The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Gang of Four

Designer: Lee Yih
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Players: 3-4
Time: ? minutes
Reviewer: Dave Shapiro

The arrow that hits the bull's eye is the result of 100 misses.

Buddhist saying

In 1986, US Game Systems published Wizard, a variant of the public domain game commonly known as Oh Hell. I first discovered the game in 1995 and introduced it to a group of Cribbage players I gamed with on a weekly basis. These were hard core, very loyal Cribbage players. Two of the players tracked every game they played and the total exceeded 10,000 games! Within two weeks of it's introduction, we dropped Cribbage and concentrated solely on Wizard. Then a little more than 18 months ago I purchased a game from a new company, Days of Wonder; the game was called Gang of Four. I introduced the game to this same group and it quickly became the staple of our play. It has been more than 15 months since Wizard hit that table and we are on our third deck of Gang of Four cards. (You can only powder a deck so many times before you must replace it.)

As with Wizard, this is a very addictive game. The rules are simple but the depth of play, the opportunities and decisions confronting the player, are amazing. Everyone who has played the game offers opinions on strategy and the proper evaluation of a hand. There is a fantastic array of subtle strategies that range from bluffing to power hands, from resource management to multi-round planning. Originally appearing simplistic, the basic mechanics of play are deceptive; after more than 18 months of regular play, I continue to discover additional facets to the game.

Gang of Four is a ladder or climbing game where players attempt to evacuate their hands by playing a variety of familiar Poker combinations with each combination valued greater than the previous. Players may bluff (pass) and then re-enter play in the same round. The deck is composed of two sets of three suits (red, yellow, green) and four additional cards (a rainbow 1, two phoenix and a dragon). Traditionally games are played to 100 points with the winner of each hand scoring zero and an escalating penalty menu based on the number of cards remaining in a player's hand scoring against his opponents. Timing and sequence of play are critical factors. Gang of Four shares some of these concepts and mechanics with a few other commercial games: Tichu, The Great Dalmuti and Dilbert: Corporate Shuffle. Each of these games employs a different mix of cards in their decks and each one varies in the type of play. Tichu for example is more complex than Gang of Four and is a partnership game. Dalmuti and Dilbert are simpler and lack the depth of either Gang of Four or Tichu.

There is a learning curve associated with Gang of Four. A new player is likely to be crushed; patience is required. This is not a game of smashing the stone with a hammer; it is a trickle of water wearing away the rock a bit at a time; a game of Ying and Yang, power and patience, delicacy and dominance. The presentation contributes to this impression and is almost sultry with the softened tone and color palette. The artwork has a distinct oriental appearance. The numbered cards are printed with both Arabic notation and ancient Chinese numerical characters. The artwork for both Phoenix and the Dragon cards have a similar flavor. If any game could be described as sexy, Gang of Four is the one.

Origins

Keep flax from fire, youth from gaming.

Ben Franklin

Card games are usually segregated into various categories or families. Often a particular game will exhibit traits of more than one category. Superficially the families are as follows: trick-taking (Whist, Wizard), set collection (Rummy, Canasta), stops (Crazy Eights, Uno), adding (Cribbage), fishing (Go Fish, Casino), war/power (Egyptian Ratscrew, Magic) and climbing or ladder games. Gang of Four, Tichu, The Great Dalmuti, Dilbert Corporate Shuffle, Frank's Zoo and Who's the Ass? are examples of commercial climbing games.

Both fishing and climbing games are very popular throughout Asia and many card historians suggest that these families of games originated there, specifically in China. Tracing the history of card games is often more speculation and supposition than fact. Unlike the discovery of an ancient board game, the discovery of an old deck of cards reveals nothing about the games themselves. The foundation for the ladder games appears to be Zhen Shangyou or Zhen Fen. When perusing the rules for the two games it is difficult to believe that one is not a derivative of the other. These two games have evolved into an ever expanding variety of climbing games, both public domain and commercial, similar to the way Rummy has blossomed into so many variations.

