Revisiting The Bottle Imp & Fairy Tale

One of the cool things about bringing all the archives back online here at the new site is that I get to see what I was playing on a day-to-day basis 9 years ago or so, which of them I don’t play anymore, if there is a good reason for that, and if I should try and break them out again. One of those games was The Bottle Imp/Flaschenteufel, which was going through a bout of play just as I started blogging.

Since we only had three players at games last night, and I remembered The Bottle Imp as being best with 3, it seemed an ideal time to give it a try (there aren’t a ton of games that are great with 3). To refresh your memory if you haven’t played this game in as long as I haven’t: it’s a trick-taking game that uses a 3-suited deck of cards numbered uniquely 1-37 with no 19. At start, cards lower than 19 trump cards above 19. You have to follow suit if possible, but otherwise it’s just the high card which wins (high trump beats high other). So the ranking at start is 18-1,37-20. When you take a trick with a trump card, that card becomes the new breakpoint and the layout of the deck changes – possibly changing the trump/non-trump mix if you skip numbers. You  also claim The Bottle Imp of the titular Robert Louis Stevenson short story, which will cost you your immortal soul (and incidentally a fair number of points) if you can’t get rid of it by the end of the game. So players get desperate to try to slough off low trump to avoid getting stuck with the bottle as the game goes on.

The most obviously cool thing to me about The Bottle Imp is how nicely it captures the themes of the short story. Trumps give you the power to take tricks and score points, but you’ve got to make sure you dump the bottle before the end of the game, and as the end closes in it becomes an increasingly desperate enterprise. At some level The Bottle Imp is a push your luck game; you have to decide how many of your trump to try to take tricks with, and how soon to just try to start getting rid of them and avoid taking the bottle. At the start of the round each player takes one card out of the game, so some unknown cards will be missing which adds uncertainty. It’s a nice blend, and it’s supported by text and illustrations from the story on the cards, with the story starting on the 37 card and finishing on the 1.

The obvious downside is that the game is typically decided by the distribution of a few low trump – having the yellow 1 and 2 in your hand seems like a tough place to get out from under. In the 3-player game you may be able to slough a trump, maybe two, but ditching a low yellow is hard and requires misplay or luck (at start there are only 3 non-trump yellow, so if you’re feeling lucky you could lead the 1 on the first trick and hope someone is forced to play a higher trump … but that’s awfully gutsy). As the game nears the end you run scenarios based on which cards you’ve seen and try to figure out how you escape. Often the answer is: you don’t, and there wasn’t much you could have done about it.

I used to really enjoy The Bottle Imp, but playing it again it didn’t quite recapture the magic. Doing all the heavy lifting to run the many scenarios required to figure out how to get rid of your low trump late just seemed like a lot of work, more work than I found fun. I still think it’s a really clever game, it’s just one I’ve played a lot already and I found the process of exploring and understanding the game more fun than just playing it.

IMG_2103Fairy Tale is another classic from 2004 that has just been reissued by Z-Man. It’s a drafting game in the same vein as 7 Wonders, and has always had a dedicated fan base, but it never really caught on around here – I haven’t played it since the original version came out 10 years ago. But playing it again, I really enjoyed it. It doesn’t support 7 players, but in virtually every other respect I found it a far more engaging game than 7 Wonders.

I find the colorful Japanese characters and background, complete with dragons, demons, warriors, and castles, much more visually engaging than the totally generic Mediterranean civilization-building veneer or 7 Wonders. The game mechanisms themselves aren’t very evocative in either game, so it’s nice to have playful and interesting art.

The scoring transparency of Fairy Tale is also a huge win. In 7 Wonders you are often left to guess what the composition of the various decks are, how the tech trees are going to work out, and so on. Fairy Tale’s scoring is at least as nuanced and interesting, with a variety of scoring rules, but the distributions are always spelled out explicitly on the card. So the “Fairy Tale – Chapter 4” card is worth 9 points if you can get “The Fairy Queen”, there is exactly one of those in the deck of 100 cards, and this is nicely spelled out at the bottom of the card so you always know what you’re dealing with. The only slight difficulty is that in this case The Fairy Queen card itself doesn’t let you know that it activates another card – cards only tell you what other cards they require, not what cards depend on them – but it’s fine. It’s much cleaner than 7 Wonders’ baroque and involved scoring while being more nuanced and interesting.

I also like that defensive drafting is a more interesting proposition in Fairy Tale than it is in 7 Wonders. In 7 Wonders, where you play every card you draft, it’s very expensive to draft a card just so the player on your left/right won’t get it and, in practice, only rarely worth it. In Fairy Tale, you draft a hand of 5 cards and then play 3 of them. Keeping an eye on your neighbor and making sure not to pass him or her an important card is much more interesting when the opportunity cost is not so inherently high.

I also like the lack of phased decks. In 7 Wonders the different character of the 3 different epoch decks bakes a lot of opaque complexity into the game, punishing new players and requiring several go-rounds just to get a handle on the texture of the game and know what cards are available when. In Fairy Tale, you just have a deck and all the distribution information is listed on the bottom of the cards and it’s far easier to play competently your first time out. You aren’t fighting with a bunch of information you can’t possibly know. Fairy Tale can be taught to new players in 5 minutes or easily learned from the rule booklet at the table.

I’m pretty much done with 7 Wonders at this point, but I enjoyed Fairy Tale. I think when it first came out, my context for drafting games was Magic: The Gathering and other CCG draft formats, which honestly annoy me. With 7 Wonders and Lost Legends recontextualizing  the genre for me, I was able to really enjoy it. It captures all the good stuff from 7 Wonders without the hassles, and with a much more colorful backstory.

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