Pumafiosi aka Hennen Rennen

Designer: Reiner Knizia

Artist: Paul K. Halkyon

Publisher: Bitewing Games

That sure looks like a shady bunch to me! (Photo credits: Nick Murray@BGG)

After scouring the BoardGameGeek website to look at Knizia designed games, hoping to find more hidden gems, I actually discovered that the Maestro has another family of games that share a common mechanism that escaped my attention. This is not new seeing that the Lost Cities/Keltis core mechanism spawned at least a dozen games. Thanks to the timely publication of Pumafiosi (aka Hennen Rennen) and also Hot Leads, the latter being a brand new game from Knizia, I found at least 3 games that uses a common deck of cards to generate turn order for actions. There are probably more in this series and perhaps Knizia fans can point them out to me.

Besides Pumafiosi and Hot Leads, the other sibling I can find in this genre is an earlier title called Drahtseilakt which was published in 1999. Most of us probably know this game as Relationship Tightrope, Yin Yang, Zen Master or Odd Socks. Amazingly, I don’t think Drahtseilakt is that popular and yet, the game is widely published in many countries and in a variety of languages. The game itself is language independent though. I have previously reviewed Odd Socks (a Japanese retheme) so won’t speak of it here. But, the common mechanism that links these three games together is the use of a deck of cards to generate actions, or determine turn order.

The deck of cards is as simple as they come, where each unique card has an increasing numerical value. In the case of Pumafiosi, the deck values range from 1-55. Each round, players are dealt 11 cards, of which 3 are at hand and the rest form the draw deck. Each turn, players play one card and replenish with another. The game lasts for 10 turns, so one card will be left unplayed. Now each turn, starting from one player, a card is played and subsequent players will do the same in succession. The player who played a card value that comes in second – yes second, will be declared the “winner” and allowed to place their card on the main board, marking it with a player token. The main board contains a row of 8 slots for cards. So, that usually means 8 of the 10 cards each round will fill the row. Each slot has a pre-printed victory point value attached to it that will earned at the end of each round. In Pumafiosi, the values range from a high of 10 points and a low of 1 point (with values 4 and 9 omitted). In the original Hennen Rennen, the point values are a little looser and more forgiving. The winner of each turn can place their card in any slot they choose. Each slot can take only one card and if you choose a slot that is occupied, it will have to be of a lower value than your card so that it is displaced. The displaced card will then shift one slot down and if it is again occupied, you then determine the lower value card that will be bumped down one more rung. For each slot that your card gets bumped, the player will be assigned one penalty point. In this way, all cards are realigned according to their comparative values until everything is sorted. If your card gets bumped from the lowest slot, they will end up earning -3 points. This penalty slot can hold an infinite number of cards. That’s it.

The round ends after 10 turns and points are scored for the victory points in each slot plus any remaining chips at hand after all the penalty points are accounted for.

Pumafiosi is pretty much classic Knizia all over. I mean to the degree that the rules are simple, the actions chosen and the downstream implications are not….. or so it seems. Even after half a dozen games, I don’t know exactly know if the game is truly simple or that I am too simple to see beyond the obvious. Take for example the initial card play to select a “winner” for placement. Getting to place a card on the board is not always a good thing. Low numbered cards are not good, as they will get repeatedly bumped down if you place it too high and eventually end up in the -3 VP slot. That’s bad. Yet, I presume that late in the game, if there are open slots, then a low value card can potentially earn a surprise slot and score points if strategically placed. The problem is, I can see that possibility, but don’t know if is possible, given how the game is structured. I haven’t yet encountered such a scenario where I could easily create open slots late in the game because it just doesn’t make sense for other players to leave high-value slots open. The game hinges upon individual valuations of any card to be placed on the board. Technically, if everyone values it as it should, then the normal distribution holds and there won’t be many chances of shifting cards around to trigger negative points from the redistribution. That’s been most of the cases I have played. But it is also possible to introduce some chaos and disrupt placement by intentionally placing cards out of order, but the question is, does it make sense and how often does it happen to allow creative maneuvers?

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the game comes from determining who “wins” the initial bidding round for card placement. Because cards are revealed in a sequential order, all players save for the first, will get partial information before playing their card. For example, If the first player plays a “6”, then playing a “7” you likely net you second place, and hence the winner. That is not a guaranteed though, because someone may play a lower numbered card such as a “5”. Moreover, as we have established, a low numbered card is not really a winner at all. So as you can see nothing is really fixed until it is fixed. This random element will for sure drive some players bonkers and I can see why.

So, while I enjoyed Pumafiosi, the sample size is too small for me to decide on its cleverness. I just haven’t explored enough to tell if the depth is superficial or bone marrow deep. To ramp things up, Bitewing’s Pumafiosi tweaked a few rules. I believe that the card value range for Hennen Rennen is much higher (1-100) and the board victory point values are less evenly distributed to create more tension. In addition, Pumafiosi included four special power, rule-breaking tokens – something that I normally avoid, but is worth a look since the game is light and can withstand a few add-ons.

As far as the central mechanism of the game goes, Pumafiosi actually stands apart from Hot Leads and Odd Socks slightly. The cards in Pumafiosi are revealed in turn order whereas in Odd Socks and Hot Leads, it is a simultaneous-reveal, blind bidding mechanism. That is to say, players all choose a card from their hand and reveal at the same time to determine the outcome. In the case of Odd Socks, only the lowest and highest number count. In Hot Leads, a separate set of cards are drafted for set collection based on the ascending order of the numerical values revealed during blind bidding. In the first few plays of Pumafiosi, we accidentally used the blind bidding mechanism and the game was very bland. So, there is a reason why Knizia specifically chose this sequential reveal mechanism for the game!

While each of these three games have a special flavor, all of them determine turn order action selection using a simple deck of cards with a different range of values. But, there is a way to make the game less luck-dependent. The deck of card ranges from 1-55. You can trim the deck size to fit player counts so that all cards are distributed. That means 1-33 cards are used for a 3 player game. In this way, one can look at the discard pile and estimate probabilities for remaining cards to come into play. In fact, there is nothing to suggest that you can’t play Pumafiosi with an open hand: reveal all cards on the table and you can see what is available at all times and rule out the impact of luck. Scary… but possible.

I enjoyed Pumafiosi, but not as much as I have Odd Socks… thus far. I admit in Odd Socks, the game doesn’t have much wriggle room to be clever and it doesn’t have to be – the game is billed as a light-hearted affair that is not meant to be cerebral. In Pumafiosi, I don’t know how serious or clever I need to be to win the game. I can see plenty of room to be clever, but can’t seem to get there. Perhaps, I can never get there. It is this conflict that makes it hard for me to judge where the game stands in the hierarchy of things. Be that as it may, the game deserves attention, especially if you are a Knizia fan. I was unable to easily obtain a copy of Bitewing’s Pumafiosi, and so had to refashion my game based on the Odd Socks theme (sorry Bitewing!). But I do encourage interested gamers to support companies that try to promote these delightful card games.

Initial impression: Good (to be rerated later)

Kids Corner

7 years 8 months: My kid plays the game just fine. Unlike me trying to figure out the game, she is happy just playing it without all the additional metagaming worries. I asked her what she thought about the game in comparison with Odd Socks and she did not seem to have any strong opinions and thought both games work fine. The rules of the game is light and I so, absorbing them is a problem. However, I do think it is hard to “play well” in Pumafiosi because of the above-mentioned difficulties in predicting which cards will come out. I haven’t yet explored Hot Leads and I think I will revisit this question once we get to play all three. However, she is definitely less enthused about victory point collection games.

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