Full disclosure: A preview copy of Matches was provided by Thing 12 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.
Pretty busy crowdfunding week, this week! For me, at least. I’ve got both Fit to Print and Matches dropping, this week, and I’m excited to talk about both of them, but I also had to play them while I was traveling and write them up essentially as soon as I got back, which kept my week at “fairly hectic”. Such is trying to balance work trips and board game reviewing. My photography studio doesn’t travel well. I could probably figure something out, but that feels like more trouble than it’s probably worth. So here I am, at a hotel in … Moon, Pennsylvania (give or take), writing a review before my plane takes off tomorrow morning. I’m into that sort of thing, though, so it all works out.
In Matches, you have some definitely-probably-haunted cards after the Whelming Matches Factory burnt to the ground. How haunted? Only one way to find out! Try to match the Blaze Card to increase the fire’s intensity, or Burn Out and get away to safety if you can. The more pyromaniacally-inclined among you may find the Burn Cards appealing, as they add effects that can really scorch your opponent to the core, if you play your cards right. Will you be able to burn brightly, or will you just flame out?
Choose a player to be the Start Player; they will get the Leader Token, and you can set the red and yellow Fire Tokens (1 yellow = 5 reds) aside, for now:
Shuffle the Match Cards, dealing each player 10 (9 in a six-player game):
Each player can arrange their hands as they wish. Set four Fire Tokens aside as “Burnout Tokens”. If you wish, you can play with Burn Cards, as well:
Shuffle that deck and reveal four cards, placing them beside the deck in a row. After doing that, you should be ready to start!
Over four rounds of Matches, you’ll play cards from your hand to either form pairs or increase the Blaze to try and earn Fire Tokens. The player with the most at the end of the game wins!
To start a round, the Start Player chooses a card from their hand and plays it face-up. This card’s value is the Blaze, for the round. Place one Fire Token on the card, as well. Then, the player to the Start Player’s left takes the first turn.
On a turn, you may do one of several things:
- Match the Blaze with a single card: Play a single card from your hand with the same value as the Blaze. When you do, add a Fire Token from the supply to the Blaze Card, increasing its value.
- Match the Blaze with a set: You may play any number of cards from your hand whose total value equals the Blaze. For instance, if your Blaze value is a 7, you can play 1 / 2 / 3 / 1, or 3 / 4. You can only play one set per turn, though.
- Run up to the Blaze: You may play a set as normal of one or more cards, but you may also play additional face-down cards to increase the value by one per face-down card. This would allow you to play 1 / 2 and three face-down cards to make a 6, for instance.
- Play a Flare Card: This works the same as Matching the Blaze, but the card itself has no value and doesn’t count for pairs later.
- Burn Out: If you cannot or do not want to do the other four options, you Burn Out! You’re out of the round, but you earn a Fire Token from the supply for each pair of numbers you’ve created from the cards you collectively played this round (you can play two cards on different turns and make a pair, for instance). Flare Cards and face-down cards don’t count. If you are the first player to Burn Out in the round, take one of the four set-aside Burnout Fire Tokens and the Leader token.
If playing with Burn Cards, you may spend 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 Fire Tokens to buy the Burn Card farthest from (1) or closest to (4) the Burn Card deck. Do not fill in the blanks, though, until the round ends.
Once all players except one have Burned Out, the round ends! The player who did not Burn Out wins the round, and collects all Fire Tokens on the Blaze Card. Note that, unlike players who Burn Out, the player who wins the round does not score their pairs. Players may then discard any Match Cards. The new Start Player is the player who Burned Out first in the previous round, and all players draw back to ten cards. The Start Player plays a new Blaze Card, and a new round begins!
After the end of the fourth round, the player with the most Fire Tokens wins!
