Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Quick Review - Dead Drop - A Kickstarter Preview

Dead Drop
Designer: Jason Kotarski
Publisher: Crash Games
Quick Review - Dead Drop - A Kickstarter Preview

UPDATE: The Dead Drop Kickstarter is now live, through October 31st!  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/crashgames/dead-drop-a-pub-series-game

UPDATE: Dead Drop has funded on Kickstarter, with all stretch goals unlocked!  Also see updates below for my review of the 3 player gameplay.

Dead Drop is a 13 card deduction style micro-game for 2-4 players in the same vein as others, like Love Letter.  But Dead Drop brings a bit of a new mechanic that sets it apart from other games like this I've played.  In the game not only do you have to figure out what the hidden (Dead Drop) card is, but you also have to figure out a way to get your card hand into a configuration that you can make a successful grab.

The setup of the game is quite easy - shuffle the cards, place one face down, one face up for each player in the game, and then deal out the rest of the cards to the player.  In a 3 player game each player will have 5 cards in their hand, 3 in a 3 player game, and 2 in a 4 player game.  Then players take turns completing one of three actions while they try to deduce what the face-down card (the Dead Drop) is.

Of the 13 cards (plus 4 reference cards), each is numbered with a number between 0 and 5.  There are four 0's, three 1's, two 2's, two 3's, one 4, and one 5.  Based on what cards players have in their hands, what are face up on the table, and what they learn from other players eventually someone will be able to make an educated guess as to what the Dead Drop card is, similar to how in Clue players collect information about suspects and when they finally have enough information they make a guess.  But in Dead Drop the mechanics are stripped down to their bare minimums, which is a good thing.  Dead Drop gives you the same logical deduction feel as Clue, but without all the moving around rooms and such.

Actions the players can take are:
  • Share Info: A player can choose any other player and make a trade.  Each player will learn what one card is when they trade cards.
  • Swap the Stash: A player can exchange one card from his hand with one of the face-up cards on the table.  In this action he'll reveal some information to all the other players without learning anything new, but he may need one of the face-up cards to complete the next action or to make a guess at the Dead Drop card.
  • Sell Secrets: A player can choose two cards from her hand and secretly show them to another player.  If the other player has a card in his hand with a value that equals the sum of the two cards shown to him he must tell the other player and then hand that card to the player and take one of the two cards shown to him.
After the player completes her turn she may then choose to Grab the Drop, if she knows what the card is AND has two cards in her hand that add up to the value of the Dead Drop card (the 5 counts as a 0 in this instance only). If the player is correct she wins.  If she is wrong she adds the cards from her hand to the face-up stash and is out of the round and play continues until there is one person left or one person guesses correctly.  A game lasts several rounds until one player has won 3 times.

I played the game with both 2 players and 4 players and both games had very different feels.  Last night I played a 2 player game with my wife and like most deduction games with 2 players it felt a bit unimpressive.  Most of our hands lasted about 2 turns each and we managed to fit in two entire games in about 15 minutes.  We had a few hands that lasted 3 turns and I think one that lasted 4 for one of us, but we also had a hand or two that were done on the first turn.  With a 2 player game it was just too easy to figure out what the card could be and too easy to have a correct guessing configuration in your hand.  There were just too many cards in your hand and too few unknowns.  I've been thinking of a variation for 2 players that I think will add a bit more deduction to the game, but I haven't tried it yet.  I'll add the rules for that variant to the bottom of the review after the rating in case anyone wants to try it out.

UPDATE: I played the 2-player Dead Drop with a friend of mine and it played MUCH differently than it did with my wife.  In the 9 or 10 hands we played we only had 2 where the Dead Drop was obvious very quickly.  The other hands all had a lot of back and forth while we tried to both figure out the Dead Drop card and configure our hand to make the call.  So I guess the game depends quite a bit on the luck of the card layouts.  This won't affect my overall review score, but I wanted to mention that even with 2 players it is possible for the hands to last several minutes each.  I should note that we also tried one hand of my variant with the Informant (described below) and it went very well also.  So after several more plays I definitely think this is a good filler game to add to your collection.

Then tonight I gave the 4 player version a try at one of the FLGSs in my town.  I played with three people I had never met before, but they were enthusiastic to try a quick game before its Kickstarter was even launched.  We played two games before I had to leave.  With 4 players the game had a drastically different feel.  It was much more difficult to figure out what the Dead Drop card was and even more challenging to get your hand to a set where you could make a successful grab.  We found many rounds someone got eliminated because they guessed wrong, much more often than in the 2-player game.  Guessing in the four player game is a much bigger decision though because once you have it narrowed down to two cards it's likely that the other players are close to figuring it out, too.  So you have to decide, is it better to wait until your turn comes around again and hope you have enough information to make a definitive grab, or should you make an educated guess now before someone makes the grab before you have another chance, especially if you have the right cards in your hand to sum up to your guess.  This is an intriguing situation because there is a lot of risk evaluation.

