Monday, March 14, 2011

HOT BOX - "Haggis" by Sean Ross (Review)

I'm glad you stopped by the Board Game Back Room today! I wanted to show you this new game I've had an opportunity to play a little bit and tell you a bit more about it and what I think about it. The game is called "Haggis", was designed by Sean Ross and is published by Travis Worthington's publishing company, Indie Boards and Cards (which also has published Triumvirate, The Resistance and Filipino Fruit Market).

It was originally released in 2010 and was just recently re-printed (2nd printing) in a slightly modified box in 2011. My copy is, in fact, one of the first from the newest batch and can be seen in more detail in my other post of the box opening which I received as a result of a winning bid in the Jack Vasel support auction on

Ok, that's enough plugging the company and such....get on with it!
Alright, alright. So, you may have heard this game is Tichu for 2 or 3 players. Honestly, hearing this made me interested as I had played Tichu a few times and found it a fun and challenging card game. For some, this might be off-putting as I know some people that don't like Tichu much at all (although many do) or just cannot play it because they don't have 4 players consistently.

Well, I will start off by saying that, in my assessment, Haggis is both similar AND not similar at the same time. There are certainly elements of Tichu and there is a 'feel' of Tichu, but, I have to say, it is NOT Tichu. I think Tichu players will certainly enjoy this game and be able to get a Tichu-like fix when they don't have 4 total players for Tichu. But, I also think this is a terrific game for non-Tichu players that want an interesting, challenging card game. This might even be a less intimidating game to give a Tichu neophyte a stepping stone to Tichu. Okay, I think I'm done saying Tichu  (I said 'it' way too many times in this paragraph!) but I will say this - Haggis is NOT Tichu.

So, what IS Haggis?
Haggis is, well....Haggis! It is a careful blending of mechanics and features of several card games in the 'climbing' card game family, plus a couple of innovations thrown in as well.

Here's a summary of the rules:

  • Use 4 suits for 2 players, 5 suits for 3 players (each suit ranges from 2-10)
  • Each player gets a Jack, Queen and King placed in front of them on the table.
  • Deal 14 cards to each person. The leftover is the 'Haggis' (like the food - potentially good, potentially not) and will go to the winner of the round.
  • The player with the least points plays first.
  • The following groups of cards can be played:
    • A single card
    • A pair, 3 of a kind, 4 of a kind, etc.
    • A run/sequence of 3 or more single cards of the SAME suit
      • Examples: 234 | 6789 | 345678  - each of the same suit
    • A run/sequence of 2 or more pairs EACH of the SAME suit
      • Examples: 89 89 | 89 89 89 | 89 89 89 89 | 789 789  - where each 'run' is of the same suit
    • Bombs (outrank all previously listed groups)
      • All possible bombs, low to high: 3579 (rainbow) | JQ | JK | QK | JQK | 3579 (suited)
      • All cards used in Bombs have point values! 3579 = 1, J=2, Q=3, K=5
      • Bombs do not have to match the pattern of the cards being played.
  • The J, Q and K can each be used as wilds in any of the above groups EXCEPT the Bombs.
    • Note that J, Q and K can all be played 'natural' as singles.
  • Betting of 0, 15 (small) or 30 (large) occurs before you play your first card. You bet on whether you think you will go out first or not.
  • Whatever category of card group is played, all subsequent plays must be of the same size/pattern and MUST be higher ranked.
  • The goal is to get rid of all your cards first.
  • The rounds ends when one player goes out (in 2 player) or when two people have gone out (in 3 player)
  • Scoring occurs
    • Cards in hand give 5 points EACH to the player that went out PLUS the point value on any Bomb cards left in-hand (of the last remaining hand of cards after everyone goes out)
    • The first player to go out gets the value of all bets in points. In 3 player games, if the 2nd player to go out bet 0, they get the value of the 3rd person's bet.
    • Finally, points on cards from tricks captured are added up by each player and scored (i.e. for all 3579JQK)
  • Play continues until someone reaches at least 350 points.
The rules sheets
The official full rules are available for download from BGG for your review.

In a nutshell, you play cards in sets or sequences in ever increasing rank to win tricks (and control) in an effort to shed/get rid of your cards and (hopefully) earn more points! That's it!

This all is very common for climbing games.

