Sweet Little Lies: A Review of Kakerlakenpoker Royal

Playing board and card games over the years has given me confidence in my skills as a manipulator. In negotiation games I consider myself an eloquent persuader, while I also enjoy exploring non-verbal means to shape opponents’ decisions (I’ve written before about my conviction that paying attention to how quickly one plays one’s card in 6 Nimmt! constitutes a key tool to steer opponents’ choices, for instance). Even in eyes-on-your-personal-playing-board, don’t-talk-to-me Euro games, I look for means to nudge my opponents into making decisions which pass on benefits to me, be it through means innate to the game’s mechanisms or not. Whether to fan my cards or not;  how many words to spend in an auction game, as well as how much money; even which colour to play as: all these have I considered in various games in terms of their potential to influence my opponents.

However, whether this all contributes to masterful manipulation or skilled self-delusion, Kakerlakenpoker Royal has shown me beyond any reasonable doubt that I am absolutely terrible at manipulating through outright lying. Blunt, repeated falsehood dominates this wonderful card game by Jacques Zeimet.

Many times per game, one must pass a face-down card to an opponent of one’s choice making a claim, which may or may not be true, about what that card depicts (all cards in the game show animals traditionally considered unsavoury, such as cockroaches and rats). Making the false seem true and the true seem false is pretty much all there is to winning at Kakerlakenpoker Royal: if an opponent successfully reads your claim (deducing correctly whether you were lying or not), you place in front of you the card which you were trying to pass, and you remain the active player (i.e. you must try again to pass a card and deceive  an opponent). Trick your opponent successfully, and he or she must place the card in front of himself or herself and become the active player.

Being a poor liar, I lose often. This happens when you end up with four cards in front of you depicting the same animal, or when you have run out of cards to pass. All other players win. Losing in Kakerlakenpoker Royal is never undeserved. You will have lied poorly, and you will have read your opponents poorly. But losing in Kakerlakenpoker Royal is fun.

Indeed, Kakerlakenpoker Royal might well be my game of the year. An unfussy, fifteen-minute blitz of bluff, in the three months since its release it has tended to be the first game I’ve reached for to demonstrate the kind of games I enjoy to friends unfamiliar with modern board and card games. No other game I’ve played this year has been as reliably pleasurable to play with new players.

In large part I’ve had such success showing off Kakerlakenpoker Royal because it is a game which recognizes the importance of making a fine first impression. Even before the rules have been explained, the vivid artwork tends to have elicited favourable comment when I’ve played. I see why: I very much like Rolf Vogt’s style, and the assortment of unloved creatures which fill the deck of  Kakerlakenpoker Royal represent ideal material for him. The playful pictures also neatly communicate the silly spirit in which the game must be played.

Kakerlakenpoker Royal Cards

A selection of the beautifully illustrated cards from Kakerlakenpoker Royal

Beyond appearances, the rules in themselves are largely easy to explain, and, more importantly, the point in playing is apparent from the very first turn: whereas the pleasure in an engine-building game can reveal itself slowly, often only becoming apparent when (or if) that engine starts to work, the fun in Kakerlakenpoker Royal is quick to uncover, both for card game veterans and new players: the excitement in seeing whether or not a player was bluffing is both immediate and repeated. The pay-off, that the same basic decision (is he/she lying or not?) is repeated throughout the game, matters little to me: in that Kakerlakenpoker Royal takes fifteen or twenty minutes to play, it would sacrifice too much to attempt to squash much of a build-up into that time. It would also miss the fact that human beings are such continually fascinating, surprising objects of study: no two people lie the same way, and even a single individual will explore a range of strategies for deception when under the spotlight repeatedly. You might try watching for hesitation, for evasion of eye-contact, for a trembling voice, but each game will throw up new tells to spot and track in their development.

However, at least one significant issue with Kakerlakenpoker Royal might be seen to exist: that optimal play could be felt to demand picking on the first player to accumulate a few cards. I’ve not yet witnessed this approach utilized, though, nor particularly been the victim of it myself in any of my numerous defeats. Though in certain company vicious play would have a fun of its own, I think it’s easily understood that fully including all players tends to be the best route to a good experience for everyone – and thus, few players need nudging to act this way. I also think players naturally worry that they become more readable the more often they attempt to pass cards to the same player.

Moreover, Kakerlakenpoker Royal does allow an alternative to calling when passed a card. Instead of declaring whether you suspect a player was lying or not, it is possible to peek at a card which was passed to you. If a player does so, he or she must then make his or her own claim about that card (which may or may not be the same as the initial claim), and pass it on to another player. Through this, play can be spread around, and possible spitefulness and repetitiveness mitigated.

It should be explained that Kakerlakenpoker Royal is not an entirely new game: instead, it is an update of  2004’s Kakerlakenpoker and has a few further elements which represent additions to the original. In Kakerlakenpoker Royal, one of each animal is a king or queen. This therefore gives each card two qualities: being a given animal, and being royal or not. When passing a card, a claim can be made about either quality (e.g. – ‘It’s a scorpion!’ or ‘It’s royal!’). A player who must place a royal card in front of himself or herself also has to place an extra card as additional punishment. This additional card is from a set of seven extracted from the regular deck at the beginning of the game to create a punishment deck, the top card of which is left face-up. Attention to the punishment deck is therefore of some importance: if one already has a couple of toads, say, and the current punishment card is a toad, having to take a royal card (toad or otherwise) would be particularly painful.

The other additions are two unique cards: one shows no picture: when passed, claims about it are always false. The second, almost the reverse, can represent any animal (and those claims are considered true), though it is false to claim this card as royal. Should a player misread the claim when one of these is passed, instead of placing the special card in front of himself or herself, the player must substitute an appropriate card from his or her hand, or two cards with other pictures (i.e. if the card was passed with the claim that it was a fly, then the player should use one fly card from his or her hand, or two non-fly cards). Then the player takes the special card into his or her hand, and may pass it on when or if he or she wishes. These special cards do give players more options, but I haven’t found the choices they offer to be interesting enough to justify the confusion they often cause.

That the changes from Kakerlakenpoker are slight means that Kakerlakenpoker Royal  retains the feel of a game from an earlier time. In my view, this is not to its detriment. It is pure in its focus in a way few games of this period are: lying and reading lies is everything here. That’s not just fine, that’s great. It means this game cannot really be gamed, only played, and Kakerlakenpoker Royal is a game which it is a joy to play.

3 thoughts on “Sweet Little Lies: A Review of Kakerlakenpoker Royal

  1. Nice write-up. This one has been a favourite at LoB since Essen. If you haven’t tried them already, I think you might really enjoy both Coup and Skull & Roses, as similarly minimal bluffing/reading games.

    • I have yet to try either, but both sound very much like games I would enjoy. Coup had already come to my attention through the buzz surrounding it at Essen, whereas Skull & Roses isn’t a game I’d looked into before. Thanks for highlighting it.

  2. Pingback: On Playing Well, and its Relationship to Reviewing Well | Painted Wooden Cubes

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