My wife and I lead busy lives. Work, shopping, cooking, cleaning, commuting. Rinse, lather, repeat. On less harried nights, out geaux to evening game is a nice sixty to seventy-five minute euro, one that lets us detox from all the world’s stressors. But on those busiest of nights, when it seems that the span of time between the after work whistle blow and bedtime shrinks to the snap of a finger, we scan the shelves for a game that takes twenty minutes or so, that we can re-rack two or three times in a row, as a nice after dinner petit bec doux.
That’s why Betta, a beautiful game published this year from Synapses Games and HeidelBÄR Games, was so intriguing to me when it arrived. I was vaguely aware of its presence on BGA from my chit-chats with Chuck’s Gateway and Filler Group on Facebook without ever attempting a play, but the presentation in this little tin box upon arrival caught my eye.
The cover hints at what we are doing here. We are each brand new employees at a shop that sells gorgeous Bettas. My brother used to love those fish back in college, so I had a passing familiarity to them. They are aggressive little creatures, aren’t they? I hope I have that right, because I remember him telling me stories about them while we were waiting for the next episode of Cheers to come on at 10:35 p at our apartment in Baton Rouge.
The owner of the shop is overrun with bettas. Our job is to make attractive displays to catch the customers’ attention, and move those bettas along to good homes, like my brother’s apartment. He would be the first person I would call to boost up my first day sales commissions.
Anyway, back to the game. Players are given a deck of 12 cards, little thin cardboard not much thicker than paper. The cards fit perfectly on top of three-by-three store display grids in the center of the table. For the games I’ve played with SneauxBunny, we just use five displays, but as the player count goes up, more empty display cards are added.
Right away I worried about card counting with decks that small, but the designer asks you to discard two of the cards in your deck at random before starting, so there’s no real way of knowing exactly what cards will come out. So what kind of cards are they?
They each have pictures of different colored bettas, mostly the ones in your player color, but other colors, too. They do not perfectly fill up the 3×3 grid, though. Instead, they might a corner piece or two, or maybe a center piece and a side square, while still leaving plenty of holes to see the bettas or empty space below the card. That’s right, we are layering the cards almost like the card crafting systems we see in games like Canvas or Mystic Vale but without all the plastic.
That brings me to my first gripe. I guess because I’m used to playing these layering games with sturdier materials, SneauxBunny and I were not big fans of the thin paper like cards. They are hard to shuffle and stick when you move them around, because the empty edges catch on each other. I’m sure there is a reason why they produced the cards in this fashion — this looks like the kind of game the publishers would sell just about everywhere in games-mad Germany — but it was a little annoying.
The good news is that after a few turns, we managed to figure out the best way to hold your cards without them getting caught up on each other. Players draw three cards in hand, and take turns placing one of the cards in hand on one of the still active displays. Play a card to an empty display, and get two free points just for starting the betta display. But those are mealy-mouth points. What you really want are the three or five or seven big point matches.
For those, players will lay out a set of in-game goal scoring cards that have patterns for us to match after each turn. It might be something as simple as just lining up three of the same bettas in a row tic-tac-toe style across the display, or it might be a fancier shape like a “C” or “L”. (Note, the orientation of the goal card doesn’t matter). As long as you remember that the bettas matching the white squares on the goal cards must be all the same color, and don’t have to be in your player color (something we frequently forgot our first time out), you will score big and often.
Think about it — once you have a strong 5 or 7 point pattern, many of your cards are not going to disturb that pattern, they will just replace some of the bettas in the same position. That is no trouble, that’s just good play, because you still score the points!
That is when SneauxBunny and I begin to really dig the game. Do I try to build my own five pointer on this empty display? Or just glom off of her already set up creation and score my own points with the same bettas? But then if she has a similar card, she’ll just do the same thing again. I need to mess that pattern up — or better yet — play enough bettas so that there are no empty spots even while getting in one last score. If I do, the card is closed and we have to move to another card.
I told you that we always start out with five or seven display cards at the start of the game. Since building up the potential five and seven pointers is such a crucial element of the game, the designers needed to unstick the stick shift a bit. The incentive to play on open displays is a two point bonus for doing so, but that’s not the only incentive. At the end of the game, the players will each score bonus points for having two or more of their own colored bettas on a card, and each display card is scored separately. If you can manage to get six bettas or more, you can get 15 points! That’s a big swing, especially if you can manage to do it twice on the board.
As you can see, this game is a big spatial puzzle broken up over five or more store displays. There is a variant that you can add a fifth player, where one player plays the owner, but we have not tried that variant yet. (I’ll leave that to you to discover on your own.) We’ve been content to enjoy this quick little game that we can play in about 15-20 minutes, but has some very competitive player interaction as each player tries to maximize the points before the display gets closed out.
There was one other little irritant for us, though. That rule book is just so tiny. To be fair, not the rule book itself, but the words on it. The rulebook is printed on paper that has a nice aquatic background, but with very, very, very, very tiny type with light coloring that for my poor old six o’clock PM tired eyes was very hard to read. Pity, because the rule set is written very well and made the game a cinch to learn.
But that’s a small criticism. Frankly, after our first play, my wife and I both looked at each other and smiled. “This was better than it looked?” I suggested. “Absolutely,” she added. “Much better. Let’s play again.”
Busy night? Heck, a busy week? Not much time for gaming? No worries, let’s just crack open a deck of bettas and make some displays.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.
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