Today I'm going to talk about this year's freebie holiday game, Absolutely Aces. You might be wondering why the heck I'm talking about a game that won't be out for two whole months - usually the blog-thing about the holiday sale freebie game goes up just before the holiday sale. And the short version is that we just got our proof copy in the mail from the card printer, so I've been playing it a lot, and because I've been playing it a lot, I've been thinking about it a lot - and we need a blog-thing for Friday and this is the game that's on my mind right now so why not?
Right now, I'm super-fascinated with the game and utterly charmed by it - hey, one reason why I design these things is to entertain myself - and I figure that at least some of the folks who get it in the mail come December will feel the same way. I also figure that there's going to be some folks who absolutely cannot stand it, and I am girding myself for the inevitable comments to the effect that paying zero dollars for it was one dollar too many. And as is usually the case with my output, the things that fascinate myself and the members of that first group are probably going to be the things that alienate the second.
Absolutely Aces is sort of the ne plus ultra of my pet obsessions as a designer of two-player games, and may be my most aggressively experimental game. Many of my games are at least partially about deadlock - about both sides pushing at or maneuvering around each other, trying to find and exploit a weakness, with the game basically decided in the moment that one side manages to finally break through. How much longer the game goes on, and whether or not you can recover when you blink, depends on that particular game. But in this one, the moment you break through - the second the other player blinks - you win the round.
One of my most popular games is Table Battles, and the trick that makes that whole system work is that in most cases, if you can perform a Reaction, you must perform a Reaction, and in doing so you forfeit your own Action Phase. This drives some folks positively batty - as one dissatisfied customer noted on BGG,
It falls into loops
of mandatory actions.
It falls into loops
which is, to a degree, entirely the point. But folks who didn't care for that aspect of Table Battles, or who have tried to propose "fixes" to the system, aren't going to find much satisfaction with Absolutely Aces, because here mandatory action loops aren't merely a feature of the game - they are the game. The game is mandatory reactions and nothing but mandatory reactions; it's that one aspect of Table Battles pushed as far as I can push it.
Basically how it works is that each card in the game can block certain cards and be blocked by certain cards. When your opponent plays a card, you must respond to it with a card that can block it. And then your opponent must respond to that card with one that can block it, until one of you can't block. Each card you play will generally be moved to your opponent's hand as soon as they've blocked it. (Here I must make an oblique little nod to the excellent abstract Onitama, from which I drew some inspiration.)
And, oh yes, the game has open hands, so you have perfect knowledge of whether or not your opponent can block that card, and of whether or not you can block the card (or cards) that they might use to block yours. It's if I do this you'll do that which means I have to do this dialed up to eleven.
There are a couple of caveats to the above. For example, if you have two identical cards, you can play both of them together to block anything the other player throws at you. Those cards don't find their way to the other player, but are instead removed from the game, greatly constricting the game's closed economy. This can change the tempo of the engagement, destabilizing the equilibrium that has been established.
This results in a very fragile game - another of my pet obsessions - and in very rare cases, the game can even degenerate into an outright, honest-to-gosh stalemate. This basically requires not only the right mix of cards, but also the right mix of bad players making the right sequence of bad moves, removing three pairs of identical cards from the game, and leaving three cards that perfectly counter one another in turn. I suppose a pair of players could stumble into this if they were playing especially badly and inattentively, but honestly, for a stalemate to occur, both players almost need to be working together with that goal in mind. (Which, if that's how y'all get your jollies, more power to you.)
The players also have a small degree of control over which cards are available in the first place. Each round sees the two players dealt five face-down cards out of a pack of twelve. These cards are numbered one through twelve, and before the hands become open, each player chooses one card to "bid" secretly and simultaneously. The high bidder goes first and removes their card from the game, while the low bidder's card is placed in the first player's "reserve" - said card will move into the first player's hand after they've played their first card.
In some cases both players simply play the highest card they have available. But because only two of the cards aren't dealt out, if your highest card is a "9" then you know that your opponent has at least one of the higher ranked cards; you know you're probably going to lose the bid. The question then becomes which of your cards you want to give to your opponent, and how vulnerable your remaining hand is. It's not really possible for the winning bidder to guarantee victory for the round in the initial bid, but it is certainly possible for the losing bidder to guarantee an almost immediate defeat - the game will punish you severely for mistakes you didn't even know you were making.
And all of the above is very, very much my kind of thing, but I completely understand if it's not quite yours. On the bright side, the game is very short: a single round typically plays out in a few minutes, and it only takes a handful of rounds for one of the players to score the fifteen points needed to win the game. And if you get this in that forthcoming holiday sale and it's really, really not your cup of tea, well, you can at least take some solace in the fact that you didn't overpay for it.