One of the concerns when writing a review is how to deal with unofficial variants. For the most part I prefer to limit myself to the game as described in the rules with only a cursory mention of any preferred modifications. This seems the most fair to the designer who has put far more hours into testing than most reviewers. Designers are not omnipotent however and cannot always see how a simple change can drastically improve a game. The Bucket King is a game which is much improved by a simple little addition but I'll come back to that later. For now, a description of the official game is in order.
Each player is given a set of 15 cardboard buckets: three each in five colours. These are then arranged in pyramid fashion with five on the bottom up to a single one on the top. The specific arrangement is up to the individual players but will be largely dependent on the composition of their initial hand of 12 cards. These cards come in five suits (matching the colour of the buckets) and in values from 1 to 8. Generally speaking you'll put buckets in your strong suits near the bottom and ones you're weak in near the top.
Play is clockwise around the table and begins with a player laying from one to three cards (of the same colour) and announcing the total. As you only draw a single card at the end of your turn it's preferable to play only one card. The next player must then play cards (in the same colour as was led) such that he exceeds the previous total. This continues around the table until a player is unable (or unwilling) to exceed the ever increasing total. That player must then remove a bucket matching the colour of the suit in question. Here's where the stacking of the buckets becomes important—you lose not only that bucket but any buckets that it was supporting! It is not at all unusual to lose five or more buckets in one go and this is where much of the fun lies—namely, having a laugh at the misfortune of others. This player the chooses the next colour and starts a new total. This continues until one player (two in a 5 or 6 player game) has lost all her buckets; the other players then score a single point for each of their remaining buckets. You can play one or more rounds, we prefer to play three. (Although this does make the game length approach 60 minutes when played with six players which is perhaps a bit too long.)
That's it and it's obvious that this is a fairly light game, ideal for casual players or a light distracting bit of fluff. There's not a tremendous amount of skill involved, for the most part you've either got the cards or you don't. The decision to play multiple cards is somewhat interesting but it's usually a bad idea in the early stages since depleting your hand size will usually cause you greater pain later. This is dependent on the number of players though, with fewer there's a greater incentive to avoid losing anything since the rounds are shorter. At first glance it appears that how you organize your pyramid would be of great strategic importance but this doesn't appear to be the case. Yes, it is somewhat important but I've found that your hand composition will change so much over the course of a round that you can't really tell what the "best" set up would be. A hand that's strong in red can easily become void if you fail to draw red replacements. Still, an entirely random arrangement is definitely a bad idea so a little thought is encouraged.
Production quality is as you would expect from Kosmos—the buckets are printed on very thick cardboard which are pleasing to the touch and the cards are of decent quality. The one thing that did bother my sensibilities was the artwork on the cards themselves—it's very amateurish. I suppose that the child-like drawings may have been intentional but, if so, I think it was a poor choice. I'd also have preferred that the indexing on the cards was a little more prominent but as we usually announce our totals verbally, this isn't too big of a problem.
In any case, The Bucket King is a light, inoffensive little game, particularly if you can accept the cheers that will greet your misfortune.
I played about five or six times using these proper rules and while I enjoyed the game I never had a great desire to play it any further. My biggest concern was that the card play was mostly automatic—play a single card if possible, if not, weigh the consequences of playing two or three cards with the cost of losing a bucket. You were also limited in that you could only target your left hand neighbour (and maybe the person to her left) which reduced the importance of your decisions.
The one small change we implemented was to allow a player to match (rather than exceed) the previous total and, importantly, this caused the direction of play to reverse. So, if Bob plays five points in red, you can match that total and announce "right back at you Bob!". ("Bob" must then play at least one red card to avoid losing a bucket.) This one little change greatly increased my interest in the game. First off , it opened the possibility of targeting players on either side of you and raises the issue of how you want the direction of play to proceed. You may notice that Fred is very weak in blue and that his left hand neighbour is strong in that colour. By making card-play counter-clockwise you can try to cause trouble for Fred. Of course, there are still plenty of factors affecting how effective this will be; you may not have as much control as you think but even the illusion of control is a good thing. There are also a couple of clever tricks that become possible with such reversing. An example: play is currently clockwise but I'm trying to "hit" the player to my right (since scores are open, generally everyone will be trying to hit the lead player). If I know (suspect) that the player to my left has lots of yellow cards I can play a mid valued yellow hoping that he'll match it exactly. This will reverse the order of play and I can then add a high valued yellow to my total. The reason why this is good is that I've played two cards but have not diminished my hand size (a definite bonus) while placing my right hand opponent in a tough spot—he must play two or three cards if he wants to avoid losing a bucket.
This change is not earth shaking and the game still has a strong random element but it does lift The Bucket King from a game that I could easily live without to one that will likely receive regular play.
- Greg Aleknevicus