Review: GemPacked Cards – the newest game from Pencil First Games

GemPacked Cards is a card game based on an iOS app. Or is it an iOS app based on a card game? Either way, it’s a quick, overtly simple set collection game suitable for kids but with a bit of hefty strategy mixed in for us adults as well. You can find it on Kickstarter right now!

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Eduardo Baraf, creator of such games as  Lift Off! Get me off this Planet! and The Siblings Trouble was kind enough to send over not only a physical prototype of GemPacked Cards but an invitation to spend some time with the beta iOS app as well. This review will focus on the physical iteration of the game but I’ll talk a bit about the app as well.

How to play GemPacked Cards

gempacked2(Stolen directly from the BGG page) During each round, players use the Gemino Pip Tokens they draw to try to acquire higher level Gemino Squares and Gemino Diamonds (worth victory points) or trade for Sun or Nova cards. All cards are played face up. When the last Gemino Pip Tokens are drawn from the starting pile, each player has one remaining turn before the round ends and players tally their score.

In more detail, at the start of a turn, a player draws two Gemino Pip Tokens, then takes any of the following actions in any order and as many times as they like:

  • Trade GPips for GSquares on the card grid (placing pips in the common pool)
  • Trade GSquares for GDiamond on the card grid (placing cards in the discard pile)
  • Discard GSquares for GPip equivalents from the common pool (placing discards in the discard pile)
  • Trade GPips for the Sun card or GSquares for the Nova card

At the end of their turn, the player refills the card grid from the draw deck one at a time. If they reveal any Action Cards, those cards are resolved immediately, starting with the active player, then moving clockwise around the table.

After the last Gemino Pip Token is drawn and the final player has a turn, players score their hands as well as Sun/Nova points. (GPips are not worth any points, but should be tracked each round as a tie breaker.) Whoever has the most points wins.

That’s how to play it but how does it play?

I was able to get in a good number of 2 and 3 player games with one of my daughters and a few other friends. I’ll say this – as easy as the game appears, it’s just a bit strange to pick it up the first time and dive in. Keep in mind that I’m playing with an unfinished product and while the rule book was fairly polished other changes have and will happen before this comes to kickstarter.

Getting over that initial bit of head scratching with the simple solution of setting the game up and playing it, everything clicked together nicely. Both I and my 9 year old started the initial play together and about 2 turns into the game we both had our “ahhh that’s how this works” moment.

What we have here is a light set collection game based on colors and shapes. 2 and 3 player games all played in about 20 minutes which I think is the perfect space for a game like this. While appearing initially to be a pretty simple color match game, Ed’s decision to include both construction of larger, points worthy cards and deconstruction of these for smaller cards that may help attain other, richer goals is key. That’s the part of this that lets you get nicely creative and pull of moves and combos that are worthy of much weightier seeming games.

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What I enjoyed most about this game was that, while everyone is constrained by the mechanics to build better, higher point cards, we can all go about it a little differently. One player will collect a set of Squares using one wild Pip and then break that down to other Pips they need to get to a much higher scoring Diamond. While others will go straight forward Pip to Square to Diamond and a third will do a combination of the two where they feel it’s necessary.

All of our games were fairly close provided each player had played it once. New players have a tendency to get slightly crushed while they’re getting a feel for the game but this may not be the case for everyone out there.

Components

While I can’t speak to the final game as we’re playing with a prototype here, I can speak towards the art. GemPacked Cards is a cute game. I don’t mean cute as in “ooh look, a kitten!” I mean CUTE as in “Stop pouring baby animals on me!” Is this a bad thing? I think that depends.

It doesn’t bother me in the least and both of my kids (9 and 12) were all over the artwork while their voices went up several octaves with every exclamation. It doesn’t detract from the game at all for me but other’s who prefer the look of say, Chaos in the Old World may not be huge fans.

Clearly this game is aimed towards a certain audience and I think it hits that mark dead center.

Pencil First Games did a wonderful job components wise (and game wise) on Lift Off! Get Me Off This Planet (my review at the link) so if that’s any indication on how the components for GemPacked Cards will turn out I think we’ll all be happy.

iOS 

The GemPacked iOS app (available at iTunes for $0.99) looks very similar to the physical card game but plays a bit differently. The app is a series of timed challenges in which you set out to meet certain goals. The implementation is smooth and graphically as pleasing as the card game. It’s not really my kind of app but luckily I have a 9 year old who thrives on games like this. She gives it an exuberant two thumbs up, Roger Ebert style.

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It’s an interesting direction to go in where the app and the physical game look alike but play very differently. I personally have no issues with this but those who enjoy the physical game should take note that they won’t be getting the exact same experience digitally.

Final Thoughts

I like GemPacked Cards and would certainly play it again. The 20 minute card game (many call ’em ‘filler games’) hits a sweet spot in my current game playing style as I can squeeze in a game here and there when I time allows. I really enjoy smaller games that are easy to dive into but that reward multiple plays with interesting, unfolding strategies. GemPacked is one of those games.

I had to move my prototype copy along to another review and both I and my daughter were sad to see it go. We’re both looking forward to the day when the game is released so we can pick it up and get some more plays in!
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ebaraf/gempacked-cards/widget/card.html?v=2

 

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