Choh Dan Di (Big Two) is a derivative of one of these games and the origins of Gang of Four is rooted in Choh Dan Di. Though similar, the alterations to the deck are significant. There are only three suits (red, yellow, green) but 23% more cards than in a standard deck as there are two cards of each value in every suit plus four additional cards (a rainbow 1, two phoenix and a dragon). The is a hierarchy of order among the suits which, when combined with minor rule changes, results in an experience sufficiently different so as to consider Gang of Four unique. (Anyone who has played Tichu and The Great Dalmuti will recognize the affect of minor rule changes on the feel and play of the game.)

Gang of Four was designed by Lee Yih. In 1990, he self-published the game in Hong Kong where it enjoys incredible popularity. As originally published, the game displayed "stylized 1960's communist era graphics" and included ranks/titles as well as numbers on the cards. The theme was based on the Cultural Revolution in China. Students were the lowest ranking cards while the Chairman held today's dragon position. In 1995 Yih licensed the game to Darguad in France.

Eric Hautemont discovered the game in France becoming so enthralled with it "that he would buy multiple copies of the game and give them out as Christmas presents every year". So who is Eric Hautemont and why should you be interested? Hautemont and his partner, Mark Haufmann formed Days of Wonder, the publisher of the recent Spiel des Jahres winner Ticket to Ride. After acquiring the rights from Lee Yih and negotiating an arrangement with Darguad, Gang of Four and Fist of Dragonstones became the first of the Days of Wonder games to be marketed. The Days of Wonder version of Gang of Four retained the original game play but was published with alternate artwork. Gone were the students, Chairman and 60's style artwork, replaced with more traditional Chinese art and the Phoenix and Dragon cards borrowed from the French publication. Released in Europe in November of 2002 and in North America in December of the same year, it missed the lucrative Christmas season. The first U.S. sale occurred on December 22, 2002 when one customer purchased 36 copies to give as wedding gifts. Gamers appear to recognize a quality game and Gang of Four has enjoyed multiple print runs since that first sale.

Days of Wonder Support

...one can game ten times longer than one can do anything else.

Lord Byron

Very often following the purchase of a new game, the player is provided minimal, if any, support from the publisher. FAQ's, locating opponents, recent news, revisions and more are non-existent. Days of Wonder is a rare exception. Their web site establishes a new standard for game publishers. Note: the description that follows focuses on the Gang of Four web site but most of the same treatment is available for each of their titles.

Included with each copy of Gang of Four is a web card that unlocks everything a player could or should request or expect from a publisher. There are sections that provide a history of the game, links to other sites, a variety of computer wallpaper, statistical analysis and probabilities for the various combinations in the game, strategy tips, a complete pdf of the rules, a graphic tutorial for new players and forums for questions and discussions. The forums are maintained in three languages: English, French and German. However all of this is dwarfed by the game itself.

Days of Wonder has implemented an excellent presentation of the game that allows players from around the globe to participate in games of Gang of Four at anytime. It rivals the best of Brett Spiel Welt and excels at the simplicity of the interface. With a standard lobby, players can locate opponents, create games or even observe games in real time. As of December 2004, the site was averaging 1400 on-line games of Gang of Four per day. (Almost one per minute.)

Elevating the competition of the internet based version of the game is the ranking system. Adapted from the system employed by FIDE for Chess rankings, the system quantifies a particular player's abilities. Every game played, won or lost, is tracked and nothing improves a player's performance more than competition with a variety of tough opponents. While in the lobby a player can highlight any other player in the lobby and learn the rank and number of games the potential opponent has played. Robot players were introduced recently. The bots serve three functions: they provide basic competition for new players to practice with, they can complete a foursome should there be insufficient opponents in the lobby and a bot will replace a player should he lose his connection. Everyone should avail themselves of the opportunity to play on-line as the competition is superior.

Gang of Four is published in English, French and German. It is so popular in France that it has sold out and is in another printing. The sole problem I have with the web based version is entirely my own. Often, the time of day that I play, the games are heavily populated by the French players and my continued inability to comprehend foreign languages prohibits me from all but rudimentary communication—I can't trash talk in French. (Convinced by my Jesuit instructors, I spent my youth studying the "universal language"—Latin. Unfortunately I must have been preoccupied when they explained in which universe this is spoken.)

