We spent a lot of time in the dealers’ hall at GenCon – this year with two whole days sans enfants we actually had time to demo some games. The other two days were our “two minute demo days” – we’d play a game until the kids started screaming, which was usually about two minutes. Cups is old enough to be bored if she’s not included and young enough to have a hard time with anything but uncomplicated rules; she is also in that awkward gamer stage where cheating is viewed as something that just bypasses all that waiting around to win, and not as an actual bad thing. This is adorable when she uses it to shorten a game of Candyland (seriously? On random chance you can get sent back to the beginning at any point?) and intensely frustrating when she does not understand why she shouldn’t.
One of the games we demo’d with Cups around and then did not get back around to buying at the Con itself was Square Shooters, which is rather cleverly based on mathematics. In essence, if you count the two jokers, there are 54 cards in a deck – which is a precise multiple of 6. According to the story, creator Carmelyn Calvert then spent a night of innovative fury rearranging those 54 potential faces onto 9 six-sided dice such that it was possible to roll every conceivable 4-of-a-kind as well as every conceivable straight flush. In the morning, she had nine dice and a game that is sort of like poker and sort of like Yahtzee.
Unboxing: The basic game set, which we found post-Con at our friendly neighborhood Big Box Store while browsing for something completely different, has a “storage bag”, nine dice, a small deck of cards, 100 dime-sized plastic poker chips and the instructions. It all fits into the bag with a little creative packing (put the instructions in first) and can then slip onto a small to medium wrist or into the pocket of a pair of cargo shorts for portability. The chips and bag are fairly light construction, but the cards themselves are about the sturdiness of your average Bicycle playing cards, if only about half the size, and the dice have a good solid heft and roll to them. We spent a while turning them around and the claims regarding what can be rolled do appear to be true.
Gameplay: We picked up the set on the way out to a friend’s house for a bonfire, where we snagged her just-starting-middle-school son for a test run game. I rolled out the dice and the first thing out of his mouth was “But I don’t know how to play poker!” We were prepared for that. The game requires you to know or be able to learn what some basic poker terms mean: straight, flush, royal flush, two-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, and full house. It also provides a cheat sheet including scoring rank in its instructions, which are clear and concise. It also contains a conversion guide, in case you want to play rummy or twenty-one with the same dice. “Holding” card games such as Gin would probably be unfeasible, but anything that depends on the turn of a card is probably doable with the set of dice.
In the basic game, you turn over the top card from the deck and take three tries to meet one of two goals on it. There is a low goal such as “two pair” or “straight flush”, and then there is a high goal, which challenges you to match a specific set of faces with your dice. For example, in the setup above, the low-goal – a royal flush – is worth 6 chips and the high goal – a royal flush in clubs – is worth 12 chips. There are two jokers as wild cards, and you can save or reroll any of the nine dice during your three rolls. If you match one or the other, you get the chips and play passes to the next person. If you don’t, you get nothing. There are some modifier cards: a Joker card that can be used later in play; Quickdraw that allows you to chip in on someone else’s potential gain and win the same number of chips they do (playable just before or after someone else’s first roll only); Double Down to double the stakes of any given roll, and Showdown, which lets you challenge another player to a roll-off for high hand, winner takes six chips from the loser. Gameplay continues for a set number of rounds (they suggest 8) and the winner is the player with the most chips.
There’s no betting in Square Shooters, which is a nuance that I appreciate: the flow of chips is essentially a point-scoring system rather than an interplay between the players themselves (Showdown excluded). It’s easy for one player to get ahead – some combinations are worth far more than others, and your stakes are determined by the card you draw. Despite his reservations, our friend’s son turned out to be a natural with the dice (he won by a factor of two), and as we worked through teaching him how to play some of the strategy of the game became apparent. Because not every die contains every possible card face – and two of them have a wild side – selecting which dice to keep versus reroll can change your chances for success significantly. I suspect familiarity with the dice would be as beneficial as knowing your cards is in a regular game; as we were all new to the dice there was a lot of picking them up and studying the non-playing sides to find where target faces were.
Summary: As packaged, Square Shooters is a quick and fun game for older kids and adults. Altering the number of rounds you play can raise or lower the stakes, and there is enough chance involved that an experienced player is not necessarily going to demolish a new one. We had a good time and entertained some other folks at the bonfire while taking up minimal table space. Setup is quick, the rules don’t take much explaining, and the instructions are clear and complete. Since the dice get passed from player to player there’s really no upper limit to how many can play.
The game is adaptable out of the box: the website has a number of other games to play with the dice – mainly new versions of classic card games – and Cups was entertained for quite some time at the dealer’s booth by just trying to roll a match for a given card. She’s probably a little young to play the full game, still, but a two-player shootout between the adults is entirely feasible. For our family with four-year-old Cups and nine-month-old Cap’n, the downside is probably the number of small pieces involved: this is a game for playing on high tables and picking up very carefully, lest a die or a chip wind up becoming baby food.