Full disclosure: A preview copy of Ugly Christmas Sweaters was provided by Hunter Hennigar. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
We’re back to Kickstarter titles! I think, I mean, we’ve kind of been on and off them for a few months now; there are going to be plenty of them before the end of the year (assuming I have the bandwidth to do them, which I assuredly do not). I think the next one is Ducks in Tow? We can use this as a barometer for how good I am at planning. (Narrator Voice: he’s not.) Anyways, let’s not get too into details of my personal life; let’s get into this game review instead.
In Ugly Christmas Sweaters, it’s almost the holiday seasons and you’re in charge of making a sweater for your family member! Maybe more than one. You made a lot of promises, and you can’t break a Christmas promise, otherwise you go to Christmas jail. The US, as it turns out, as an extradition treaty with the North Pole. Who knew? It’s a private prison though, so, also got problems, there. Anyways. Compete for patches and pieces to sew together against your rival sweater knitters because, well, of course you would. That’s how these things work. Will you be able to create a truly awful Christmas sweater? Or will your best plans end up coming unraveled?
Depending on how intense of a game you want to play, you’ll want to set out some Gameplay Cards. First up, shuffle and make a face-down pile for the Trendy Yarn:
Next, shuffle and make a face-down pile for the Perfect Fits:
Finally, shuffle and make a face-down pile for the Fads:
You’ll use them depending on the game style you want to play:
- Beginner: Fads + Trendy Yarn
- Novice: Fads + Trendy Yarn
- Expert: Fads + Trendy Yarn + Perfect Fits
Either way, give players a Score Card:
Also, shuffle the Sweater Piece cards:
In a two- and four-player game, flip four face-up to form the starting Draft Pool. In a three-player game, only deal out three. Then, deal cards out equally to all players. If there are any remaining, set them aside until the next round. Each player should shuffle their hand and draw nine cards. Finally, deal each player a Secret Santa Card:
If you’re playing with the Avid Variant, deal each player 3. If you have trouble remembering who goes first in the draft, you can also use the Draft Order Cards:
Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
Alright, so Ugly Christmas Sweater is played over a variety of rounds. Each round has two phases: the Trade Phase and the Knit Phase. At the end of the round, you tally points from your completed sweaters. After three rounds, the player with the most points wins the game!
First up is the Trade Phase! During this round, you play a “trick” (usually one card from your hand) to determine your Draft Order. Basically, choose a card from your hand and play it. That card’s considered the led suit. In normal trick-taking games, all subsequent cards played must match the color of that card. In Ugly Christmas Sweaters, all cards played after must match the color or icon of the card that was just played. If you don’t have any matching cards, you may play any card from your hand.
Once all players have played a card, assign Draft Order Cards based on this ranking:
- Perfect Fit: Were any Perfect Fit cards played? If so, that player goes first. If there’s a tie, the last one played wins.
- Trendy Yarn: Were any Trendy Yarn cards played? If so, the highest value Trendy Yarn card played goes first. If there’s a tie, the last one played wins.
- All other cards: The highest value card played wins. Again, if there’s a tie, the later card played wins.
Assign Draft Order Cards from low to high based on winners. Now, each player chooses a sweater card from the Draft Pool and takes it. Move on to the Knit Phase next.
During the Knit Phase, players try to assemble their sweaters. You may place any sweater piece next to a different piece (or by itself) to assemble any number of sweaters. If a player assembles their third sweater, the round will end.
Once all players have added their sweater pieces, start another Trade Phase with the player who went first in the draft order going first.
End of Round
After a player has assembled their third (fourth in a two-player game) sweater, the round immediately ends and players score:
- Completed Sweaters: +2 points each.
- Sequences of Consecutive Numbers: +2 points each.
- Fads: +3 points for each matching set of colors and / or icons; +1 point for complete set of non-matching colors and / or icons.
- Secret Santa: +3 points for completing.