Player Count Differences
I tend to prefer Matches at lower player counts. With more players, I think more variance is introduced to the game, which can make things a bit swingy. For instance, more players hitting the Blaze value and increasing it between turns means that you have a bigger overall pot of Fire Tokens. That’s cool and all, but if one player manages to win it twice in a row, with more players, it becomes very difficult to expect that you’ll be able to catch up to them, even with Burn Cards. Haven’t seen that as much at lower player counts, since there are fewer overall cards in play. Plus, I enjoy the strategic play of lower player counts, as opposed to the high-chaos play of higher player counts. This is generally true across most of the games I play, granted, but when it comes to things like the Burn Cards, which add their own particular flavor of chaos, I think I end up appreciating it more. More cards in play means you’ll likely see more matches to the Blaze Card, so expect the rounds to be a bit more heated as players fight over that big pot. If you’re looking for that kind of play, try a high player count. If you’re instead focused on keeping things a bit tighter and leaner, try fewer players.
- There’s definitely an advantage to Burning Out if you suspect that one player is going to just keep adding Fire Tokens to the Blaze Card until they win. It’s essentially a game of chicken at that point. Is it worth building up the Blaze if you don’t think you can actually win the Fire Tokens? Probably not. If you and the other players Burn Out pretty quickly, you can stick the winner with only a couple Fire Tokens, which can nicely slow their progression.
- Remember that if you Burn Out, you score pairs, so even if you’re playing sets of cards, make sure you’re playing multiple cards with the same values, if you can. There’s not necessarily a reason to play a bunch of different cards, even if it keeps you in the round. Sometimes you don’t have the hand you need to do well in a particular round, at which point, you just kinda want to cash out as quickly as possible. Try to focus on playing a bunch of 1s or 2s to make some cheap and easy pairs so that you can score points when you Burn Out, if that’s your goal. If your goal is to win the round, you just want to try and last as long as possible.
- Keep in mind that there are many possible combinations of cards to make certain values, as well. If your goal is to outlast other players, remember that you can do a lot of different things to get the numbers you want. You can also burn unhelpful cards face-down, but keep in mind that you may want to keep a few of them for other, later sets, rather than just playing all of your cards at once.
- Honestly, sometimes it’s better to Burn Out early so that you can claim the bonus Fire Token, rather than waiting and trying to score an extra pair that just isn’t coming. There’s definitely a mood to just, ignoring the current Blaze, getting your two pairs in, then taking the extra Fire Token and bailing on the round. No point staying in and wasting cards and time if you’re not doing to be able to make more pairs or win, right? So sometimes you just leave.
- You don’t score your pairs if you win the round, so it may actually be detrimental to win the round, if you are otherwise playing a bunch of pairs. Be careful with that. You may make several pairs, keeping yourself in the round for a while, and then ultimately only take one Fire Token from the Blaze Card. This is definitely a strategic move for some players! Sticking one player with a worthless Blaze Card can work out really well for you, if you manage to time it right. This is typically why I kind of recommend playing your matching cards first (saving your Flare Cards for later); some of the Burn Cards can modify values, for instance. Just keep in mind that making the Blaze more valuable also increases players’ incentive to stay around or buy Burn Cards to mess with you.
- Keeping some cards for a subsequent round (especially Flare Cards) can potentially serve you; other times, you’re better off just dumping everything. I usually keep Flare Cards, just in case (plus, it keeps them out of other players’ hands), but other rounds I’ll just have nothing that really works and I’d rather just discard my entire hand. Keep an eye on which cards you’d rather keep or dump; it helps a lot with planning.
- Take a long look at the Burn Cards! Sometimes they justify their own cost with the points that they can earn for you. They don’t always (spending 4 Fire Tokens for a Burn Card is expensive; make sure that it’s worth it if you’re going to spend all those points. There are some very good justification ones, though. Some double the tokens on the Blaze Card, some absolutely tank an opponent of your choice, and some just make it harder for everyone to win. Might be worth doing any of those, based on your strategy. Or, it might be worth buying a Burn Card so that it can’t be used against you.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art style is pretty fun. It’s a bit sinister and spooky; something about a haunted match factory. I really like the burn effect on the bottom of the cards, visually, though it hampers readability, somewhat.
- It’s pretty easy to pick up! It’s not quite a trick-taking game, but it has similar structure and vibes. I’m told it’s a bit closer to Cribbage? That person could have been lying to me, though. I think having looser restrictions on card play than a traditional trick-taking game does make the game easier to learn, though, which is nice. You can use this to lead into other trick-taking games, if you want, but the game is plenty fun on its own.
