Ugly Christmas Sweaters
- Designer: Hunter Hennigar
- Publisher: H2 Games
- Players: 2-4
- Age: 14+
- Time: 30-45 min on box, our games have been closer to 60-75 min
- Played with copy provided by designer/publisher
Well, it’s that time of year again, SPIEL is over and the next big thing on the horizon is the “Holiday Season”. Normally, I’d be setting up for some themed game nights and holiday parties, but obviously, this year, it’s totally unclear what is going to happen. Be that as it may, I’m still always excited to find a themed game for the holidays. This year, the entrant is: Ugly Christmas Sweaters – described to me as a trick taking game.
In this game, players work to make Ugly Christmas Sweaters that will score them the most points. The cards in the game have left shoulders, right shoulders and bottoms – and a sweater will be made up of one of each of the three pieces. Cards have a color to them (this is like a suit in regular cards) but they also have a pattern to them (which is like another suit). Thus, each card actually belongs to two suits – it might be yellow and Christmas trees. Additionally, each card has a number value from 1 to 12.
The game is played over 3 rounds, each following the same pattern. At the start of each round, three special cards are drawn. One is for the Perfect Fit – this gives you a rank which is automatically better than any other card (think of it as a trump number). One is for Trendy Yarn – this is a color which is better than the others (think of it a trump suit). Finally, there is a Fad, this card shows what color and what pattern will specifically score bonus points this round.
The card deck is shuffled and in the first round, 4 cards are dealt face up to the table. Each player then gets dealt a hand of 12 cards. From this, they draw a hand of 9 cards, leaving the remainder in a draw pile. Each player also gets a Secret Santa card – this gives each player a personal goal for the round which can score them bonus points.
Now, a trick is played. The order of cards played in this trick will determine the order that players can choose from the four sweater cards on the table. The leading player can play any card. All other players much play a card with follows one of the two suits of the lead card – that is, either matching the color or the pattern. Only if they are unable to follow either suit may they play any card. Once all players have played a card, the order of cards is figured out. Just go down this line of questions:
- Is there a super trump? That is, a card which has both the number of the Perfect Fit and the color of the Trendy Yarn? This is the best card in the trick.
- Is there a Perfect Fit card? This is next best. If multiple cards of this rank are played, the one played later in turn order is “better”.
- Is there a Trendy Yarn color card played? If so, the highest numbered card in this suit is better than the lower numbered card.
- All other cards are ranked simply on their number; with higher being better. Again, ties are broken in favor of the card player later in the trick. The lead suit has no bearing on comparison at this point.
Now that the played cards have been ranked, the player who played the best card in the current trick takes one of the cards on offer, and so on, until all players have a card. Each player now immediately plays this card into the area in front of them, trying to build sweaters. Each sweater requires a Left Shoulder, a Right Shoulder and a Bottom. Once a card is played, it is there until the end of a hand. There is no limit to the number of sweaters you can start to build.
The four cards which were played in the trick remain on the table – these are the cards which will be collected by the players in the next trick. Now, if players still have cards in their draw pile (which they will for the first 3 tricks), draw a card to bring the hand size back to 9. Play another trick and continue the process of playing cards, ranking the cards and drawing from the table in order of card played. The round ends at the end of any trick when a player completes their third sweater. The round will also end in the unlikely situation that all the cards have been played from the players’ hands. Then the round moves into scoring.
Scoring is a bit complicated. I’d recommend using the handy scoresheet included in the game and simply going from top to bottom so that nothing is missed.
- Each finished sweater is worth 2VP
- Each finished sweater that is made up of three consecutive numbers is worth an additional 2VP
- Each finished sweater scores VP per the Fad card for each of the Fads that it matches
- Each finished sweater scores 1VP for matching color OR matching pattern (if not the fad color/pattern)
- Each finished sweater that matches the player’s Secret Santa card scores 3VP
- Note the number of unfinished sweaters for each player as this is the tiebreaker
To start the next round, collect all the cards EXCEPT for the cards played in the final trick. Those cards stay on the table for the first trick of the next round. Continue this through three complete rounds. The player at the end of the game with the most points wins! If there is a tie, the player with the fewest unfinished sweaters over the course of the game wins.
My thoughts on the game
Well, I might take umbrage at the classification of this as a trick taking game, but semantics aside, there are certainly tricks being played in the game – but you don’t really do anything with them. In many ways, it’s very similar to the Honshu family of games. There is a trick being played here, but the results of the trick help you distribute cards. Unlike Honshu, you at least know what you’re “bidding on” as you are vying for the contents of the previous trick – instead of gambling on taking the cards that are being played in the current trick.