Hmmm, but from the rules, it doesn't sound like Tichu....
Ah-ha, you're right! I TOLD you it's not Tichu! See, Tichu has you playing in partnerships, passing cards, and it has 4 special cards that do different things and score points in different ways (positive and negative). None of that is in Haggis.

Also, the betting is different (although it has the same function - to force you to take risks) and the Bombs are different.

So, how is it LIKE Tichu? has sets and sequences which are similar. It has betting. It has powerful Bombs. You get points for certain cards. And the idea of a wild card is used but extended to the J, Q and K.

More subtly, it has similar TENSE game play with climbing sets, trying to go out first, careful card play, strong desire to have control, and using Bombs to try to take control. Even more subtly, from Sean's design notes on BGG, Tichu formed the basis for the framework of certain elements such as the scoring - the max scoring damage you can do in Tichu is Grand Tichu which is 40% of a winning total and he tried to keep the scoring along similar lines.

So, it has similar ELEMENTS that Tichu has. But, Haggis also has elements that are similar to Big Two, Gang of Four, and Zheng Shangyou. (Note also that Lexio is a commercial version of Big Two but with tiles). All of these games have their origins in Chinese climbing card games.

In Big Two and Gang of Four, you are penalized for having cards left in your hand and it gets progressively worse in Big Two. Game of Four is similar but is somewhat weak in how it penalizes. Ultimately, the result is that Haggis penalizes you by giving an opponent 5 points per card in hand. This can be HUGE if you get caught with with a lot in your hand (the other night I got 50 points just for 10 cards left in my opponent's hand). In addition, you also get the point value of the 3579JQK cards (aka Bomb cards) that were in your opponent's hand!

In addition to all of this, there are some unique elements which, ultimately, is what makes Haggis intriguing.

What are the unique elements in Haggis?
Well, one of the most important (and interesting) is the Jack, Queen and King cards. One of EACH of these cards is automatically available to each player at the beginning of a round. In fact, these cards are double-sided such that everyone knows you have these cards whether they are on the table or you hold them in your hand!

And they are powerful because of 3 reasons:

  1. They are the highest SINGLE cards with the King being the highest, of course.
  2. They can each be used as a WILD card in any regular group of cards (if used with at least one non-wild card). They can even be used together in a regular group (3JQ ==345 is a legal non-Bomb play)
  3. They can be used in a Bomb (i.e. you are guaranteed at least 1 Bomb in your hand)

They are extremely powerful, and yet they are not 'all powerful' because you are limited to what they can be used for, and the decisions around their usage can be excruciating. If you expend one as a Wild or a good Single you are still left with a Bomb. But if you use two as Wilds then you are left with just another Wild or a good Single, but no guaranteed Bombs.

To me, these triple duty cards are the crux of what makes Haggis a great game. Sean talks a lot about balancing the scoring and the deck distribution in his descriptions of the game development and this is certainly very important, but in playing the game, I think the J, Q and K are ultimately where the game play itself is at.

Another unique element is that when you use a Bomb, you must give the trick cards to an opponent (you choose in 3 player). Thus, you retain the lead, but you give up points doing it. Regardless of which Bomb you use you are giving up points, but it is especially painful when using the J, Q or K since you are giving up 5 to 8 points (although it is still 4 for a standard Bomb) plus whatever else points are on the cards on the table.

You must weigh the decision to use a Bomb carefully as it IS possible to be the first player to go out in a round and yet earn the least number of points due to giving away too many points in relation to the bid points available. For instance, one time I went out first but my opponent had only 1 card left so I got 5 + 0 for bets + 15 points on cards = 20 where my opponent got 21 points from his card points!

Finally, betting is more of a gamble than in a game such as Tichu. In Tichu, an experienced player will see what cards they have and know immediately if they have a strong hand or not and whether they should call Tichu or even Grand Tichu. However, with Haggis, it is less obvious. There are 3 cards left out (in the Haggis) in a 3 player game and 8 cards left out in a 2 player game. This leaves some variability that is hard to predict. In addition, you aren't passing cards so you don't have much information about the other cards out there and you don't have a partner that can help you out of a sticky situation. PLUS, because your opponent is guaranteed a Bomb, that can make things a little unpredictable as to when they might use it. Of course, you have one too which balances nicely, especially in 2 player.

