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Phase 10

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

S and I just played Phase 10 for the first time. I bought it a year or two ago at a garage sale and hadn’t gotten around to actually trying it.

Granted, it’s not on a par with, say, Coloretto, but it isn’t trying to be, either. It’s a humble game, but a reasonable one, and I was pleasantly surprised. I won’t go quite so far as to say I was impressed, but it was a lot more interesting than I thought it would be.

What it is, with two players at least, is a kind of thinking man’s gin rummy. Now gin rummy itself is no slouch, as there’s actually quite a bit to it when you take it more seriously (try playing for a dollar a point if you don’t believe me), but this adds a couple new elements to an old formula.

First, there’s a nice tension between holding cards in your hand (so your opponent can’t play on them, thus making you more likely to go out) and getting them down on the table (so you don’t get caught with them at the end of the hand). Second, the melds in each of the ten phases of the game get progressively more difficult, so there’s a built-in mechanism to help players come from behind. And finally, there’s the costs and benefits associated with wild cards: they’re extremely handy, but they also count 25 points against you if you get caught with them.

It feels a little weightier than gin, in other words, but not by that much. One thing it lacks, relative to gin, is the tension created by not knowing whether your opponent will be able to undercut you if you go down — I’m always debating, in that game, whether to go down with a low count or hold out for gin, and unfortunately I often reckon wrong.

There are a few niggles: skip cards do relatively little, at least in the two player game, as you tend to play them as soon as you get them. Also, the scoring could probably stand to be tweaked a bit, though it is admirably simple. And although I understand why, with a cool name like Phase 10, you’d want players (or at least one player) to actually play all ten phases, I can’t help but think that the game would be improved if you played to a fixed number of points instead.

It’s not the kind of game I’ll be itching to play, but it does fit in nicely with the likes of Yahtzee, Rack-O, and Rummikub. I’ll be interested to try it with more players to see how differently it plays with four or six.

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