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Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

I wholeheartedly recommend Dead Man’s Draw, a thoroughly entertaining card game version of the popular app created by Stardock Entertainment.  Its Kickstarter campaign is up and running, though only for a  few more days, so if the game described in this review appeals to you, go pledge now! (Campaign ends November 9, 2013).  If the Kickstarter is unable to fulfill its goal, the app will still be available for purchase.

The obvious comparison for Dead Man’s Draw is Circus Flohcati by Reiner Knizia.  Both games are press-your-luck fillers where players try to collect cards of different suits before the draw deck empties.  On your turn, you flip over a card from the deck and it goes into play.  With every card flipped, you face a choice: Continue drawing cards or bank what you have.  If at any point the play area contains 2 cards of the same suit, you go bust and all the cards from the play area are tossed into the discard pile.  Play then passes to the next player.  At the end of the game you sum the highest valued card from each suit in your bank, and the player with the highest overall score is the winner.

There are three aspects of Dead Man’s Draw that set it apart from Circus Flohcati.  First,  each of the 10 suits has a unique special ability – some good, some bad.  For example, if you turn over a card with the Mystic icon, you may take a peek at the next card in the draw deck before officially flipping it over.  Cards with the Cannon icon allow you to discard an opponent’s card of your choice.  And beware the Kraken, for cards with the Kraken icon force you to turn over two additional cards!  The interesting aspect of these special abilities is that players can look for icon combinations that work well together, which adds a strategy element to this gambling game.

The second aspect of Dead Man’s Draw that is different from Circus Flohcati is the character cards.  Before the game begins, each player can select a character and utilize its special ability throughout the game.  For example, your character could force opponents to target their own discard stacks when they draw a Cannon.  Or, your character could force your opponents to draw 4 cards instead of 2 when Krakens appear, increasing their chances of going bust.  The powers overall seemed balanced, but there was one power that might be a little too strong compared to others?  One character allows you to “collect an opponent’s busted cards”, and my group couldn’t decide if that meant every player’s busted cards or you had to pick an opponent before the game began and collect only that opponent’s busted cards.  Hopefully this will be clarified in the final version of the rules.

Speaking of the rules: I cannot comment on the quality of the rulebook, as my game came with the rules crammed onto a single-sided card.  That should give you an indication of how quick and easy it is to teach the game – very quick and very easy – but the small font was hard to read and the text was vague.  My group kept coming up with “What if” questions.  The publisher has said that the final product will include better reference cards, but I expect some rules lawyering will still place during the game as a result.  So I would not recommend playing this game with people who need to have every detail clearly outlined or cannot maturely handle rules discussion.

Finally, according to the Kickstarter page, Dead Man’s Draw will come with descriptions of five variants, or alternate ways to play the game.  One variant mentioned by the publisher is that players can decide to represent their final score as  the value of all cards banked instead of just adding the highest value card in each suit.  I don’t know what the other four variants are, but the idea of flexibility and finding a variant that you and your fellow players like best seems intriguing.

I’m guessing this screenshot provides some hints for the other variants:

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Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

 

The inevitable question that arises is “Which would you recommend: The app or the game?”  It is a reasonable question – why back the game for the Kickstarter price of $25 or more if you can purchase the app for far less?

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Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

Unfortunately, I am not the best reviewer to answer this type of question, as I own neither a smartphone nor a tablet.  I have seen others play, so I’ll take a shot at it, but I am by no means the expert.  The major benefit of the card game is that it officially plays 2-4 people, while the app is limited to solo or 2 (local) players.  Also, while the app is very pretty, the cards themselves are gorgeous and I liked seeing a full-size version of the symbols and characters.  You also don’t have to wait to unlock extra abilities or spend gold to recharge powers as you do in the app, as everything is available to you once you open the box.  Also, there’s just something cool about sitting around a table with a group of friends and flipping over attractive cards that’s just lost when you pass a smartphone back and forth.

The downside of the game, compared to the app, is that you are in charge of keeping track of your own points and your opponent’s points, which can slow the game down if you or your opponents are the type of people who want to know the exact score every round instead of approximating.  The app also reduces the clutter, as all of the cards fit neatly onto one little screen; ten piles of cards in front of each player can become a little messy.

 

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Image Credit: Stardock Entertainment

My friends and I really liked Dead Man’s Draw.  The game itself was quick to teach, quick to learn, and did its job as a filler by running 15-20 minutes per game.  As I mentioned before, the art itself is very attractive (see the Kickstarter page for a cute overview of how the designers picked the Pirate concept).  Everything fits nicely into one little box.  Dead Man’s Draw has a Vegas or gameshow feel to it that engages you easily.   You don’t need to be a Vegas-level card counter to play, but the game presents you with enough choices and requires enough skill (memory, odds calculating, combo creation) along the way to be replayable and  interesting.  I could play this game at a bar, at grandma’s, at game night, or at lunch with coworkers, and everyone is going to have a great time taunting, cheering, strategizing, and pressing their luck.  I would recommend this game to casual, family, and serious gamers alike.