Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Mike Fitzgerald’s series of Mystery Rummy games is an exercise in game design, as if a class of students were challenged to develop an entirely new game based on the principles of Rummy. What’s amazing is how much each game in the series retains the essence of Rummy while creating its own distinct flavor. Three games have appear in the series thus far: Jack the Ripper, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Jekyll & Hyde. And though you won’t find the words “Mystery Rummy” anywhere in the title, Wyatt Earp is essentially the fourth— and arguably the best— game in the series. The game is the result of a collaboration between Fitzgerald and Richard Borg, designer of the Tiger-winning Battle Cry.
The milieu is the old West, putting players in the roles of lawmen looking to capture a motley assortment of outlaws including Billy the Kid, Belle Starr, Butch Cassidy and Jesse James. There are seven outlaws in all, and their wanted posters are set in a circle and seeded with $1,000 bounty at the start of each hand. Gameplay follows the now-familiar Mystery Rummy form of draw, play at most one Sheriff (gavel) card, meld sets of outlaws (evidence), and discard.
Eight “capture points” are required to nab an outlaw, and these are most commonly earned by melding the corresponding outlaw cards. Initial melds for each outlaw must be at least three cards long, but future melds have no limit. When cards are melded, the bounty for the matching outlaw increases by one less than the size of the meld. Singletons, therefore, do not increase the pot, thus encouraging players to save up and meld as long a set as possible to maximize their potential reward. Every outlaw card is worth two points towards capturing the matching desperado. When the hand ends, either because someone discards their last card or players finish two passes through the deck, outlaws with at least eight capture points on the table are strung up and their bounties paid.
And it’s all about the money, because the first player to reach $25,000 wins. Normally the bounty for each captured outlaw is spread roughly evenly among all players who helped capture him, giving a small bonus to the player with the most of that outlaw’s capture points. If that player’s capture points total at least five more than his nearest rival, however, he gets the whole enchilada. Players often need to cooperate to get enough capture points into play to bring an outlaw to justice, but they’re also competing to get the bigger share of the loot and to possibly squeeze out their rivals completely.
Each poster is reseeded with another $1,000. In the case of outlaws that weren’t captured in the previous hand, this seed money is added to their existing bounties. The pots can get quite large and contested if someone escapes capture a couple of times in a row, and Sheriff cards can make all the difference.
Sheriff cards introduce special effects into the game such as adding capture points to a meld, increasing an outlaw’s bounty, or stealing cards from a neighbor. Though powerful, only one can be played each turn, restricting a player’s ability to go out and end the hand. There’s no tangible bonus for going out, except keeping other players’ cards off the table and hopefully leaving them with a smaller share of fewer bounties.
Many of the Sheriff cards only work if the player using them makes a “successful shot.” This essentially means the player must turn over the top card of the deck, and if it’s an outlaw card (all of which have a bullet hole in the corner), their shot succeeds and the card works as intended. Otherwise the Sheriff card is discarded with no effect. With 49 outlaw cards and 29 Sheriff cards in the deck, players can expect to turn an outlaw card 63% of the time (on the first pass through the deck; much less often on the second pass). This mechanic fits perfectly with the theme, while allowing the designers to include a wider and stronger array of game effects. Since the Sheriff cards don’t always work, these effects don’t throw the game out of balance into chaos. Instead, they provide some fun moments of tension and surprise when players take their shots.
The most versatile and important cards are the seven Wyatt Earps. In the early game they’re great for drawing two extra cards (a bigger hand means more and larger melds). In the mid-game they’re often used to retrieve a card from anywhere in the discard pile— handy when you need that third outlaw card to make a meld. In the endgame they’re even more valuable as protection from Hideouts, a Sheriff card which nullifies all of one player’s cards for any one outlaw. Imagine building Jesse James’ bounty, racking up ten capture points on your own, only to become victim to a hideout and have him run free! Hideouts can be devastating, and players are wise to hold onto a Wyatt Earp card or two for defense.
In most Mystery Rummy games, you rarely want to discard evidence if you have any other choice— you might be handing your opponent the card he needs to finish a meld. In Wyatt Earp, however, it can sometimes be advantageous to discard outlaws. This is particularly true when a right-hand opponent is 5-6 capture points ahead of a left-hand opponent. Discarding the contested outlaw gives your left-hand neighbor the chance to pick it up and meld, thus splitting the bounty between two rivals instead of giving it all to one player.
Gathering sets of cards and melding them to the table certainly feels like rummy, and yet the competition for capture points to earn a bigger piece of the bounty is not at all like the game you used to play with your grandmother. This, combined with the strong theming, gives Wyatt Earp a unique personality and a higher-than-expected fun factor. Fans of rummy will find comfort in the familiarity of the basic mechanics, but those who sneer at the traditional will discover plenty to like here. The graphic design is particularly noteworthy for evoking the era beautifully while presenting essential information clearly. The box correctly notes that Wyatt Earp plays particularly well with three players. This and the solid gameplay should make Wyatt Earp a welcome addition to many collections.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)