in a trick, because then you force the next guy to play a 2 or 3 tile combo to avoid the dreaded 5-card trick, etc. We have yet to get to the point where we feel it’s de rigeur to avoid the 3 card trick to prevent the opponent from playing to a 4 card trick such that our partner then has to avoid leaving a 5-card trick… but i’m sure that time will come soon. Past that, there are a bunch of interesting strategies that I have tried to employ, but I certainly haven’t found anything that wins consistently. Even going out as rapidly as possible hasn’t been always successful, as I’ve managed to do that and then stuck with all three wild cards in the final trick for a painful -60 points.
There is an interesting aspect to the timing and hand management. Early on, it’s pretty easy to have options on how to rearrange your hand to give you a needed combination for just about any necessary number of tiles – so, you are in fairly good control of what/when you are going to win. However, you are forced to make some tough decisions at times. What if you have four Jacks, but the current trick is at 4 tiles. Do you break up your four-of-a-kind to play 3 of the Jacks and cash in on the 30 points? Are you better off playing a single and hope that your partner can win it later? Do you want to play your 2 and 3 card combos early, or should you save them for defensive purposes or the ultimate unexpected combo to take control of a trick at a crucial moment?
At the start of each hand, you have to assume that all players have all possible combinations. But by watching what people play (or maybe what they don’t play), you can figure out what sorts of things people have left, and that is when the interesting plays/deductions can be made. There is also a bit of pressure to try to go out early because oftentimes it is beneficial to get the tiles from the last trick, especially when you’re somewhat protected from getting the Black Swan.
Due to the non-standard nature of what is a legal play, there certainly seems to be a distinct advantage to those who are dealt better hands. Having control of when the valuable cards are to be played means a lot to the overall success in the game (at least that’s what I think). But… after a few games, once we all realized the danger of leaving an opportunity for the Black Swan to be slipped in as the sixth tile in a trick, it actually became exceedingly hard to get rid of that tile – and it often made it into the last round because there was no other good time to play it.
The game moves along quickly, and while the scoring rubric is a little complicated, the handy score reminder card makes it pretty easy to remember how many points each card is worth. Our 500 point games usually take 7 to 8 rounds – because no matter what 100 points are added to the combined score of the two teams each hand.
The components are really nice, and I have always liked the clickety-clack noise that the Bakelite-like tiles make when they run into each other. The tiles also give my hands something to fidget with during the game. For durability purposes, the tiles are also nice as they rarely bend or crease 😊. Seeing these tiles also reminds me of another Korean game that I loved, Peeper. One caution is that they are a bit light, and they do tend to tip over when shuffling – you can’t just push them around like my usual Mahjongg set.
So far, I have been intrigued by this game, much due to the fact that most of my usual trick-taking rules are thrown out the window. This is a game about timing, managing probabilities and figuring out how to screw your opponents over as well as figuring out how to minimize your own exposure to that risk. I have really liked it so far, and look forward to many more plays in the future. For now, the only downside I see is that as it is a partnership game, it really wants to have exactly four players around for it. (Yes there are rules for 2 and 3 players, but you end up leaving cards out of the hand each round which is a bit wonky, and the elegant “always equals 100” math doesn’t work out any more).
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
James Nathan (1 play): I’ll give my discovery credit to W. Eric for covering a few Mandoo releases in a January BGG news post, and while it sat rather quietly in my subscriptions since then, I was shopping for some things on the Gamestore Banesto website for a friend a few weeks ago and saw they had it in stock and it lit a little curiosity flame.
I’m at one play for now, with a forecast that with repeated plays, there’s a 20% chance it moves to “I love it!”, a 5% change it dips to “Neutral”, and a 75% change it stays a strong “I like it.”
I….don’t know how to play this game, in the good way. It’s not a climbing game, but the way you have to triage your hand has you thinking about the runs and sets as if it is. I suppose it’s not trick-taking, but it certainly feels like it is. It’s certainly not shedding, though it isn’t without a nod to the benefits of going out first.
Strategically, the Black Swan and the Wilds are such a spectre hanging over the hand until they appear. Heck, there may even be times you’re tempted to spoil your own pot with a Wild just to lock it down. Well, let me also clarify I haven’t had the Black Swan in my hand yet. In the game I played, the fear was always there because I didn’t know who had it. I may have had hands full of points, but was so anxious about being pounced upon, I didn’t dare proceed boldly. And well, the Swan Holder just let me slowly bleed out my points until they also snuck the old bird in there!
Must play again.
(I’ll also give a nod to the suits being four different colors here. It made thinking about the runs so much clearer than two red suits and two black suits!)
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it!
- I like it. Dale Y, James Nathan, John P
- Not for me…