#784 – Reapers [Preview]

Base price: $XX.
3 – 5 players.
Play time: 30 – 60 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Check it out on Kickstarter! (Will update link when Kickstarter is live.)
Logged plays: 2

Full disclosure: A preview copy of Reapers was provided by New Mill Games. 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. 

I think this is the last of the Kickstarter trick-taking games I’m covering in this latest press cycle, which is fun. Three in a month is kind of a dream for the genre, since, as I’ve probably said elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of trick-taking games. I’m secretly hoping that The Crew’s sequel arrives in the near future so that I can add that to my trick-taking repertoire. They’ve all been pretty different, as well! Bug Council of Backyardia featured more mancala-style play with variable suit strengths, Wicked & Wise had asymmetric team play, and now we have Reapers! Drafting, wagering, and more. Let’s see what it’s got going on.

In Reapers, you play as various necromancers who have grown tired from all their partying and are settling down for a “friendly” game of taking tricks while wagering damned souls. As friendly as a game with those stakes can be, I suppose. Draft your hand while keeping an eye on other players, wager based on what you think your score will be, and take tricks to try and take the most points! Just keep an eye out for the Reaper cards, because those can change things up pretty quickly. Will you be able to take the most souls?

Contents

Setup

Start off by giving each player a set of wager cards in the color of their choice. They were originally tokens, but I got cards a bit later and used those in the final game photography. A fun little What’s Eric Playing? goofer. There are more.

Set aside the score sheet:

Setup from here depends on player count. You’ll want to shuffle up the Basic Cards; include the 10s of each suit if you’re playing with 5 players:

Then, reveal the top card of the deck. If it’s a Reaper, place it on the bottom of the deck and reveal another until you reveal a card that isn’t a Reaper. That card denotes the trump suit for the round. Leave that card face-up, and then shuffle the deck.

3- / 4-Player Setup

To play with three or four players, take the remaining cards and make thirteen sets of three cards, flipping them face-up and splaying them so that all three cards can be seen. Players draft starting with the start player until there is one set of three cards left. This set of cards is known as the Graveyard, and should be placed face-up in numerically-sorted order. If there’s a Reaper in there, it can be placed first or last; it doesn’t matter. If there’s a Demon in there, one of you should have drafted it, but whatever; it is considered the highest-value card.

5-Player Setup

To play with five players, make eleven sets of three cards and five sets of two cards. They should also be face-up and splayed so that all cards can be seen. Players will then, starting with the start player, draft sets of cards. All players must take exactly one set of two cards, so when you do, place one of your wager cards face-down in its place so that everyone knows you’ve taken a set. After drafting, there should be one set of three cards left; this set becomes the Graveyard, just like in 3- / 4-Player Setup.

Wagering

After drafting, players choose a wager card to play face-down; this wager determines how many points they can potentially earn after the round ends. There are three types of wagers:

  • No Wager: You aren’t betting at all, but you get a flat number of points no matter what. It’s low, but respectable. Better than nothing.
  • Second-highest score: You bet that you will earn the second-most points this round. If you’re right, you get points; if you’re wrong, you get nothing.
  • Lowest score: You bet that you will earn the fewest points. If you’re right, you get a bunch of points; if you’re wrong, you get nothing.

These wagers change in value based on player count. Once you’ve wagered, you’re ready to play!

Gameplay

In Reapers, you seek to win wagers by earning points as you take tricks. The problem is that generally, when you take tricks, you only get to keep the lowest-value card! That might mess with your strategy. Thankfully, you can rely on a Reaper for a sneaky trick or two.

As with many trick-taking games, the lead player plays a card of their choice. One exception: they may not play a Reaper unless they have no other non-Reaper cards in their hand. Once a card is played, the suit of that card becomes the “led” suit, and all players must play a card of the same suit in turn order, if they can. If a Reaper is played and it is the first Reaper of the trick, the player who played it may take the lowest card in the Graveyard and add it to their score pile.

After every player has played a card, the trick resolves:

  • If any card of the trump suit was played, the highest-value card of the trump suit wins.
  • Otherwise, if no cards of the trump suit were played, the highest-value card of the led suit wins.

