Monday, February 14, 2011

Card Game Review - 500

I have more than a hundred games, and the reason that number isn't more like 400 or more is because I regularly donate heaping piles of games to churches and youth groups and homeless people who use them as blankets. I have set collection games and war games and miniatures games and dungeon games. I have bidding games and party games and sex games (well, OK, just the one, and we keep it in the dresser in the bedroom). And yet, with this cornucopia of games, I end up playing 500.

It's not a game with lots of components - 500 is played with a regular deck of cards, after you remove all the 2s and 3s. You can't play it solo, either - you need exactly four people. Which, coincidentally, is exactly how many people live in my house (also a good number if I ever need to plan a bank heist, except my son would make a horrible getaway driver). It doesn't even come with everything you need to play, because you have to keep score, and it has this horrible scoring system where you can score anywhere from 40 to 500 points in one round (except in this case, instead of calling it a 'round,' it's called a 'hand.')

So why do I play a lot of 500? You would think I would be gravitating toward Warhammer Quest or Arkham Horror or 7 Wonders, or any of the ever-growing pile of games with expensive graphics and cool plastic pieces and oversized cards with pictures of half-naked girls. And while any of those would be my first pick, I don't live with four people just like myself (a blessing, really, because we would be constantly plunging the toilet, and we would never have any beer). I live with a wife and a daughter and a son, and while it can be like pulling teeth to get everyone around the table for a game of Irondale, we can all agree to play 500.

I may sound a little like I'm complaining, and that would probably be due to the fact that I am. I want to play Rush N Crush and Descent and Dominion. But my wife is a freaking shark at 500, and my daughter loves it (though she is an unrepentant table-talker), and my son... well, my son only wants to play poker, because he thinks he's Armadillo Slim and he's going to retire to Cabo on his gambling winnings. But we rope him into playing with us, and just tell him to suck it up, it will all be over in half an hour.

I don't know why I like 500 as much as I do. It's a trick-taking game, which means it's like a dozen other card games, and I suck at all of them (that may be another reason people want to play). I can never figure out if I should play the king of spades or the four of diamonds, because I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be leading my partner or throwing off trump or setting a heart with a backgammon. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what all those things mean. I'm pretty sure that last one was from a different game.

The rules to 500 are ridiculously easy to explain, but the strategy and card-counting that goes into playing the game makes my head swim. How a game can be this easy and still so freaking complicated boggles the mind. My wife's dad plays 500 nearly every day, and he's so good at it, sometimes I would swear he's got a camera behind my chair. He and my mother-in-law will have company over all the time just to play cards, and they only ever play 500.

I can't even begin to wrap my head around playing the same game every day, even if it is over in half an hour. I like to bounce from game to game like a pinball coming off a Ritalin dependency. I show up at my weekend group with a half dozen games, hoping we can get in most of them before we all have to go back to our families. I can't imagine inviting someone over to play the same game I've been playing since I was ten years old.

But it turns out, this is what lots of normal people do. Not all normal people, mind you, but nearly everyone knows how to play at least one card game, and lots of people play a bunch of them. A deck of cards is about the most accessible game component known to man, outside using your hands for rock-scissors-paper, and even your dull-witted Aunt Hetty can play gin rummy, hearts, or if she's been hitting the sauce again, 52 Pick Up.

Happily, I really enjoy playing 500. I learn more about it every time I play, and I'm getting pretty good at counting how many trump are out and keeping track of what suit my partner wants me to lead. I find it fascinating that a game with so little can do so much, and entertain so thoroughly. The other night, I bid a ten no-trick, which is nearly impossible to achieve unless you're holding a hand of cards that's nearly miraculous. By the time the last card hit the table, my heart was about to leap out of my chest - but I pulled it off, and I'm going to be crowing about that one for a long time.

It's funny to me that I can enjoy a game with no art, no playtesting credits, and where I have to keep track of the score with pen and paper because it doesn't even have a scoring track. But 500 is full of bluffs and misleads, planning and smart plays, and while luck will go a long ways, a good player can win with a bad hand while a bad player loses with a good hand. With these credentials, 500 is a sure-fire winner. Add that to the fact that I can get everyone to play while we're waiting for dinner to finish cooking, and it's going to hit the table on a pretty regular basis. A lot more regular than Nexus Ops, I can tell you that.


4 players

Strategy and tactical plays
Fast and easy to learn
Incredible depth
An element of luck that you can beat if you know what you're doing
People will play it with me
Really, really affordable

No art to speak of
No score track
No fancy box or storage tray or plastic bits
Really, just a deck of cards

If you want to play 500, go online and look up the rules. Then go to Target and buy a deck of cards. If you need a link for that, then it's time for you to get a hobby that makes you go outside every now and then.


Crank Crank Revolution said...

I played this non-stop in high school, and then again after I graduated from college (I couldn't sell it to the folks at my alma mater). We had about 10 people to play in rotating teams, but alas that has dwindled down to a never-able-to-get-together four, so it's been years.

However, I do know that there are a few different varieties--playing with different number of cards, for example--as was evidenced by a disastrous attempt to pick up a game whilst on vacation.

Anonymous said...

what are the ladies in the photo playing? There are only 3 of them?

Nice review/rant


Matt Drake said...

They're playing 500, but the fourth player had to go to the bathroom. While that player was gone, the other players are looking at her cards and stealing the good ones.