Let me open this review by saying that I’m not much of a lover of trick taking games. My wife’s family plays a lot of Hearts and I’ll play with them but given the choice to play a card game with a standard deck or something neat and different, with card text and player interaction, well I’ll go in that direction just about every time.
Except this time. Diamonds is the exception to my personal rule and is one of those games that I find myself setting aside time to play. Now, lets dig into this game and find out what sets it apart from the many other trick taking games out there, and why you don’t want to leave this game on the floor in the dark.
Diamonds is a game designed by Mike Fitzgerald and published by Stronghold Games. The ‘Podfather’ Stephen Buonocore, who’s appeared on Indie Talks several times and who also happens to be the one in charge at Stronghold Games was kind enough to send off a review copy to me. It plays with 2-6 players, ages 8 and up and takes about 30 minutes to play. The game ships with 60 cards in four suits, 110 small diamond crystals, 25 large diamond crystals, six vaults, a rule book and six player aid cards. Diamonds will have an MSRP of $24.95 and will be available September 10th.
This game takes the concept of a simply trick taking card game, stands it on it’s head, makes it beautiful and so much more strategic and ‘thinky’ than any other game in this genre that I’ve played. Each player is dealt 10 cards, which range in numbers from 1-15 and have four suits – diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. Each player also gets a cardboard standup ‘vault’ and three small diamond crystals, which are placed next to the vault in what’s called the player’s ‘showroom’. The player to the left of the dealer opens the game by playing a card with what will now be the leading suit. Each player after that plays one of their cards in that same suit until every player has played a card. The player who put down the highest number card in the opening suit wins that hand, thus ‘taking the trick’. So far, it’s just like every other trick taking game, right? Well here’s where Diamonds peels off it’s humdrum, stodgy old suit, throws on the dance gear and gets funkier than 1970′s John Travolta on a near frictionless dance floor.
First off and most importantly to me as someone who doesn’t enjoy standard trick taking games, every player in this game will get to do something cool at least a few times with every hand. And by cool, I mean score points and actually interact with the game. Each suit has a specific action tied in with it and you’ll get to use these actions a lot during the game. What this does to a simple trick taking game is two-fold. First, it gives everyone a much greater chance to score points (as we’ll see just a few paragraphs from here) and second it adds a layer of real strategy which you’ll see emerging only after a few play throughs. Here are the suit actions:
- Diamonds – Take a small diamond crystal from the supply in the middle of the table and add it to your vault.
- Hearts – Take a small diamond crystal from the supply and add it to your showroom.
- Spades – Take a small diamond crystal from your showroom and add it to your vault.
- Clubs – Take a small diamond crystal from another player’s showroom and add it to your showroom.
At the end of the game, any diamonds in your vault are worth 2 points each. Once placed in your vault, Diamonds cannot be removed. Any diamonds in your showroom are worth 1 point each, and can be affected by game play. The small diamond crystals represent 1 diamond, the large diamond crystals are worth 5 diamonds.
The game is played in a series of rounds, between 4 and 6, depending on how many players there are. Once each player is dealt 10 cards and any remaining cards are set aside, the dealer then gets to decide how many cards will be passed this round. They can choose 1, 2 or 3 cards. Each player selects these cards and passes them to the player on their left.
Now we’re going to open the first round with the player to the left of the dealer playing the a card. This card will determine the lead suit (Diamonds/Hearts/Spades/Clubs). Say it’s the 12 of Diamonds. The player to the left then must play a card of the same suit. If they can play a higher card (the 14 of Diamonds say) they have a chance to win this trick. After each player places one card, the player who ends up playing the highest card of the lead suit takes the trick. They take the cards of the lead suit and get to do the suit action. So again, if this lead suit was Diamonds, they’d take a diamond from the supply and place it into their vault. All of these cards they’ve taken then get placed face down in front of them for later use. This player will then lead with the first card once everyone’s played their card.
Here’s where it gets interesting – sure the winner of the trick gets to take their suit action after everyone’s played a card, and they get to keep a bunch of cards (will get to those shortly). But – there’s a way for other players to take suit actions before the trick is finished. If a player cannot follow suit because they don’t have any of those cards in their hand, they can play any card of any suit they do have. As soon as they play that card, they can then immediately take that suit action. Looking at the list of suit actions above, this allows for players to do interesting things to themselves and other players when they can’t follow suit. No more throwing away those cards, because this ain’t your grandfather’s trick taking game. This simple change is brilliant really, and this is where a lot of the strategy gets layered on.
