I recently realized that my game collection was lacking a good trick-taking game and, as if on cue, someone sent me a copy of their new game Dia de los Muertos for possible review. Feeling that the serendipitous timing of this arrival must bode well, I agreed to cover the game without even having read the rules. And then, of course, I immediately began to fear that I had made a huge mistake. What if I hated it? I really wasn't relishing the idea of telling this guy that his game was a dud . And to make things worse, "this guy" was Frank Branham, curator of The Gaming Dumpster and publisher of The Games Journal! Even though I had never met or corresponded with Branham, I still viewed him as a kind of friend (or at least kindred spirit). I began to think that in my rush to fill my trick-taking-game-shaped-void, I had put myself in a terrible position.
So it was with great relief that I played my first game of Dia de los Muertos and discovered that, while I wasn't exactly hooked on it, it played passably well. In fact my group and I enjoyed it enough to play it a second time. And then we played it again. And again. And again. Now, having played it half a dozen times, I am pleased (and a bit surprised) to report that I am hooked on it. It's exactly the kind of game I had been looking for, and probably better than anything I would have picked up on my own.
Dia de los Muertos refers to the three-day Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, during which the souls of departed animals, children and adults return to Heaven. As a trick-taking game, Dia de los Muertos shares many similarities with the classics of the genre. It's played in partnerships, with members of each team sitting across from each other. Someone leads a trick by playing a card from his hand, and the other players, clockwise around the table, must then each play a card. The person who played the highest card takes the trick and leads the next. So far we're in familiar territory, but at this point the mechanics of Dia de los Muertos take a hard left and heads down the backroads.
The 48 cards in the deck come in four suits (red, blue, green or black) and are ranked from 0 - 10 (but no 9's, go figure). The card distribution is not uniform; instead all of the cards lower than 3 are black, all of the 10s are black, and most of the cards in the middle are of the color suits. All of the cards with ranks lower than 5 have secondary functions. The cards ranked 2, for example, are Food Cards, while the cards ranked 4 are Muertos cards. Other special cards allow you take actions after the card is played, such as asking another player about the contents of his hand or prohibiting the play of Food Cards.
The object of the game, by the way, is to collect sets of Food and Muertos cards. If, at the game's conclusion, you and your partner have four Food cards and three Muertos cards, you final score is three (the unmatched Muertos card is ignored). The scoring cards are removed from the deck prior to play. Then, before each of the three rounds, the deck is built using three Food cards, four Muertos cards, and the 25 cards of other ranks. These card are then dealt out, eight per player. The Food cards are always the of the same suit (black), but the Muertos cards vary in color and name from round to round: in the first they are green Animal Muertos, in the second they are red Child Muertos, and in the final round they are blue Adult Muertos.
Someone leads the first trick, and each other person now plays any card from their hand with one crucial restriction: once a card of a given color appears in a trick, no further cards of that color may be played (but black—it's not technically a color, you know—is always an option). If someone has no playable cards, as often happens at the end of a round, he instead discards. The person who played the highest ranked card takes the trick; if multiple cards are tied for highest rank, the first one played nabs it. If the trick contained Food or Muertos cards, these are placed before the player (or his teammate), and the player who took the trick must now "Exchange Gifts". To Exchange Gifts, the player allows the opponent to his right to take a card at random from his hand; the opponent then looks at the chosen card and then gives the original player any card from his own hand (which may be the card he just took). Play then resumes with the person who won the last trick leading the next.
As in all trick-taking games, keeping track of what has been played is a crucial aspect to success in Dia de los Muertos. This task is made simple by a rule that states that all played cards do not go to a discard pile; they are instead set off to the side, face-up and ordered by rank, so you can see at a glance which cards remain in play. An odd decision on the part of the designer, but a wise one, I believe. With only 32 cards in each round, card counting would be an entirely manageable (although not necessarily enjoyable) task for those who wished it employ the brainpower, but Branham has relieved us of this burden. Those adept at card tracking would be justified in complaining that this rule denies them an opportunity for skillful play, but for folks like me—who find card counting laborious and difficult—it's a great relief.
