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[Review] The Bottle Imp

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Two years ago, if you had asked me to play a trick-taking game, I probably would have refused, knowing only Hearts and Rook - games that I didn’t particularly dislike, but games that had been analyzed to death by all my friends who played them. This usually turned me off, and therefore trick-taking games had a negative rap with me. However, once I started playing many of the excellent trick taking games from Germany, my opinion started to change. The Bottle Imp, or Flaschenteufel (Plenary Games, 2003 - Gunter Cornett) has solidified my view of these games - I love ‘em.

The Bottle Imp has always been one of my favorite short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, and I was pleased to play a game with this theme that not only was enjoyable and strategic, but also one that matched the theme tremendously well. There wasn’t much included in the box, but the amount of game included was tremendous. The Bottle Imp plays exceptionally well with two, three, or four players, but I found that three players was probably the best, and it’s always nice to have a good three player card game around.

The theme of the story was basically that of a bottle in which lived a demon who would grant your wishes at the cost of your soul, if you had the bottle in your possession when you died. One could get rid of the bottle, but only by selling it for a lower price than they bought it. The game is composed simply of thirty-seven cards and a small wooden bottle token. The cards are numbered one through thirty-seven and are either yellow, blue, or red. Each card is also worth a certain amount of points, from one to six, indicated by the number of coins shown on the card. One card, the nineteen, is placed in the middle of the table and is the current price of the bottle. The remainder of the cards is dealt out equally to all the players. Each player discards one card, placing it face down under the “19”. Each player then passes two cards: one to their right, and one to their left. The player to the left of the dealer begins the first round.

In each trick, the start player may play any card from their hand, with each player following suit (color) if possible, otherwise playing any card they wish. One of two things then happens:
- The player who plays the highest number takes the trick, putting all the cards from the trick in a scoring pile in front of them. (Example: If the blue 34, red 31, red 26, and red 37 are played, the player with the red “37” wins the trick.)
- However, if one or more players play a card with a value lower than the current price of the bottle, the player who plays the highest numbered card that is lower than the price wins the trick. They must place the card they won the trick with in the middle of the table (the new price of the bottle) and take the wooden bottle, placing it in front of themselves. Previous prices of the bottle are returned to the player who played them. (Example: The price of the bottle is currently “19”. The blue “4”, blue “13”, red “35”, and blue “20” are played. The player who played the blue “13” wins the trick and the bottle, and the new price of the bottle is now “13”.)
Either way, the round continues, with the player who won the trick playing the first card in the next trick. Play continues until all the cards are played, at which point players total their points. Each player receives the sum of all the points shown on the cards they’ve won, UNLESS they have the bottle in their possession. The player with the bottle gains no points, but instead loses the total amount of points on the discarded cards in the middle of the table. Play continues to the next round, until one player reaches a prearranged number of points - the book recommends 500. That player is then declared the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: Other companies need to take note of Plenary Games’ packaging here. There are only forty cards included with the game (including three help cards) and a small, nicely done wooden bottle; but the box is good sized, holds the cards well, and has a lid. I’ll gladly carry a game like this around, where I know that the cards won’t fall out, or I’ll lose the instructions. Yes, it’s a little bigger, but it’s sturdier and easier to handle. The cards are of high quality, and have pictures of the story or text on them. These illustrations are nicely done, and even though they and the text have no effect on game play, combined with the wooden bottle - the game actually plays just like the story.

2.) Rules: The rule booklet is composed of ten pages of rules in two languages. Everything is explained in great detail, which is pretty impressive, considering how simplistic the rules are. I found the game easy to teach and learn, although learning when to take the bottle, and knowing which cards to discard, etc., can be a little tricky.

3.) Strategy: The little help cards are very useful, showing what numbered cards are what color. Yellow cards are mostly low, red cards are mostly high, and blue cards are scattered across the spectrum. Knowing what cards everybody has helps a player play better tactically. In the beginning of each round, it’s easy for players to take the bottle, especially with a high card such as the “18” or “17”. But as the round progresses, taking the bottle is a risky business, and players must do so only if they are sure they can get rid of it. At the same time, players are seeking to rid themselves of low cards. If you get the “1”, and take the bottle with it, you’ll automatically lose the round. Therefore, it’s essential to get it on the table as quickly as possible, when another, higher price is played. Players must keep a keen watch on their own cards, because it really stinks when you are forced (by following suit) to play an extremely low card, taking the bottle.

4.) Tension and Fun Factor: The bottle and the negative points it brings are an excellent mechanic, and one that players are constantly wrestling with. Questions such as, “When is the best moment to take the bottle?” and “When should you get rid of your high point valued cards?” arise in every round, and there are many different strategies. One thing I enjoyed was the lack of “automatic” play. In many trick-taking games, with several hands, a player has one optimal strategy and should play cards in a specific order. The bottle and its dreaded consequences take this certainty out of the game, and players must weigh their options with each card played. There is gambling occasionally, where a player hopes that another player doesn’t have a specific card, and this makes the game a lot of fun.

5.) Story: The complete story of the Bottle Imp, by Stevenson, is included in a little booklet that comes with the game. This really helps the theme, and is a must-read for those who have never read the story before. It’s a nice component to include.

The Bottle Imp is currently my favorite trick-taking game. Each game plays differently, and the two-player variant works surprisingly well, making it a good game to share with my wife. Hard-core gamers, as well as people who’ve never played a “German” game before, all loved the game when I introduced it; and I haven’t met anyone who has disliked it yet. It’s simple, quick, and fun; but with a great deal of strategy. Gunter Cornett is an underrated designer, and with games such as this and Kahuna under his belt, he has great reason to be proud. If you like trick-taking games, this is one of the best; I highly recommend it.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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