#311 – Pikoko

Box

Base price: $30.
2 – 5 players.
Play time: 30 – 45 minutes.
BGG Link
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 3 

Full disclosure: A review copy of Pikoko was provided by Brain Games.

The last of the Brain Games! I’ve been reviewing a fair number of these over the year — ICECOOL a bit more than a year ago, Orc-Lympics, Pyramid of Pengqueen, ICECOOL2, and now Pikoko. It’s been an exciting year for them, and I’ve been excited to check out a lot of their stuff. Who knows what’s coming down the pipeline next? I’m just hoping it’s Ice Cool 3, as always.

In Pikoko, you’re uh … peacocks? That’s about it, honestly. No real lore for this one, as far as I can tell. But you’re showing your opponents your feathers (instead of you), so you’ll have to be a bit creative to win this trick-taking game where you can’t see your own cards. Will you be able to come out on top in this colorful competition?

Contents

Setup

Well, the first thing to do is set up the birds:

Peacocks

Every player gets a bird, and a set of betting tokens in that color:

[BETTING TOKENS]

Also give each player a set of Confidence Cards in that color:

[CONFIDENCE CARDS]

Speaking of cards, remove a few based on your player count:

  • 5 players: Don’t remove any cards.
  • 4 players: Remove all 10s and 11s.
  • 3 players: Remove all 8s, 9s, 10s, and 11s.

Shuffle the remaining cards:

Cards

Deal each player 8 cards. Now, set aside the scoring sheet:

Score Pads

You’re ready to start! Have each player put them in their peacocks facing outwards; no player should look at their own cards.

Setup

Gameplay

Gameplay 2

So, Pikoko is … only kind of a trick-taking game! It’s also a betting game, with some hidden information. Think of a hybrid between a trick-taking game (like hearts) and Hanabi. Normally, a trick-taking game works like this:

  • Each round, a player plays a card of a certain color / suit. This color / suit is known as the led suit. 
  • All players, if possible, play a card of the same color / suit. If (and only if) they cannot, they may play a card of any suit. This is known as throwing off.
  • The highest card of that suit wins all the cards played, known as a trick.
  • The person who played the card that won the trick begins the next trick and may play any card.

Pikoko adds a common variant to that. Flip the top card of the cards that weren’t dealt. This card is known as the trump suit. If the card is a multi-suit card (has more than one color on it), then there is no trump suit for this round. In a trick-taking game with trump suit, the following is the new set of rules:

  • Each round, a player plays a card of a certain color / suit. This color / suit is known as the led suit. 
  • All players, if possible, play a card of the same color / suit. If (and only if) they cannot, they may play a card of any suit. This is known as throwing off.
  • If a trump suit card was played, the highest card of the trump suit wins! Otherwise, the highest card of that suit wins all the cards played, known as a trick.
  • The person who played the card that won the trick begins the next trick and may play any card.

Got it? Cool, that’s a basic trick-taking game. Let’s add another complication: those multi-suit cards. A multi-suit card is the color chosen by the person who plays the card, except in one case: if the multi-suit card has a led suit as one of its colors, it is considered to be the led suit for all purposes. That means if it’s the only card in your hand of that suit, you must play it if that suit is led, and it must count as that suit, even if it could also be trump.

That sums up the multi-suit cards. Now for another wrinkle: you don’t play your own cards. Instead, you play the cards of the player on your left, known as your target player. Every player has a target player and that will be the same person for the whole game. Note that I specifically worded some of the above explanation so that it still works, even with this realization. If you’re playing a multi-suit card from your target player’s hand, you choose what color it is, if you can. If your target player wins a trick, you start the next trick with another card from their hand. That’s the whole trick-taking game of Pikoko!

Gameplay 3

However, that’s not complex enough, so let’s add one more thing; the bets. You’re not scoring based on the tricks you win; instead, before the round, every player (starting with that round’s Start Player) will be bid on by the other players. The bid is how many tricks, based on that player’s hand, you think they can win. Everyone has 9 Bidding Tokens, and there are 8 Tricks to be won. You’re welcome to overbid, as you’ll still score a bit if you’re close. Do not bid on yourself, yet. Have each player select their bid for the player, and then reveal them all simultaneously. Once every player has been bid on by every other player, every player simultaneously bids on themselves; based on what you know about everyone else, how many tricks do you think you’ll win? It’s definitely challenging.

After you’ve done that, one last thing before you can start. Have each player take a Confidence Card from their stash. These represent which bid you’re the most confident about (if it’s none, use the +1 No Confidence Card). Play one of these secretly; don’t show it to anyone.

Gameplay 4

Once that happens, you’re ready to start the round with the first trick! Have the Start Player pull a card from their target player’s hand and play it face-up. That starts the first trick. Keep playing tricks until all 8 have been played, and then move on to Scoring for the round.

Each player now checks to see how they did:

  • If your bet was exactly correct: +2 points.
  • If your bet was off by one (+1 or -1): +1 points.
  • Otherwise: 0 points. Rough.

Also, check your confidence card:

  • If you bet No Confidence: +1 point
  • If you bet on a player and it was exactly correct: +3 points!
  • If you bet on a player and it was not exactly correct: -1 points. Ouch.

Tally up the scores, and the player with the lowest score is the next round’s start player! Continue that for three rounds, and the player with the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

Hm. I actually like playing it at odd numbers because 8 isn’t evenly divisible by 3 or 5. You could argue that 9 is, sure, but I try to never bet 9, so that’s not really something I regularly think about. The major difference is that as you increase your player count, you’re using more cards, but even that doesn’t matter … all that much. It increases the variance of a single hand, sure, but it doesn’t impact gameplay all that much.