The purchase of any Days of Wonder game will provide access to all of their web based versions however the ranking system requires a game specific card. If you want to be ranked in Gang of Four you must have the web card from the Gang of Four box or a card from a Days of Wonder game that has not been implemented for the web yet. The system is friendly enough to allow anyone to register and participate in a game even when lacking a web card however none of their games are tracked. It is a try-it-before-you-buy-it opportunity

The Art of War

He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

Sun Tzu

I confess that I am not an expert at Gang of Four. In truth, based on my on-line performance, there are times I question my competence—one can attribute poor play to a bad deal only so many times. The strategy suggestions and tips below were contributed by some of my more successful opponents. Some of this advice may appear contradictory as the suggestions were provided by several different players.

  1. Reduce you hand to seven or fewer cards quickly as this is the least harmful position should you lose the hand. Remember that eight cards doubles the points so the addition of one extra card increases the player's score by nine points!
  2. Count cards. At a minimum you must follow the two Phoenix and the Dragon.
  3. Know how many cards your opponents hold. Be especially careful of the player with only nine cards as often a good player will play a gang of four followed by a five card set and end the round.
  4. Timing is critical. It is often more profitable to pass early allowing opponents to reduce their hands. Once an opponent has fewer than five cards you can be confident of controlling the hand with a five card play. Patience pays.
  5. Playing triples (three of a kind) often forces opponents to split a full house or pass. A good player will play triples while holding a full house for later.
  6. Organize you hand (doubles, triples, straights, flushes, etc) and then lead with the orphans early. Orphan cards are those that cannot be combined to form a stronger group. These are usually the most difficult cards to be rid of especially if they are of a lower value.
  7. Never lead with a combination that would allow an opponent to end the round. For example: if one opponent is holding only two cards, never lead with a pair.
  8. Given that a player holds a gang of four, the probability of additional gangs increases as the deck becomes somewhat self sorting.

For the record, once armed with these tips I promptly proceeded to lose the very next game I played.

Sliver of a Shadow

I'm $800 behind in my alimony, so let's up the stakes.

Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple

Gang of Four is a derivative of a gambling game. Gambling in the Orient is not saddled with the negative connotation associated with the popular view held in North America. Historically the more popular card games were introduced in saloons of the Old West long before becoming acceptable family entertainment; witness Rummy (Rum and Gin) as well as many of the Poker variants. Unfortunately, previous versions of the game Big Two, the public domain variants played in the United States (President, Asshole, King and Pauper, etc.) have always been considered saloon games, drinking games. With the Days of Wonder presentation, this Big Two variation has been elevated to a socially acceptable status.

However, for those who on rare occasions have an urge to wager on a game, there is a simple fix. At the end of the game, each of the losing players subtracts the winner's score from his own and pays the difference to the winner. Poker aficionados have removed the multi-round aspect from the game and pony up at the end of each hand. Playing for a prize, money, ratchets up the tension in the game and in many ways, improves the experience. Unlike so many Poker variations where the gambling is the sole validation for the game, Gang of Four plays well when playing for points alone; it is simply that good.

Conclusion

Each player must accept the cards life deals him but once in hand, he must decide how to play the cards in order to win.

Voltaire

Gang of Four can certainly be played casually, hitting the table only a few times per year as a social activity. However it offers the opportunity for serious gamers to compete at a level seldom found in card games. It has proved quite popular with Poker players as well as card players that practice more sophisticated habits. The potential for Gang of Four approaches that of Bridge with the intricacies of play, the depth and variety of strategies and the developing loyal following. It is the most popular card game in Asia and has won both the As d' Or and Tric Trac awards.

I have played hundreds, if not thousands, of different games over the years and I assure you, it is rare that a game presents players with this complete, challenging and enjoyable experience. Gang of Four is one of the few card games that can compete with the depth of a board game. After more than 18 months of regular play I believe that Gang of Four is one of the finest card games I have ever played.

I wish to acknowledge the contribution of Mark Kaufmann for providing background on Days of Wonder. Credit myself with any errors.

- Dave Shapiro

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