Posted by: gschloesser | July 15, 2011

Bux

Designed by:  Charles Phillips and Sam Kjellman
Released by:  NewsCool Games
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Note:  This review first appeared in Counter magazine 

I wonder if anyone has ever conducted a study to determine just how many games are claimed to be the “latest sensation”, “hot” or “all the rage.  Many, many games claim to be just that, yet in reality, barely register a blip on the gaming radar screen.  Thus, I always treat such claims with great skepticism.  So, my guard was immediately raised when I read similar pronouncements about Bux, a new game from NewsCool Games

Still, I always do my best to not let my pre-existing prejudices influence my experience or outlook when playing a game.  And, I must admit that my hopes and expectations were actually raised after reading the game’s rules.  It actually sounded interesting and fun.  Sadly, those expectations were dashed when significant flaws were revealed in my first playing.  Subsequent playings with different groups did nothing to dispel my concerns — or increase the fun. 

The game consists of a deck of 48 special cards, which depict an equal mixture of the four suits found in a standard deck of cards:  clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.  Gone are the traditional numerical values, however.  In their stead are geometric symbols:  ovals, circles, squares, and crosses.  So, a typical card might be a spade over an oval design, or a diamond over a circle design.  Further, the backs of the cards will carry a value of either 25, 50 or 100. 

The object of the game is to collect sets of cards, which can be converted into chips.  The ultimate objective is to collect the greatest value of chips by game’s end. 

Players begin the game with three cards, which are kept face-up.  This is an important rule:  cards are NOT held in the players’ hands.  Rather, they are all kept face-up on the table and termed “spreads”.   The remaining cards are placed face down with the value side face-up.  

On a player’s turn he may perform one out of a possible three actions: 

1)      Draw three cards and place them up for bid.  These cards are turned face-up, and the bidding commences.  Bidding continues clockwise, with the high bidder winning the set.  If an opponent won the bid, the active player receives his winning bid, while he receives the cards and adds them to his spread.  If the active player won the bid, he pays the corresponding value of chips to the bank. 

2)      Swap a card from an opponent.  You may grab an UNPROTECTED card from an opponent, and replace it with one of your own cards.  Since you are aiming to build sets, you will generally take a card that will complete a set for you — or at least build towards one. 

So just what is an “unprotected” card?  Well, it is easier to explain what constitutes a “protected card.  A card is protected if:

a)      There is another identical card in the player’s spread; or

b)      There are at least two other cards in the spread, one with the same shape and the other with the same suit.  For example, if you possess a cross-heart, a square-heart, and a cross-diamond, then the cross-heart is protected.  Initially, this concept is a bit confusing, but it does become clear after a few turns.

If a card does not fulfill one of the above two requirements, then it is unprotected and may be stolen by an opponent.  

Protecting cards is essential, as it prevents opponents from stealing them in the “swap” action.  Protecting a card is easy to accomplish, as there is no limit to the number of cards a player may possess in his spread.  So, the clear strategy is to grab as many cards as you can get, as the limited combination of shapes and suits will mathematically result in most of your cards being protected.  This is THE major flaw in the game.  It is the classic rich-get-richer syndrome.  Once a player begins to accumulate a decent number of cards, then his opponents will be unable to steal virtually any of his cards.  Thus, the player can proceed without fear, and cash-in his sets at the opportune time. 

Cash-in sets?  Sure, that is a player’s third option on his turn.  

3)      Cash in.  A player can select a set of 3 cards and surrender them for chips.  In order to do this, a set must contain must share at least 1 suit or 1 shape.  If all three cards are identical — same suit and shape — the payoff is a hefty 500 chips.  If, however, they only match in one category, then the payoff is the total of the values listed on their reverse side.  This latter method caused some confusion:  can players look at the values on the backs of the cards before assembling a set to surrender, or is this supposed to be a surprise?  Or, worse yet, are players supposed to somehow rely on their memory to recall the individual values of each of the cards?  Sadly, the rules — both editions – are silent on this matter. 

The value of a cash-in increases in the latter stages of a round.  The deck contains three special “Bux” cards.  When these are drawn, they are set aside and serve as a timer that triggers the end of a round.  When the second Bux card is drawn, all cash-ins for the remainder of that round are doubled, a feature known as the “Dubble-Bux”.  The revealing of the third Bux card triggers the end of a round.  After three rounds, the game concludes and the player with the most chip value wins.  

This is yet another problem with the game.  Unless a player is severely short on cash, there is no incentive to cash-in sets until that second Bux card is drawn.  Why settle for a “1” payoff when you can wait to double your money?  Since there is no danger of losing your protected cards, then there simply isn’t any reason why not to wait.  Thus, players continue to enlarge their card holdings, and rush to cash them in once the second Bux card appears.  Pretty unsatisfying. 

If a player finds himself broke at the beginning of a turn, he has the option of simply taking 100 chips from the bank.  Not bad.  Additionally, if a player possesses no cards in his spread at the beginning of his turn, he can draw three cards and either keep them without paying a dime, or place them up for bid.  Again, not bad at all.  It sure seems to be a wise tactic to cash-in all of your sets when the Dubble-Bux payoff is in effect, deplete your spread, then draw three new ones at the beginning of your next turn, keeping them for free.  

Now let’s talk chips … and rules.  The rules which are shipped with the game call for the value of chips to be 5, 10, 50, 100 and 1000.  Problem is, there is a LARGE gap between 100 and 1000, and there simply are not enough chips to satisfy the need.  We had to improvise and add additional chips.  Alternatively, players could alter the values to do away with the 1000 value, making them worth 500 instead.  Another oversight. 

Now let us talk about the rules:  they are vague, which is annoying, to say the least.  One major discussion during our games was whether cards had to be arranged in sets of three immediately upon acquisition, and remain separate from other cards in a player’s spread,   or could a player assemble sets of three cards from his entire spread?  This certainly made it easier to protect cards, as well as enhanced a player’s chances of assembling perfect sets when cashing-in.  It seems that the rules indicate the latter method, but they simply are not clear on this.

Let’s talk a bit more about the rules.  You see, there are two editions.  The game comes with one set of rules, and a second, photo-copied set was sent by the company.  There are changes in the second edition, which are significant.  The first set of rules does not have the Dubble Bux rule; Bux cards simply serve as a timer to the end of a round.  Further, the first set of rules allows players to determine the number of rounds they desire to play, all the way up to ten rounds!  Now that would be painful.  The second edition limits the game to three rounds, a much more palatable duration.  Differences aside, I have a MAJOR beef with games that change the rules without putting out an entirely new edition.  To me, that speaks of poor play-testing and development.  Further, while hard-core gamers might regularly visit various gaming websites and discover any rules changes or modifications, the average person purchasing the game will not be so inquisitive.  Thus, he will likely be unaware of such changes, and will be forced to play the game with its flaws uncorrected. 

Amazingly, though, the second edition of the rules does nothing to correct the game’s major problems.  As discussed above, the unlimited number of cards allowed in a player’s spread makes it FAR too easy to protect cards, which leads to the rich-getting-richer syndrome.  Further, the addition of the Dubble-Bux rule simply means players will delay cashing-in their sets until they double their money.  This has the effect of causing spreads to grow even larger, thereby exacerbating the first problem.  Sigh. 

Bux seems like a clever game, but, sadly, it quickly breaks down due to these aforementioned flaws.  Once these are recognized, the game ceases to be fun, and strategies become very linear.  So while the game’s components are of high quality, the game itself falls far short of the self-touting “hot” and “sensation” labels.  For me, that is no surprise.

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