A review of Haggis a 3P card game.

Let me start with a disclaimer that I am a big fan of the designer Sean Ross because of his awesome “Recommended/Best for Two” Geeklists and his active participation on BGG, so I will readily admit that if I did not enjoy Haggis I would have just kept my mouth shut. That said, I really, really did not expect to appreciate this game. As a fan of climbing games, particularly Tien Len, I am a little protective of this mechanic, so I get skeptical when the designer adds an extra suit, faceup wild cards, funky bombs, and awkward scoring. Furthermore I tried playing it 2P with my girlfriend who was half asleep and we both came away with a very lackluster impression. But yesterday, I got a chance to play Haggis with a couple every experienced gamers and I was very impressed. It is not a perfect game (for the record, I don’t believe Tichu is either), but it is definitely a fun game, especially for gamers.

I won’t go too deep into gameplay, but here’s a quick intro. The game is played with a custom five-suited deck of good looking, well designed cards printed on fairly nice stock, (a step below casino quality but fine for heavy use). As a climbing game the primary goal is to shed your cards with a secondary goal of picking up point cards during the play. A 3P game will involve all five suits of cards (each ranked 2 through 10) with each player is given a JQK which are wild cards which are kept face up (2P games involve only four suits). There are a variety of bombs, and each player actually starts with at least one available (using the JQK). For scoring, the 3,5,7 and 9 are worth 1pt each while Jack is worth 2pts, Queen worth 3pts, and King worth 5pts. When you shed of your last card you immediately score 5X points for every card in your opponent’s hand (in a 3P game whoever has more cards) and the last place player also gives his cards in hand to player who went out first. Each player keeps and scores the cards they captured during play. There is also bonus scoring if someone declares a bet that they’ll go out first. The game ends once someone suprasses 350 points.

So what did I think of the game? Well lets start with the criticisms. I still haven’t got over my initial lackluster 2P experience and even though I like the 3P game, I am very disappointed that the 2P game involves taking out one of the suits — which diminishes one of the more distinctive aspects of the game, the ease of mixed 3579 bombs and the mind twister of having to keep track of that fifth suit. Furthermore, I still find the scoring more awkward than it should be. I’m not sure how to resolve it, but I just feel that there must be a better way because we just kept finding ourselves digging around for missing point cards (moreso than Tichu). But the primary reason I don’t plan on buying the game is because I feel that Haggis, like Tichu, are great gamers’ games but I don’t think either game is particularly suited for casual play (my personal sweet spot). Just as I still prefer Tien Len to Tichu, I prefer Dou Dizhu as a lighter 3P climbing card game which just needs a standard deck and doesn’t involve nearly as much explanation. Unfortunately I fear that non-gamers may not get past the rough initial plays of Haggis to get to the zone where it really starts to shine.

So why do I think its a great gamers’ game? First, there is a huge tension between getting rid of cards as quickly as possible while keeping the big boppers in hand so you can go out smoothly. Having cut my teeth on Tien Len, I have very strong instincts to hold back during play, letting the other players deplete their hands and then slamming them right before they can go out. Unfortunately with this strategy, if you misjudge your opponents in this game, they can pick up a ton of points when they go out – and even if you win, you just don’t capture that many bonus points. So that makes me play a bit more dangerously than I generally like making it an exciting brain tickler – I almost never end my hand with a weak set in normal climbing games, but I found myself regularly stuck with a crap in Haggis. Also, the plethora of wild cards and bombs in the game adds a nicely balanced wildness to the gameplay — you can’t just chart a path and roll the opponents when you get a great hand. Because the game does not have the partnership and passing of Tichu, Haggis produces its gamery complexity by giving each player three wild cards and the ability to make bombs with those cards. And in a 3P game with 5 suits the mixed 3579 combo is fairly common, but because that combo is weaker than any of the face card bombs, its also not nearly as strong as one would wish. I really like how the fifth suit forces you to think differently in keeping track of cards. And finally, because two players can try to sit on a player and keep him from that magic 350 threshold, there are some interesting temporary partnership dynamics that come and go in a course of a 3P game.

And this is what makes Haggis interesting to me, I like the multiple dilemmas that Sean has embedded in the game. The dilemma that if you use your wilds you’ll break up your bombs, and if you use bombs you’re burning cruicial wildcards for the sets you just won the right to play. The dilemma that you can see what wild cards/bombs your opponents have…and they can see yours too. The dilemma that the awesome hidden bomb in your hand often breaks up some sweet sets you’d have otherwise. The dilemma that keeping your cards can let you unleash some awesome combos, but because everyone starts with wilds and bombs, an opponent can often suddenly dump their last few cards before you’ve made your move. The dilemma that you’re buddies with one guy now, and those points you let him take might just let him sneak past both of you. And with all these dilemmas, Haggis becomes a dynamic game and a great fun play. While I really think that the game could use a little polishing at the edges, its 99% of the way there, so if you’re a fan of traditional card games (and especially if you like them a little meatier), you won’t regret trying it out.

