And we’re back with another Oink game. I’m pleased to note that I’m writing this just after PAX Unplugged, which was great, but also I managed to pick up Fafnir, so we’re gonna extend the Oink Games experience through the end of the year, which is really exciting. Stoked about that. Anyways, I’ve got a bunch of PAX games, BGG.CON games, and Gen Con games, so we’re also going to be working forever. Thankfully, writing is fairly therapeutic. But let’s dig into our latest Oink title, Tricks and the Phantom, and see what it’s got to show us.
In Tricks and the Phantom, players take on the role of police investigators hunting down criminals to solve the case. Unfortunately, the mysterious Phantom is on the scene as well, and they’re doing nothing more than making your life difficult. A master inspector could easily solve this one, but it’s up to you to crack the case and arrest the right person. Will you be able to solve this big mystery? Or will the Phantom, like the truth, get away from you?
Setup isn’t too bad. You can set aside the point tokens, for now:
Every player gets a player board and a magnifying glass:
Give each player a set of three tokens:
And shuffle the cards, dealing each player two:
The others can be set aside; you’re ready to start!
For a two-player game, give each player two sets of tokens and four cards.
For three players, give each player three cards and flip one card face-up into the middle. Each player then discards one card face-down into the middle, as well.
A game of Tricks and the Phantom is played over multiple sets of two rounds. In each set, players work to investigate suspects and determine which one is the criminal. Should you catch the criminal, you earn points. At the end of a set, if a player has 10 or more points, the game ends and the player with the most points wins!
Starting with the first player and going clockwise, each player places one of their remaining cards face-down and adds the corresponding color token on top of it. Note that if you play the Phantom, you may place any token on the card. So that’s fun. Once everyone has placed a card, it’s time to catch a criminal!
Catching a criminal is easy; they’re the card with the highest value. Or, it would be easy if that were always true. Other cards can influence which card is the criminal, so it’s important to know who has what. Starting with the first player, each player places their magnifying glass (the classic detective’s tool) onto any player’s card (including their own!). Once all players have played cards, reveal them:
- If you played the Criminal, gain 1 point.
- If you guessed the Criminal, total the number of players who correctly guessed the Criminal. Subtract it from the total player count, and gain that many points.
- If you played a Phantom, gain 1 point for every player who guessed it.
- If you guessed the Phantom, lose 1 point.
- If you would gain points because of the Detective card, gain twice as many points. That’s nice.
Now, the second round begins. In this round, you play the remaining card and guess / score again as normal.
After the second round, check to see if any player has 10 points. If so, they win! Otherwise, reset the game and go again!
This plays generally the same as a four-player game. The major difference is that each player functions as two investigators, but may only play one magnifying glass. If you correctly guess the other player’s card, gain 2 points; if you correctly guess your own card, gain 1 point.
This plays the same as a four-player game as well, but it does have an interesting twist: the face-up card is still considered a potential criminal! This happens for both rounds.
Player Count Differences
Mostly just the differences I noted above. For an Oink game, it’s surprisingly finicky about player count (which is a bit of a worry, since that makes it harder to feel like you’ve really memorized the game rules). But the game plays pretty differently at different player counts, just as a function of how much information you have. In a way, I suppose that makes it interesting since the game is kind of varied, but it also means you have to do a bit more work explaining and remembering the rules. It is nice to have a two-player deduction game with a bit of bluffing, though this solves the bluffing problem much differently than, say, Cake Duel would. I’d say my overall preferences for this game sit on either the two-player or four-player side, just because they’re a bit less work than the three-player version. But I don’t have a particular problem with any player count, honestly.
- Don’t just play the Phantom. A lot of people do this, and that’s okay. If you add the Phantom, it can add a lot of confusion to an otherwise straightforward round, which is sometimes fun. Someone’s got to muck up the deduction game or it’s not as exciting, right? But here’s the thing about the Phantom; you need to play it like you would win with it. If you think the Phantom can trick other players into investigating it, then play it! That’s how you steal their points. Also, make sure you know what token you’re going to put on it before you play it (or decide before you play the card). Every other card only lets you play its color token, so fiddling with the tokens to try and decide which one you should play looks unbelievably suspicious.
