# Twenty-One

For all the flashy modern games that we have in the house, it’s surprising just how often we go back to older games that have stood the test of time. One of these is Twenty-One (also known as Pontoon or Blackjack).

This is a card game that goes back at least as far as the 17th century and is (as you’d expect) played with a standard deck of cards. Each card is worth the number of pips on the card except for the ace, which is worth either one or 11 (player’s choice) and the picture cards, which are all worth ten points each. The aim is to get as close to 21 as you can without exceeding this number (in which case you are bust and have lost).

There are many versions and descendants of the game and multiple variations on the rules. The way we play it is to first select a dealer who deals two cards to each player, including himself. Play then goes clockwise, starting with the player immediately to the left of the dealer. That player then draws cards until either he decides to stop of goes bust, then it’s the next player’s turn.

When someone goes bust, they have to immediately declare it. Of the players that didn’t go bust, whoever was closest to 21 wins the round, with a couple of exceptions. A royal 21 (a picture card and an ace) beats any other 21 and a five card trick (five cards, any score as long as you don’t go bust) beats everything.

The winner of the round takes the pot and someone else gets to be dealer for the next round.

This is, of course, a gambling game. Each player pays in to the pot to join a round and pays into the pot for each additional card they take.

Obviously, we use glass beads rather than actual money. Otherwise the boys would never have to ask for pocket money again.

The great advantage of Twenty-One is its flexibility. A round only takes a couple of minutes to play and, if we’re waiting for something, we can play as many rounds as we have time for.

And it’s an educational game. Not only do the boys have to add up the cards in their hands and calculate how far they are from 21, but they also have to try to assess the probability that the next card will take them over.

# Timeline: Science and Discovery

About a month ago, Luke at Start Your Meeples mentioned Timeline: Diversity, one of the many games in the Timeline series from Asmodee Games. This prompted me to pull out, yet again, our copy of Timeline: Science and Discovery, a game that we play infrequently but regularly.

In terms of rules, all of the Timeline games are the same. Each player is dealt 4 cards with the date side down and the rest of the cards are left in a pile in the middle of the table (date side down). Turn over the first card and then the players take it in turns to pick a card from their hand and place it in the timeline (leftmost is the earliest event and rightmost is the latest). If you place your card correctly, well done, if not the cared is discarded and you have to draw another card.

The first player to get rid of all of their cards wins the game, but the competitive part of the game takes a very long second place to its ability to provoke discussions.

What happens is this: Someone picks a card and says something about what event they are sure it happened before or after. At this point everyone else starts jumping in with their own best guess as to where the card should be in the timeline. This will continue until the player turns their card to reveal the date, at which point we all say either Aha! or Oh.

With 110 cards in the deck, it’s not possible to memorise all of the dates so the game forces you to start thinking about when discoveries happened in relation to each other (was bacteria discovered before or after the arrival of The Mayflower, for example).

Timeline is not a game that we play particularly often, but when we do it can trigger a conversation (and often, much Googling) for the rest of the evening.

# Emergency Entertainment, or: What’s in the games bag

Last week I mentioned that we have a bag or portable games for emergency entertainment and I thought it might be interesting to delve into this, so to speak.

A bit of context first. Eve and I both enjoy eating out and it didn’t really occur to us that we should stop doing this just because we had kids. Of course, no-one wants to be That Really Annoying Family With The Screaming Kids, so we tried to make sure that we would be able to keep the kids entertained while we waited for the food to arrive. Initially, this meant looking for restaurants with outdoor play areas (there used to be two locally, now only one — but it’s really good) and, later, ensuring we had paper and crayons to hand.

As the boys grew older, we have continued to bring our own entertainment when we go out for food, but this entertainment has veered towards multi-player card games. Our restaurant routine has now become one in which we sit down, decide what to play, order drinks, deal, order food and play until said food arrives.

It’s an approach that works for us and, I think, if we are all sitting around a decent sized table it’s a lot nicer to do something together rather than all lock ourselves into phones and tablets (actual quote from an actual waiter).

The bag itself has gone through several iterations. At one point, we had a lot of two-player travel games in it which was fine when the twins were too young to join in. But as they have grown older, these games have been replaced with multi-player games and the multiplayer games have all turned out to be card games, primarily because these are easy to transport and don’t take up too much space when played.

