Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sutakku Review

Sutakku came out in 2011 from Smirk & Dagger Games.  It was designed by Curt Covet according to BoardGameGeek, however the manual tells this charming story about how it's an old Japanese game that evolved over time, supposedly to teach lessons about risk versus reward.  It's a push your luck dice game with an interesting aesthetic and a very fun "take that" variant.

I discovered Sutakku at PAX East this year.  Smirk & Dagger were there at a booth, which had the game on display.  I'd spotted the dice from across the crowded hall, and they looked gorgeous.  Then later that night around midnight we lucked out and found a copy we could check out of the game library.  I'd been looking for a light, cheap and small game to get at PAX as a memento.  Sutakku was perfect.  We played it 4 times in a row and only stopped because we wanted to immediately try to purchase it.  Luckily for us, we went over to the Smirk & Dagger booth and sure enough someone was still there, even past Midnight.  Me and a friend happily bought copies around 1 am.

Rule Summary


Suttaku is a simple push your luck dice game.  The game comes with 12 dice.  On your turn you will roll 3 of them, and must stack 2.  When you stack a die, it must be the same number or higher than the die under it.  If you cannot stack 2 of the 3 dice you rolled, you bust and score zero points for the round.  If you successfully stack 2 out of 3 dice, you can choose to stay, and bank your points, or roll again.  You can even keep going until you've stacked all 12 dice.  An unlikely feat.  When you decide to bank your points, you score points equal the the number of dice in the tower, times the number on the top die.

But I'm neglecting the bonuses.  If you have a 5 on the top of the stack, and choose to keep rolling, you get 50 bonus points.  If you have a 6 on top and keep rolling, you get 100 bonus points!  If by some miracle you stack all 12 dice, that's 200 bonus points and an almost certain victory.

There are also bonuses for rolling doubles and triples.  If you roll doubles, and the 3rd die is lower than the doubles, and legal to stack, you can stack all 3 dice.  If you roll triples you can stack all 3 dice as well, but if you rolled triples and bust, you get a free reroll.  You also get a mulligan once per round.  You roll 2 dice, and must stack those two dice if able.

There are also challenge cards you can optionally play with.  The first player starts with one.  You also take one if you bust with only 2 or 3 dice stacked.  Effectively if you bust on the second roll of a round.  You can then play them on your opponents (or yourself), and they impose additional challenges, but with additional rewards.

Every player gets 5 rounds, and then you add up the scores and see who wins.

Timelapse

How accessible is the game to new players?


This being a push your luck dice game, there isn't a lot you can say about it being accessible to new players.  Of course it is.  The whole genre exists to be accessible to new players.  The only thing I've ever seen hang up a new player is the doubles rule.  What to do with that 3rd die is the only slightly complicated part of this game.  But even that gets smoothed out after a few plays.

The blue shaded areas are the basic game mechanics.
The red shaded areas are all the exceptions and edge cases.

It is easy however, when learning from the manual, to miss out on several of the nuances.  Like the fact that when you roll triples and bust, you get a free reroll.  The rules concerning what to do with the last few dice you are stacking onto a tall tower are also easy to miss.  The game just has a lot of edge cases that are easy to gloss over when learning from the manual.

What could have been done better?


I think this would have been the perfect game for a flow chart.  Or perhaps a bullet list of what you can do in certain situations.  The core of the game is simple, roll 3 dice, then stack 2.  However the list of edge cases is long, comparatively.  I can think of 6 different edge cases just off the top of my head.  It's just a little confusing when the base rules are so straightforward and simple, but there are so many exceptions.

Playing Sutakku the first 4 or 5 times, you will constantly encounter new edge cases.  I was constantly explaining special rules.  It made my group feel like I was making up the rules as we go.  On the plus side I suppose, none of the rules are punitive.  That would have inspired some understandable frustration I imagine.  All the edge rules mostly allow you to stack extra dice, earn bonuses, or get free rerolls.  So it's not the end of the world if you forget, you just lose some of the richness of the game.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?


Dice really are the great equalizer.  I also think this could perhaps be the first game I've played where new players actually do better than experienced players.  New players just seem to blindly chase after those risky bonus points.  Perhaps due to beginners luck, they tend to succeed.  Experienced players tend to play it safe oddly enough, having acquired a better understanding of how unlikely it is to get those bonuses.  Or perhaps just thinking they do.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?


It's amusing to me, how much I fall for this game's superficial charm.  The dice are extra large, and use Japanese characters instead of pips or numbers.  The stacking mechanic is completely useless.  You could just as easily have lined up the dice in a row.  There is nothing in the rules about the balance of the dice, or the dice falling over.  But something about it just works.

It could be my own bias.  The Japanese characters add a certain elegance to a game that could have had any theme at all.  Plus the stacking adds to the feelings of tension.  You can't help but get nervous as your tower of dice grows higher and wobblier, even if there are zero gameplay ramifications to it's balance.  Usually I see through mechanics and reduce them to a raw numbers game.  But even having done that for this game, I still find it's ornaments charming.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?


Well, like most push your luck games, and especially one limited to 5 rounds, it's mostly tactical.  It's all risk tolerance.  Players quickly learn the trick of stacking their highest die when they cash out.  Knowing when to really push your luck towards the end gets fun too.

These add so much to the game

Where the game really shines is in the challenge cards.  They are optional, but I would strongly suggest playing with them, even in your first game.  They add a much needed splash of variety to the game, and more nuance to the tactical game.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?


I'm not really sure this game has dilemmas.  Unlike Zombie Dice where the decision to stay or keep rolling can be influenced by the remaining dice in the cup, here it is always the same.  You will always have the same odds of being able to stack on a 4.  The only question you face is do you want to go for it this time or not, usually for arbitrary reasons or to catch up to someone.

It feels more like a slot machine than a game.  You pull the lever, and wait to see which bonuses roll out.  If you go for those bonus points often enough, it'll pay off eventually.  Especially since you can always mulligan your last roll.  Plus, the game just gets boring quickly when you play it safe.  You need at least one risk taking player to force the game forward.  Someone who will go for those bonus points, if for no other reason than to scare everyone else into going for them too.

But that all changes when you include the challenge cards.  Suddenly you have a reason to really push hard when you get a bad first roll, instead of banking 10 or 12 points.  Plus playing them on your opponents creates a fantastic arms race, urging everyone else to try to get the challenge cards as well.  Especially if you use them on yourself to get a bonus.  In fact, playing the challenge cards on yourself can be the smartest thing you can do to catch up.  If it looks easy enough.  I just love the versatility the challenge cards offer.

Why are the dilemmas any good?


The game without the challenge cards doesn't have the benefit of the risk being slightly different each time you roll.  For the most part it's static.  It also doesn't have the benefit of lasting until someone wins, giving everyone the hope of one more turn.  So it really needs an extra push, and I'm glad they included the challenge cards to provide it.

It was a very smart thing, having the first player start with a challenge card.  I can see how it adds to game balance, since he will finish first, and everyone else knows what score to shoot past.  But it also starts that arms race with the challenge cards.  It forces their introduction into the game as well.  It could be quite possible to include the challenge cards in the game, but nobody ever tries to draw any.  Especially if everyone gets in the habit of playing it safe.  The start player rule helps break up that group think.

Physical component design and limitations?


Most of the components in this game are fantastic.  I love them.  The dice are large and stack well.  It comes with a surface to stack them on, which also has a reference for all the Japanese numbers.  It even comes with a perfect little cloth pouch to store the dice in.  The rule pamphlet has this charming little parable supposedly connected to the origins of the game in Japan.

I am let down by the quality of the challenge cards however.  They are mostly just business cards with game rules printed on them.  The corners aren't rounded or anything!  In fact, they feel like they were added to the game last minute as an afterthought.  They aren't even mentioned in the rulebook.  They just come with a card that explains how to use them.  They felt so cheap and flimsy, I questioned the thought that went into them, and almost never even tried them!  I'm glad I decided to explore that part of the game though.  Even if my main motivation for trying them was for the sake of writing this article.

A card from X-Wing next to the challenge cards for reference.

It just does not feel like the level of care and effort that went into the rest of the game went into the challenge cards.  Not even close.  All signs point to them being a very last minute addition to the game.  But I'm going to insist the challenge cards are pivotal to long term enjoyment of this game.

What could have been better?


Just better quality cards really.  That and some sort of reference material for the litany of bonuses and edge cases.  Just a quick summary of them would have sufficed.
  • Rule of 5 - 50 bonus points
  • Rule of 6 - 100 bonus points
  • Tower of 12 - 200 bonus points
  • Doubles - Stack 3rd dice if lower and legal
  • Triples - Stack all 3 dice, free reroll if busted
Sure it's not a complete picture, but it would at least remind people, or prompt them to ask what the heck those things are.  It probably would have even fit on the same surface as the Japanese number reference.

That's it?!

As a last nitpick, I would have appreciated more scoring sheets.  You only get about 25 sheets, and they aren't even double sided.  Odds are you can cram 2 or 3 games per sheet in if you are playing with 2-4 players.  But still, I promise you I will be blowing through this score pad in no time.

Long term prospects?


Zombie Dice got over 50 plays.  Not because it's great, but because it was simple.  After a night of medium to heavy games, it was nice to unwind with a simple dice game to play while we finished off our beers.  I can confidently say that Sutakku probably fills that space even better.  It's just a much more aesthetically pleasing game.  Plus the challenge cards really kick the game up a notch.

I can confidently say I'm going to hit at least 50 plays with this.  Possibly 100.  Every time it hits the table it gets played at least 4 times, so those numbers don't seem unreasonable.  I think I will be having fond memories of discovering this at PAX East 2013 for a long time to come.

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