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Reviews - David & Goliath
by Heather Barnhorst

David & Goliath coverDavid & Goliath
Published by Playroom Entertainment
Designed by Reinhard Staupe
Components: 7" x 5" box, with rulebook (instructions in English, Spanish, French and German), 90 cards and card tray

I write this review Thanksgiving week looking, straight into December and Christmas – five weeks of merry-making, gift-giving and unadulterated family time with my extended loved ones. If you share this situation, the thought might (as it already does me) fill you with a vague sense of dread. That’s a lot of time within the company of – dare I say it – non-gamer kin, and not all of it can be crammed with eating, watching football and shopping; some of it has to be spent interacting directly with the relatives. The problem is, when I have time to kill I turn to my collection of games for entertainment. My family’s surfeit of Christmas spirit compels them to humor me, but I can only try their patience so far. The quandary is to find a game that challenges me, yet is user-friendly enough not to scare the folks away.

The goal then is to find games that appeal to both gamers and our non-gamer brethren. It isn’t an insurmountable problem but it can pose difficulties when you go looking for them on the shelves of your average game store. Not impossible, though, if you glean carefully.

Scanning the shelves
A digression here: Mass market games seem to share certain characteristics including superlative aesthetics, simple rules, a theme such as “word games,” and a certain amount of randomness. Many gamers profess to despise randomness and prefer games with as little of the element of luck as possible. Therein shows a gamer’s true skill. Yet, it is this randomness, this sense of newness, of waiting on the turn of a card or a new hand that might appeal most to non-gamers.

Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, Quiddler and Once Upon a Time, among others, all fill this niche of crossover games that can be found on many game store shelves, and now David & Goliath joins the noble pantheon of fun-yet-challenging games that can be enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike. David & Goliath, published by Playroom Entertainment, the makers of Killer Bunnies, is billed as the game “where size doesn’t matter.” Of course, as players soon discover, size does matter, most emphatically. David & Goliath, first released by Berliner Spielkarten in 1998, was honored as a Spiel des Jahres nominee that same year. In 2000, it was listed as a Games 100 winner. Berliner Spielkarten was bought by another company and David & Goliath never saw a reprint nor did it find distribution in the US even after it became popular in Germany. Playroom Entertainment introduced the game at GenCon Indy this year and released the game here in the States in the third quarter of 2004.

Size matters
The rules are so simple that I suspect this review contains more verbiage than the rulebook. If you have played other trick-taking games such as Spades or Hearts you will find that you have an almost immediate and intuitive grasp of the game mechanics. Until the moment when you are shocked to find that things aren’t quite as straightforward as you thought. There’s a “gotcha” in David & Goliath, and it actually improves on classic trick-taking games.

The 90 cards are divided between five colored suits (red, green, blue, yellow, and purple) and numbered from “1” to “18.” Cards are removed from play depending on the number of players so that a three-player game will use cards 1-9 in each suit while a six-player game will utilize all the cards in each suit. In practical terms, this means that players will always hold 15-card hands no matter how many players participate in the game. The player who sits to the left of the dealer begins play by laying down any card of his choice. The other players must follow the color played unless they have no cards in that color, then they may play any card of their choosing. Each player plays one card. Now here comes the wrinkle: the lowest card played wins the highest card laid down while the highest card played wins all the other cards. If a player lays down a “2” and then another player lays down a “2” it is the latter “2” that is counted as the lowest card. The same rule applies to determining high card. The player who takes the trick, leads the next card.

For example: Player A lays down a blue “2,” Player B lays down a blue “7,” Player C finds that he has no blue cards so he lays down a yellow “2” and Player D lays down a blue “12.” It is the yellow “2” that grabs the blue “12” for Player C. Player D takes the blue “2,” the blue “7” and the yellow “2.” Player D leads with a yellow “3” to get play going again.

All cards are played in turn and the round is over when all players have played their cards. Lather, rinse, repeat for the number of players in the game – a three-player game will have three rounds while a six-player game will run six rounds.

The second twist reveals itself during the scoring phase of the round. If a player has two or less cards in a color, he may count them at face value so that if he took the “9” and the “7” of blue and those are the only cards he took in the blue suit, then he receives 16 points from the blue suit. If a player takes three or more cards in a color, then he counts them as one point each. So, if the player took a “9,” a “7” and a “4” he receives three points. As you can see, this game is all about size.

The trick to the taking
Randomness within the game comes into play with the hand you are dealt and which players sit on either side of you. I have to confess that I still have a hard time looking at my hand and knowing how to play the round – will I be a “David” or will I go for a “Goliath” maneuver? I find that players usually have to combine both attitudes in every round. I’m rarely able to take so few tricks that I can keep myself under three cards in each color. Who sits to your right and left can determine much of your strategy. If the player to your left turns out to be a David and a “lead-meister,” you can find yourself controlling where many of the cards fall.

A three-player session is a pleasant game but once you hit the four to six-player games, the variations can become mindboggling. It’s easy enough to find yourself out of certain colors early in a round which might give you control in terms of which cards fall to which players. I find that having the high card and the low card in the same suit can often be the kiss of death and that middling cards can be your friend if you time playing them correctly. Maneuvering when to gain the lead and who you pass it off to can be key to your card collecting. There tends to be a constant calculation going on as you figure out if I want to take a high card and get points for myself or throw an additional card at another player so that their card values are devalued to “1” each. If my card values in a certain color are low enough, I might not mind if they suddenly all become “1’s”. More than any other trick-taking game that I know of, I find that I have to weigh the benefits/negatives to me of taking good cards versus the benefit/negatives to other players in the cards they take. I am often willing to take a small hurt in order to give a bigger hurt to an opponent.

I am itching to sit down for some variant rules for a partner version of David & Goliath.

You might find that your FLGS has David & Goliath on its shelves already and you never noticed the game. The box art is cartoonish in nature but not terribly evocative. The box is an odd size that doesn’t match the dimensions of other boxed traditional card games (neither Munchkin nor Grave Robbers from Outer Space size) and the card art is rather uninspired. Each card shows a male figure standing with fists raised as if for a fight. The “2” is obviously David as a young boy while the “18” shows Goliath in his gigantic splendor. The idea is quite clever and the art is of a professional level but it didn’t tickle my eyes. The card backs are an ugly dark mustard color – all in all more on par with Uno style bold colors and numbering than the gorgeous card art that we see in Quiddler or Five Crowns. This game is going to have to rely on consumer sneezes (contagious spread) to gain a following.

So let me sneeze at you a bit with my Christmas game cold. If you are looking for a great game that you can enjoy with all your friends and kin, gamer or non-gamer, look no further. David & Goliath can become a part of your holiday tradition for many years to come. Just don’t forget to take it out at other parts of the year as well.

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