Board Game Review – Red 7

Red 7 is a compelling card game, a fast-playing skill-based numbers game that offers a number of variants in the box to bring it from a simple family game to something slightly more complex. It falls within the set of quick games that are not quite fillers or party games, but which nevertheless only take half an hour or so to play – games like Traders of Osaka, Splendor, The Game and Code of Nine which have enough complexity to satisfy experienced boardgamers, but simple enough rules and a short enough playtime to fit easily into an evening between games.

It has elements of poker mixed with a “take that” kind of adversarial card-playing game. The core mechanic is simply that a player must play one or two cards to ensure that they have the highest-value “palette” (displayed, scoring cards) each time it is their turn. Playing cards changes either the value of the player’s palette, or the scoring conditions, or both; on the other hand, cards are not easily replenished (in the basic game, there is no draw mechanic) and so the aim becomes making moves that increase the potential value of the palette as much as possible with the fewest cards expended. For example, if the current scoring criterion is “highest card”, there is an advantage to playing a card next numerically to the others in the palette (for example playing a 7 next to a 6) because that then insures the player should the criterion change to “longest straight”. Similarly the decision must be made to either match suits or change suits (for both “most of one suit” and “most different suits” are possible conditions), or even play a card of matching numerical value but higher-ranked suit. This depth of decision-making is deceptive; at first the game appears very simple, and the interaction limited (one either plays one’s best card or loses) but there is significant strategy in working out what the best play is based on the open knowledge. Knowing that there is only one card of a given value and suit, and that some cards are removed from the deck after each hand, it becomes possible to form strategies based on what may still remain.

Red 7 draws a lot on traditional card games with its strict ranking of suits (although it has seven to the traditional deck’s four) and emphasis on forming straights and multiples of the same number – card gamers I have played it with compared its constant one-upping of the current board state to bridge or other trump-based games. At its most basic level it has a very straightforward hand management element – if the player has only seven cards to last the whole hand, then having to play two cards (palette and rule) is a disadvantage unless it obviously wins the hand. The medium-level game, however, adds another level of rules. If a player plays a higher-value card than the number of cards in their palette, they may draw a card. This incentivises trying to play cards from lowest to highest, and encourages more risk-taking. Suddenly, playing two cards (if that play will allow one to draw a replacement) is not such a disadvantage. The highest-level game, which I have yet to try, adds special actions tied to playing specific cards. These will add another level of tactical card selection, but I am unsure how well they will work in the long run. Part of the appeal of Red 7 is its simplicity – the aim is purely to outbid or outplay one’s opponents, rather than manage special actions.

In terms of scoring, the game may either be played as first to a certain number of hands won or with points – points are based on the number of cards which meet the scoring condition. In this way some winning conditions become more or less desirable. While “most cards below 4” is often an easy way to win, it is not worth many points compared to a 4- or longer straight. Much like Traders of Osaka, Red 7 compresses a lot of tactical depth into something that does not offer much opportunity for decision paralysis or over-thinking, and which has very few components or exceptions. All of the rules can be compressed into two playing-card sized reference sheets – the ranking of suits, their corresponding win conditions and the way in which hands are compared (an elegant system of “number of scoring cards”, “highest scoring card” and “highest suit” which means that a four-card straight from 1 to 4 beats a three-card straight from 5 to 7).

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