So, what’s currently in the bag?

First up, we have three puzzle games — one for each of the boys. These are designed to be played individually so if, for any reason, one or more of the boys doesn’t want to join in, they don’t have to. This is important because, to me at least, playing games should be something fun that we choose to do, no a chore to keep the kids quiet.

Next up is Uno. Uno is a great game and one that works really well when we are out and about. It’s compact, simple and can be played by any number of people.

Then we have The Monkey Poo game. Because a family that throws poo together is a family that stays together.

The most recent addition to the bag is Exploding Kittens. We played this on Sunday and it’s still going down a storm.

There are also a couple of trivia games (Harry Potter trivia and Dinosaur trivia, if you must know). These may not stay in the bag for much longer though as the twins tend to switch off quite quickly when they come out. We shall see.

And finally, we have a deck of bog standard playing cards. Four suits and thirteen cards per suit. And with one of these, you can play anything.

I keep thinking that we should also add Sushi Go to the bag. This is another multi-player party game that, on the face of it, should work well when we are out and about. The only problem is that once a round is played, everyone has to tot up their scores. This adds an extra layer of organisation that I have so far managed to avoid.

So over to you. If you’re a parent, how do you keep your kids entertained when you’re out and about?

# Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens is the only Kickstarter project that I have backed. With two real games designers behind the game and Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal providing the artwork, it looked like a pretty safe bet, and it was. The game duly turned up and, rather embarrassingly, I never actually got around to playing it.

That changed at the weekend when Macsen found the box and asked about it. So he, me and the twins set about reading the rules and dealing the cards. And I will say upfront that we had a lot of fun with this game.

The game is essentially a version of Russian Roulette, in which players draw cards until someone draws an exploding kitten card and, if that player doesn’t have a defuse card then he or she is blown out of the game with a Kaboom!

The other cards in the deck allow you to do things like peek ahead, force other players to draw extra cards or end your turn without drawing a card. Of course, not drawing a card drastically reduces your chance of ending up as a feline fireball.

The last player to survive wins the game.

Exploding Kittens is not a very complex game and nor is there a lot of strategy involved — avoid drawing cards as far as possible and hang onto your defuse cards — but it is a lot of fun. And a large part of this fun comes down to the cards themselves.

If you have ever read The Oatmeal, you will recognise the often juvenile sense of humour behind the Rainbow-Ralphing Cat, the puntastic Jackanope and — a household favourite — the Transdimensional Litter Box. I enjoy this sort of silliness and the boys are still repeating some of the jokes three days later.

Exploding Kittens is a quick, simple and very funny game. We have a bag of portable games that we take on trips for emergency entertainment. This game is going in the bag.

# Game Night

Yesterday evening was spent mainly playing board games (and a card game). Specifically, Quoridor, Hive, Onitama and Sushi Go. I have talked about Quoridor in the past and keep meaning to post something about the other games at some point, but for now all I have is an observation about the type of games I enjoy most: Abstract strategy games.

These are games that, in general, have no — or very little — theme. They are also games for which the rules are tend to be very simple allowing for complexity to emerge from the gameplay itself.

The perfect example of this is probably Go, a game that can be summed up with about four rules and one that remains fiendishly to get to grips with. This is a game I started playing about 18 months ago, and I’m still rubbish.

Games with a strong theme can be fun, but for me the emphasis on the theme can get in the way of the gameplay. These games often come with thick, comprehensive rulebooks that attempt to make the theme come to life but which also require you to keep checking the rules. Complex rules can also give rise to ambiguities and, in the worst case, rules-lawyering.

Abstract games avoid many of these problems. A simple and clear set of rules removes ambiguity and, once understood, never need to be looked at again. This allows me to focus purely on the gameplay and become fully absorbed in the complexity that emerges from the game.

These types of games also tend to either remove or minimise luck as a part of the gameplay. When I lose, I can usually see exactly when and why I lost — if not immediately, then eventually. This gives me a clear route towards thinking about strategies and towards improving my game — whatever game that might be.

I’m not particularly exclusive in my game-playing and will try pretty much anything at least once. But over time, I have developed a clear preference for abstract games that allow me to focus entirely on how to beat (or not lose too badly to) my opponent.