Naylor Games is still a relatively new publisher, with only two published titles in its ludography. Yet, in this short time, owner James Naylor has shown a knack for finding games like Magnate: The First City that twist familiar elements in fresh ways.
Wait, you’ve never played Magnate?
Get thee straight to our review of Magnate: The First City, which was one of our recommended games of 2021. Read about this brilliant game, then play a copy of Magnate from your nearest FLGS library today. We can talk about the new game on deck later.
Now that you’ve seen what Magnate did to transmogrify build-up-the-economy games, it’s time to see Naylor’s latest twist of an experience.
Maybe this one does not deliver the depth or complexity of the surprises in store for you when you play Magnate, but that’s okay. 21X contains as fresh a surprise as finding a slice of Pepper Jack cheese in your boudin ball.
But we should probably get the cart lined up behind the horse before we start talking about the boudin and the cheese.
You have undoubtedly played standard 52 card games, right? One of those, I’m sure, is the game of Blackjack (colloquially known as “21” in some parts). Blackjack is dirt simple. You and your fellow players compete against the dealer’s hand. Each side is trying to hit a perfect 21 points among the printed value on the cards, or get as close to 21 as you can while being one point ahead of the dealer.
You can even push your luck by drawing additional cards and keeping them in front of you until you bust (go over 21) or you are satisfied that you can beat the dealer (who shows one card, but hides the other till it’s done.)
The difference between the well-known game of 21, and the design of 21X, is the fact that the cards in Blackjack are pretty much always their face value (except for that pesky Ace), but the cards in 21X are made up something entirely different.
What if you didn’t just add up the two numbers on the cards, but instead had to solve sliding scales of complex alegebra equations to figure out what your sum is?
(Oof. My brain is hurting just typing out that challenge. But at least I have an excuse: I graduated university without taking any math at all.)
We should probably highlight a few of the changes first, before we talk about the fun.
Number one, there’s 54 cards instead of your standard 52 card deck, and the cards have algebraic equations instead of regular numbers (like 2-10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace) on your standard poker deck.
Number two, you’re not playing against the dealer, but against the other players. In that way, it’s a lot closer to the home-brew 21 or Blackjack games that are found on Tuesday nights in a lot of outdoor kitchens in south Louisiana all summer long.
Number three — and this is easily the most diabolical change by designer Leo Samson (who, by the way, I have on good authority did not sing More Than I Can Say in 1980) — there is a timed element that is not only necessary but makes sense in the game. More on that little morsel in just a bit, because I want to dish a little on the gameplay first.
The gameplay is surprisingly simple. The designer must have a good heart because the deck is actually pre-formatted into three levels of difficulty, which we will call Easy, Medium, and Spicy.
Players can decide before the game starts what level they want and excise the appropriate cards. For our first game, we threw the medium and spicy cards back into the box, and just stuck with easy at first.
To play, just shake up the deck, and deal two cards to every player. Now the first timed part begins — you have an almost limitless amount of time to take those two cards and come up with a sum total of 21 (or as close as you can come). How? That’s easy, math guru.
The easy deck comes with simple formulas with easy to understand order of operations. For the most part, the easy deck is limited to the basic math one would expect almost anyone could handle.
I’ll give you a brief example. Let’s say I dealt two cards to you. One of them has “X (N+2)” on it. The other says “2X + 4”. You can probably figure out the next part. While keeping an eye on what the other players are doing, you’ve got to work out what the value of each card could be, and see if you can make them total 21 together.
Both X and N are maleable to a certain extent. N, of course, is the number of cards you are playing right now (which in this case, would be just two). The X is a number that you get to assign. By that I mean, you choose a number for X, but it has to be consistent among all of the cards you are playing this round.
In our example above, you could say that “X = 2”. The first card was “X (N+2)”, remember? That means that your value is 8 because 2(2+2) or two times four = 8. The second card was 2X + 4, and since X has to be consistent, we know the number of that card is also 8.
8 + 8 = 16.
Yeah, 16 is probably not going to win you the brass ring this round, buckaroo. The other players know that you aren’t winning, either, because you never shouted out “21” like you are supposed to do and then show them your homework.
Instead, you find yourself faced with some pretty tough choices. You could redo your “x” value, perhaps? But how much higher? You could redo your “n” value by drawing more cards. But take too many and the problem becomes all but impossible for a mere mortal like us.
Let’s say you just change the value of X. Changing X to something like “3” will change that value for both of your cards, and that means the first card is 12 and the second one is now 10 — a bust! Redoing the “x” value won’t work here, so you would probably have to draw another card and then start the calculations all over.
The first player to get to 21 wins. Sounds simple enough. But what if no one can get to 21 with the two cards in front of them?
Two choices, my friend, two choices. Either announce that you are “twisting” your hand, which means you draw another card and go through the decision tree I described a few paragraphs earlier. That’s fine. That’s dandy. But if you are feelin’ a mite lucky, you might just want to stand pat.
Standing pat in this game is called “sticking” and that’s almost an onomatopoeia in this case. Because that crunching sound that the word makes as you chew on it in front of the other players is the same crunchy sound the timer makes as you flip it over right in their faces. Tick, tock, tick, tock, friends. Every other player then has a limited amount of time to either work out their best number from the cards in their hand or draw more cards and get their best play. Because once that minute runs out, you’re out of time. You either beat the person who stood pat, or you lose. It’s as simple as that.
The timer can be brutally quick, too. It’s a strange unanswerable question, but physics dictates that one minute never feels like a minute when you are under the gun. The only breaks you get are that the other players cannot “stick” on 20. Math may be a lot of things, and easy might be one of them for some folk, but 21X is not going to let you off the hook that easy.
21X is certainly different, and it is most definitely a unique way to play Blackjack. I have to admit, before we ever touched a card, I was a little nervous when I saw the premise of the game, knowing that my knowledge of anything beyond the basic formulas of algebra is pretty limited. We were determined to just try the game with the easy mode on, but in all honesty, we had no trouble with the formulas in level two (medium) so tossed those back in fairly quickly.
Unsurprisingly, my son and his girlfriend loved it. They are both engineering types and have fun with math puzzles. Based on my experience with their play, I can definitely see 21X being a hit with classrooms. Teachers can easily use this to work on math skills and injecting a little fun or levity or even competition into the educational arena.
I can also see families that like numbers type games enjoying the heck out of this, but me? I’ll admit that I had a good time playing 21X, but I cannot say it would be my preferred way to play Blackjack or even my preferred way to spend the evening playing cards. (There’s always bourre‘ for that).
If Jack and Steph want to play again, I’m up for it, but I’d rather play Velonimo or Scout. The kind of math that is found in those simple little card shedding games is much more my speed!
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A preview copy of 21X was provided by the publisher. Changes to production, gameplay or rules may be made before the game hits store shelves.
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