At a large games club, as Oxford on Board is becoming, if you want to play a particular game on a given night it’s often necessary to have a strapline to tout the game in question. When snap decisions are being made, snappy rhetoric is a valuable tool.
However, I confess that some of the epithets I catch myself using in these circumstances crush me a little bit, even as the words are exiting my mouth. Describing Airlines Europe as ‘an advanced Ticket to Ride,‘ for instance, might have been enough to secure myself some playing partners, but it somehow manages to be unflattering to both games at once. Still, when faced with either Hansa Teutonica or Lancaster as alternatives, I feel able to say that desperate action was necessary.
With a similar brutality towards facts, as well as similar success in persuading people to play, I’ve often touted Christoph Behre’s 23 as ‘something of a reverse No Thanks!‘ Without doubt, it gives a distorted impression as to the rules of 23 – as a game it’s mazier than my pat phrase might suggest, with more meaningful choices than No Thanks! offers. However, I do think the sales device conveys the broader tone of the game with reasonable accuracy: 23 and No Thanks! alike are about agitating your immediate neighbour through the efficient use of chips and numbered cards.
The two games also share the quality of testing the willingness of players to hurt themselves a little in order to hurt other players more. In No Thanks!, collecting a card which would complete a run for another player can be hard to swallow (you’ll certainly hope that someone else will do it for you), but might sometimes be the only way to prevent a player cruising to victory. In 23, by comparison, it’s about having the stomach to take minus point chips in order to employ special actions.
In its raw state, 23 runs all too smoothly. Players aim to rid themselves of a hand of cards (of numbers between one and 23), in turn placing one or more cards onto a common discard pile (more than one card can be played if all cards are of the same face value: there’s one number ‘1’ in the game, two cards of number ‘2,’ and three of everything else). The cards played must show a number equal to or higher than the card which is currently top of the pile. So, for instance, if the top card of the pile shows the number ten, the number three card still in my hand is going nowhere.
Playing a card of the same value as the current top card is free, as is playing a card which is of a value immediately above the current card (so if the current card is a ten, playing another ten would be free, as would playing an 11). Playing a card of a higher number means incurring a minus point for each number skipped (so, if I played a 13, I’d have skipped 11 and 12, and so would have to take two minus points). Any player who manages to play all of his or her cards has three minus points wiped from his or her score.
When dealt a hand which contains a well-spaced selection of cards, simply following the game’s own rhythm might well be a player’s best option. If one’s cards are less amenable, then trying to punch the game into a different pulse rate might be necessary. There are a few ways to do so. For the cost of one minus point (recorded by a purple chip), a player can pass, letting the turn go by without playing a card. By taking two minus points, however, a player can both pass, and force his or her immediate neighbour to play. This can backfire, of course, if you’ve guessed wrongly about what your neighbour is holding, but can be brutal.
Other devices mean forgoing possible positive points: each player starts the game with three green chips. If any of these are kept until the end of the game, each one is worth two points. However, these chips can also be spent to really warp the rhythm of the game: giving up a green chip allows a player to either increase or decrease the value of the current card by up to five (meaning, if the current card is a ten, I could use a green chip, and play anything from five to 15 without penalty). Of course, any player who has compliantly followed the game’s own rhythm might be thrown entirely out of step by a substantial judder in either direction.
Often the decision either to spend a green chip or to take a purple one is an ad hoc response to the current game situation. However, 23 pushes its players to imagine the game ahead, planning potential skips and backsteps, through the neat device of making each player discard three cards, from fifteen, prior to the game. Thus, you cannot help but have a vision regarding those points at which you might play a green chip to skip forwards, or to double back.
Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how important this planning stage is to the pleasure 23 gives: without it, players would lack a sense of ownership over their fates. With it, there’s a sense of investment, and a tension – an almost inevitable struggle to bring the real game into concordance with the game you planned in your head.
One other particularly canny aspect of 23 is the way is the control players are given over when to withdraw from a round. At any point, any player can stop playing cards, and instead take one minus point for each card he or she is still holding: though costly, this can be very potent indeed. By nature, it forces a dramatically different form upon the game for the remaining active players: a player folding early in a three player game, say, effectively leaves a two player game between those remaining – which means more numbers for which no active player has a card, and therefore more cost to skip those missing numbers. In a two player game, this can be especially lethal: leaving a player either to play out his or her hand alone, potentially paying heavily to skip numbers, or to take an unplanned hit in also folding.
Also, setting aside questions of strategic richness, I want to emphasize very strongly that upping and quitting is a massive pleasure. Whether it works out or not with respect to winning the game, slamming your hand down and resigning from a round unexpectedly early is a whole joy of its own: it’s not quite ripping off your tie and marching out of the office, but it’s the same quality of experience, just less strongly expressed. And a round of 23 is short enough that you only need sit for a minute or two before those suckers who didn’t dare quit finish: you’re not left waiting long enough to have to rue your rashness.
I heartily applaud Behre for this aspect of 23: more ‘bugger this’ opportunities in games, please (or more chances to meaningfully say ‘No thanks!,’ if you will).
Finally, 23 astutely knows what is best in terms of its larger structure. Where many lighter card games allow players to determine for themselves how many rounds to play, 23 insists that it should be played over two. The trick is that the green chips players are given at the start of the game are not refreshed before the second round. Thus, the economical use of them becomes a defining element in the experience of playing 23. An awkward hand for the first round of a game might tempt the player to part with two or more green chips in that round, but doing so means being especially vulnerable in the second round. However, a chip kept until the end of the game may well have missed a moment to be employed to greater, more aggressive (and thus more enjoyable) effect.
Thus, playing 23 is a dynamic experience. It can virtually stall sometimes – passing might, in certain circumstances, become a default option. Another round, by contrast, might blister past, accelerated by the play of green chips. However, this inconsistency in pace is entirely due to the action of players: you will, very often, be glad to break the flow of the game. 23 is resilient enough to be pleasurable whether a given round dawdles or sprints. It’s also resilient enough to work well with either two, three or four players. And it’s particularly wonderful how often you can sack it in mid-game and still win.