Bonus: I came up with a scoring variant that I think could be pretty elegant. Its very simple. Instead of scoring 5X points for cards, you score 1 point for each card in the (largest) remaining opponent’s hand. Also you score 1 point for each face card you capture. When you win a set with a 3579 bomb, the player you give the captures to sets it aside and scores 2 points for a mixed set and 3 points for a suited set. And instead of playing to 350, play to 70 points. That’s it….now lets see if I get a chance to playtest it!

China Pictures

Its maybe still too many photos, but hey, its half of my initial set of “good” photos. In any case, feel free to ask me about any of them…going to a different country definitely gives you lots of interesting things to shoot…just cause its all so new and different and thus “fresh”.

Quick hits while in China

So during near the end of the trip I took some notes of things that struck my attention. I’ve finally gotten around to going over them (very lightly) and added a couple at the end. I wish I had gone over the list earlier, I’d bet I had have more things to add, but here it is.

  1. Shanghai is denser than anything you see in Manhattan, the first ring of burbs around Hangzhou comes close, and brand new luxury burbs just a little less.
  2. They don’t ever just make a residential tower out here….they make several at a time.
  3. Suburb seems to mean four units stacked on each other instead of a seven story apartment complexes.
  4. Hangzhou suburbs, while dense, are definitely trying their best to be utterly boring like those in the good old USA.
  5. But damn there’s a lot of cars and they drive like utter madmen!
  6. Walking (and driving) around Shanghai and Hangzhou is an almost contact sport.
  7. Food is fresher out here…bound to be when they’ve got live chickens and ducks in your supermarkets
  8. But their supermarets don’t have don’t have aloe vera lotion tissue papers.  That makes it close to a barbarian society to me.
  9. Other than that you can basically buy anything you want out here…and most things will be a little cheaper than the states but not nearly as much as you’d think since all the stuff in the states had to get shipped across the pacific ocean.
  10. The US really needs to get its act together and start making $1 and $2 coins.
  11. I wonder how obviously american I am to these folks.
  12. Not knowing what the hell anyone is saying is both not nearly as bad and much worse than it may seem when you think about it.
  13. I really dislike a lot of the fashion choices made by the women out here.
  14. That said, Chinese TV is full of ads for skin lotions…which is a step up from being full of ads for beer and cars.
  15. Guys don’t like to cut their hair too short and very few people have facial hair.
  16. Chinese bed (woven strings) really is a great system.  Not sure why others don’t emulate it.  But I can still sleep on anything (pulled out sofa bed with a big cross bar running down the length of it.
  17. People are very energy conscious…they all unplug their small devices.  Hell they even turn off the water heaters at night.
  18. A lot of people play cards out here.  I think it must be more convenient than Mahjong or something.
  19. Weddings involve a lot of firecrackers.
  20. There are a lot of people standing around.  And its awfully wierd to be saluted when driving out the complex.
  21. I’d love to hear how great US capitalism is compared to Chinese capitalism with a retirement age around 55 and reasonable health costs.
  22. That said, the air here is WAY worse than anything I’ve seen in the states
  23. I think grandma is taking this as a time to brainwash Jing into making babies.
  24. It was quite an amusing lunch with Grandma and Jo-Ma watching them pressure her to make baby.
  25. Food sure is fresher and better.
  26. If in Hangzhou, definitely make a point to visit the Ling Yi Temple out here.  It costs 45 RMB to get into the park…skip the extra 30 RMB to get into that temple proper and go visit the other two temples that come for free with the park entry.
  27. There are Chinese people selling things everywhere in this country, even at the top of a  hill accessible only by trails.
  28. Chinese people are willing to buy things anywhere they are sold, even if they are silly little tchoskies on the top of a hill accessible only by trails.
  29. Custmomer service is an utterly non-existant concept around here…so its quite shocking the one time we received great customer service (buying prepacked ramen!)
  30. Yikes, at 58 RMB it seems that Starbucks will have been one of our most expensive “meals” out here…for a mango smoothie and a hot choc!
  31. There’s a cable stayed bridge in Shanghai on the way to the airport that is almost as awesome to drive across as the Golden Gate.
  32. The high speed rail on a viaduct elevated above the agricultural landscape is  a wonder to behold, it must be as impressive as the Eisenhower interstate system was to visitors from war torn Europe.  Three hours by bus, fortyfive minutes by train.

Nciku Chinese-English Dictionary

I’ve been looking around a bit about chinese-english online dictionaries…and wow….www.nciku.com seems like one of the best. It seems to have some trouble doing some searches cause apparently their servers are overloaded, but you can search with english or chinese text, pinyin, and even drawing in characters. The definitiong come out pretty thoroughly and include audio and stroke order animations and a rudimentary character composition chart (which is the weakest feature fo the bunch). Throw in easy to manage vocab lists to the mix and a lot of sample conversations and stuff and its one hell of a package.

And its all for free at the moment. For what its worth the other site of note is skritter but its a pay site and not as much a dictionary, but in the end, I’ll most likely default to flashcards on quarter size index cards, but its amazing what online stuff is coming out now….and once phone and touchscreen apps become mature its really going to be a sea change in how this stuff is taught.