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[Review] Pecking Order

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I'm always glad to see a new publisher of board games to burst on the scene, especially when they look exciting and interesting, as the games of Immortal Eyes Games do. Actually, Immortal Eyes isn't new but is a subsidiary of Winning Moves - a company that puts out more mainstream games. Pecking Order (Immortal Eyes Games, 2006 - Richard Garfield), one of the first two games produced by Immortal Eyes, isn't quite so mainstream. In fact, isn't that the designer of the infamous Magic the Gathering on the cover? That alone had me intrigued (although Mr. Garfield's other new game, Rocketville, is almost universally derided).

I've played Pecking Order several times and have mixed feelings on it. It is about as far away from the complexity of Magic the Gathering that Mr. Garfield can get - simply being a game in which players place thirteen cards on the table. It's very simple and has a bit of fun, but I almost feel that the game is over before it begins. I've seen people compare this to Lost Cities and other games of that type, but I just don't see it. The components are interesting (although overpriced), and gameplay is interesting - I'll certainly hang onto my copy. But I just am left with a slightly empty feeling after games, which will keep me from playing it too often.

Each player is given a stack of cards, showing a picture of a bird on twelve of them, along with corresponding numbers from "1" to "12". The thirteenth card for both players is a jaguar card with no number. Players shuffle their cards and form a draw pile in front of them, while setting up a board in between them - showing eleven perches, numbered "1" through "10" (there are two "8"s). One player goes first, and then play alternates between the players for the remainder of the game.

On a player's turn, they draw the top card from their stack and place it face down on their side of the table - next to one of the eleven perches. If the perch already contains a bird of the other player, then the bird that is already residing there is turned face up. This initiates a "challenge", in which the two numbers are compared by the "attacker" (player laying down the second bird). The attacker (honestly!) announces which bird wins - higher number wins; attacker wins ties. The losing card is removed from the game, and no matter if the attacker wins or loses, his card is not revealed.

If the Jaguar is in a challenge, whether as the attacker or defender, both cards are discarded. Also, there are three special perches on the board.
- Normally, the defender loses ties. If they control the "1" perch, however, they now win ties.
- When a player takes control of the "3" perch (the Vision Roof), they may look at one face down card in play by their opponent.
- Each of the "8" perches is worth eight points, but together they are worth nineteen points.
The game continues until players have played all their cards, and then each player scores the total sum of all the perches they control with the higher sum winning the game for that player!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: First of all, I think the artwork of the birds on each card (and the jaguar) is really fantastic; and the board itself, a long board with different types of perches shown on each side, is a work of art. The cards are thick and quite durable, although I can't figure out why they didn't print the cards with two different type or color backs, making it easier to sort them. Everything fits in a thin box about the size of a hardback book, although you might be surprised at how the board and cards tend to rattle around in the mostly air box.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is three fully-colored pages with illustrations and examples - all well formatted. It is a breeze to understand, play, and teach the game; and without fail, people ask me, "Is that all?" after I take the minute to explain the game that it requires. Pecking Order is a game that is good for even younger ages (8+), mostly because the game is so simple to learn.

3.) Unique: My first thoughts on reading the rules were that the game had some really unique and interesting ideas. Having only the defender reveal their card was a unique twist on the "Stratego"-like play of the cards. In fact, the game itself plays like a Stratego card game - albeit shorter and simpler. Because the game is so short, it also discourages cheating from players who might want to lie about which card won, since players will easily figure out if they were deceptive in only a few minutes.

4.) Jaguar: The "bomb" of the game - it's an interesting card, and players often attempt to kill the "12" of the other player with it. I don't find it to be as useful of a defensive card, since the other player may never attack it, and it's a bit annoying to have to reveal it at the end of the game for no points, since the Jaguar cannot "control" a perch. The jaguar is an interesting card, but it seems like there should be a bit more.

5.) Short: This is one short game! Players only play thirteen cards and can do so at a very quick clip, ending games in less than ten minutes. Normally I would laud this as a good feature of the game - and indeed it is - to a degree. Games this short can occasionally leave a player with an unsatisfied feel - and for me, Pecking Order often did just that. Maybe there is a definite strategy in the design by only using thirteen cards , but it just didn't offer enough depth for me.

6.) Fun Factor: The game's short length and "subtle" strategies are certainly obscured with the total randomness of the game. If you get your jaguar first, you must play it defensively; and drawing low cards when you need high can be rather annoying. Yes, I know that the game is one that generally consists of bluffing; but a player simply can't afford to miss out on the higher perches and win, so some of the game feels scripted. For comparison's sake, the game gave me the same feelings that Phoenix did but in a much shorter period of time.

So I suppose that my general impression of Pecking Order is slightly negative. It's a quick game with a unique and interesting mechanic, which is often a formula for a good game. And while some will argue with me about the "subtleties" of good strategic play, I would contend that the game is over before a player has a chance to find them. Beautiful artwork aside, Pecking Order is over before I feel it has a chance to begin. It's like the first chapter in an interesting book - great to read, but what happens next?

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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