KatzenJammer Blues

Designed by Reiner Knizia
Published by GoldSieber
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

£6 ($15)
2-6 players
about 20 minutes

There is a body of opinion forming that I like everything that Reiner Knizia designs and dislike the games of Klaus Teuber. Two alliterative words to disprove the theory: Vegas and Vernissage. I think the truth is that, on average and much more frequently, Herr Knizia rings my bell in design approach, interesting systems and "feel" whereas Herr Teuber produces less frequently, sometimes with evident effort and with less success for me. I think it is a personal taste thing, and nothing more. All of which buys me some more time to praise another of Reiner's little games. Not because it is the greatest game of the year, or even a very good one, but it has some neat ideas, is a little game that I played, I liked and I still play which, these days, is all I ask. Considering the usual fate of these small games, that bravely swim ashore each Spring only to be savagely picked apart by the gannets of gaming, any game that avoids cries of "Burn it!" is doing well.

KatzenJammer Blues is a game about winning mice through performances by four piece bands of cats. Yes, I know, I could make these themes up and you'd be none the wiser. Each player is given six cards. These range in value from 1 to 5, plus jokers, in equal rarity. Phase one of the game is to turn over some cards from the pack, which players bid for using the cards in their hand. Bidding is simple enough: a single card is beaten by a single card of higher value, or any two cards, and so on; two different cards are beaten by two the same and so on. Jokers can be used in the bid, which are kept in front of you, but see below. All cards used in the auction are lost, so hopefully the cards you are bidding for will enable you to strengthen your hand, or do something useful in phase two.

Phase two is only relevant to the winner of the auction. He can play 'bands' of four similar cards (again using jokers if desired), scoring the number of mice equal to the card value. So laying four '3' cards will score you three mice. There is no limit to the bands you can play. As an additional option, you can lay a band composed only of jokers which are not kept in front of you, but they score nothing - this is a special discard option. Play proceeds like this, occasionally with everyone gaining new cards from the deck, until the last mouse victory point is taken. The emphasis then is that even if you have a pat band in hand, you need to win an auction eventually to lay it. This will, often, mean you have to use the band cards to bid, or work around them somehow. There is a nice balance, as the longer you stay out, you have a good chance of getting in as others will have weakened/reduced their hands and a bid of 'four different' is hard to contest. Balancing this is the feeling that you may as well be active and try and get a bid simply to keep the cards moving, and to deprive others of cards they clearly want.

The first of two key factor here, in addition to the difficulty in getting in and making a band, is that there are very few mice on offer. Chances are you will do very well to get ten and often many less. The twist, and what makes the game stand apart from most small game fare, is that the player (or players) with the most jokers used and in hand at game end loses five mice. This is a crippling number, offset only by making a band with four top '5' cards and then scrambling together as many more mice as you can. It seldom happens that a player who suffers this penalty wins, but it does and can happen and, in keeping with the spirit of the game, it will often be achieved by an aggressive player - one who has used his good cards for bidding and band melds, used his jokers rather than being caught with them unused, or has cleverly discarded them if he picked up too many. Combine this with the fact that there is no limit to your hand size, and you only need to win a bid once to play all your bands, and you have a number of interesting, interleaved systems at work.

These games have been paired in review because they have appeared within days of each other, yet display a similar theme - the notion that if you are not "in" the round, in these cases by winning the trick/auction, then you don't feature in the second element of the game. Generalising, with bad luck or poor skill, this means the game might be a little uneventful for some players. They can participate in every pre-round but, failing to win one, will not score any points or get to do much. The potential for routs and shutouts is therefore higher than many games but I feel it makes for an interesting twist on the usual boring, dysfunctional rehashes we see in these small boxes. In fairness to both the games, neither allows you to feel completely hopeless, and often, having crossed the rubicon, you are in a stronger position. The sense of waiting, waiting and then exploding into action with your "one shot" is there, and I liked it. We saw a similar approach in Reiner's earlier, and strangely underexposed, Twins and I think we may see more of this technique.

Inextricably linked with the above is that both these games have a noticeable luck factor. In Go Wild!, combined with the unusual system, it is enough to see it back into the box and unlikely to re-emerge until fixed somehow. With KatzenJammer it means a decent deal can give you an appreciable head start - three or four natural fives is hard to argue with, fortunate draws are equally powerful, and neither event has been a rarity. I don't think anyone will be playing KatzenJammer for money, or in competition, so this hardly matters but it does take the edge off an otherwise sparkling little filler. For that is what KatzenJammer is. A game to rival, or back-to-back with For Sale. It does not pack the punch of High Society, nor does it take too much thought, but it has some weight, a little depth and that indefinable Knizia quality has made it a regular closer. At present it has not been played more than Go Wild!, since that game needed almost ten games before we were sure it didn't work (yes, that close!) but KatzenJammer will stay on the shelf and be played in the future, whereas Go Wild! will end up as little more than an interesting footnote.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell