Pack O Review: GEM
At some point, I really ought to acknowledge that each of the titles in the Pack O Games consists of only three letters. Speaking as a wordsmith, that alone is an achievement. I picture Chris Handy lying awake at night, struggling to name his latest creation. “GNT? RBY? NYX? DMN?” He furiously blots out the combinations of letters that fill his notepad, then calls out to his wife, rousing her from her sleep. “What’s another word for a bijou?” he asks, wiping away the perspiration on his forehead with the back of his hand.
Meanwhile, GEM is a game about the high-powered world of diamond auctioning.
Like both of the other Pack O Games entries I’ve played thus far, GEM isn’t exactly reinventing sliced bread. It’s distressingly simple, even for an auction game. Each round sees some gems laid out, usually paired up unless it’s a super-rare diamond, then tasks you with making a bid and hoping nobody trumps it. And hope you must, because this is a one-time bid, once around the table, one and done. There’s no back and forth, no cajoling, no staring in disbelief as the price for an otherwise mundane card ratchets up to insane levels by incremental degrees, spurred on by the same obsessive lobe in our brains that makes us competitive about college sports teams.
In short, it is not anything like eBay.
Instead, it’s a clever little mind game that takes a couple hands before it sinks its hooks into you. If you’re the round leader and there’s a card you want, you don’t have the option of lowballing and eventually getting around to bidding more. Instead, you’ve got to evaluate the table. How much does somebody have to spend? Do they want that particular card? If not, do they want to keep you from laying hands on it? That first bid might be the difference between watching as your prize is snatched out from under you or picking up the pair of gems that will win you the game. Or, y’know, spending way too much when you could have got the card for a song.
The wrinkle is that each round ratchets up the tension by giving you more to spend. Early on you’re limited to your starting coins, the pocket change whose limited value keeps the initial bids low. By reinvesting your leftover cash into your collection between rounds, you increase your bidding power by leaps and bounds, until dropping six or seven moneys at a time isn’t going to cripple your finances outright. Of course, there’s a balance to strike. Because spent gems aren’t worth any points at the end, overspending might force you to carefully save up in order to reinvest in all the right gems.
Like HUE, GEM is at its best when it’s providing you with simple tools and a goal, goading you into some self-doubt, then just leaving you alone to bump up against your friends’ competing intentions. Being locked in a three-way spending spree to access the most emeralds isn’t what you’d call deep, especially because its one-bid system means you never really get “locked” into anything, but it does provide a decent volume of drama for such a slender package. Not the sort of game that would likely hit the table on a regular game night, but you could certainly do worse on a rainy vacation.