Posted by: gschloesser | July 29, 2011

Chicago Poker

Design by:  Bruno Faidutti and Bruno Cathala
Published by:  Phalanx
3 – 6 Players, 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter magazine. 

First, let me state flatly that I am NOT a fan of poker.  The game just doesn’t excite me, and the bluffing that folks say is critical to success in the game is a skill I just have never properly learned.  I don’t necessarily dislike the game, but it just doesn’t do anything for me.  Thus, in spite of the impressive “Chicago speakeasy” booth decorations, I was not terribly excited when Phalanx and Mayfair Games premiered Chicago Poker at the Spiel in Essen, Germany.  

The latest collaboration between well-known French designers Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti, Chicago Poker adds a few twists on the familiar card game.  Players assume the role of famous gangsters and battle to control various speakeasies, gambling houses, jazz clubs and breweries, with the victor being the player with the best poker hand.  The poker rules enforced by each establishment vary, however, each requiring different methods by which cards are played.  Some require a mixture of face-up and face-down cards, while others require one or the other.  In addition, the dastardly card sharks can employ an assortment of resources and tactics to tilt games in their favor, including bribes, weapons, police raids and even forced liquidations.  There is no honor amongst gangsters!

The establishments over which players will fight for control come in the four aforementioned varieties, each being represented by a hexagon tile.  The difference between them is the manner in which cards must be played.  For example, the green breweries require the first two cards of each player’s hand to be played face-down, with the final three being played face-up.  On the other hand, the tan jazz clubs require the first three cards to be played face-up, with the remaining two face-down.  These variations of card play do give players some information, and helps make game play more varied and interesting.  

The deck of cards contains five suits, each valued 1 – 15.  In addition, there are six special cards, which allow the players to alter the heretofore friendly proceedings.  Players are dealt an initial hand of five cards.  Each turn, a player takes exactly three actions, which can include drawing and/or playing cards.  A player’s hand limit is seven cards, so hoarding in order to improve one’s chances of gathering a winning hand is difficult. 

Cards may be played to multiple establishments, and are placed on the hex side corresponding to the player’s character.  Special cards are not placed onto an establishment, but their power takes effect immediately.  These cards allow a variety of special actions, including the switching of cards between establishments, the revealing of face-down cards, discarding an opponent’s card, or even searching the discard pile for a desired card. 

When a player places his fifth card onto an establishment, it is marked with a bullet and a shootout will commence at the beginning of that player’s next turn.  This gives every player one more opportunity to place cards on that establishment, if they desire.  A shootout is simply revealing all cards on an establishment and determining which player has the best poker hand.  Standard poker hierarchies are observed, with the addition of two special hands:  Chicago poker (five-of-a-kind) and the Rainbow straight (a straight consisting of five different suits).  The victorious player claims the tile, which is replaced with a new one. 

The game ends when one player captures either: 

  • three identical establishments,
  • four different types of establishments, or
  • five establishments. 

The length of the game is dependent upon the number of players, with all of my games playing to completion in 45 minutes to an hour.  The game can be shortened by altering the victory conditions as specified in the rules. 

While the game has not improved my taste for standard poker, I do enjoy this clever variation.  There is more going on here than in standard poker, as players have to keep their eye on numerous establishments.  One cannot effectively compete for each establishment, however, so a wise player will choose his battles carefully, with an eye on achieving one of the victory conditions.  The ability to work on multiple hands at once as you play cards to various establishments does give a player more options and opportunities to build competitive hands.  Plus, the fact that some cards are played face-up does give some insight into the possible hands of one’s opponents without completely removing the bluff elements. 

Poker purists will likely not enjoy Chicago Poker, as it does significantly alter the game.  However, in my opinion, it also makes it more friendly and easier to play, yet still maintains some of the key elements of the traditional card game.  Whereas I will usually fold when presented with the chance to play standard poker, I’ll go “all-in” when Chicago Poker is the option.

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