Cost: $30 From: Wheeler Games, (510) 283-7349 Players: 1-4 Playing Time: 30-45 minutes Type of game: Family Complexity: 5 Skill level: 3 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 3.1, Winter 1994
Honored by Games Magazine as the best new Family game of 1994, Peg Poker is a dynamite twist on the classic game of Yahtzee. This variation takes "dice poker," the generic name for Yahtzee, quite literally.
Peg Poker uses a set of thirteen specially crafted dice. Each die is rectangular except that the short ends are rounded, making it impossible for a die to come to rest naturally on these ends. That leaves 52 sides on the combined thirteen dice. That number should ring a bell. Each side displays a different card from a standard deck. The cards are arranged so that each die contains one card of each suit, and each rank shares a die with each other rank exactly once (so a five and a nine, for example, will only appear on one die together).
Clever and elegant. This arrangement seems to maximize the number of different hands possible without duplicating any cards. The dice themselves are also durable and of excellent quality.
The game itself is a combination of Yahtzee and Tic-Tac-Toe. The plastic game board takes the form of a four by four grid of identical, if initially confusing, squares. The top half of each square contains holes labelled with the various possible poker hands (pairs, straight, full houses, etc). The bottom half sports holes labelled 2 through Ace. Each player has an ample supply of colored pegs which fit these holes.
A turn consists of rolling the unusual dice and forming a poker hand with them. Like Yahtzee, you can opt to reroll some dice. Yahztee gives you three rolls each turn, but in Peg Poker you might have as few as one. How many is determined by the value of a special 6-sided die tossed at the start of your turn.
When you've formed your hand, you claim one of the sixteen squares with it by inserting pegs of your color in the appropriate holes of that square. The square thus claimed becomes a square of that hand type (full house, pairs, etc) for the remainder of the game. It may be claimed by other players, but only if they roll a higher hand of that type.
Suppose you had a 8-9-10-J-Q, or queen high, straight. You would claim a square by putting one of your pegs in that square's Straight hole, and another in that square's Q hole (to mark the highest card in that straight). That square is now a Straight square for the rest of the game, and can only be taken over by a king-high or ace-high straight. Even though a full house would be a higher poker hand, it could not take over the square.
Play passes to the next player, with the winner being the first player to claim four squares in a row in any direction. Once all sixteen squares have been claimed, if you finish your rolls and can't form a hand high enough to take over a square, you're out of the game. If all players but one get eliminated, the last remaining player wins.
Instead of claiming a square, you may choose to boost the value of a square you already own. In our example, if you roll an ace-high straight you could opt to boost your queen-high straight square to an ace-high straight, making it tougher for opponents to capture. A square is never immune to capture, even if it already has the highest possible hand of its type. In such a case, another player can steal the square if he rolls an equally high hand (so only another ace-high straight could steal our square).
I happen to enjoy Yahtzee. The first computer game I ever wrote was a Yahtzee game in BASIC for my Atari 800. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that I enjoyed Peg Poker. It offers surprising (albeit limited) depth, particularly in the three-player game. The three player game does suffer from the time-honored strategy of "Player C is going to win unless I or B stop him. Since I go before B, I'll do my own thing and force B to spend his turn blocking C," but in such a light game it doesn't really hurt.
It took us a while to realize that better poker hands (four of a kind, straight flush) aren't necessarily the best things to go for. You're allowed up to six pairs and two threes-of-a-kind in a hand. We initially turned up our noses at these options, thinking them too easily overtaken. But it's awfully difficult to pick up five or six pairs, and if one of them is a pair of aces, you've got a tough hand to beat.
The four center squares are the most valuable and coveted, and thus the most likely victims for hostile takeovers. Players are wise to use their weaker hands to claim the non-corner edge squares. Opponents often dismiss these squares as unworthy for takeover until it's too late. And of course, always be wary of the Peg Poker maxim: "All else being equal, I might as well take over your square instead of claiming a new one..."
Peg Poker claims to be for 1-4 players. The inventor insists it's a good solitaire game; I haven't tried it, so I leave it up to you to decide. Since there are only three colors of pegs, to play with four players you need to team up. This worked fine for us. You could theoretically add a fourth color of pegs, but then it would become virtually impossible to get four in a row, and games would end via elimination instead.
The Peg Poker dice are fascinating. They're intelligently designed and fun to play with. Before too long, it will occur to you that the dice could be used to create any number of other games, and in fact the inventor did just that. He ultimately decided to market the one which people seemed to enjoy most. Hopefully he'll choose to publish a collection of other games using the dice in the future, and I hope other people will share any games they create with them.
Peg Poker is a great lightweight family game for people who want just a tad more strategy and competition than Yahtzee. It would be worth getting just for the dice. That the game they're used with is also fun is a pleasant bonus.