One Through Nine
Every so often a publisher will send me a game out of the blue. I try to take a look at every title I’m sent, but when I’m working through a backlog twenty boxes deep, I’ll confess it isn’t beyond me to judge a game by its lid. Eternal shame, I know. But look at this thing. TEN? That’s the name of your game? TEN? With that epileptic seizure of colors passing for box art? I only knew Shawn Stankewich, Robert Melvin, and Molly Johnson from Point Salad, but, uh, I’m not especially fond of Point Salad. Onto the pile of giveaways it went.
And then something funny happened. TEN got nominated for a Golden Geek. My curiosity was piqued. It was sitting right there, after all. How much opportunity cost could it represent? At worst, it would take fifteen minutes to learn and play. Fifteen lousy minutes. It’s a rare game night if we don’t chat about Geoff’s fashion sense for at least twenty. Might as well give it a try.
Since then, we’ve hardly hosted a game night without playing a round or two of TEN. It’s phenomenal.
Games about numbers are never all that interesting to write about, so we’ll forego the usual description. Suffice to say, TEN is pretty much what I want from a game about numbers. I’d say it’s not really about numbers, but that would be a pie-stealer’s lie. This thing is thick with numbers. It drowns in numbers. You can hardly go ten seconds without counting up digits on your fingers.
What it’s really about, though, is drama. High drama. This thing is the King Lear of numbers. And it’s all thanks to the fact that TEN is a press-your-luck game about five times over.
Here’s what I mean. Your goal, which sounds very boring and numeric to say aloud, is to make runs of numbers in four suits. The longer your runs, the higher your points. Easy, right? Well, except for the half-dozen wrinkles this game’s designers stitch right into its fabric. How you get cards, for one thing. When your turn spins round, you draw a card. In most cases, it’ll be a plain old number in a plain old colored suit. If it’s a low numbers, you’re going to want to hit. Draw again. Pull from that deck once more. But if it’s a higher card? Say, a six? That’s when you need to start measuring your odds.
Because here’s the thing about TEN: ten is your safe word. When drawing cards, any amount up to ten is safe. Hit eleven and you’ve busted. Press your luck, but don’t be surprised when you bust because you hit on a seven.
Except already we need to talk about some additional wrinkles. First, the deck composition. There are three times as many low cards as high cards. So you’re three times as likely to draw something low as something high, right? In theory, sure. More than that, there are currency cards mixed in among the regular numbers. These subtract from your total. If you have a 7 alongside a 5-currency, that means your total is two. But! Not only do you bust on an eleven, you also bust on negative eleven, and those negatives aren’t calculated in light of your positives, and—
Look, there’s no talking about TEN without talking numbers, but here’s the protein: every single draw is testy in multiple directions. You can bust by going too high. You can bust by going too low. And then there’s the market and the auctions to consider. If you don’t bust, you can spend your currency on purchasing cards from the market, where busted cards linger like castoff puppies in a shop window. Spend your currency too early, though, and you might wind up watching multiple auctions pass in a row. Wild cards trigger these, drawn from the deck just like everything else, and there’s nothing quite as aggravating as blowing your cash right before the appearance of the card that would have been the linchpin of your best run. Choosing when to hold or spend currency is just one more way TEN asks you to press your luck.
Speaking of luck, though, the real beauty of this thing is how nothing ever feels entirely dictated by it. There are probabilities to consider, but sheer chance plays a secondary role. There are good gambles and poor presses, and spirals where you can’t help but bust because you aren’t thinking straight, and moments when you want to bust because that’s the only way to pick up a special white currency token that lets you break past the usual limit of ten coins. There are terrible draws, too. There’s nothing stopping you from drawing a high card right away. But that’s part of the texture. Remember, high cards are rare. If you hit and bust, you have nobody else to blame for trying to weasel more than a nine out of a pull.
This thing is smooth, is what I’m saying. Smooth and edged at the same time, and for different reasons. Smooth because it blunts the sting of a poor play, edged because it rewards card counting and mean bids and little moments of surprise cunning. It’s the sort of game that gets folk complaining that it’s all chance, except the same people seem to keep winning. It’s also the sort of game that gets everyone chanting “Hit hit hit!” when somebody’s sitting on a seven. Because screw ’em, that’s why. Between its auctions and the ability to buy a card out of the market for no reason other than to keep it from bridging somebody’s blue run, TEN keeps you counting but puts human drama front and center. What a delight.
Final Score: Not Eleven.
A complimentary copy was provided.