There is a mantra in board game discussions you are probably well familiar. “Less is more!” we shout often and loudly. It’s mostly true, right? Less can be more especially in terms of the ratio between the size of the box and the amount of gameplay that it generates, and I am as guilty as any of being seduced by small box surprises. We have long championed games from Oink Games or Weird Giraffe Games, publishers who specialize in attempting to give their patrons big game experiences in little packages.
Do not take that first paragraph as an apology of any kind. I truly love finding games that fit in the palm of your hand yet give you thirty to sixty minutes of puzzles or strategy or even a short narrative experience.
In fact, we’ve been revisiting Durian lately, a game that flew under the radar from Oink. My grandbugs are finally ready to start playing games with a little more heft and they loved the cover showing the “angry gorilla” staring at them. In true Hanabi style, players are pushing their luck adding fruit orders to a chain but without knowing exactly the amount of product that the table has at their disposal, because each person cannot see their own inventory card. The cards are small, like oversized chewing gum wrappers, and the tiny little bell and order chart are perfectly sized to take up very little space. And yet…and yet it feels like a bigger production than it is despite the small area it encompasses. Win, win.
I bring this physics anomaly up to transition to a discussion of Button Shy Games’ new solo game, Numbsters, because there is a parallel disconnect that I think Numbsters also avoids successfully. Numbsters understands what it is supposed to be — a small game with a small appetite for table space — yet still it pulls the player in with each successive play.
Numbsters is a brightly colored card game designed by Milan Zivkovic with unforgettable art by Luke Flowers in a bright pink wallet package. It will be available to the public in April 2023, with pre-orders being taken right now. As is typical for Button Shy, the game comes with only 18 cards in a folded packet perfect for throwing in your back pocket or tossing in your game bag. The colors literally pop off the page, and the hand-drawn cartoon monsters deftly walk the line between exaggerated doodles from high school and professionally drawn terrors from a late-night animated show on cable. The engaging artwork is almost but not quite a pity, since the real focus of the game is on the numbers and the powers that each number has to wreck (or aid) your gameplay.
This is a variation of your family’s favorite and familiar solitaire games, this time where the object is to get down from 18 cards between your hand and deck to just two cards. Players start with a random hand of cards, plus the “eight” monster card, and then draw a card, move a card, and discard a card in order to get down to those two cards.
Two stipulations must be met for you to win: the trick is that the two cards must contain the “8” card AND that eight card must be behind the other card. You’ve probably already guessed how you will meet this challenge, if you have any love of dad jokes or have younger kids accompanying you on your daily commute.
Remember the old joke, which I’ve heard attributed to the old Dixie cups line of paper cups with jokes imprinted on them, that six is afraid of seven, because seven eight nine (“seven ate nine”)? That one little line appears to have been all Zivkovic needed to develop the whole entire game. The premise is simple. Smaller numbers “eat” (discard) larger numbers if they are in sequence. For instance, if eleven and twelve are next to each other in your hand, then you could move the eight directly between them and voila! eleven eight (ate) twelve.
Sounds simple? The concept is, but the execution of “draw – then move/switch – then discard” is easy until you learn the one kink. You can never end the turn sequence with the eight card facing you. With only one move or switching of cards per turn, you will quickly run out of cards that are next to each other sequentially. That’s when Zivkovic throws in a yet another curveball that really spices up this game.
Each of the 18 cards has a special power, that all break the game in some fashion. One card lets a smaller odd number eat a double digit number. Or maybe a larger double digit even number can eat a smaller double digit number. But the downside to using these special powers is that the card that you use with the special powers moves to the back of the hand, meaning it can leave the eight exposed if you are not careful.
That’s how simple the game is. Draw a card, move a card (or switch two cards), and then discard (eat) a card if you can, either using the normal sequence of numbers or the special power of the facing card. I found it pretty easy to run through the deck. But then, the tough decisions begin. With no more ability to feed cards into your hand, you have to rely only on what is available in your hand, making tactical moves to get the right two cards next to each other, or strategically moving cards to ensure the right sequence of special card powers comes into play at the end.
I rarely make those kinds of decisions. I’ve played a dozen times, and I think I’ve only won once or twice. It’s really challenging, but in a good way, in a very satisfying way when you make a good play or even when you get down to just two cards but the eight is on the wrong side of the pair.
That’s another mark of this game’s elegance. It is fun to play even when you don’t win, although losing two or three in a row is very, very frustrating!
But I started this chat talking about a parallel disconnect that some small games have, and that’s really what I want to highlight here. I’m glad that Button Shy has been able to get designers to take their famed 18 card system and make games with big presences. Heck, Zivkovic has a game or two that takes up a huge section of my GameTopper table (Wildtails and BattleCrest come to mind). That’s fine and dandy, but sometimes I just want a game that I can play with minimal set up and way less table hogginess.
Numbsters aces this part. The rules hint that when you are just starting out you should fan your cards out across the table so that you can see all the numbers more easily and also quickly glance at all of the special powers. I am assuming that’s because more successful players lean into the special powers and make moves specifically to organize them in such a way that combos the special powers favorably, so seeing them on the table that way makes it a lot easier to strategize.
I wish I could say that I was a good enough strategizer that putting them in order helped more, but in any case, after a few plays, I preferred playing the game with all of my available cards in my hand fanned out poker style, spreading them out enough to be able to read the numbers easily. Play went faster and felt more intuitive, and I’ve stuck to it ever since.
Numbsters has been a pleasant surprise, and delivered what I personally want to see in a small solo game. Give me a tough game to beat that fits in the palm of my hand. Make it easy to set up and carry around, which means it will probably get played more. But, still somehow give me a bigger experience in gameplay.
Stay small in stature. Deliver a bigger challenge and experience. Numbsters, in my opinion, hits those marks and does so with ease.
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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