The 4-player games still played fairly quickly, but they were longer than with a 2-player game.  The 4-player games lasted about 20 minutes each.  And while the 4 player game was much better than the 2-player game, I did feel that it needed something else.  I think 2 cards in each player's hand was a bit too restrictive. It made it difficult to get appropriate sums, which in turn made it difficult to really deduce what cards were in play since the cards were being traded back and forth a lot.  It wasn't impossible, but I found the people I was playing with guessing more than really figuring out what the Dead Drop card was. Even 3 cards per player would have added to the game.  So I think the sweet spot for Dead Drop in its current form is probably going to be with 3 players.  I'll try to get a 3-player game together soon and then update this review.

UPDATE: I have now played the game with 3 players as well, and as I suspected this is the game's sweet spot.  With three players each player has 3 cards in their hands making the game much less luck based than two player games and much more intriguing than 4 player games.  With 3 players you have the option of bluffing, something you can't do in the other games (or at least not easily at all).  Where as the 2 player game was highly luck based and played very quickly, and the 4 player game was a bit frustrating because of the lack of control and information, 3 players was a ton of fun.  I won't adjust my overall rating of the game, for 3 players this becomes a 7 or maybe even an 8 and is a GREAT filler or take-along game.

If I had a recommendation for a change to the game though, I'd say to use 17 cards in the game instead of 13.  13 is nice because it breaks down into perfect values for the setup rules for 2, 3, and 4 players, but 17 cards would also break down nicely, giving a 4 player game 3 cards each, 4 cards each in a 3 player game with one extra card in the stash, and 7 cards each in a 2 player game.  Just a few more cards would add to the level of reasoning needed to even make educated guesses, although then you have way too many cards for 2 players (although my variation at the end of this review would help with that).

Overall though, I think the game was generally pretty fun.  The artwork is excellent, even if the theme feels a bit pasted on - the game would work equally well with monsters, treasure hunters, murder suspects, computer hackers, or any of a hundred other possible themes.  In fact, I believe in the Kickstarter campaign they'll have one other deck included in the base tier and more deck designs included in a deluxe tier.  I'll be interested to see if the other decks include different distributions of cards or any special rules to make them unique or more thematic.

Dead Drop is a fun, quick filler game.  It's small, so you can take it with you just about anywhere, the rules are simple and easy to learn/teach, it's casual enough that anyone is likely to be willing to play just about any time, and deep enough that you'll have people pondering and scratching heads.  The artwork is fantastic and the game will keep you thinking and guessing play after play.

UPDATE: The Kickstarter is now live and you ca get the basic game for only $12 or the deluxe game (with some nicer components) for only $22.  And as stretch goals are unlocked there will be additional decks included in both versions with more awesome artwork by some other awesome artists.  At that price the game is a great deal and it's worth picking up to add to any gamer's collection.  The game is easy, portable, looks fantastic, quick, and deep enough to provide lots of filler or on-the-go fun!

And don't forget to check below the pictures for my 2-player variant rules (plus a variant my wife came up with).

Preliminary Rating: 6/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

13 cards and 4 reference cards make this a very
small game you can bring with anywhere.

The gears really start turning in a four player game.

Each of the six character cards are beautifully illustrated by Adam McIver.
GJJ Games 2-Player Variant for Dead Drop:

OK, as promised here's my slight variant to make a 2 player game a bit more challenging.  All the rules are the same with a slight change to the setup and one additional action that players can take.

After setup is complete and each player has been dealt their 5 cards, each player chooses one card from their hand and places it face down in front of them.  This is their Informant.  Or maybe their Ace.  Or some other cool spy-ish term.  So, each player will know what the face-down card in front of them is, but won't know what the face-down card in front of their opponent is.

Informant Cycle: A player can pick up his opponent's Informant and give that opponent one card from his hand.  The opponent then chooses one card from her hand and places it face-down in the Informant position.  So now the opponent knows what the player picked up and the player knows what card was given to the opponent.  But the player still doesn't know what the new Informant card is.

When Selling Secrets an opponent's Informant card does not have to be revealed if its value is the sum of the cards shown to her.  Also, a player can use his Informant to attempt to Grab the Drop.

UPDATE: I played a hand with this 2-player variant and it really added another level to the deduction in the game.  Still not quite as difficult as in a 3-player game, but much more than in a standard 2-player game.  I think I'm going to keep these rules as house rules for any 2-player games I play.

GJJ Games' Wife's 2-Player Variant for Dead Drop:

My wife also came up with a small modification to the rules that could make 2 player games a bit more challenging, too.  And actually this modification could be used in any of the player games to add some challenge, too.  The change is real simple; during the Selling Secrets action the player being asked can either show one card with a value of the sum of the two cards revealed OR show two cards with the same sum.  If the player has the card with the value requested she MUST say yes, but can show either that card or two others.  If she does not have the card she can choose to say no and show nothing or say yes and show two cards with the same sum.   And then a trade of one of each of the players' cards takes place.  So, if I show my wife a pair of 2's she can either show me a 4 if she has it OR show me a 3 and a 1.  There is still an exchange of information, but it might not be the information the active player was hoping for.

I think either of these minor changes to the game will make a 2 player game much more difficult, and lead to more intrigue and a more acute level of deduction.  Who knows, maybe one or both of these variants will make it into the official game before the Kickstarter is over =)

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  First Play Impression reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first time playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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