Microgames are here to stay. Designed to be fast, small and affordable, games like Love Letter (which may have started the current craze) promise to deliver lots of game in as small a package as they can manage. With this concept spinning off into games like Mint Tin Mini Apocalypse and many others, the microgame genre is defined more by form factor than any other unifying element. And we think these little games are a big deal!
So, along comes Pod-X, a microgame in its final days on Kickstarter right now. Designed by Daniel Solis, featuring fantastic art from Fabrice Weiss, and published by ButtonShy, Pod-X is a bluffing and deduction game for 3-4 players. It is also nothing more than a short stack of 17 cards and a heaping spoonful of mind-screwery.
**Kickstarter Prototype Stuff – Some of our images were lifted from the campaign page, and everything is subject to change, but honestly, probably won’t**
(Our Kickstarter prototype was provided to us by ButtonShy, the publisher for Pod-X and many other wallet games. You can check them out here or go to the Pod-X Kickstarter page to add their other games along with this one!)
The premise is simple enough; as it says on the tin (wallet), the spaceship is going down, and there is only one escape pod left. So, like any crew of intelligent beings capable of developing the wonders of interplanetary travel, we are all scrambling like mad to be the only survivor.
Gameplay is also seems simple…but it’s actually not that simple. See, each round, the dealer will shuffle up the cards, deal out a hand to each player. Each card is numbered 0-8 (or 1-7 in a 3-player game), and is either Port (orange), Starboard (blue), or, in the case of the 4, the neutral grey (counts as both port and starboard). Once every player has their hand, the last card will be dealt face-down to the center
Now, that card, the one face-down on the table, that’s the one which describes the escape pod’s location for the round; for example, it might say ‘Highest Private Port’ or ‘Lowest Public Starboard’ or some combination thereof. Public and private, incidentally, are simply cards that are either played face up for all to see or held in one’s hand. After giving everyone their cards, the dealer (and only the dealer) gets to peek at the face-down goal card, to discover what the win condition of the round is. Then play starts.
Each player has a choice between 3 actions on their turn:
- Play: Put a card face-up in front of themselves, making it ‘Public’ (but not, crucially, discarding it)
- Pass: Stay in the round, but don’t play a card. You can’t do this on your first turn.
- Fold: Withdraw from the round.
Once you make your choice to play, pass, or fold, the next player goes. That’s it!
The dealer knows precisely what the win conditions are, right? So they have all the information, but they may not have the winning card…yet. And it is on them to manipulate the game such that they do have the winning card.
On the other hand, while none of the other players know what the win condition is, they darn well know that the dealer does. So they will watch her plays carefully, trying to figure out just what it is she may be aiming for (‘oh, she’s playing out high cards. Does that mean I should play out my high cards? Or does it mean she is trying to get me to play my high cards? Or…’).
And of course, the dealer knows that her every card play is a tiny piece of information she is giving up to the other players, and will have to carefully consider how she divulges that info, lest they figure out how to win for themselves.
As the dealer, I see that the pod is in the Highest Private Port card. So, when the round ends, the highest value orange card still held by a player (not face-up in front of them) is the winner. Now, let’s say its a 3-player game, and I am holding the 5 Port. I know that my opponents must be holding the 6 and 7 of Port, so I need to get them to play those cards publicly before the round ends.
How I do this is up to me. Maybe I start by playing my highest Starboard card. Everyone looks at that, and has to decide if it is a bluff (am I telling them that Starboard cards need to be public? Aren’t important? What about high numbers? Same questions), or am I trying to actually set up a win – maybe the winning card is the highest Starboard card, and so I need to put it face up in front of me?
If I’m lucky, I will bait the others into playing their highest cards, hopefully exposing the Port cards higher than my 5. If I can manage to do that before the end of the round, I’ll win!
Andrew: The fact that I may have a little trouble articulating precisely the psychology behind Pod-X is a good thing, actually. It is a bluffing game where you don’t have to speak at all, a deduction game without an exact answer, and a manipulation game where one person theoretically has all the advantages in the world but cannot simply win without wresting control of the game from his opponents.
It’s shockingly subtle and also deceptively quick, ending either as soon as everyone passes in a row or if the sum of the face-up cards ever hit a certain threshold. The winner of the round gets some points (based on the winning card) and then the game is played again, until someone accrues 10 points.
Andrew: Pod-X has more going on within its simple design than it has any right to. It’s a vicious little game, full of unspoken betrayals and breath-holding tension…for a few seconds, at least, and then it’s on to the next round. It’s not going to be an everyday game for me and the 3-4 person player-count is a little wonky, but at its cost and size, it will fit (literally and figuratively) in anyone’s collection.
The Kickstarter for Pod-X is spinning down an incredibly successful run, and backers at the $10 level will get the little wallet game plus whatever stretch goal goodness gets unlocked. Check it out now!
(Thanks to ButtonShy for providing our preview copy. Their generosity didn’t influence our opinion)