One thing that anyone who explores German games will note is the plethora of trick taking card games; this should come as no surprise. After all, the history of trick taking card games is long and has produced some of the most popular games around the world—Bridge, Pinochle, Skat, and 500, to name just a few. I can say from experience it's a fun variety of game to design—no matter how many variants already exist, there's always some new twist that can be employed. But each game is at its heart abstract—you are collecting tricks, or avoiding them, or trying to gather certain cards so as to improve your score.
I was thrilled, then, to discover that Der Flaschenteufel is not only themed, but the theme is integral to the mechanics of the game. The game is themed around a short story The Bottle Imp, written by Robert Louis Stevenson back in 1893 (which is available online at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/bottlimp.htm). In the story, a bottle will grant its owner wishes, but there are three problems. First, the wishes are often twisted or have unintended consequences, effectively cursing the owner of the bottle. Second, the bottle can only be sold for less than was paid for it. Finally, if the bottle is not sold before the owner dies, the owner will burn in hell.
The game then consists of the bottle imp card and 36 cards numbered 1-18 and 20-37; 19 is reserved as the initial price of the bottle imp. The cards are divided into three suits of twelve cards each. The red suit represents dollars, and contains mostly higher numbered cards. The blue suit represents cents, and contains mostly intermediate cards. The yellow suit represents centimes, a French coin represented in the story as valuing around one fifth of a cent. Each card is worth between 0 and 9 points, depending upon its number and color. After the initial setup, in which each player passes one card to each of the other players as well as one to the bottle imp (the bottle imp trick representing the game equivalent of burning in hell), the trick taking game begins. Each player must play a card of the color led if they have one; otherwise, any card may be played. However, only the numbers on the cards matter in determining who has won the trick. If everyone played higher than the current price of the bottle imp, then the highest card played takes the trick. Otherwise, the highest card less than the current price of the bottle imp wins the trick—and takes the bottle imp. The card that won the trick then becomes the new price of the bottle imp; the previous price card, if any, is awarded along with the other cards from the trick. This continues until all cards are played. Every player except the player who ended up with the bottle imp scores positively the value (0 to 9 points) of each of the cards they have taken. The player who ended with the bottle imp scores negatively the value of the bottle imp trick. Play continues through either a pre-set number of hands or to a certain point value.
I have always been a fan of trick taking card games. However, my enthusiasm has both been whetted and largely sated by playing Bridge at lunch at work; while no expert, I've derived a lot of pleasure from both playing and studying the game. As a result, I tend to be critical of other trick taking card games; they need to provide something different and captivating for me to spend time on them.
Der Flaschenteufel accomplishes this task quite nicely. First, it meets the trick taking card game criteria I expect as a result of playing Bridge—good play is more important to the outcome than luck of the cards over a reasonable number of hands, and there is plenty of room for clever card play. Second, it offers the well-integrated theme, which both adds to my enjoyment of the game and makes it easier to teach. Third, Der Flaschenteufel works well with three players. In fact, I actually slightly prefer the game with three players, as players must play a greater percentage of the hand they were dealt, and there are more tricks each hand. Overall, while Der Flaschenteufel is no substitute for Bridge, it's an attractive alternative.
As with nearly all trick taking card games, Der Flaschenteufel is very interactive; it doesn't particularly stand out in this aspect. Card counting is important to Der Flaschenteufel, but isn't particularly difficult—keeping track of how many cards have been played in each suit and the top and bottom few cards is sufficient for general play.
There are a few strategic tips offered within the Der Flaschenteufel rules, split between the discarding and passing action and the card play. They are a reasonable starting point, and worth reviewing before an initial play of the game, but over time I've found that I've adapted a somewhat different strategy from that proposed.
When passing cards and choosing a card for the bottle imp trick, I strongly prefer to give myself a red or blue void if possible. Getting rid of the 1, 2, and/or 3 is a must; other low cards are of less concern. Under no circumstances discard one of the few yellow cards greater than 19—oftentimes having such a card provides the only possible escape for a nasty trap an opponent attempts to foist upon you. Once you've chosen the cards to get rid of, place the one worth the most under the bottle imp unless it looks to be a really bad hand (or for the occasional bluff—hiding the 1, 2, or 3 with the bottle imp can play havoc with the card counters), and hand the lowest card to the other player doing best.
During the card play, I find that the price of the bottle imp tends to drop very quickly, in about three large steps; the advice given in the rules is more applicable to situations wherein the price eases down more incrementally. Card counting is critical, and not terribly difficult. I tend to focus first and foremost on ridding myself of threat cards, and then focusing on taking tricks. One of the best ways to do this is by taking advantage of the void you created earlier. For example: say that you've passed the 1 to the player on your right (a handy thing to do, all else being equal). A trick in your void comes around to you. You can now safely play the 2 (which the player on your right undoubtedly handed back to you). Either you win the trick with the 2 (and the player on your right is toast), or someone else plays a card under the current bottle imp price and you've removed the 2 from your hand.
Overall, Der Flaschenteufel is one of my favorite trick taking card games this side of Bridge, and a worthwhile addition for any fans of the genre. It has held up very well—I have played it at least three times every year since first playing it in 1998. Each hand takes only a few minutes, so it's easy to fit in as a filler or play for a longer session as desired. The bottle imp trick is a wonderfully efficient mechanism for adding tension to the play; with a bad hand, just avoiding the bottle imp can be an impressive accomplishment.
- Joe Huber