Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Gargon is a very unusual card game. It’s a game of bluff, in which a player may simultaneously seek conflict and hope to avoid it. It’s a game of short term tactics and long-term planning. It’s a game which can be difficult to get a handle on.
The deck consists of six suits, numbered 1-15 plus two zeroes. The card backs are color-coded so players can always see what suits everyone holds. This information is crucial, in fact, and we’ve found that it’s easiest if players leave their hands spread face-down in front of them until it’s their turn to play.
At the core of Gargon is a multiplayer, multicolor version of War. Players play cards face down, then compare them against other cards of the same color. The high card gets rewarded, the low cards get consolation. Each card is worth 0-6 points (doubled for each captured zero), with value decreasing as strength rises. Like Through the Desert, there are also ten point bonuses at the end of the game for the players who collected the most cards in each color.
A rotating start player sets the tone for each round by laying 1-3 cards face-down (but not three of the same color). Future players must either pass, or play the same number of cards and colors (but the colors need not match the first player’s). The last player may only use colors already used by the previous players— he may not introduce a new color. This makes sense, since the last player would otherwise be able to play in an unused color for an automatic win. Winning cards go in a player’s scoring pile. Losers are discarded and replaced from the central fans (about which, more in a moment). Players are always on the lookout for opportunities to play low cards in colors the players following them lack, allowing them to scoop them up unchallenged.
The fact that players can only capture the cards they play themselves creates a pair of conundrums. Easy-to-capture high cards are worth the fewest points. The valuable low cards, easy prey to challengers, must be finessed through bluff or crossed fingers. Capitalizing on a captured zero’s doubling power requires a player to both draw and capture valuable cards of the same color. Strategically passing, or intentionally losing a challenge in an undesired color to pick up a better color in consolation, are important tactics to remember.
The game’s two draw piles are fanned out so that the backs of all the cards can be seen easily. These fans are what make the game truly work, providing a means of long-term planning. Whenever a player chooses (or, in the case of the last player, is forced) to pass, he draws up to three cards. Those cards can come from either or both fans, but only off the top. Only one card is drawn as consolation for losing a challenge. A player pursuing the bonus in red should pay close attention to when clumps of red cards might become available, lest an opponent grab them and compete.
The game ends when either of the fans is exhausted. This works very well, providing a visible yet variable clock ticking away inexorably toward the finish. Passing players generally choose to draw three cards, but as the fans shrink a player might decide to draw fewer cards, or from the less desirable fan, to forestall the end of the game. Cards at the tail end of the fans are also less likely to be captured. Players can factor this into their calculations for how many cards they’ll need to assure the bonus in those colors.
Many players have trouble deciding when to challenge someone else and when to bluff. The inclination seems to be to avoid conflict with middling to low cards whenever possible, trying for the sure thing by being unchallenged in another color instead. As players learn the ropes, they pick up on the importance of challenging opponents but the lure of the free ride remains strong. As a result, Gargon often seems like a game of conflict avoidance. I’ve heard some people complain that it’s all guesswork and chaos, but there’s more depth than they give it credit for. I think of Gargon as a game of resource management— when to play cards, when to pass, what to draw— with a healthy dose of psychology mixed in. A
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)