Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Paul Halkyon
Publisher: Bitewing Games
Hot Lead is the third game by Reiner Knizia that uses a same card selection mechanism which I have repurposed under a single theme for a DIY project because it uses the same deck of cards. I have previously written my thoughts on Odd Socks and Pumafiosi. Both games are decent reimplementations of much older Knizia designs that came out years back. Hot Lead on the other hand, is a brand new game by Knizia and published by Bitewing Games. This is pretty typical of Knizia, of course. He publishes simple games – often times, with just a deck of cards and some tokens – which leaves him with plenty of room to introduce new twists to the core mechanism and tweak scoring strategies. Even though all three games share a same deck of cards to determine the order of selection, I’d argue that Hot Lead is the simplest and lacks the more complex decision space that the other two has.
I have previously described the core card play mechanism in Odd Socks. In brief, there is a deck of cards numbered 1-55. Each player is dealt a hand of 11 cards and the rest are put away. The game lasts for 10 rounds where each round, players will select and simultaneously reveal a single card. In Hot Lead, these cards are known as investigator cards and depending on rank of the cards, players get to pick up a separate set of evidence cards which will score points at the end of the game. Now, a number of evidence cards are revealed from the draw deck depending on the number of players and are placed in a row beginning from the draw pile. Players then collect evidence cards based on the descending value of the investigator cards played, with the player playing the highest value card picking up the evidence card closest to the draw pile and continuing to do so in descending order until all players pick up a card. The round ends and all played investigator cards are discarded and a fresh set of evidence cards are laid out. This motion is rinsed and repeated for 10 rounds.
The evidence deck contains five suits of cards, with each card showing a value between 1-5 in duplicates. There is an additional “0” value card for each suit. In total, that means each suit contains 11 cards. The goal of this game is basically performing set collection to score points. At the end of 10 rounds of play, numerical values from all the cards are added up. In addition, 10 bonus points is given to all players having at least 1 card from each suit and for each suit having at least 3 cards. There is one kicker to the scoring rules: If at any point you collect the 4th card of any one suit, you have to discard the entire suit. This is pretty devastating, actually. I believe you pretty much drop out for the race for first place because losing 4 out of the 10 cards is pretty debilitating.
That’s pretty much it. The game is lightning fast and is over within 15 minutes. There are advanced rules included in the game play and I think should be part of standard play. They aren’t difficult to include. The first are the back alley cards which when revealed, are included in the same position to the evidence cards. These back alley cards come in two flavors: wild cards which contribute to set collection and the nefarious dead-end cards which are score you negative points. I love the dead end cards as it can really messes you up as they go from -1 to -7 points. You end up debating whether it is worthwhile to collect the evidence card which is paired with the dead end card. It’s not a brain burning decision, but still elicits a little moaning and groaning when it come out.
The other advance rule are these scoring chips which will net you 5 bonus points for the first person to collect a set of 2 cards for each suit. I personally find this variant to be unnecessary and doesn’t really contribute much to game play, but just adds yet another category of scoring that feels opaque in terms of strategy.
So, what are the strengths for Hot Lead? For starters, it is the lightest and easiest among the three games in the series to grok. It is also the fastest to play, at least for us, and doesn’t involve a whole lot of thinking. You choose a card which you think places you in the right hierarchy of ranking and hope for the best. Often times, it doesn’t match the outcome, but oh well, you get to do it again. This is a good game for younger kids. This, I think, will work well for a 5 year old, perhaps even a 4 year old exposed to the gaming environment. There is some tension in the game, which is good for kids and adults and teaches them how to do set collection. The learning curve is also pretty shallow.
What about weaknesses? Well, the game is quite swingy and luck prone. For some reason, more so than Odd Socks and Pumafiosi. There are times you just want to be in the middle of the pack, but that is pretty much impossible to predict. The highest and lowest card, you can try and shoot for it, but again, because selection and reveal are simultaneous, you can never be totally sure unless you have a 1 or 55. The card range really should be scaled depending on players. For instance, for 3 players, only cards from 1-33 should be used so that all cards are dealt. This allows a modicum of planning if previously played cards are laid out on the table for all to see. To be honest, I am too lazy to map out the possibilities, but at least with all cards distributed, someone may want to put in the effort to figure out what is left in each hand and what is a safe play. Beyond that, the card play really is pretty tough to predict. You can scout around the table to figure out who wants what for set collection, but again, the game is too light for me to bother. Basically pick a card, flip it over and hope for the best.
The only minor quibble I really have is with the theme. I said this card game is suitable with kids, but honestly, the topic isn’t really that appealing to kids, at least I don’t think so. The anthropomorphic animals are fine, but the theme is a little bit more adult-oriented than I would like. Crime and guns really doesn’t resonate with a 5 year old. To be fair, I am making these comments playing a DIY copy of the game centered around socks, not exactly an appealing theme either.
Hot Lead is a pretty decent, light card game that I can easily recommend to my casual gaming crowd and parents with kids who game. However, it won’t blow your socks away. This game will be a tougher sell to dedicated gamers and I have a sneaky feeling it will be overlooked by those who already have a healthy rotation of similar-length fillers in their gaming closet. However, this being a Knizia, it will get some eyeballs.
Initial impression: Average
7 years 9 months: Game is great and approachable. The learning curve is quite short and enjoys it. How much though, is unclear. We need to play all three games in the series side by side at some point. I do think that Hot Lead is a much better game for younger kids. Odd Socks isn’t easy especially with all the meta-thinking going on and you do need to look around the table to see which cards have been played to have a fighting chance. Pumafiosi is even more complicated and mind bending, so apples to oranges here. I’d really recommend this one if you have kids. Get Pumafiosi instead if you have a much older game group.