End of Game
After three rounds, the game ends and the player with the most points wins! If you’re playing Avid Mode, if you haven’t completed your three Secret Santa requests by the end of the game, you lose!
Player Count Differences
Alright, I’ve tried this at a few different player counts. At four, it’s fairly hectic! Since you don’t know what other players are going to play, you may get bumped out of the draft order even if you play the highest card in the set. One player after you plays a trump, off-suit, another plays the super trump, and a third person plays any patch to copy them. That’s … odd, honestly. But that shouldn’t happen often; I really only use that as an illustration of the possibility of a high-chaos game. At two, each player alternates playing until both players have played two cards, which is interesting; it’s a bit more like a mix between trick-taking and Kingdomino, which I’m kind of into. I think I’d say that my preference is for the lower end of the player count. I like playing it with some strategy and prediction to even out the randomness, and I don’t feel like I get as much strategy at four players; it just ends up being kind of all over the place and highly chaotic. Which some people like! I just prefer more order.
- Don’t waste your Perfect Fit. I definitely blew one just to win a trick that ended up giving me a choice between four cards I didn’t want. But I won the trick. It felt really good, kind of.
- As with all trick-taking games, it might not be a bad idea to throw off. Sometimes it’s not worth burning your highest point-value card. However, unlike most trick-taking games, this one has the benefit of determining your order for the sweater piece draft that happens next. It may be worth playing a high card not so that you have first choice, but so that you don’t get stuck with the last choice. Unless you truly don’t care.
- Throwing off is also sometimes extremely useful. There’s the added bonus that clearing your hand of cards of a certain color allows you to play any card that you want, including the trump suit. Since this game has super trumps and the highest card left in a trick wins (led suit or not), you might want to get rid of your suits with fewer cards so that you can play other things that will lead to more success in future drafts.
- Save a Patch until you can really use it to your advantage, but try to take them as soon as you can during the Draft, if one’s available. They work really well when played after a Perfect Fit, since then they are the best card in the game (and played later, so they win). For the Sweater Draft, though, they are extremely useful cards for finishing a Sweater. They’re terrible to start with, since they’re somehow too flexible? But if you can get two cards in a sequence together, the Patch will fill in the third one (and potentially get you even more points for colors / fads). It’s not a bad move.
- Always complete your Secret Santa. It’s not usually that hard (unless you match the fad), and it’s a bonus 3 points. You should be able to get that, if nothing else, before the round ends (plus the extra 2 points for successfully completing a sweater).
- Don’t forget to make sure that cards you need aren’t already taken before you lock yourself into a failing strategy. This happens to me sometimes; I build a sweater on the expectation that I can pull the other card I need, only to realize in a later round that someone else has done a crime to me personally and taken the sweater piece I need to complete my ugly masterpiece. As you’d suspect, I immediately have them sent to jail, but also I don’t the points I both crave and deserve.
- Sometimes winning a trick isn’t worth wasting a good card. Like I said, check the draft to make sure you actually want the cards that are available. Winning for winning’s sake is super fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also a little silly if it doesn’t actually lead to a more beneficial outcome for you, the player. Just keep track of what you need.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Cute theme. Everyone likes ugly Christmas sweaters; it’s like a fact of life. They have them for other winter holidays, as well, but it’s a mainstay of the Christmas season for sure.
- I do love a lot of trick-taking games. My current favorites are Skull King and Time Chase, so I have a soft spot for trick-taking, for sure. It’s nice to be able to see similarities between all the games in a genre that you enjoy; makes you feel like maybe you’ve played enough to have like, a nugget of understanding about them? Anyways, this is definitely a trick-taking game.
- I like that you gradually refill your hand over the course of a round. It’s a neat little thing that makes it so you can’t always predict how your hand is going to work. Also it makes the decision space a bit smaller, which is helpful for a lot of players.
- It’s a bit interesting that you don’t just have to match color. Matching color or icon is an interesting way to try and improve the diversity of the Draft Pool. Haven’t seen it before, and I definitely didn’t think I would like it at first, but I actually quite liked it.