Demons are considered the highest-value card of their suit. Once the trick’s winner is determined, the trick winner takes the lowest-value card in the trick and adds it to their score pile. Reapers don’t count as a card for the purposes of taking a low-value card, but if a Demon is present, the winner must take the Demon.

After the final trick is played, the round ends! Players should tally up their scores, with a fun bonus: any Demons in your score pile double the value of the highest card in your score pile. Each Demon doubles the next-highest card, so three Demons would double the three highest-value cards in your score pile. If you only have Demons, well, you shouldn’t have done that. They have nothing to double, so they’re worth nothing.

Then, check your wagers and sum your total points for the round! The player to the left of the start player for this round becomes the new start player. Set up a new round (following the Setup instructions) and go again. Play until you have played a number of rounds equal to the number of players (at three players, play six rounds, instead). The player with the most points wins!

Player Count Differences

The changes are pretty significant, from setup to gameplay to wager scoring. At three, since there are more cards and fewer players, there’s a higher ceiling to the possible points that a player can get in a round, as they can take more cards. This also means that the game can be a bit swingier, since you’re playing six rounds and it’s hard for players to catch up to a player who made a miraculous play without making a similarly miraculous play, themselves. At four, there’s a bit more danger, as there’s not as clear of a wager delineation as there was at three. At three, you can wager “none” if you’re planning to get the most points, “2nd” if you’re planning to get the second-most points, and “least” if you’re planning to get the least. Adding in a fourth player can shift that calculus, because how do you wager you’re going to get the third-most points? It keeps it interesting, but expect a few more missed wagers and collisions. At five, that whole thing goes out the window. It’s chaos. But you also have a more complicated setup at five, with a few piles of two cards being set out to make sure that the drafting math works. I’m a fan of some chaos in my trick-taking games, but even then, I think five might be a bit more than I’m looking for. I enjoyed Reapers at four the most, so I’m feeling good about recommending it with four players.

Strategy

  • Drafting all the trump cards isn’t necessarily going to help you win. This one’s a particularly interesting problem. If you have taken most of the trump cards in a round, you can probably put a pretty sizeable dent in the play by just going from high to low on your trump cards and seeing h ow many of your opponents’ cards you can sweep up in a huge rush. While that’s a good idea, it leaves you super vulnerable to a fun problem. Yes, you’ll take most of the tricks, but players will be super incentivized to throw their lowest card currently in-hand once they run out of trump cards, meaning that you’ll be consistently taking low-value tricks. Even when they’re finally down to the highest-value cards in their hands, well, you’ll be down to your lowest-value trump cards, so you’ll be the person supplying the low-value cards, at that point.
  • You might as well lead with your Demons, but be careful of players who didn’t draft any cards of that color. If you lead with your Demon, you’ll be able to usually take it (especially earlier in the round, when you have a higher likelihood that all players have a card of that color), but if another player doesn’t have that color and has a trump card, you’re going to lose your Demon to them. Ideally, you would keep hold of your Demon so you can use it to double up your highest-value card.
  • You’ll need to take more than Demons, though. I saw a round where a player only took Demons. Demons double your highest-value card, but without any other cards, you just end up with zero points. That’s humorous, but certainly not ideal (and, I imagine that someone with all those Demons likely didn’t plan for getting the fewest points, so they also probably messed up their wager [and likely someone else’s], which is even more fun). Make sure you take cards with numbers so that you can use the Demons to their full utility.
  • A lot of progress is made during the drafting phase of the game. A lot happens. You get to see everyone’s cards! In a trick-taking game! As long as you can keep track of who takes what, I suppose. But this is also a time to get a good sense of who has the strongest hand from drafting; it’ll potentially influence what you decide to do later (and what cards you take).
  • Keep your potential wager in mind as you take cards, and watch what your opponents take. If you want, you can try to take mostly garbage and just go for taking no tricks, but keep in mind that everyone’s watching you do this, and if they know you’re trying to score no points they can gang up on you and potentially mess up your wager (or, better yet, they can pick a wager with that information in mind). If you see someone taking a lot of particularly high-value cards, it might be worth keeping that in mind and going for the second-highest score wager, instead.
  • Drafting multiple Reapers can be handy for pulling valuable cards from the Graveyard. If you can get two Reapers, you’re all-but-guaranteed to get the highest-value card left in the Graveyard unless, somehow, you take the first two cards in the Graveyard instead. But don’t do that? If you combine that with a strong Demon play, you might be able to pull a 7+ from the Graveyard and then double it, which is great if points are your goal.
  • That said, if you don’t get any Reapers, you do have some incentive to try and make the Graveyard as worthless as possible. You can try and take high-value cards during the draft; you just really want the high card in the Graveyard to be a 5 or something lower-value so that your opponents aren’t getting huge point gains from a solid Reaper play. This isn’t a particularly easy play to make, as there are good reasons to take low-value cards and you can’t stop your opponents from drafting the low-value cards that you want to be the Graveyard.
  • Taking a few low cards can be helpful, regardless; if you know you can’t win a trick, you can throw a low card in and devalue it. Especially off-suit low-value card dumps. It’s a great way to punish a player for leading with trump when you’re out of the trump suit. Just keep in mind that a Demon will make this moot (since a player winning the trick will take the Demon). In those cases, you might as well dump a middle-value card since your opponent won’t get the card no matter what.
  • Just because you want to get the lowest score in a round doesn’t mean you necessarily want to get a 0. This is always a hard thing to get players to understand, because getting a 0 guarantees that you’ll have the lowest score, right? But if you’re getting a 0 to other players’ 15+, then unless you’re playing a 3-player game, your bonus from your wager isn’t going to put you ahead of your opponents.

