Solo Contest: Big River Hustle

Saving the best for last, Fairway picks his winner for the The Game Crafter solo challenge: Big River Hustle.

Big River Hustle was the most innovative game we played combining poker with deck building to create a solo poker game where you’re trying to build your poker deck to use to build winning poker hands.  Like the other reviews in this contest, I applied a slightly different rubric and here’s how Big River Hustle fared:

Total Theme (5) Art / GD (10) Solo (15) Game Play (10) Creativity (5) Other (5)
84% 5 8 13 8 5 3

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The deck-building a poker deck to make a poker hand is a really clever idea.  The idea that you’re basically a poker cheat (the “hustle) fit so well with this core mechanism.  It was an instant draw for players.
  2. The custom deck of poker cards with custom face cards that meshed with the rest of the art and the custom, punchout poker chips were all very nice touches.
  3. There was also a good mix of opponents in the game.

How to play ^

Big River Hustle is a solo, deck-building game. The player is a card cheat trying to win in a major poker tournament.  The goal is to acquire as much gold as possible by the end of the tournament.

To start, some number of opponents are picked from the set of opponent cards and stacked in difficulty order.  The game helpfully recommends a starting set of four.  Each of the opponents will have a poker hand you’ll need to beat together with a set of game parameters that will determine how you’ll play against those opponents.

The player begins the tournament with a “starter deck” of playing cards.  This starter deck consists of numbered cards 2 through 6 in each of four different suits.  The deck also has five copies of the “Buy” cheat card. This starting deck is shuffled and the player is given $50 in poker chips.

The remaining other poker cards are shuffled and the first four are revealed. These four form a market of cards and will be available for purchase during the deck-building phase of the game.

Once setup, the game is played over a series of rounds. Each round, the player will face off against the top opponent.  The round is divided into two phases: deck-building and the poker game.

During the deck-building phase, the player starts by drawing an initial hand of five cards from their deck — in the first round, this is just the cards from the starter deck. There are two types of cards: regular cards and cheat cards.  The “cheat” cards are resolved first.  There are seven different cheats: buy, buy 2, promote, sweeten, execute, sleeve, call out, and thief. These cards all have special instructions. Some enable in-poker game effects like “sleeve” that enables you to reserve a card from the current deck-building hand to start your poker game.  Others add money to the pot, enable you to swap out a card in the current hand for a better one from the market, etc.

Once the cheat cards are resolved, the “total” of the cards value (e.g., the poker chip below the suit/rank) is summed up. This represents how much money you have to spend on a market card.  You can only buy one card (except for the “Buy 2” cheat which allows you to buy another). The purchased market card (if any) is added to the discard pile and a new one replaces it. Any leftover money will be added to the pot.  This money comes from either your stash or from the bank depending on the particular opponent.  The remainder of the hand is discarded and a new hand of five is drawn.

This process is repeated until the player cannot draw any more full hands of five cards.  After which, the poker game commences.

Playing Poker.  The Big River Hustle poker game is not your typical poker game, although the ranking of hands is the same.  After the drafting phase, the player’s personal deck is shuffled and placed face down in a draw pile.  Unlike the typical poker game: you know exactly what your hand has to look like to win — it’s right on the opponent’s reference card.

To start, the player will first draw from any “sleeved cards” — although if you’ve sleeved more than five cards you’ll lose. Next, you’ll draw from your deck until your hand reaches five cards. This is your “starting” hand.

First, there’s a few important points about your hand. Any “cheat” cards are just clutter. They do not contribute anything to your poker hand. In addition, each opponent’s reference card provides a few important features: redraws and buy-ins.

Redraws are “free” and the player can discard any number of cards from their current hand and draw back up to five cards this number of times for free.  After the redraws are used, the player can continue redrawing for the number of “buy-ins.”  The difference is that each “buy-in” requires the player to pay to the pot the “cost” listed on the card.

Once the player has a winning hand or is out of redraws and buy-ins, the player’s hand is compared to their opponents.  The player will take the pot for a winning poker hand multiplied by the win multipler (if any).  Otherwise, all money in the pot is sent to the bank.

In addition, at the end of the poker hand, win or lose, the player removes the cards from the final hand from his or her game and discards the opponent.  IF there is another opponent, a new rounds starts with another deck-building phase. Otherwise the game is over.

The player’s final money count is their final score.

Where it shines ^

Of all the games in the contest, the players’ uniformly agreed that Big River Hustle had the most to potential beyond the contest entry. It was a somewhat ingenious implementation of poker that was so clearly designed to be a self-contained, self-satisfying solo game.

Theme & mechanisms.  The pairing of a cheating poker player with a deck-building mechanism in a old-western poker match was spot-on. The designer did a terrific job meshing all components of the game into a fun, immersive experience.  Poker players and fans will like how this game plays out.

The deck-building.  This aspect of the game was so fun we wanted more. Players loved the way that they could add new cards and manipulate the probabilities.  If we had one complaint about this part is that we wanted more of all of it: more opportunities to improve our deck, more opportunities to optimize the frequency. More, more more.

Cheats, cheats, and more cheats.  Again, players liked the fun, quirkiness of messing with your hand and messing with your opponents’ hands. We actually wanted more of this one as well.

The opponents.  There are twelve unique opponents. This meant that there were lots of potential combinations of games and game lengths.  IF you only wanted to play a few rounds, include just a the number of opponents that you want.  If you wanted to play an epic game, include them all.

Play time and learning.  For poker players, this game was a breeze.  Understanding that you’re trying to build solid poker hands helped ease the transition.  We didn’t have anyone who didn’t get the basic idea of poker, so we could imagine this being a bit of struggle since you’re, in essence, building a deck to make the probabilities of getting a particular hand. That’s a hard thing to “teach” with this game.  Otherwise, the game played very well.  Four opponent games finishing well under 30 minutes.

Where it comes up short ^

I think that the fact that players wanted “more” control over various aspect of the deck-building indicates there’s room for improvement on this front.  The one feature people wanted more than anything else was a more generalized “promote” (e.g., exchange a lower rank card for something higher) or “trash” (remove a card from the deck) functions that would let them cull bad or low cards from the deck.  In game, these were harder to come by than probably should have been.

The other thing that players commented on was the static nature of their opponents’ hands.  This element was clearly by design.  However, we thought that if this were to be finally produced, the opponents’ hands should be partially randomized.

Conclusion ^

Big River Hustle may have just eked out the victory over Curse of the Shadow Spire, but it really had a special place in this contest. It exemplified a solo game’s possibilities: innovative mechanism, engaging and immersive theme, and lots of replayability.  For the poker player or the poker fan, this game would be an instant hit.

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