- I like that players set the Blaze Card; it can make for some interesting strategy moves. I’ve tried several times to get a “play a low Blaze Card” strategy to work and it’s always had pretty mixed results, which is fine. But either way, I appreciate that this lets players set the Blaze; I think it’s fun and it gives the leader a slight starting edge, which makes things exciting.
- I generally like the Burn cards, too! It makes the game a bit more interactive and can add some interesting strategic moves to the game. There are a lot of good ones that can really change things up round-to-round! I particularly like the ones that mess with values, since that changes the strategy for everyone. They add fun twists to an already-chaotic game.
- The game moves pretty quickly, which I appreciate; very little downtime. You really are just playing cards and making moves, so, that doesn’t take too long. You might see a few players thinking through strategy intently towards the end of the round, but that’s mostly when they’re trying to guess what cards their opponents have.
- I think it’s a neat maneuver that you can play whatever combinations that you want, but only the pairs end up scoring you points. I like that a lot! It forces players to be intentional about their moves and try to think ahead. How do you make sure that you get all of your 6s played? What about 10s? It’s a useful and straightforward way to help players figure out how they earn points without causing them too much stress.
- Forcing players to buy Burn Cards with points can be pretty brutal, but I like it. I generally like using points as currency in games; it makes players think about what they’re planning and whether or not it’s explicitly worth it. You can pretty quickly calculate how many points you expect to earn as a result of spending points to buy a Burn Card. Is it more than you’re spending? Then it’s probably worth it.
- The Burn Cards can make the game a bit swingy, early on, just because the first player to start a round cannot buy any (since they have no Fire Tokens). It’s not the worst thing in the world, but it depends a lot on which Burn Cards are the first / second / third cards. You may see some folks buying them in the first round, which, fine, but the Start Player doesn’t have the ability to do so, which can be somewhat frustrating.
- The burn effect on the cards, while cool, can make some of the values difficult to read if the cards are upside-down. As a notoriously mildly neurotic person, I really prefer when my cards are not upside-down, but when they are, having a symmetric front helps make the cards readable when they’re splayed in the hand. Matches doesn’t have this, eschewing that for a neat “burnt” part along the bottom. It looks really cool, but I wish it didn’t come at the cost of readability for some of the higher values. It just means that you may need to reorient some of your cards in your hand when you get them.
- Some of the Burn Cards add a particular flavor of take-that that doesn’t feel as good as some of the other ones. I like most of the Burn Cards quite a bit, but some of them force players to discard their played pairs or cards from their hand, which feel a bit meaner than the others? It’s one thing to do something that helps you win, and something else that just pushes another player towards losing. Those particular cards feel like they’re more in the latter camp, which just tends to leave a bad taste in players’ mouths. Plus, it makes some players vulnerable to dogpiling, which is never fun. There are plenty of otherwise-mean cards that are fun (like the one that requires every player to place two Fire Tokens onto the center Blaze Card). These make the game more challenging, more intense, or just increase the payoff for whoever wins. I’d love to see the game trend more in that direction than take-that.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Matches is solidly fun! I’m a bit intrigued by the promised “surprises” that are in store for the campaign, but I figure I can be patient and find out what those are, same as the rest of you. In the meantime, Matches presents itself as a simple and somewhat-sinister card game that pretty much anyone can pick up, learn, and do pretty well with! The art style really helps with the somewhat-sinister nature of the game, even if it makes the cards a bit harder to read if they’re not properly oriented. I’d kinda hope they figure out some compromise for the final result, because I do like the effect. I enjoy the extra strategic depth of most of the Burn Cards, too, even if a few of them trend a bit too much towards specific take-that for my tastes. For other folks, though, just playing the Flame Cards without having to deal with the extra intensity of the Burn Cards might be right up their alley. I like when a game allows you to add or remove complexity to suit your preferences and the preferences of your group, and Matches does a nice job making its additional complexity modular. It’s a quick and fast card game, and I always enjoy that kind of thing, so if you’re looking for that, you want to play a game that’s a little bit haunted, or you just enjoy fire a bit more than you should, you might want to check Matches out!
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