Are you a fan of hot air ballooning? Looking for the ultimate game to accurately simulate your hobby? If so, keep looking—Balloon Cup has about as much to do with its subject matter as Lost Cities has to do with exploration. However, if you're looking for a simple, (mostly) friendly card game with some interesting decisions then read on...
Each player is given a hand of eight cards and these are in five colours, numbered from 1 to 13. Between the players are four "hops" with "high" on one side and "low" on the other. The numbers indicate how many cubes are placed on that particular hop and these cubes, in turn, dictate which cards may be played there (the cubes are in five colours, matching those of the cards). Further, these cubes are also the reward one gets for winning that hop. So, if the 3-hop has two red and one blue cube on it, then exactly two red cards and one blue card must be played on each side to determine who wins those three cubes. Winning depends on which side the hop is on—the player with the higher total wins if the hop is on the "high" side and the player with the lower total wins if it's on the "low" side. (You flip the hop to its reverse side whenever it's won.) So what do these cubes do for you? Well, there are also five trophies to be won, again, matching the colours of the cards and cubes. Each is numbered (from three for the gray trophy, to seven for the red). The first player to win the appropriate number of cubes in each colour takes that trophy and the player who wins three trophies wins the game.
The first wrinkle is that you are not restricted to playing cards only on your side—you may play cards on your opponent's side as well. This really opens up the options and gives you the agony of deciding which of several actions you want to take. For example, you have the Red 13 card in your hand. Is it better to play it on a "high" hop on your side or a "low" hop on your opponent's side?
Such decisions are at the heart of Balloon Cup and involve a little guesswork as well odds calculation. The guesswork is mostly about what your opponent holds in his hand—if he has nothing but high green cards then you needn't worry about him playing one on your green "slot" on a low hop. Of course you never really know what your opponent is holding but that's where the odds calculation comes in—you can see what's on the board and in your hand and thereby deduce the odds that he's holding a low green card (or not).
If you've seen any of the Kosmos two-player line you know what to expect: top-notch cards and components. There's a cloth bag for drawing the cubes and the hops themselves are thick sturdy cardboard with unique artwork on each. Wood trophies would have been a nice touch but you can't have everything. One thing that should have been included is a breakdown of the cards in each colour. The distribution isn't uniform and it's important if you wish to succeed. There are thirteen red cards (numbered from 1 to 13) but only five grey cards: 1, 4, 7, 10, & 13. You do get used to the distribution pretty quickly but it would have been a good idea to print this information somewhere, perhaps on the trophy cards.
There is an issue with the game which was discovered after its publication: if certain, unlikely, combinations of cubes come up (e.g., four gray cubes), then it's possible that there are not enough cards in the deck to complete a particular hop. There is a solution to this—simply redraw cubes from the bag whenever such a situation arises. (It does seem to be quite rare—I never experienced it.)
The rules are fairly clear with the exception of exactly how "wild cubes" are handled. Once a trophy has been won, all other cubes in that colour are considered wild and these can be used, at a rate of 3 for 1, to help win a different trophy. The confusion is whether or not you can mix and match colours when making this 3 for 1 trade. (That is, if the red and green trophies are won, can I use one red and two green cubes as a wild cube or must I use exactly three red or three green?) The most strict reading of the rules seems to indicate that you must use all of the same colour and I think this is probably the best way to go. There were some games where interpreting it the other way led to some interesting situations but it also raised some problems (particularly with the timing of when a player may use wild cubes to claim a trophy). Often it meant that winning the fourth trophy guaranteed that your opponent would win the fifth and so the game totally reversed itself such that you tried to lose hops rather than win them.
There is another little rule that I'm not so sure is necessary. Normally the game proceeds in alternating turns: you go, then I go. However, whenever a hop is won, the player who lost takes the next turn. I suppose this is meant as compensation for playing the final card on a losing hop but I don't see that it makes all that much difference when it comes right down to it. Half the time I forgot about the rule and the game worked just as well without it as with. Unless someone can tell me a compelling reason why this rule should be included, I'm inclined to leave it out.
I quite like the game and it reminds me very much of Lost Cities, both in weight and feel. There is a healthy luck of the draw issue but also a fair amount of skill in how you play your cards. The player interaction is more overt than Lost Cities but it's not overly aggressive. Even when your opponent plays a terrible card on your side, it doesn't seem particularly nasty. This makes Balloon Cup an ideal light game and especially suited for casual players or for when you want something not so "in your face". The decisions are meaningful but not taxing.
Ultimately, my reaction to Balloon Cup is that it's "merely" good but falls short of excellence. All the mechanisms work and the game moves nicely, but I was never excited about any particular play. In Lost Cities, there's a distinct pleasure in scoring a huge expedition even when it's due to blind luck. Laying down a long string of consecutive cards is fun! Unfortunately, there's nothing in Balloon Cup that matched this level of excitement. It's a solid game rather than an outstanding one. Despite this "second tier" status, Balloon Cup is a fine addition to an excellent line of games.
- Greg Aleknevicus