9 Lives (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer:  Taiki Shinzawa
  • Publisher:  Allplay (BoardGameTables.com)
  • Players:  3-4
  • Ages:  11 and Up
  • Time:  30 Minutes
  • Times Played: > 6

9 Lives is the second game in Allplay’s trick taking line.  The game was released as Catty in 2015 in Japan by Jelly Jelly Games, but Allplay picked it up for a wider release, gave it a high-quality production with new art and improved components, and just released it a few months ago. The game is designed by Taiki Shinzawa — the giant of Japan’s vibrant trick taking scene — and was scouted for Allplay by OG-er James Nathan.  

It is already a mega hit among trick taking fans. I hosted a recent trick taking game in Kansas City, and it was the most played game of the day, and seemingly the favorite. It has a decently high BGG rating for a trick taking game. I predict it will be a leading candidate for the Trick Taking Guild’s annual award this year. 

The Gameplay

The core of nearly all trick taking games is the deck, and the deck here is worth noting up front: it has 1-9 in four suits, but the suits are visible on the back of the cards. Thus, other players can see the suits (but not the numbers) that other players are holding.  In a 3-player game, the blue cards are removed. The purple cards are always trump.

The cards are dealt evenly, and then players bid on how many tricks they’ll take. They each have a cat figure (shown below) and place it on a rug either horizontally (so they’re betting on one number) or vertically (so they’re betting on two numbers).  Players can go on either side of the rug, so players can block each other from certain bets, but they’re limited in their ability to do so.  And tricks will wrap: so if you bet on the number “1” and actually get a “5,” then that is a good outcome! 

Then the trick taking begins. The lead player rotates each round (and there is a ball of yarn to denote who is the first player).  Players play into the trick, and they must follow suit if they can. The highest trump wins, but if there isn’t one, the highest of the suit led wins. That player will lead the next trick. 

The catch is that, when a player wins a trick, they pick up a card that didn’t win the trick and put it in their hand.  Thus, players can have an asymmetric number of cards.  The hand will end when one player has no more cards.

If a player did a precise bet (they bet on one number) and succeeded, they get 4 points. If they did a vertical bet (they bet on two numbers) and succeeded, they get 2 points. Otherwise, they lose one point for each space by which they missed their bet.  

Players play four hands or until somebody gets at least 9 points (whichever comes earlier), and at that point, the player with the most points wins.  

9 Lives with deluxe components.

My Thoughts on the Game

I absolutely love the sub-genre of trick taking games where the back of the suits are visible, and this is perhaps the finest game in that group.  When that is combined with the clever pick-up mechanic and the exceptional production value, you have a shining example of modern trick taking design.

You get far more information at the outset of 9 Lives than you do in most trick taking games. Trump is fixed, and you can see what suits other players have, so you have a decent amount of information before you place your bet. The hand size is also smaller here than in other tricksters, since there are only 36 cards in the deck in the 4-player game, so you have a more manageable calculation on making that bet too.  I’m skeptical of bidding in trick taking games — I think it can become too much, too quickly — but it works exceptionally well here, because of the extra information, and because of the smaller deck.  

And players have a lot of fun with the fact that their bet can wrap. If a player bet that they’d only catch 1 trick, but suddenly caught 2 at the start of the hand, they’ll just go for five! It leads to laugh-out-loud fun, and shifting goals.  And because of being able to see where the trumps are, players always have some sense of where the hand will go.  That makes the trick play exceptional.  

The production value is stunning here. The base version of the game is attractive, with card artwork that is both functional and attractive, and well-made cats and rugs that give the game a good table presence. But the inexpensive upgrade kit, which gives the wooden cat tokens, makes the game pop all the more, so if you like the game, I recommend it.

Allplay’s rulebooks are decently unique within the industry, and that is my only complaint here. Most game companies prioritize completeness, but Allplay seems to prioritize conciseness. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I can learn a game faster from Allplay’s rulebook than other rulebooks — but it does come at the expense of clarity. For example, it is also unclear (and never clarified) what happens when a player goes over 8 tricks, to 9. The possibility has already arisen twice for me, in just 6 plays. I knew the answer from a BGG thread and discussion with the publisher, but this will probably happen every few dozens games (I post the statistics on this below the article for the curious), and thus, I think it should have been in the rulebook and on the player boards.