There are a lot of parts to like here. I like the complexity of the two suited cards. I also like the idea of having two different trump criteria. There is definitely an interesting puzzle of trying to figure out how to get the cards you want. Not only do you need to play highly ranked cards at the right time, but you also have to figure out how to get people to play the cards that you want. After all, you can only collect the cards which have been most recently played!
That being said, there are also a few things that I would have liked to be different. First, the cards are a bit hard to read, and the icons for R and L shoulder could have been more distinct. Yes, I know that the graphic is clearly different (though for some reason, the viewer is looking at the sweater from the reverse – because the cards marked R shoulder are definitely the portion of the sweater that would go over the heart – which unless you’re a Time Lord – is generally on the LEFT side of the body. But, when I’m holding the cards in my hand, I’m generally only looking at the index area, and the little letter in the holiday bulb can be hard to read.
I also wish that the patterns were not tied into the numbers. For instance, in yellow, cards 1-3 are all snowmen, 4-6 are candy canes, 7-9 are trees and 10-12 are bells. (and this is similar in all 4 colors) Players are already looking for sets of a pattern or consecutive numbers. This arrangement of cards often gives players the chance to double up on the bonuses, and that felt like the rich-getting-richer. After all, if someone already has the 4 and the 6, the 5 which would complete their run would be much less interesting to the other players as they already know where its mates are… Sure, this only works for 1-2-3, 4-5-6,… but still, it may have been more interesting for the four patterns to be scattered about the number line instead of clumped together.
In my experience, rounds tend to last no longer than 10 tricks, though the majority seem to end in 9 – which is the bare minimum. Thus far, my group has prized the 2VP payoff for simply finishing sweaters over the high risk/reward strategy of waiting for just the right card to meet a Secret Santa or Fad requirement. After all, the longer you wait, the more chance your opponents also have to finish their high value combination, so usually it seems like at least one player in the game is motivated to end the round as soon as it can.
I usually try to work on a fad and my Secret Santa card at the start, and then see what comes my way. As all your sweaters are in the open, and you have to add a card each trick to your display, it usually becomes apparent what you’re trying to do. There is some chance that someone would hate draft and deny you a card, but usually only if that card helps out your opponent. The way our group thinks with this game, it’s hard to take a card that you can’t immediately use because the hands tend to end in the minimum number of tricks, so if you take something you can’t use, you’ll already be one finished sweater behind the player who triggers the end of the round.
The theme is rife throughout the game, and this would normally have me recommending it all through the winter. However, the game length might be an issue. The box says 30-45 minutes, but I’ve yet to play a 4p game that took less than an hour. And, I don’t think that anyone was dawdling over any plays. For the game here, that length is a smidge long. If it could be played in 30 minutes, that length would be perfect for the game. Maybe experience will shorten future games.
The other thing to note is that the game is pretty complicated. Many holiday gatherings involve non-gamers, and I like to pull out games that they can play, and the Christmas theme would certainly be appealing… However, this is way too complex for a non-gamer. Trick taking at the most simplest level is already a challenge (trust me, I’ve tried to teach Euchre at a party with very mixed results) – but when you take a game that has two different trump criteria, wild cards, and individual bonuses? Man, that’s way more than Grandma had in mind when she sat down to pass the time and await the arrival of St. Nick. I think that Ugly Christmas Sweaters will work with your gaming crowd, but it would be tough sledding to play with the general family. It will definitely fit the bill for our Christmas themed game nights though.
Craig M. (1 Play): In short, I agree with Dale’s commentary wholeheartedly. There is a lot to like here. It feels closer to a traditional trick taking game than Honshu and Hokkaido and the scope for good card play will get you better selection of cards to make your sweaters, but it’s farther away from trick taking than I would like
The theme is fun and integrated down to the box design which graphically reminds me of an old school box of Christmas cards. I did not like the color palette for the cards though which lost some of the holiday feel with the muted color choice. The red and green suits are a bit too muted and the gold/yellow and greyish lavender pulled me away from the holiday theme.
The two trump criteria is a nice mechanical twist and as Dale said, trying to figure out how to manage your hand to get the cards you need to create good scoring sweaters is a fun puzzle to tackle.
The game did feel like it dragged on a bit with our play going over an hour with teaching included. I suspect that a second or third play would bring the time down to 45+ minutes, but even that feels longer than I would like. I also feel Dale is right saying the scoring and rules are on the “too complex” side if I’m bringing this game to a holiday gathering with non gamers.
Ugly Christmas Sweaters is a great effort. Good holiday themed games seem very far and few between so it’s great to have a new option, even if it falls just short of the mark.
Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor