On the Table: Riff Raff
February 3, 2014
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This is really neat– one of those rare crossover games that will have a broad appeal without irritating the more dedicated gamer. There aren’t enough of these sorts of games out there, so I’m always glad when I run across another one.
It’s a bit of a toy, sure. The game mostly consists of a wooden sailing ship. The base is marked in four numbered quadrants and the mast has a set of three crossbeams with positions numbered from six to ten. It is all made of wood, and though fairly simple… it is ingeniously rigged so that it tilts this way and that depending on how the weight is distributed. The mast pieces are somehow wobbly as well.
Each player has ten different wooden pieces ranging from crates to planks to a mouse and a drunken sailor. Each player takes turns trying to place one of their items on the ship. Pieces which fall off are out of play if they are caught. But if they fall to the table or floor, they go into the player’s pool of pieces. Whoever uses up all of their pieces first wins the game. Alternately, has the least number of pieces after ten rounds is the winner.
This by itself would be a pretty good game, but a couple of things are done to add a surprising amount of depth. Each player has ten cards numbered one through ten. Each round, the players choose a card secretly and simultaneously. When they’re revealed, play goes in order from the highest card to the lowest. On your turn, you have to place a piece at the position that matches your number. What looks like a safe bet at the start of the turn can get very dangerous by the time you get to make your move! And cards that have been played are permanently out… so the last few rounds can be nerve wracking because of the corner you might have painted yourself into. On the other hand, someone may tip the ship over and relieve some of that pressure– things may note be as dark as they seem!
Now what the cards and the sequencing do here is make it so that you can’t easily pick on one player in particular. You’re not going to be stuck playing to the left of the expert gamer and there’s no benefit if you happen to trick the novice into sitting to your right. The combination of your pool of items changing over the course of the game combined with the gradual loss of options for where you can play them makes for some hard decisions, so the game successfully puts you on the horns of a dilemma each turn while at the same time giving you a gradually evolving type of challenge. That’s good design.
And that right there would be an excellent game… but there is one more rule here that makes things an order of magnitude more interesting. Now… when you’re playing, you’re going to be tempted to try to leave the ship in as precarious a position as possible in order to make life difficult for the next player to go. This is actually a bad idea… because your scheming is fairly likely to end up blowing up in your face. This creates a pretty fair impetus for people to play conservatively. So… what the designers have done is added a rule that lets you attempt to put two items on the ship at once as long as you’re placing them on the mast area. This is the most challenging area to place things– and a fully loaded mast will surely turn into a mess for someone to juggle! If you can successfully place two things at once, you’ll really put pressure on people to do the same. I think this does a lot to keep the game fresh and dynamic while steering people away from potentially chintzy strategies.
So… this is a surprisingly good game. It’s a pleasure to handle and maybe your best bet for getting people to turn off their cell phones for a while and scream at the crazy things that happen in this game. Again, it’s short and simple enough for the non-gamer… and has deep enough gameplay to satisfy the connoisseur. I really enjoyed this one.