BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Game Review #008: Pickomino

Pickomino by Reiner Knizia, published in English by Rio Grande Games, is a simple and fast family dice game for 2–7 players, aged 8 and up. The players take turns to roll the dice to match the values on the 16 tiles and then stack the tiles they collect. Each tile is worth 1, 2, 3 or 4 worms, and the player with the most worms when all the available tiles have been taken is the winner!

Pickomino was one of the games I received at Christmas, and got by the far the most table-time with my family over the festive season. It’s fair to say it was a real hit with us, and although it is a game that seems at first glance to be as wholly random as the roll of a dice it does have a few hidden depths. The luckiest player will always win of course, but everyone has the ability to make a little of their own luck; and this is a game that is — as we often observed! — never over till its over.

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The game comprises 8 special dice and 16 well-made, heavy-duty tiles. The box is relatively compact, but this is a game crying out for the inclusion of a small drawstring bag that would make the game genuinely portable. Given its components and gameplay Pickomino really is a ‘play anywhere’ experience.

The conceit of the game is that the players are chickens (what else?) trying to get their hands (errr… feet?) on the tasty worms on the ‘grill’ (this is the what the layout of tiles is called). The play experience is greatly enhanced by the quirky illustrations by the well-known game illustrator Doris Matthäus; the little red worms on the dice and tiles are a lot of fun.

Bits & pieces

The wooden dice, which are regular six-sided dice but for the replacement of the ‘6’ with a worm, are perfectly serviceable, although even after just a few plays the white lacquer did start to get a little grubby. This means that the more fastidious gamer might prefer to use their favourite dice cup from another game to keep the dice pristine a little longer.

The tiles are made of a heavy bakelite-like material and have a great tactile quality, and the numerals and illustrations are engraved rather than simply printed onto a flat tile. Pickomino is a great example of how quality components can make all the difference to the ‘feel’ of a game. The publishers could have simply provided cardboard tiles here, but the game would have lost a great deal of its pleasure.

Playin’ chicken

Pickomino’s gameplay is straightforward. The 16 tiles are laid out in a line (the ‘grill’) at the beginning of the game; each has a value from 21–36 and is worth 1–4 worms (the higher value tiles have more worms, as you might expect).

In your turn you begin by rolling all 8 dice, and must then set aside all dice of one value (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or ‘worm’). You then reroll your remaingin dice as many times as you choose or is possible, each time setting aside all dice of one value, although each time you do so you may only set aside dice of a value you have not previously chosen.

The aim is to achieve a total with your set aside dice that matches one of the available tiles. But there is a twist, since you must have set aside at least one worm to claim a tile at all (each worm fortunately adds a healthy 5 points to your total).

If you succeed, take the tile and place it in front of yourself. And if, in a later turn, you get another tile place that on top of your previously claimed tiles, making a little stack. Most often you will take new tiles from the grill, but if your roll exactly equals the value of the tile on top of an opponent’s stack you can grab it from them and put it on your own. Ouch!

But what happens when lady luck frowns rather than smiles? If after you roll you cannot set aside any more dice (since they all match values already set aside), or if you use up all 8 dice and do not make a total high enough to claim a tile, or if you end up with no worms (even if your total is high enough) you go ‘bust’ and must put the top tile from your stack back onto the grill and also turn over the highest value tile still there, which is then out of the game.

The game ends when there are no more face-up tiles on the grill, so going bust generally shortens the game. As the game goes on, and more of the low-value tiles are taken, the chance of going bust goes up and hence the end of the game can approach all-too quickly. And when it does, whoever has the most worms in their stack wins.

A worm in the hand…

You might think, at first glance, that there is not much ‘meat’ on Pickomino’s bones, and that a joyless exercise in dumb luck is all that it offers. However, there are enough choices and enough surprises to make the game an enjoyable, if unavoidably luck-driven, romp. It is inevitably true that some games will seem cruelly one-sided, but the same ‘dumb luck’ that allows this to happen can also allow for the most remarkable and stunning reversals of fortune.

There are enough tactical decisions to make each roll of the dice interesting — do I grab a worm early if I can, or take more points with other dice and hope to roll a worm later? — and the fact that the tile on the top of your own stack is vulnerable means that there is interest even when it is not your turn.

One possible strategy is to ‘go for broke’ at the beginning of the game when you have, quite literally, nothing to lose. The number of worms in the game is not huge, so grabbing one of the top-value tiles with 4 worms on it (and then keeping it!) can make all the difference, even if to do so means that you must delberately pass up the opportunity to take a lower value tile, push your luck, and run the risk of going bust. And if you can get one big tile then settling for a ‘cheap’ one next turn makes sense, since it protects the more valuable tile from being stolen and lost if you go bust in a later turn.

It is the balance of the game’s choices and probabilities that makes the game possible, and it is the detail of the design that make the consequence of them interesting. The need to get at least one worm, the fact that a worm is worth 5 points, the spread of values and the number of worms on the tiles, the ability to both steal from the other players and to 'protect’ your own stack; all these elements together make the game much more than it might otherwise appear to be.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

Something that interested me when I first read the rules was one rule that seemed, in game design terms at least, to be something of a hack. There is an exception to the instruction that tells the players to turn face-down the highest value tile on the grill when a player goes bust: If the tile you return to the grill itself becomes the highest value tile, it is not turned face-down and stays in play. This seemed a kludge; a hiccup in the game’s otherwise ‘glib mechanics’ (to borrow a phrase from a poet).

But it seemed I should not have doubted the wisdom of Dr Knizia, since this rule can make a huge difference in some games and can contribute to the possibility of those stunning reversals of fortune I mentioned. Later in the game, when fewer tiles remain on the grill and some have inevitably been turned over, the return to open play of a high-value tile can bolster the chances of any player returning from a poor run of luck. A high-value tile atop another player’s stack is at risk, but only with a direct strike. Once the tile is back on the grill then it can be claimed with a roll equal to or exceeding its total, and a shift in ownership of a tile with 3 or 4 worms can easily represent a game-winning swing in the players’ scores.

What’s not to like?

Pickomino delivers exactly what it promises. It’s fast, fun, family friendly and throws in some excellent design and satisfyingly well-made components for good measure. Oh yes, and worms. There really is something for everyone!

Pickomino (or in German Heckmeck) is a nice Game and we enjoy is very often during our Playing Sessions.

Its a nice Starter to get warm and ready for some more complicatet Games.

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