Designer: Jacques Zeimet
Artist: Rolf Vogt
Publisher: Drei Magier
Once in a while, a silly little card game comes along that makes you smile and wonder why such a game works to begin with. The premise is simple and the entire game is centered around bluffing – pure bluffing and nothing else, and it works. In 2021, this type of micro game is no longer groundbreaking as we have proof in Love Letter, Coup, Resistance, Skull and Roses, etc. that it works. People will enjoy these games so long as the crowd and attitude matches the lightheartedness of the game.
Cockroach Poker has been around the block for many years and probably precedes Love Letter (yep, by one year. Love Letter according to BoardGameGeek came out in 2013). The game is produced by Drei Magier, a German game company that specializes in kids games with superb production values. In this particular instance, the game just comes in a very small box that fits the deck of cards nicely. No wasted space, no unwanted materials. Perfect. In the game are 7 different animal types, 9 cards each. These are animals that are usually looked down upon with disgust, or fear: rats, cockroaches, bats, scorpion, stink bugs, flies and toads. Each card is illustrated with a cartoonish drawing of the animal and every drawing is unique. I’d say overall, the illustrations match the game’s silliness pretty well.
The game starts with each player dealt a hand of cards and then one player slides a card face down to someone of his or her choosing, while describing the animal in question. This can be either the truth or a bold face lie. The recipient of the card can either accept the card as the truth or by calling the first player a liar. In either case, the card is flipped over and resolved. If the recipient’s judgement is accurate, the initial player gets the animal card as a penalty. Conversely if the recipient is wrong, then they will have to take the card. All penalty cards are placed face up on display for all to see so that everyone knows who is collecting what. This is important because the game is done when a person collects 4 cards of a particular type of animal. Yes, the game has one loser and multiple winners.
The fun usually begins if the recipient refuses the card and passes it along to another player of his or her choice. Before they do that, they take a peek at the card and slide it over to the third player, again stating the type of animal in the face down card. This can once again be the truth or lie. One can either amplify the lie set in motion by the first player, or start a new fib. This kicking the can down the road action can happen as many time as there are players, minus the initial player, before the card has to be resolved by the final player. Once the card is resolve, much chaos ensues and everyone gets a hearty laugh. It is often the case that every play decides to pass and the last player must decide whether the previous player lied or told the truth. This can be pretty funny if every one decides to tell the truth or lie collectively.
Now, lest you think there is no strategy to the game, then you are wrong because there clearly is – especially if you repeatedly play with the same group of people. You will not only discover subtle strategies based on what you have in your hand and what is on display, but also the tendencies for people to lie or speak the truth in a social setting. With these type of social deduction games, there is always an added layer or meta-gaming: just because someone mostly speaks the truth, will they be telling the truth the very next time? There is a temptation to analyze the play area and look at what cards one already has to determine whether to speak the truth or tell a lie. There is definitely an incentive to “plan ahead”. For example, if you know someone already has 3 bats in their lineup, do you force the bat directly to that person or pass it along to someone else to do the dirty work. For me, I am usually not too bothered and avoid over-analyze. I try to catch my opponent off guard by being somewhat inconsistent and random about my choice. After all, that is a strategy in itself. Honestly, the key is to have a good time, swiftly, without being bogged down by details.
The “Royal” version of Cockroach Poker comes with an additional hand of 7 royalty cards, one for each animal. These royal cards all feature the animal wearing a crown and is an additional category for which you can call upon. So for example, instead of calling a face down card a “bat”, one can call it a “royal”. There is a harsher penalty for the person who ends up having to take the Royal card: they will have to take an additional penalty animal card from the draw deck. There are two additional special cards: one that has no animals and is always “wrong” and another that is “wrong” for all animals except for royalty. We have never played those two special cards.
The game is what it is: A small deck of cards wrapped around by lots of laughs. It is a good filler for a medium sized social gathering. I actually like it over Coup because there are fewer rules. It is also easier than Love Letter but for me, Love Letter fills a different niche. I think the game that comes closest to Cockroach Poker is Skull and Roses. Since this is a game that can be played with kids, the theme for Skull and Roses is a bit dark, but both are fine games in the genre. The game also plays well with 3 though, the more the merrier. With 5, sometime the game can drag if one person decides to over-analyze.
6 years 10 months: This is the first pure bluffing game I have exposed my kid to. She has played many games, but not a bluffing one. Rat-a-tat-Cat sort of feels like a bluffing game, but definitely not as intense as this. I specifically wanted to see how she handles telling a lie in front of adult in gaming situations. Perhaps some parents might object to this, but telling white lies is an essential part of growing up and what better way than through gaming. So, as I expected, she really enjoyed the new experience and wanted more. It was fun to see her puzzled expressions from the start, and then seeing the light bulb turned on. It wasn’t as easy to catch her off guard until she is close to losing. Here, if she gets a caught with a card that puts her in a tight situation, her expressions will betray her as she has a hard time keeping it in. It’s funny because I think adults have a tell as well, but probably more subtle. In any case, I bet as she gets used to the winning and losing in Cockroach Poker, she will be able to bluff with a straighter face. After having played lots of games with numbers, tokens or math, it is good to shake things up a bit by including a social deduction game in the mix. I definitely recommend Cockroach Poker for this age group.