Aurum (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  • Designer: Shreesh Bhat
  • Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
  • Players: 3-4
  • Ages: 7 and Up
  • Time: 30-45 Minutes
  • Times Played: > 5

Eric Martin has published his Gen Con 2023 preview, and the convention opens Thursday. I sorted the list to identify the trick-taking games, noticing four that will be for sale at Gen Con 2023 (Aurum, Inside Job, Sail, and Seas of Strife). I’ve played each of the four, so I decided to do a quick write-ups of them in advance of the show.

Up first is Aurum, designed by Shreesh Bhat, and published by Pandasaurus Games. I’ll cut to the chase: Aurum is my favorite of the four games, and the one I most enthusiastically recommend. I intended to just do a short write-up of each game, but I had so much to say about Aurum, I had to give it its own post.

Aurum plays 3-4 players, but I’ve only played the four-player version, so that is what I’ll describe here. My family is addicted to the four-player version, which is played in teams. We’ve played it several times over the past week.

Thematically, players are alchemists trying to produce the purest gold. That theme is a bit pasted on, but not entirely: the concept of base metals versus gold permeates the design. As explained below, obtaining gold is not only the end-of-hand goal, but also helpful within the hand.

The immediate draw to Aurum is the artwork. Of the four games Gen Con 2023 trick-takers, Aurum arguably has the best production value. The box and card art are striking, and it even comes with a gold foil insert, plus little gold tokens to track gameplay. The artist Stevo Torres, and the publisher, Pandasaurus, both deserve credit for investing in Aurum’s stellar production value.

But the gameplay is what really shines (pun fully intended). Aurum is an exceptionally well-thought-out and innovative mix of mechanics. At its core, it is a must-not-follow trickster, in the style of Potato Man. That rare trick-taking mechanic is the inverse of the normal must-follow rule, and it means players cannot play a suit that has previously been played into the trick.

Designing a must-not-follow trick-taking game is no easy task — I’d know, I’ve tried — because the decision space is wider than in a must-follow game, giving players more choices, but also sometimes leading to a feeling that nothing-I-play-matters, particularly among the first and second players in a trick. But Shreesh Bhat completely reimagined the concept, especially what I call the “luck mitigation” aspects of the game. And the result is a game that feels delightfully tense.

In fact, Aurum has such clever twists that there are different viable strategies, including not winning tricks. I’ve had fun thinking through and discovering all of the little nuanced paths to victory, and I can’t remember the last trick-taking game that gave me that feeling. The design ideal in a trick-taking game is arguably that every hand poses interesting possibilities, and Aurum has that in droves, which is why I’m so drawn in by it.

Like in many games, players bid on how many tricks their team is going to take, using a card from their hand. Bidding is a classic, time-honored way to mitigate the randomness of a shuffle of cards, but here, there’s a twist: since players are on teams, the higher card played of the team’s two cards becomes the bid, a fact that itself is a fun bit of information sharing. The fact that players make their bids using a card from their hands is extra fun: players must sacrifice a card that could otherwise help them in their alchemistic endeavors.

But the fun little twists didn’t stop there. When players play tricks, the highest card takes, but the lowest card earns a gold card, which are sitting off to the side in a display. So even low cards are powerful, because want to earn gold. In fact, they need to earn gold, as it is not only the trump suit, but also a resource that can be spent to switch out bids (if necessary), and end-of-game points.

Players score points for hitting or exceeding their bids, so that is obviously important, but they also score for the gold cards they hold at the end of the hand, with higher gold cards being worth even more points. Thus, there is a constant question of do-I-want-the-trick or do-I-want-the-gold. And even within that decision, there is the press-your-luck aspect of wanting to win a gold card with the highest possible rank. And, of course, there is the added layer of possibly spending gold (thus giving up points) to change out a bid that just isn’t going to work.

On top of all of this the fact that players don’t know precisely when the hand will end, which occurs when a player can’t play a base metal and does not want to play a gold card. Thus, players can, to a limited extent, prolong or shorten their hands, which is a mechanic that has a fun interaction with the bidding.

The result is a game that, within the broader trick-taking genre, sits at the low end of the randomness scale. The best Aurum players will typically win. I’ve never minded a little luck in a trick-taking game, but it is refreshing to see it so thoroughly addressed here. That’s a sign of good design. This design is — and here comes another metal pun —- well-polished.

The team with the higher score (from bid points and gold) wins the hand, and the first team to win two hands wins the game. So the game plays quickly: the box says 30-45 minutes, but we’ve been playing in closer to 25.

Because of the interaction among the various mechanics, I would have bet that Aurum would be difficult to learn, but that has not manifested. The rulebook was well-written. The mechanics are intuitive. My family grasped the game with ease. The included player aids are helpful, but not necessary after just one game. And, of note, it is probably easier to learn than two other Gen Con trick-taking releases: Sail and Inside Job both have far more going on than Aurum.

In short, Aurum is innovative, strategic, intuitive, and fast-playing. This is one of the best trick-taking games I’ve played this year, and as I alluded to above, my family and I liked it so much we played it back-to-back (which is a rarity for us). If you’re heading to Indy this week, I enthusiastically recommend checking out Aurum.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W.
  • I like it.  
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…
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2 Responses to Aurum (Game Review by Chris Wray)

  1. Gamer says:

    Why don’t you mention the rulebook? It has one of the worst rulebooks I’ve ever seen in a card game. Key rules not explained or left to examples only. This is important consumer information!!

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