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[Review] Pepper

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Joined: 03/23/2011

In elementary school, I played Four Square all the time; it was something I was fairly good at, and it was simply rather addicting. We would play in front of my house, at school, anywhere where we could simply get four squares and any kind of ball that had a semblance of a bounce. Pepper (Out of the Box Publishing, 2005 - Mark Alan Osterhaus) is a small card game that uses Four Square as an inspiration to come up with a game in which players are simply trying to get rid of the ball.

The game does feel slightly like Four Square, but it's also a very unique card game with mechanics unlike none other that I've seen before. Memory is the key element, along with skillful card play. Games are quick and fast, with one mistake causing the fifteen minute game to end. Clever choices make this more than a simple "take that" game; it may take a bit to understand how to play well, but a good play can be very satisfying. I quite enjoy it.

A deck of cards, with five suits (purple, green, yellow, blue, and orange) - each made up of numbers "1" through "5" (twice), and a blue and orange "6", is shuffled together. Five cards are dealt face down to each player with the remainder removed from the game. The dealer then takes the first turn.

On their turn, a player is "throwing" the ball at another player - with the number on the card depicting the speed of the ball. To represent this, the player may place any card from their hand in front of another player. That player then has two choices.
- They can respond to the throw by placing another card in front of any other player (including the person who threw the ball to them). This is done by either playing a card of the same color, or a "faster" (higher numbered) ball. If a player cannot do this, they must take the second option.
- They can pick up all the cards in front of them and place them in their hand, then throw any card from their hand at any other player. (By "throw", I mean place in front of them, you literalists!)

Play continues with players attempting to get down to only one card in their hand. When a player is able to throw the last card in their hand, AND the player they throw it to cannot respond, then they win the game. Otherwise, they must simply wait until the ball is thrown to them again to get another chance.

Some comments on the gameā€¦

1.) Components: Pepper is being produced in a small tin can with a lid (as many of the OOTB games are this year), which I've really fallen in love with - I hope more companies follow this route. The cards themselves are of decent quality, showing balls moving at various speeds to match the number on the card. Other than that, I can only slightly criticize the fact that there's no real way to distinguish between the colors for color blind folk. Still, it's a nice little package for the very inexpensive price.

2.) Rules: The rules are rather handy - formatted nicely, because while they are extremely short, they make mention of the different basic strategies and tips for new players. The rules are some of the easiest I've come across, but the implementation of them isn't the easiest thing I've ever explained, and more than one person has looked at me with a "huh?" plastered across their face as I've explained the game.

3.) Speed and Memory: Still, once the game is understood, players start throwing cards on the table, and the simulation of the ball bouncing around begins. Playing quickly is more thematic, but players will suddenly stop and wonder just what cards everyone has. After a few minutes of play, you MIGHT be able to know where all the cards are; but since players don't know exactly what cards from the deck are in play, and a person can hold a card as long as they want, there is no perfect information. Still, it's rather obvious that having a good memory counts for a good bit when playing the game. When throwing your last card, it's important to know who can't block it.

4.) Tactics: Knowing when to throw a card is critical, and sometimes it's good just to voluntarily pick up the cards in front of you, to avoid having to throw away a good card. Obviously, it's a good idea to keep your highest card until the end, then get rid of it - but should you ever throw it early, just to avoid having to pick up all the cards? One problem that I often have with games that allow players to choose their targets is that one person tends to get picked on in many groups. In Pepper, however, that's a good thing, because a player who has balls thrown at him has the chance to win more quickly. Conversely, if everyone avoids throwing a ball to one person, they will find themselves helping everyone else.

5.) Fun Factor: The game is very interesting, as you constantly throw balls, pick up cards, and try to get rid of them all. Players are watching the cards as they cycle throughout the player's hands; because if you throw the wrong card at the wrong time, you can easily set up the opponent to win. This keeps the game interesting, as players are playing cards quickly; but there's a tense atmosphere (not too tense, mind you). The game might contain a bit too much memory element for some; but I found it quite fun, and its speed was certainly a point in its favor.

Pepper is an unusual, fun game in a small package. It looks really good in its small tin case; and while gameplay is a bit more involved than most OOTB games, it's still simple and easy and rewards good memory and clever card-play. I'm not sure I'll ever play Four Square again, unless I teach it to my own children. But I'll be playing Pepper for many years to come.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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