oddball 1Designer:  Nigel Pyne
Artists: Lloyd Ash Pyne & Deb Pyne
Publisher: Maverick Muse
Players: 2
Playing Time: about 15 minutes

Complexity: light/fun
Random Interference: high
Components: B
Aesthetics: A
Overall: B

(For general information on my ratings systems, CLICK HERE.)

Short Version:
It’s supercharged “rock-paper-scissors” on steroids. And really fun.

Some Background Info You Probably Don’t Care About:
When I was at Orccon this last February, a fellow gamer and I had been chatting, and he was telling an anecdote about a card game he had played that was played entirely in-hand, no table surface required. I couldn’t remember the title later (if he had even told me), but the idea intrigued me, so I asked around on the BGG forums and got a pretty solid list of candidates. I still don’t know which of these (if any) was the one he and I had been discussing, but the one that stood out and seemed most interesting to me was this little gem called Oddball Äeronauts.

oddball2Play Summary:
Each of two players grabs a deck of about 30 cards and plays the game holding the entire deck in their hand, turned with the faces up but hidden from the opponent. (Actually, it’s a fairly natural hand position, given our modern tendency to be biologically fused with our mobile devices, ever staring at and tap-tap-tapping our palms…) The cards in each deck represent various, anthropomorphic animal sailors of the player’s cyber-steam airship fleet. The object is simple: destroy the opponent’s fleet and have at least one sailor of your own fleet left.

So the game proceeds in rounds. Each round represents one “volley” or maybe one “attack” in a series of abstracted maneuvers in this imaginary sky battle. You may look through your entire deck and know the order of all the cards yet to come, but you may only employ as many as the top 3 cards of your deck in a given round. You and your opponent each declare an action, whether “sailing,” “guns,” or “boarding,” while secretly deciding whether you will commit 1, 2, or all 3 of your available cards. When ready, you and your opponent flash the corresponding number of fingers (very much in a “rock-paper-scissors” type of gesture), and then reveal the cards you’ve committed.

oddball 3Each sailor or individual faction has skill levels for each of the three types of actions. The sailor on the top of the deck (leading the maneuver) uses the larger (in terms of font size) number for the declared action; sailors in the second and third positions add in their support value for that action (the smaller font number). My total versus your total; higher total wins the action. Both players lose any/all cards that were committed to the action, and if the results were tied, then that’s that, and a new round begins. All lost cards are flipped “face down” (respective to their owner) and relegated to the bottom of the deck.  Meanwhile, if there is a decided winner of the action, the victory will yield a +2 net advantage in card count. This comes from either (a) the winner “recovering” 2 cards (by flipping previously lost cards at the back of the deck and adding them back into circulation), (b) the loser discarding 2 additional cards, or (c) the winner recovering 1 and the loser discarding 1.

Play proceeds in this way, round after round, until one player is reduced, by attrition, to zero active cards. The only other elements of consideration are the “first player” token, which is held by the most recent victor and mandates that they declare their action first (an extremely minimal disadvantage), and “tricks,” which are essentially special powers and self-explanatory rule-breaks that certain cards offer. A whole game will be over in about 15 minutes, but you’ll probably play it two or three times, with someone demanding a rematch.

What Doesn’t Work So Much for Me:

  • The rulebook. I found the rulebook to be a little bit ambiguous. It was difficult at first for me to make sense of exactly how the players were holding their cards and what we were supposed to be looking at. I found a play-through video on YouTube, which did help a little bit, but unfortunately, the video was based on an earlier, preview version of the game, so a few rules had been changed since it was made. My wife and I have had to reason our way through a number of situations which could have been articulated better in the rulebook. And believe me: I completely respect the need to keep the rulebook small and costs low, but Maverick Muse has put a lot of energy (and rulebook space) into game-world lore. Lore can be very fun, but it shouldn’t be there at the expense of thorough explanations of how to play.

    oddball 4

    Two full pages of rulebook with a lot of “lore” but not a lot of “rules.”

  • Limited choices. The degree of decision-making involved on a given turn is very limited. At first, it seems like there’s a lot to think about, but there really isn’t. During our first few sessions, I was at a loss over which actions to choose, how many cards to commit, and the relative impacts of “recovering” versus “losing” cards. But I worked out the math. I literally did. Longhand. And my end conclusion is that the game is easily optimized, and there’s utterly no reason to choose anything other than the strongest maneuver, or to simply bow out of the round completely. Once you know the basic odds, all you can do is play them and then hope you don’t get hosed by the shuffle. There isn’t much opportunity for cunning. Granted: this is a preferential issue, not a problem, but you should know about it nonetheless, so you can weigh it against your own preferences.
  • Discernment. What I mean by this is it’s hard to see which cards belong to which faction. The tiny, printed designation of “Pendragaon” or “Pirate” or what-have-you are your most reliable tools, but they don’t stand out. There are different symbols for each faction, but the symbols are so ridiculously similar that they might as well be the same. There are different color card-backings, but the palette is very muted, and the selected colors are difficult to distinguish by those of us who are color-deficient.

What Really Works for Me:

  • Artwork. Color-scheme aside, the artwork is beautiful and highly imaginative. The character set is very diverse and creative, and I would go as far as to say that the artwork alone gives the player a rich sense of the fantasy setting. This could have done the job that the lore is trying to provide.
  • Theme. I love the “airship combat” motif. Not only did it stand out as the most interesting of the various “no-surface” games I was looking at, but it’s perfectly suited to the players’ physical positions. You’re actually holding the game “in the air” (in your hand) the entire time. The kid in me feels compelled to fly the deck of cards around the room in figure-8’s, making buzzing and cannon-fire noises with my mouth.
  • Fun. What can I say? This isn’t really a concrete, quantifiable, scientific measurement of anything, but it’s true. The game is fun. As reviewers and game connoisseurs, we should be careful of overly-atomizing a game into lists of statistics and grading criteria (like my list above), lest we lose sight of the core question we should ask of a game: Is it fun? And Oddball Äeronauts is.

Final Remarks:
So as you can see from my summary stats above, I give this game a “B.” The random interference is a little bit high for me, a fact which is underscored by the limited range of choices the players actually have to make. Meanwhile, the deficiencies in the rulebook and the discernment issues I have regarding the card factions are more than just preferential issues—they can impede the flow of the game.

Nevertheless, while I bought this game thinking I’d play it with my sons, it’s actually my wife who’s played this most often. We’ve gotten in several sessions by now, and we’ve enjoyed them all. Oddball Äeronauts is compact and portable (small box), and it’s a perfect little game when you want to play something but are stuck in line waiting, or you’re just wanting something light-weight because you’re too lazy to get off the couch or out of bed.  The base set plays two players exactly; the “sequel” can be added as an expansion for as many as four players.  Certainly it’s a great debut project from Maverick Muse, and I do look forward to other titles from them, whether within this same fantasy setting or not.

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