If good things come in small packages then Pico 2 must be absolutely fabulous. The entire game is comprised of just 11 cards. These are number 4 through 13 plus 16 and each also bears a number of "pips". (From one on the 4 card to four on the 16 card.) A round is played as follows: each player is dealt 5 cards with the eleventh card discarded face-up. (Note that this means that you know exactly what cards your opponent holds.) Each turn both you and your opponent secretly select one of their respective cards and reveal them simultaneously. The higher card wins and that player sets that card aside scoring the number of pips on it. The loser retains his/her played card. However, if the higher card is more than twice the lower card then it's the lower card that is placed aside and scored. So the 13 will beat the 10 but lose to the 6. Play continues until one player is left with but a single card. Points are then scored and, here's the clever bit, players swap hands and do it again. This ensures that each game is exactly fair as both players will have equal opportunity to play a strong/weak hand. After these two rounds the points are totaled and a winner declared. There are, at most, fourteen card plays in a game and so the game is usually over in two or three minutes.
So, very simple but, I'm pleased to note, very clever. On one level the game is a strict guessing game - the numbers are distributed such that no hand is entirely worthless, you'll always be able to win something. You've got the 6, 8 & 16 and your opponent holds the 7 & 10. If he plays the 7 you should play the 8 but if he plays the 10, you should play the 16. Now this might lead you to think that the game is entirely random and in certain situations it is, you're essentially playing a version of Rock, Paper Scissors. The cleverness and the scope for strategy lies in deducing how certain plays will affect future turns. Often you may win a play only to realize that you're left with cards that allow your opponent to win the next three. eg. You have the 4, 5 & 13 and your opponent has the 7, 8 & 9. Quick thinking might tell you that your best play is the 13. After all it's worth three points and you're guaranteed to win no matter which card your opponent plays. This might not be the best move though as your opponent will then be left with guaranteed wins with the 7 & 8 and five points. The best situation would be for you to play the 4 and your opponent the 9. You score one point for the 4 card and then play the 13 for another three points thus ending the round. (A clever opponent is unlikely to let this happen though, by playing the 7 [twice if necessary] and then the 8 he can guarantee a gain of five points to a maximum of three for you.) The point is that you need to look beyond the immediacy of this turn to foretell the consequences for future turns.
Unfortunately, the strategy doesn't extend too deep. Once you start doing the analysis hinted at above you often return to the Rock, Paper , Scissors situation you initially encountered. Instead of it being a "if I play this and he plays that, I'll win" it becomes a "if I win with a 7, then he's left with wins with his 10 & 13." Still, it does have a deeper level of skill than might appear at first glance. Further, there is the consideration that it's not only important to score well in a particular round, you must score better with a hand than your opponent did. Quite often one hand will be markedly better than another and be virtually guaranteed to score more points. However, since your opponent will have an equal chance with that hand you must take this into account when implementing a particular card play.
With all that said, how does the game feel in play? Well, I liked it. I tend to be a somewhat analytic chap and so the "puzzle" aspect of the game was rather welcome. I try hard not to overanalyze things though (a subjective criteria to be sure) and so I tend to play fairly quickly. Quite often I discover that if I had spent a little more time I would have been able to avoid a blunder. I don't really see this as a fault though as taking the time to play "perfectly" (well, as perfectly as possible) would suck all the fun right out of the game. As it is I prefer faster play, with the inherent errors and playing several games as warm up to something heavier. I've also played the game with several players who choose not to look as deeply into the strategy as I do. They've stated that they found the game enjoyable although perhaps not as much as I do.
A few final comments:
The artwork by Doris is whimsical and a delight. The expected hedgehogs are out in full force with each card showing the appropriate number of the little beasts.
Why Pico 2? This is a refinement of the original Pico that had cards valued 2 through 10, 13 and 16. I've no idea if this makes for a better game but I'm reasonably confident that there was a reason for the changes.
There is a three player variant that requires two decks (one may be the original Pico deck). The main difference is that high card wins unless it is greater than the sum of the other two cards played (in which case the lowest card wins).
- Greg Aleknevicus