Spinning Stories

Which mountains are these?

At this level of saturation, I can’t help but wonder if trick-taking games aren’t a little bit like pursuing a graduate degree — to prove your bona fides, you’ve got to make an original contribution to the field. It’s a good thing, then, that the genre sources from an inexhaustible wellspring of creativity. I’ve played well over twenty new trick-takers over the past few months, all of them visibly kin, and it’s a sublime joy to sit down for a session, the basics already sketched out in your mind thanks to a hundred previous titles, and still have no idea what a treat you’re in for.

That’s certainly the case with Tall Tales, an unassuming little trick-taker that joins a long tradition of upending the status quo in exactly the right ways.

If you don't... well, I'm sure somebody else can do a better job of explaining it.

Trick-taking. I bet you know how it works.

Not long ago, I joked to some friends that you could probably express the basics of any trick-taker via a six-word shorthand. Let’s see how it applies to this one: Binding suits. No trumps. No contracts.

Devotees of the genre get the gist. Of course, the trouble with getting the gist is that now you’ll want to know what sets Tall Tales apart from its kin. The answer is simple enough. When the game begins, you’re working with a deck of cards four suits deep and ranks running from 1 to 9. As you play, those ranks gradually swell. Within a single trick, somebody will add a 10 to the hand they’ll play on the next round. Then an 11. Eventually, as the game approaches its grand finale, those ranks will strike and even pass 17 and 18.

The idea is that you’re telling stories that grow over time, embellished in the telling and retelling. It’s a thin but pleasant conceit, precisely the hollow avian bones that so sturdily bear many trick-takers aloft. Here, the idea of embellishment is written into the way tricks score. Rather than the usual method, with the trick’s winner claiming the whole pile of cards outright, everybody’s relative strength is calculated. The highest card of the led suit wins — naturally — all the way down to the lowest off-suit card. The winner goes first, claiming a card from somebody’s “memory,” which consists of whichever card they played a trick ago. Then the next player gets to choose, and so on.

JAGUAR LASSO is my favorite.

Suits grow in power over time.

There’s a wrinkle at the bottom, though. Whomever has told the worst story is the one who embellishes it, drawing instead from the stacks of cards in the middle of the table. This is generally stronger than winning, although that’s a simplification; in practice, it pays to win some and lose some, while landing in the middle as little as possible. As with many trick-takers, there’s a shade of evocation at play: either you want to be the most faithful storyteller or the greatest bullshitter, with few ears bending for the merely serviceable. Regardless of your performance, every trick sees you gaining a new card. These are set aside for the time being, until the next round when they become your new hand. At the end of the second and final rounds, you also score your cards by tallying up their ranks. The grandest story wins.

If you couldn’t tell from the description, the moment-to-moment process, not to mention setup and cleanup, can be somewhat finicky. I have yet to play a session that didn’t include somebody pawing at a just-played card rather than claiming the memory behind it, and the need to reorder the decks prevents it from being quite as effortlessly replayable as some of its peers.

That said, it isn’t long before it slips into that wonderful headspace where everything old is new again. That’s the brilliance of this recent spate of trick-takers. Despite their familiarity, they keep moving in new directions. That’s also the case here, with those ever-shifting suits and ranks generating a rhythm that could almost be described as tidal. Choosing which memory to claim, for instance, isn’t as simple as taking the highest card on the table for its raw points value. Instead, maybe you’ll pick the low card to forcibly lose a few tricks next round. Or a middling card to push up the value of the cards at the table. As everybody’s hands develop, it’s even possible to hunt down specific suits. If you know an opponent will be playing lots of hatchets, why not invest in fish or lassos? Then you can hold plenty of high cards for security’s sake and still embellish your tale.

I do wish there had been *more* illustrations.

The evolution of a good story.

The result isn’t bombastic or earth-shattering. That isn’t the trick-taker way. Instead, it’s quietly revolutionary, forcing a novel approach to a problem you’ve likely been solving in some form since childhood. In that sense, it’s the latest in a long string of modest triumphs. There’s a reason so many players have a dedicated section of their shelf for these tiny, minorly differentiated titles. They’re bite-sized feasts. Tall Tales hits the right chords. It’s familiar, easy to learn, and makes for a lovely trio or quartet — and occasionally surprises with an errant phrase that, upon consideration, fits the piece perfectly.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 10, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. What is the player count for this game Dan? Thank you

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