Pros, Mehs, and Cons

Pros

  • The aesthetic of this game is basically classic Daniel Newman, which makes me laugh a bit. Dude really likes skulls, and I respect that. This game has lots of skulls, demons, reapers, and plague. It’s very … him. I want to use the word “edgy”, but I mean that in a nice way.
  • Drafting for the purpose of setting a wager is really interesting. You technically have perfect information, provided you can remember it all. But you can at least get a sense of what the table looks like and what suits players are specializing in, if you’re paying a good amount of attention. That might influence how you bet or give you a false sense of confidence; that’s kind of up to you.
  • The Reapers are easily my favorite card in the game; they’re super interesting. I like the Graveyard concept thematically, and I think Daniel’s done a nice job here of giving you cards that are designed to interact with it in a useful and interesting way. It’s fun. They can also be an exciting part of the game, since you can occasionally fish out pretty high-value cards.
  • The game was designed to be super portable, which is nice. It pretty much entirely fits in a tuckbox (with the exception of score sheets, but you can kind of abstract those or just play one round and call it; up to you). I recently had it in my trick-taking Quiver to great success.
  • After playing a bunch of super-weird trick-taking games, it’s actually kind of nice to have a game that’s relatively straightforward (in its trick-taking). The biggest things that this one does differently are the initial draft and the Reapers / Demons. And, I suppose, the scoring, but that’s all not too bad. Having something on the less-complex side is nice after playing a bunch of very involved trick-taking games; it’s part of the reason I consistently come back to The Crew all the time.
  • I also just really like trick-taking, so trick-taking games pretty much automatically get some points from me. It’s rapidly grown to be one of my favorite genres. I just really like the strategy of it a lot. I need to try more ladder-climbing games, as well.
  • Being able to spike someone else’s trick just because you’re not winning is a fun and rude bit of strategy. It’s entertaining specifically because it’s kind of mean, but I like that the game kind of incentivizes dumping your low cards on your opponent. You’d already do that in a regular trick-taking game, but now it has the benefit of costing your opponent points, as well, which is great.
  • I think Reapers is a bit gentler about trying to take no tricks than other trick-taking games, but with a catch. Here, you can still score a bunch of points and get the big “lowest score” wager; you just need to make sure that everyone else scored more points than you did. Sometimes that means it’s worth giving someone a 4 instead of a 2, or something. You can still shoot for 0, but that doesn’t always work out as well.