- It plays like a bit simpler version of Blend Coffee Lab. I like Blend Coffee Lab, but this is much simpler. There’s always the confusion about which coffee type is active or something. This has some similarities around the drafting side, but the scoring is very different.
- Very portable. Pretty easily fits in a tuckbox with room to spare. That’s nice; I like games that are easy to take places, especially with the Quiver (though I may pick up that 2/3 size Quiver, once it becomes available).
- I appreciate the variety of configuration options. You can essentially take or remove elements as needed to add or remove complexity. It allows you to tweak the game experience to your group, which I think is always a nice touch in games. Especially for a game that’s almost surely targeting family holiday gaming, it helps to be able to make it accessible for players with less experience and gradually introduce more complexity. I think that’s a strong move, and I think it’s good they went that route.
- Given that winning tricks matters a lot for drafting order, it’s occasionally frustrating that you can’t do much for a bad hand. I think a lot of trick-taking games mitigate this a bit by allowing you to pass cards, so a truly great hand gets mildly tamped down (and a truly bad hand has at least a shot at becoming better). I’m surprised there’s no mitigation effect at the start of every round.
- Having to keep track of score between rounds without some dedicated implement provided by the game is a bit frustrating, but that’s only because most games these days do provide a score tracker. I think that might be the card included in the game, but it’s … paper, so we’d basically only get to do that once. That fills me with existential dread, so I’m not into it. What we’ve been doing instead is just treating every round as a distinct “game”, which mostly tracks since round-to-round strategy doesn’t change much (there’s very little way to go after someone in the lead). The final game should have a pad of scoring sheets, so this is just another Previewer Woe.
- It’s also odd that the tricks are won by rank rather than normal trick-taking rules. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something that’s a bit odd. I wonder if that makes it harder for people with trick-taking experience or not.
- The patches feel a bit weird, gameplay-wise. They’re essentially just a “this card beats the last card played” card, which codified as a gameplay mechanic can be kind of frustrating. It means that you largely can’t predict when you’re going to lose to a player essentially at random, depending on how your initial hand starts. It feels almost as though patches would work better if the first person to play a card wins a tied trick. Then the best you could get with a patch would be second place, which makes the game a bit easier to plan out? Not sure, honestly. Either way, that plus their pretty-solid wild ability makes it such that patches tend to be pretty great, which is odd.
- I get that it’s all “one family”, but the lack of diversity of characters is a bit disappointing. It’s just something that I noticed in the character art and it’s kind of a bummer. That said, I’ve been told that these are temp art, so hopefully that will change over the course of the development process!
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Ugly Christmas Sweaters are pretty good! The game’s a lot of fun, too, but I really wanted to emphasize that first point. I’m generally a big fan of trick-taking games, so I’m always excited to try one. Playing it in October was definitely not my first choice, but it did give me the opportunity to check it out, and I think it’s a very cute game for seasonal play with the family. I’m not sure how many times I’d break it out when it’s not snowing, given that I already have some genre favorites that aren’t really as limited by holidays (though Skull King does get better on pirate-themed holidays). I think my major complaints are the lack of character diversity and the way that patches work; it just seems odd to have them work as the same card given that when the same card is played later, it wins. A Patch won’t always win you the trick, but it will definitely make sure that you don’t go last, which may be decently handy. It’s just hard to track when those are in play. Amusingly, I think I like this the most at two; it’s easiest to see and control the outcomes. You have fewer cards to track, but you know what’s in play and what you don’t have (usually; it’s rare to see all your cards, but you can at least speculate). Since you’re redrawing so much each turn, it’s hard to make concrete strategy moves (unless you have the high cards). But I think this is positioning itself more as a family game than a high-strategy trick-taking game, so that might be fine within the scope of what it wants to be. And if that’s what you’re looking for, a holiday-themed trick-taking game with a fun schtick and some cute sweaters, check it out! Ugly Christmas Sweaters may be right for you.