- Really, your goal should be to bamboozle as many players as possible all the time. I originally suspected it was called Tricks and the Phantom because it’s a trick-taking game, but it’s not a trick-taking game, so, logically I have to assume that the tricks are tricking people into guessing the wrong card by sowing doubt and scheming. Try to do that as much as possible. Use the Phantom to help, or play the Entrepreneur / Madam when other players might suspect you’re playing something else. No matter what, you want to confuse as many players as possible; it’s the only way to succeed.
- Keep in mind what’s already been played or is no longer available. This is something that I tend to mess up pretty frequently. There are a nontrivial number of combinations and combos available based on what cards are in the game, so if you’re relying on something to be played that was played in the previous round (or that you discarded, in a three-player game), you’re not going to be pleased. Though you might be able to leverage that additional information to try and trick your opponent into making a mistake.
- Additionally, watch what other players guess. Why would they guess that, knowing what they know? This is a great way to try and see if someone’s baiting you with a Phantom. If, based on the lay of the field, they seem to have the highest-value card and they’re not picking it, that might mean that they’re up to something! Worth figuring it out.
- Sometimes it’s worth guessing yourself if you have the Phantom and you’re going early in the player order. If you do that, you subvert the strategy advice I just gave and make players suspect that you’ve played a higher-value card, in some cases. This might let you wrangle a couple players and manipulate them into donating some of their points to you.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Do love the theme. Investigations and a mysterious masked figure always make for compelling themes; it’s half of the reason I like Deception: Murder in Hong Kong so much. Plus, it’s still Oink, so it’s got a bit of that same whimsy that echoes in all of their other products going for it.
- The box color is nice as well. It’s a similar blue to Troika, but I still like it quite a bit.
- Additionally very stylish on the art front. I tend to like that sort of low-outline art; it makes it feel very modern, which I feel like you kind of want in a game about investigators and masked phantoms? At least, that’s kind of the vibe I got from Persona 5 and I’ve always liked that game.
- Always very portable. While it’s something I’ve come to expect from Oink titles, it’s also something I always appreciated.
- Quick to play. Takes less than half an hour, easily. You can also extend it or shorten it by setting the point threshold to be lower.
- The deduction is pretty well-implemented, I feel. Given how small the overall footprint of the game is, I think it’s a solid deduction title! I was impressed by this one. I generally have a soft spot for deduction games, though, which makes this always nice.
- I kind of wish the tokens were more detailed. This is me being nitpicky as hell, but, that’s what the Mehs are for, I always say. They just seem kind of generic in a game that’s got a fairly on-point art style, which is odd.
- Not really much in the way of a catch-up mechanism. If a player gets too far ahead, there might not be anything you can do about that. Thankfully, the game is super short, so this doesn’t really matter all that much.
- Surprisingly brittle where player count is concerned. Having so many alternate rulesets for player count is a bit unhelpful, if I’m being honest. It means for me, I have to try and keep all those different rules functional in my head when I’m teaching or playing it, and I need to make sure I don’t do what I normally do, which is assume that I’m right and not bother checking the rulebook. That’s less helpful, but it still happens sometimes. The other problem is that since the core game doesn’t change that much, players are less likely to consult the rulebook and see if edge cases have changed, which can lead to problems down the line. Just make sure you know what the rules are.
Overall: 8 / 10
Overall, I think Tricks and the Phantom is a great little deduction game! I’m particularly impressed by how low of a footprint it has; you could pretty easily implement this as a Button Shy 16-card card game if you gave every player a card with the token symbols on it and then just carry it around as a wallet game. And that’s cool! I love the flexibility of it. The flexibility can also be a bit of a problem, I feel; in their pursuit of making it work at most Normal Player Counts, they added a bunch of minor alternate conditions that I feel make the game a bit more complicated to keep entirely in your head at one time. That’s also odd, if you ask me; usually Oink takes great pains to make sure that their games play pretty much identically at various player counts. It’s not the biggest deal, but it’s something odd in an otherwise fairly elegant game, so it bears mentioning. Either way, this game’s got all the classic Oink staples: pleasant art, a fun theme that’s well-borne-out via the artwork, cool pieces, portability, and the like. It’s always nice to see Oink consistently hitting those targets as it’s creating more games, and it’s part of why I’m so consistently a fan of the brand. If that sounds up your alley, or you’re a huge fan of deduction games, or the art catches your eye, I’d recommend you consider checking out Tricks and the Phantom! I’ve been really enjoying it.