Mehs

  • The problem with drafting for trick-taking is that it definitely rewards players with better memories, which adds a memory component to the game that I don’t love. I bristle at games with a memory element because I’m usually so frazzled from explaining the rules and making sure I didn’t mess the whole game up to pay a ton of attention to what other players are drafting, which can occasionally mess me up. That’s kind of the point of an open draft, though it’s not always my absolute favorite thing in the world, I guess.
  • The card backs not being reversible aggravates my type-A brain. I keep flipping them upside-down by mistake and then having to go and fix them. This is why I like symmetric cards; less stress on my poor brain. This is a very minor gripe, but this is the place for those emotions.

Cons

  • An ongoing thing I’m trying to check, but this game definitely rewards players who are very experienced with trick-taking games, to the point of having a mild runaway leader problem. Drafting, in general, is a poor replacement for random card draws with new players, just because new players haven’t had a chance to see the strategy of the game play out, yet, so they may make suboptimal drafting choices. This matters because a lot of work in Reapers is done during the drafting phase, as I mentioned above. Suboptimal drafts can lead to swings where one player can actually get some decently high-value cards (and potentially Demons to double them). I think it’s very difficult to come back from a 30-point deficit in this game, and since there’s no real catch-up mechanism, once a player gets far ahead, they tend to stay ahead. This is kind of why I don’t love the multi-round structure, here. But more on that … pretty much immediately!
  • In general, I’m a bit skeptical of multi-round games where there’s no meaningful shift in status quo between rounds beyond “the dealer changes”. This is a longstanding What’s Eric Playing? Gripe, but generally I dislike it when games have a “you need to play X rounds before the game ends”, but there’s no actual difference between those rounds other than who goes first. I understand there’s probably some Designer Logic behind it (having each player go first once, or something), but it can create situations like the one I just described, where you’re too many points behind to win but the game isn’t over. With a lot of games like this, I tend to just count each round as its own game, rather than playing across an arbitrary number of rounds. Plus, six rounds at three players can feel a bit long, especially in your first game where you’re getting used to the drafting and whatnot. This multi-round practice is a relatively common thing in games, but it’s also one I dislike.
  • Also, divvying up the cards into 13 distinct stacks of three face-up cards is an awkward deal, but I imagine it gets better as you get used to it? This is probably one of the hazards of previewing games, being real. I don’t always get time to really sit with a game and introspect and see how I feel about it after ten plays. We’re on tight timetables, and I get that, but I do wonder if this would feel less awkward after several rounds. The memory mechanic of it is fairly interesting, since you get to see all the cards other players are taking, and I particularly like that it’s not just pure drafting, since you have to choose the pool of three you get, for better or for worse. Editor’s Note: This is less annoying after multiple plays.

Overall: 7.25 / 10

Overall, I think Reapers is an interesting trick-taking game! I think, among trick-taking games I’ve played recently, this one leans more in the direction of “best for experienced trick-taking players”, as a lot of the strategy relies on players already being knowledgable about trick-taking strategy in the first place. If you know what to do during tricks, you’re more likely to pull cards during the draft that play to that advantage and you’re more likely to make coherent wagers that play to the strategy you’ve already set. You can also be more flexible in tricks, et cetera. And that makes sense; I find that a number of Daniel’s designs appeal to fairly experienced players. And I think Reapers is a smart confluence of some interesting trick-taking moves and strategies that will surely delight embedded fans of the genre. Is Reapers an excellent choice for your first trick-taking game? Probably not. I think new players will have a rough time, as it will potentially be unclear how to link drafting choices to wagers to long-term-strategy and how to play cards in service of that strategy. May still enjoy it, especially if they’re into Daniel’s spooky aesthetic. Is it a spooky aesthetic? I really don’t want to use the word edgy, but it doesn’t really have ghosts, which would make me think spooky. It’s more skulls and death, which seems edgy? Necropunk? I think Necropunk is a better name for it, and that’s what I’ll use moving forward from the end of this review. I now wish I had written this earlier. Oh well. Reapers does well in its genre, and I think it will appeal quite a bit to fans of trick-taking who don’t want to be as aggressively punished for bad wagering as they might be in Skull King, and want a bit more control over their starting hand (or to snoop on opponents’ hands to craft strategy). If you’re an advanced trick-taking player looking for more, or you’re looking to up your complexity to the next level, or you just like skulls, you’ll probably enjoy Reapers! I had a solid time with it.


If you enjoyed this review and would like to support What’s Eric Playing? in the future, please check out my Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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