Posted by: gschloesser | August 2, 2011

Gang of Four

Design by:  Lee F. Yih
Published by:  Days of Wonder
3 – 4 Players, 30 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

There is no doubt that Gang of Four is certainly in the same family as Tichu, a game that has developed a cult-like following in some gaming circles.  I’ve played Tichu twice and both times was very foggy concerning the rules and various strategies.  As a result, I felt more like a spectator at a curling event; in other words, I had no clue what was going on.  Thus, I’ve not gotten caught-up in Tichu-mania.  Fortunately for me, Gang of Four is easier to learn and play than Tichu.  Still, when it came time to play Gang of Four for the first time, I felt it would be to my best advantage to try the game online first and learn some pointers from experienced players.  This was a reach for me, as I had never, ever played an online game.  I spend WAY too much time playing, reading and writing about games already, so I have no time or real incentive to jump into online gaming.  Still, I figured I’d be able to learn the game better from experienced players, so I signed onto the Days of Wonder website and waited for the opportunity to be dragged into a game. 

Imagine my surprise when I was dragged into a game with one of the proprietor’s of Days of Wonder, Eric Hautemont, along with two Frenchmen.  They were all very patient in helping me learn the rules and possible strategies.  In what was either an amazing accomplishment or an act of charity on the part of my fellow players, I managed to win the game.  I must admit that I initially thought the game would not be to my tastes, but I really enjoyed the experience.  The online version of the game is VERY good and helps the game play quickly and easily.  Overall, it was a most satisfying experience.

However, the next time I played the game was when I was visiting my good friends Craig Berg, Michael Adams and James Miller in frigid Ohio and, to my disappointment, the game fell flat.  Scores were ridiculously low as everyone managed to keep their hand size below eight.  We played three rounds and I don’t think anyone was in double-digits, meaning it would take hours and hours for someone to reach the game-ending score of 100.  We aborted after four hands. 

Fortunately, my next several experiences were all much better and closer to my online experience.  Even though I regularly get thrashed, I find myself enjoying the game and am still struggling, yet eager to learn the strategies necessary to play the game well. 

Perhaps an explanation of the game is in order.  The deck consists of 64 cards in three suits: 

  • 60 cards ranked 1 – 10, two each in the three colors (green, yellow and red)
  • 1 multi-colored ‘1’
  • 2 Phoenix cards (green, yellow)
  • 1 Red Dragon 

When ranking cards, numbers are considered first, then colors.  So, a 9 is always higher than an 8.  If two 9’s are played, however, then the color rankings are examined, with red being the highest and green being the lowest. 

When playing with four players, the entire deck is dealt and play begins with the player possessing the multi-colored ‘1’.  The player may play a combination of 1 – 5 cards, which must include this multi-colored ‘1’.  In Great Dalmuti fashion, all players must then play a combination of cards consisting of the same number of cards played by the lead player, but in a higher rank.  Or, they may pass if they desire or if they cannot play the required combination.  

So just what are the possible combinations?  

  • Single card
  • Pairs (numbers, not colors)
  • Three-of-a-King (again, numbers, not colors)
  • Five card combinations, including:

* Straight – 5 cards in sequential order (no Phoenix or Dragon allowed)

* Flush – 5 cards of the same color of any rank (no Phoenix or Dragon)

* Full House – A pair, plus three of a kind

* Straight Flush – 5 cards in sequential order and of the same color (no Phoenix or Dragon) 

  • Four of a Kind – numbers, not colors.  This is known as the “Gang of Four”.  Please note that it is also possible to play a “Gang of Five”, “Gang of Six” or even a “Gang of Seven” (by using the multi-colored ‘1’ to complete a set of six 1’s!).  The Gang of Four (or Five, Six or Seven) beats all other hands and can only be beaten by a higher Gang of Four (or 5, 6 or 7). 

The two special types of cards in the deck are the Red Dragon, which is the HIGHEST single card in the deck and can ONLY be played as a single card, and the two Phoenix cards.  The Phoenix cards can be played as a single, in which case the card may only be beaten by the Red Dragon or the higher ranked Phoenix, or as a pair, either alone or in combination with a full house.  They cannot be played as a part of any other five-card combination.

Since players are required to play the same combination of cards (with the exception of a Gang of Four (or 5, 6 or 7), which can be played on any combination, the game has a certain ‘Great Dalmuti’ feel to it.  The critical skill is managing the cards you possess so that you can control the pace of the game and quickly deplete your hand in rapid succession once you gain control of the lead.  One would think that your fate would be determined by your hand of cards.  To be sure, this does play a factor, but I’ve witnessed some incredibly skillful play wherein a player managed to consistently deplete his hand of cards, even when in possession of a seemingly horrible hand!  

Players continue to play combinations until no one can play.  The player winning the hand then leads the next hand.  This process continues until one player depletes his entire hand of cards, at which points scores are tallied.  Players score points based on the number of cards remaining in their hand: 

1-     7 cards:      1 point per card

8 – 10 cards:    double the points per card

11 – 13 cards:  triple the points per card

14 – 15 cards:  quadruple the points per card

16 cards:  quintuple the points per card  (OUCH!

Since the object is to deplete your hand and hopefully score zero points, you can see that minimizing the number of cards remaining in your hand at the end of a round is vital.  After four games, I’ve managed to somewhat gain the skill of getting my hand down to just a few cards, but I rarely manage to “go out” first.  I’ll keep trying, though! 

Once the scores are recorded, a new hand begins.  This process is completed until one player reaches or tops 100 points, at which time the player with the fewest cumulative points is victorious.  In two of the four games I’ve played, this took about 30 minutes or so.  In the other two games, it would have taken considerably longer if we had played to completion.  I think, though, that it is a matter of skill.  The more skilled the players involved in the game, the quicker the game will go as they will have mastered strategies and techniques in which to rapidly deplete their hand of cards. 

The game also includes a few other twists.  One is VERY Dalmuti-ish, requiring the loser of the previous round to give the highest card in his hand to the winner of the previous round, while the winner gives the loser any card of his choice.  The difference here is that the winner gets to examine the card given to him BEFORE giving a card to the other player.  Further, the exchanged cards are shown to all players. 

Another main ingredient is the “Last Card” requirement.  Whenever a player has only one card remaining in his hand, he is required to declare “Last Card” (kind of like the “Uno” requirement!).  If a player fails to do so, he cannot win that hand and will score one point when the hand is completed.  After this declaration of “Last Card”, the player sitting immediately before the declaring player MUST play his highest single-ranking card, provided that single card combinations are being played or if he is opening the hand.  

The game also has a confusing reverse rule wherein each hand alternates direction – clockwise, then counter-clockwise.  This is done, according to the rules, to insure “that no player is forced to consistently play after the strongest (or weakest) player”.  That may be true, but it also adds considerable confusion to the process.  

After over a half-dozen playings (albeit two of them shortened), I am still intrigued by the game.  I’m generally not a fan of traditional style card games, so the whole “straight, full-house, flush” lingo still confuses me.  I also still have trouble visualizing the various possible combinations I can form from the sizeable hand of cards.  Skilled card players will likely have no trouble with these aspects of the game.  Still, I’m learning, and I’m finding that I’m enjoying the game more and more as the learning process progresses.  I don’t think I’m ready for Tichu yet, but it may not be too far away!

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