It does, however, increase the game’s runtime. I’d recommend slightly against teaching this to five new players unless you want to sit there for a while. Start with three or four and work your way up to it.

Strategy

  • Keep an eye on what each person bet on their target player. If I bet a certain number for my target player, I have the best chance of hitting that target. If you’re trying to fight against me on it, good luck; I can’t guarantee that you’ll be successful in that endeavor, though. If you’re on the same page as I am, then we might be able to collude on trying to make sure certain players take tricks. Not actually collude, though, because it’s rude to do that. But it might be worth using your Confidence Card to side with me, since you know I’m trying to make sure that my target player scores my bet’s worth of tricks.
  • I generally try to only bet 8. Betting 9 means that you’re always wrong (since there are only 8 tricks to take), in some way, and I’d prefer to chance it all on potentially being totally correct. (It happened, once!) Just keep an eye on how many tokens you have left before you make your last bet on yourself. I’ve seen people … mess that up by just throwing whatever they have left without considering that they start with an extra.
  • Check what other players bet on you before you bet on yourself. You generally know most of the cards that could potentially be in your hand (with some give or take; some cards are always left out). With that, you have a decent idea of how “strong” your hand is, and you might be able to make a good bet. If it’s all over the place, well, just … average them? That could work, and, honestly, it usually does. People don’t always bet super well.
  • If you’re not confident, use No Confidence. It’s not that many points, but it’s better than a negative. Unless you immediately think, “I know that bet is correct”, you may want to be a bit conservative. Then again, I’m pretty risk-averse, so I tend to only place Confidence when I’m sure.
  • Remember your trick-taking … tricks. You can force players to play cards of certain colors by leading them, and you can try to force players to run out of certain cards to enable them to throw trump or throw off to try and win the correct number of tricks. The trick-taking isn’t the most important part of this game; it’s about enabling the bets to be accurate, but it still matters, so don’t forget to actually strategize.
  • You can bet 0 on a player. Don’t forget about that; it’s sometimes pretty helpful, honestly.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • I really like the birds! They’re goofy, but cute. I think they could be friends with the Ice Cool penguins.
  • The actual betting portion of it is pretty interesting. I mean, the trick-taking game is only really half of the game; it’s a means to an end around betting, since you can force your opponents to “mis-play” and try and secure your bets. I especially like that players make their bets in advance and simultaneously, so you can see who’s incentivized to do what. It makes for a lot of interesting decisions, even if that slows down the game a bit.
  • The betting helps make the multi-round gameplay matter. If I see that a player is up, I’m hopefully trying not to bet the same as they are; if I bet the same as them, then I’m incentivized to do what they do. If I bet differently, then I have to try and block them and hopefully that will help close the scoring gap between them and me.
  • The art is nice, as well. The cards are pretty striking, though I wish some of the colors were more distinct. It really is a nice-looking game when it hits the table; super colorful.
  • The use of hidden information for a trick-taking game is pretty interesting. I think it could be simplified a bit in my head by thinking about it more as “you see every player’s hand but one”, considering it’s kind of odd that you play the hand of the player on your left, but honestly it’s a pretty minor complaint. I think it’s a neat concept.

Mehs

  • Getting the cards into the holders is … kind of difficult. It’s hard to do well. The secret is to always be able to see the eye of the peacock feather when you’re placing them in the holder; if you can, then the number on the other side of the card is visible to all players.
  • The peacocks are vaguely unnecessary. This is a really blah thing to nitpick, but, here we go. If you wanted to play a travel version of this you very easily could do so without the peacocks; you would just need to hold your cards in one hand for most of the round. It’s definitely more convenient but hardly necessary to actually play the game.
  • The peacocks are really nice but the betting tokens are kind of mediocre. They’re not bad, just compared to the peacocks they’re not very … impressive. It’s the contrast.

Cons

  • It’s kind of hard to tell the difference between purple and blue on the multi-color cards. I’m not sure if they’re double-coded or not, but I’ve had many players have some trouble with that, as it’s kind of subtle. Having some kind of iconography might have been a helpful way to differentiate colors, as well. Or indicating it on the number, to keep the art clean.
  • The game is pretty vulnerable to analysis paralysis. It’s especially rough for new players because it’s learning a trick-taking game and trying to learn the impact of bets and the rough value of certain cards. I’m sure it’s much faster with experienced players, but with new players (especially at higher player counts) you should probably leave an hour for your first game. That does feel like longer than I want to play it, but, the game’s still fun.

Overall: 8 / 10

In Progress

Overall, I’m pretty into Pikoko! I like trick-taking games a lot just on principle, but this kind of flips it on its head — it’s not just a trick-taking game anymore! It’s a betting metagame for a trick-taking game, which is kind of fascinating. I still haven’t dug into all the strategic implications for a game like this, but I’m really interested in what kind of takeaways you can get from this. Are there ways to add a bidding metagame to other games that seem pretty simple? Imagine a tile-laying game with a similar mechanic; doesn’t it sound kind of interesting? I dunno, something about the aggressive spin put on a fairly straightforward concept is really appealing; it’s inventive. By itself it’s just kind of a trick-taking game where you know more other players’ hands, but adding the betting mechanic means that now you’re trying to figure out how to use the framework of trick-taking to bait them into bad moves or force them to make plays that benefit you, and that’s super cool! Maybe I’m overthinking it; who knows. Anyways, if you like trick-taking games and are looking for something new, I’ve had a lot of fun with Pikoko! Would recommend.


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