At the end of the round, once 10 tricks have been taken, the players flip over all of the cards they’ve collected when they’ve won tricks. Then, in this order, the player with the most Diamonds takes a Diamond suit action, the player with the most Hearts takes a Heart suit action, then Spades and finally Clubs. If a player finds themselves not taking any of these suit actions because they’ve not won enough tricks – they still get to do something. They then immediately take two Diamond suit actions.
All of the cards are then collected, shuffled back into the deck and the next round begins. Once all of the rounds have been played through, players add up their points. Diamonds in your vault are worth 2 points each, diamonds in your showroom are worth 1. The player with the most points wins.
There’s a nice variant for two players, where each player plays 2 cards for every trick. I’ve played this variant a number of times and it works. There are also team play variants and ‘perfect’ game variants. A Perfect Diamond game is one where you know every card that’s going to be played. In a standard 3 player game, you’ll deal out 30 cards and put the other 30 aside. In a Perfect Diamond 3 player game, you’ll remove the 10-15 cards of each suit, leaving 30 cards which you’ll then deal out. Each player knows what cards will be available before the game starts. I’ve tried the Perfect Diamond variant and it changes game play a bit, but I prefer the more random style of play. I’ve not yet tried the team variant for 4 or 6 players.
Here’s something you’ll probably not hear much when it comes to trick taking games – but the components in Diamonds are top notch, beautiful to look at and thoroughly fun to play with. The cards are wonderfully designed with an art-deco style that makes full use of a new printing process which allows shiny metallic ink to be used, and it’s used to great effect. The cards look great! The diamond crystals are nice and chunky (very similar to those found in Ascension if you’ve ever played that) and add a really neat tactile element to the game. You’re not just collecting points, you’re hoarding Diamonds! The vaults are functional, folded cardboard of a decent stock and work well to hide your Diamond collection from other players.
Bottom line, I really enjoy Diamonds, much more than I thought I would. It’s a simple enough game that I taught my 8 and 11 year old kids to play it and they grasped the basics immediately. It’s complex enough that after five or six plays, we’re all still figuring out strategic ways to play cards so as to take advantage of immediate suit actions in an order that will benefit us most. With the chunky components, the hidden and untouchable diamond vault and the beautifully designed cards this game drew in my kids like they were crows seeing something shiny. I say that in all honesty, they flocked to the table when I opened the box. Other adult players were able to show a little more restraint but were also attracted to the neat components. During the game, it makes a big difference that everyone has a chance to do something and score some points. You’re not just throwing away cards that aren’t in the lead suit, you’re using them as strategically as possible. It doesn’t hurt that in doing so, you’re building up a literal hoard of plastic diamonds.
It’s nice that the game really does play in 30 or so minutes with 4 players or less. I’ve not tried it with 5 or 6 but suspect it wouldn’t go all that much longer. I hesitate to call this a filler game because it’s got a bit of complexity to it and it feels heavier than a trick taking card game. Maybe it’s the components, maybe its the neat use of suit actions but playing Diamonds for 30 minutes gives me the feeling of playing a chunkier, heavier game. With that in mind though, it does work well as a start of the night or end of the session game. It also works really well as a family game, or something to bring out when you’re playing with non-hardcore gamers. My in-laws got a real kick out of it! With a $25 price point this game has a lot of attraction not only as a great, quick game, but as something I can give as a gift to others without breaking the bank.
That’s the pro portion of the review. The cons? Honestly, there aren’t many! If you don’t like card games at all you’ll probably not be this far down in the review. The box does designate this as a Pocket game, which it’s really not unless you have insanely large pockets so there’s that. Also, with any game that comes with small, relatively sharp plastic bits, don’t leave the Diamonds on your floor if you value your ability to walk. In the case of an apocalypse of some sort, I’d take this game with me because I could play it to relieve stress and also use the Diamond crystals as decent caltrops, should I need them.
I’ll finish up with this – it’s a solid, fun, fast, trick taking game with an unexpected and simple but brilliant twist on the trick taking mechanic. It’s the first trick taking game I’ve ever played where I’ve wanted to play it two, three or more times in the same night.