I’m highly impressed by 9 Lives, and indeed, Allplay’s current three trick taking games (the others being Ghosts of Christmas and Sail).  I enthusiastically recommend 9 Lives, because of his approachability, engaging gameplay, and stellar production. And during this Trick Taking week, I also thank them for picking up so many great games!

Thoughts of Other Opinionated Gamers:

Jonathan F.: I had Catty and enjoyed it, but it had far more spaces (1-6, before wrapping to 7). The 1(5-9)-4 (8) board is awesome. It makes the bidding more exciting and it helps the game. Our one issue we had with 9 Lives is the readability of the numbers on the cards, as 1s and 7s look quite similar. Would happily play any time.

James Nathan: I, of course, love the game. I think this is Taiki-san’s most mature and refined bidding system, with more mitigation built in, and gameplay which allows for easier adjustments to the trajectory you’re on. It allows for clever play, as you can see which suits players have left and maybe force a player to win a trick if you lead that color. The corollary of being short suited and the game’s “the winner takes a card back” mechanic is that you can also re-gain cards in suits you were out of! This has fascinating knock on effects which can be exploited as well. The “winner takes a card back” leads to some interesting play both for players following the lead suit and those not following – keeping you engaged even when you aren’t in contention to win a given trick. As a specific example, say a player led a blue 8.  You have one trick left to win to hit your bid, and have the blue 4 and 5 in your hand. In a traditional game, it wouldn’t matter which you led.  However, here, the winner of the trick could pick up what you play.  If you play the 4 and they pick it up, your 5 will beat it.  If you play the 5 and they pick it up, your 4 will lose to it. This additional spotlight on how you play consecutive cards is unique to Catty/9 Lives and brings a new type of consideration to the card play.

(I also can’t help but chime in to discuss the rule confusion around two things, the turn order and the bidding. I see some discussion around the bidding which implies that people later in turn order are at a disadvantage because some spaces are blocked off.  I agree with half of that.  Yes, some places are blocked off.  However, going later in bidding means you have more information about other players’ confidence and bid placement which you can combine with the suits on the rear of other players’ cards to help inform your bid.  Personally, I’d rather go later in the bidding process.  

I think much of the confusion of the bidding and scoring can be eliminated if the text of the rules are followed (and not the caption for the example.)  Think of it in this framework: you can only bid 1, 2, 3, or 4 (or two of those that are adjacent) – because that’s where you put your cat.  There is no bid of 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9. There’s only 1 to 4. The other rule you need is that if you win a 5th trick, move your marker back to 1. The scoring should be straightforward when the bidding and trick tracking is viewed from the context of only 1 to 4 existing.  You can bid 1 – and if you win 1, 5, or 9 tricks you’ll hit your bid, but the bid is 1; if you win 1 trick or 5 tricks, your marker is on 1.)

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., James N., Jonathan F., Lucas H. 
  • I like it. Dale Y., Dan B., Jim B., John P
  • Neutral. Rand L., Adam K.
  • Not for me… Talia R. 

A Footnote on Taking 9 Tricks: The publisher believes this is “practically impossible” and will only happen “in like 1/1000 plays perhaps,” so they did not put the 9 on the gameboard.  Given that the game will always have at least three hands, that appears to mean at least 1 in 3000 hands. But the math is likely off, according to some Monte Carlo simulations I did for purposes of drafting this review.  The below focuses on the four player game. Taking 9 tricks becomes very doable when a player has the 7, 8, and 9 of trump, which will happen once in every 20-22 hands. A player can almost certainly force getting 9 tricks if they have 6, 7, 8, and 9 of trump, which will happen once in every 115-125 hands. In fact, there is only one unlikely scenario which can stop it with that hand (subject to the limitations described below), which that precise scenario being another player has the remaining five trumps.  Taking 9 tricks becomes truly unstoppable if they have those cards plus one other trump, which happens one in every 190-200 hands.  That player has to get the lead at the right time, of course, reducing the likelihoods of each of these materially, but not more than 75%, since the player in question will snag the lead 25% each turn. Given that each game has at least 3 hands, this will still come up every few dozen games, assuming players don’t want to play it away. But that later caveat is moot, because a player may nonetheless want to know the rule, since they have every incentive to try for it if they can get their cat on the “1 bid.” Hence my conclusion that is should have been on the game board. Consider it a suggestion for the second printing!

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1 Response to 9 Lives (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. Stuart J Barton says:

    My current favourite trick taking game is Sensō. Combines area control. Best with 4 or 5 players. Please review it!

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