Spared the tedium of card counting, and considering that only 24 tricks are taken during the entire game (compare to the 26 tricks taken in just the first two hands of hearts), you may expect a game of Muertos to cruise by at a respectable clip. Not so. The reason: given the knowledge of all the cards still held in a round, the players are able to use their powers of deduction to the greatest advantage. This is enhanced by a number of cards that allow you a glimpse into someone else's hand. The "1: Swap" cards, for example, allow you to give a single card from your hand to your partner, while he, in turn, gives you a card from his. Having done this, you now know at least one card your partner holds. The same is true after Exchanging Gifts with an opponent. And there's even a "1: Ask" card which allows you to query another player about the contents of his hand (e.g. "How many cards higher than 5 do you have."). Even without these special cards, the savvy sleuth will find plenty of opportunities for educated guessing. A player who discards a card instead of playing to a trick, for instance, has just announced that his remaining cards are not black and in colors that have already appeared in the trick. Take note.
But knowledge is a fickle thing in Dia de los Muertos, which owes as much to Three Card Monte as it does to Bridge. Asking an opponent how many 10s he holds is great, but the next time he Exchanges Gifts or Swaps cards with his partner, your vision into his hand becomes cloudier. At any given moment you may have a pretty good idea of what another player holds, but it's rare that you'll ever know for certain. And this, I believe is, the true brilliance of the design: a clever balance between mechanisms that reveal information and mechanisms that serve to muddy the waters. It's also what makes the game longer than you might expect, as players hem and haw over their partial information, trying to reason out who gave what to whom. This can make the game drag a bit, although periodic shouts of "c'mon, play a card!" at the active player seem to keep things moving quite nicely.
The rule stating that no two cards of a like color can be played in a single trick makes for some interesting decisions. If you're in the first round, say, and you are don't think your team will capture the trick, why not play a green 5? That way, your opponents cannot play (and win) a Muertos card, which also happen to be green. Of course if your opponents have already collected five Muertos cards and only two Food cards, you may not care if they get it; after all, if they finish the game with six Muertos and two Food, they still only get two points. I could go on and on about all the insidious subtlety tucked away in this game, but much of the fun comes from discovering them yourself.
The theme is largely irrelevant to the game, although some elements (such as the Gift Exchange) are well integrated. The best part of the motif, to my mind, is the artwork it allowed Branham to use. The images come from public domain clipart collections, but are very nice nonetheless and capture the mood quite nicely. (They remind me of the illustrations in The Milagro Beanfield War, a book this game inspired me to reread.) It's also worth noting that while Dia de los Muertos is clearly a "homebrew" game, the production quality is rather good: the laminated cards are easily shuffled, although dealing is a bit of a chore. It would be nice to see this game get picked up and get the production values it deserves.
As far as I know, the only place currently selling Dia de los Muertos is Funagain Games (http://www.funagain.com), at a price of eight bucks. A little steep for an indie press game with public domain clip art, perhaps, but as fine as any professional produced game you'd find at the same price. Indeed, the only real strike against Dia de los Muertos is its slightly steep learning curve: new players will have no difficulty learning the rules, but catching all the nuances does take a game or four. And it's best played when all players are equally experienced: strategies which eventually seem obvious will sail over the head of a first-timer, which can be infuriating when the first-timer is your partner. But once you've cultivated a group of players who are comfortable with the game's unusual mechanics, you'll doubtlessly hear the cries of "Bring out your Dead" whenever you get together.
- Matthew Baldwin
If you want to know more about Dia de los Muertos we encourage you to visit the official website at: http://www.sacredchao.cc/muertos/game.html
Editor's Note: Frank Branham is both the designer of Dia de los Muertos and the publisher of The Games Journal. However, final editorial content of this publication lies with me (Greg Aleknevicus) and I have no financial stake in the game at all, in fact, I've never even seen it. Matthew Baldwin was the single person we solicited for review of this game.