I originally played Cloud 9 when it was released by FX Schmid in 1999. I enjoyed the game but missed the opportunity to buy my own copy. I kept the game on my wanted list and so was quite happy to discover that a new version was to be published by Out of the Box. The happiness would not last long.
Cloud 9 is a simple game about collectively riding a hot air balloon using cards and dice. Over the course of the game there will be several rides and all players participate in each of these. At each phase of a ride, several dice are thrown and these will show a variety of colours. One designated player is required to play cards from his hand matching the colours shown on the thrown dice. If he does, the balloon rises and the game continues (with another throw of the dice and a new player required to play the necessary cards). This continues until the balloon reaches the top of the track or the designated player is unable to play the required cards. The latter is the far more common result and when this happens the balloon falls to the ground, everyone draws one new card and a new ride commences.
The clever bit is in the scoring—after the dice are rolled, but before cards are played, each player, in turn order, decides whether to remain on board or jump and score points based on the current position of the balloon (note that the designated card player must remain on board). Once you've jumped, you're out for that particular ride—it can be painful to jump and then watch as the balloon goes up and up and up. The chances of failure are greater as the balloon rises (more dice are rolled at higher altitudes) but the scores go up as well, from 4 points for a three-stage trip, to 25 for going all the way to cloud 9.
The game continues until one player has achieved 50 points and then once that final balloon ride is complete, the high scorer wins. (Note that this might not be the player who first crossed the 50-point threshold.)
The basic game mechanism is sound and presents some interesting situations. Of particular interest is what to do when you're next in line to play cards. What should you do when you suspect that the balloon will rise but you won't be able to play cards on your turn? Obviously you want to stay in to get the extra points but since you can't bail out when it's your turn, you may not score anything anyway. If you bail out then perhaps the balloon will go sky high and you'll fall far behind in score? Maybe you should stay in and hope for an easy roll on your turn? Maybe the other players will think you'll be able to satisfy the roll and so you'll all fail together? It's a simple system and it involves as much guesswork as anything else but it's interesting enough to base a game around.
So, why don't I like the game? Well, as I said, this is the second version of Cloud 9 and the earlier one had a number of extra features and complications that I thought added greatly to the game. It was still very much a simple family game that involved a heavy dose of luck but the extras added enough that it wasn't entirely trivial. Unfortunately, of all these little extras, Out of the Box excluded all but one. Even worse, the one they did include happened to be the sole feature of the original that I considered grossly unfair. So much so that it practically breaks the game.
This is the inclusion of "Wild Cards". There are four in the deck and these can be used by a player to completely satisfy any one roll of the dice. (That is, you play that one card and the balloon automatically goes up.) Now, this might not seem like that big of a deal but it is. Consider the fact that eventually, you will wind up in a balloon by yourself. (This involves the special rule that if you are alone in a balloon, you may bail out before rolling the dice and gain points for your current level.) In some ways, being alone is good—any points gained are for you alone but this also means that you need to pay for each rise yourself. It can be tough deciding whether or not to risk going higher or not. This is not the case if you have a wild card—you can simply roll the dice and if you don't have enough regular cards, you then play your wild card. The wild cards afford you the luxury of being able to push your luck with no risk. Still don't see why this is a problem? Well, you only need 50 points to win and a full ride awards you 25 points. If you have one or two wild cards, making a full run is relatively easy and will usually result in a win. Having a wild card does not guarantee that you will win, but it will be very unlikely that you can win without one. I suspect that the designer intended that these wild cards be used throughout the game but since they are so obviously powerful in the endgame, they're hoarded. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that whoever draws more of these is much more likely to win the game.
As it stands, in this Out of the Box edition, Cloud 9 will not see action again on my game table.
Ahhh, but what about those other features you mention in the earlier version? Most of them are simple and could be retrofitted to this version. (So much so that I'm still at a loss as to why they aren't included in the first place.)
- The first is easy: allow players to decline to play cards. In the new version, if you have the cards to match the dice, you must play them (you are not required to play a wild card). If you allow players to decline, it adds a bluffing element. (On one ride, you might decline to play a single red hoping to convince the others that you're short in that colour. On a subsequent ride, they'll all bail when you roll two reds and you happily rise up on your own.)
- Add the "corner" spaces. On the original score track, there were several corner spaces coloured red. Whenever a player passed these, the player(s) in last place received extra cards. Since cards are so valuable, this added an incentive to hold back. A small decision but every little bit helps in a game this light.
- The most annoying thing missing from the new version are the "Pass the Barn" cards. These were cards you played that designated someone else as the active player. There were lots of interesting connotations involved in the playing of these cards and their absence detracts from the game.
- Of course, both versions need to modify the wild cards and an obvious change is that they simply count as one card of your choice of colour.
All but the Pass the Barn cards are relatively easy to add to this new version but I have a hard time recommending any game that requires so many changes. The only thing I can say that I really liked was the wonderfully overproduced balloon basket—it's very nice. It's the only reason that I'll be keeping this copy of Cloud 9—to use when I find a copy of the FX Schmid version.
- Greg Aleknevicus