So, what do you think of Haggis overall?
First of all, the artwork and theme seem to be just the right amount for this game. Gary Simpson (who also has done work for Summoner Wars and other games with excellent artwork) has made nice, clean looking cards that convey the right information but don't get in the way of the game. The colors are terrific and the Scottish knots used in place of the suits are really interesting looking. I also love the Scottish tartan (which is actually based on Sean's family heritage - the Ross Clan Scottish tartan) for the box cover.

Examples of all the suits, plus the J, Q and K
Listing the point values on the cards is brilliant and one of the primary reasons to purchase the game. Changing the background color for the 'hand bomb' cards (3579) is also a spectacular idea - this helps alert you to the fact that they are special.

For a brief moment, Sean toyed with the idea of adding a theme to the game but later decided it would be a mistake and take away from the core gameplay. I tend to agree in this - it was originally designed to work with a regular playing deck (and theoretically can be, at least for 2 player)

Ultimately I'm a big fan of Haggis so far. I love tension in a game and this has it. I love confrontation and this also has it. I love the ability to make a clever move or to come from behind and make a game of it - that is definitely here as well. And, I love being able to take risks and you definitely have that with the betting.

Sean initially set out to make a game that he himself loved and wanted to play over and over again and have a good challenge. This is exactly the reason I enjoy Haggis as well. I love head-to-head play and this is a terrific 2-player game. Note that I have not played it 3-player yet, but the game was primarily designed as a 2-player game and so far that has been how I've played it. I think having the extra suit when playing with another player would definitely be interesting and I like the idea of being able to PASS like in Tichu and then have the play come back around to you again and you can play again if you feel you need to control it, so I'm looking forward to playing that way as well.

Do you have any issues with the game?
I have a very minor quibble and a somewhat troublesome issue.

First, the quibble: although I love the knots in place of traditional suits on the cards, because they are so different, there's no way to describe them. So, you must resort to the colors but those are also not really 'standard'. You end up calling them red, green, brown, gray and black (or green). In playing the game, this isn't really a problem. It's only a problem when you haven't played before or you are trying to teach the game. You just have to say 'this' suit or 'that' suit and point. Not a big deal and I hope they DON'T change the art, but maybe we need a list of names to call them (i.e. give some background to the knots)

Second, the section on Sequences in the rules and on the reference card needs some work. The examples are clear for the most part, but I think listing out some more examples to show more of the range AND making the examples more consistent would help a lot. I would have liked the instructions to give a few more CLEAR examples of possible combinations and also have them listed more consistently. For instance, in the rules book, the "Run of 2 Pairs" is listed vertically (88 99 going down). However, the "Run of 3 Pairs" is listed horizontally (789 789). For consistency, it seems it should have been (77 88 99) running down OR the Run of 2 pairs should have been horizontal as well.
The Reference Card (front and back)
Then, on the reference card, the method of layout is completely different showing the Run of Pairs side-by-side rather than overlapped as in the manual and not with the card graphics, just the number and symbol. I LOVE the reference card otherwise and the fact it was included, and the key for the ordering of the Bombs is critical and works well. Just a little more consistency is needed for everything else so it's easier to relate the information.

Would you buy this game again?
YES. At the going cost of it now it's definitely worth the price of admission. I know I will get a lot of game play out of Haggis and if I had to buy it again I would.

Do you have any final thoughts?
I will say that Haggis and Tichu are certainly cut from the same cloth, but the strategies and overall play are fundamentally different. With each game you will feel something familiar with the other. However, I think Tichu has more subtleties that occur with partnership play, card passing and the special cards. This doesn't mean that Haggis is not as good - it's just different and you shouldn't expect one will directly translate to the other. This is actually probably an advantage - Haggis doesn't TRY to be Tichu - it just tries to be a good game in-and-of itself and has it's own subtleties and strategies which provides a new challenge with the same level of tension and excitement.

Come back soon...
In the near future I will be posting an 'interview' of sorts with Sean Ross, so keep an eye out for it!

Now go eat some Haggis (or maybe just a hotdog will do....hey, I had hot dogs for dinner last night! I guess I should have had Haggis instead....)

1 comment:

Comments are open to anyone. Criticism is fine if it's clean and reasonable. Anything deemed inappropriate by me will be removed.