In case you’re not familiar with super small-press games, John Clowdus is the genius behind Small Box Games. This one dude has made some really awesome games – Great Potlatch, Elemental Rift, and especially Dirge are some really wicked fun games. And the really amazing thing is that he does it all himself (well, his wife helps). I mean, aside from having cards printed, John Clowdus hand-assembles every game. He is a really clever game designer, and he regularly turns out really brilliant games.
But not even Babe Ruth hit a homer every time. It took us three games to make up our minds (as a matter of fact, I was going to write this review last night, and decided I need to play the game again before I did). Rank turns out to be one of those games with an unfortunately prophetic name – after playing it several times, I have come to the conclusion that the game is actually rank (as in, smelly. As in, it stinks. In case you needed me to spell it out, I didn’t like it very much).
The object of Rank is to assemble a big army. It’s a two-player game, and you’re both pulling off the same pool of dudes (plastic refugees from Through The Ages, as far as I can tell). You have cards numbered 0 through 4, and you take turns drawing and playing them, with different card combinations producing different results. So if there’s a 0 in the middle, a 2 on the left and a 1 on the right, and you play a 1 on the left, you have to take it back because that’s against the rules.
In fact, the prohibitive rules are my first complaint with Rank. It can be tricky to remember what cards you aren’t allowed to play. In fact, there are times when only two numbers of the potential five are even playable on the sides. So if there’s a 1 in the middle and 3s on both sides, you can play a 0 or a 4, and God help you if you don’t have those. You might be able to play a 1 or 2 in the middle, but you better hope that’s something you want to do. It’s a pain in the ass trying to remember what you can’t play, and it limits your options so badly that it can be tough to find something you want to do anyway.
Every time the number in the middle changes, it means something different when you put together a hand. Like when there’s a 0 in the middle, you’ll be mostly recruiting new dudes, but when there’s a 3 showing, you’ll be killing off the other guy’s soldiers. You can see the brilliance in this mechanic – but it feels like there was the start of a resolution mechanic here, and instead of using this idea in a whole game, the mechanic became the game. As a tool within a game, this would have been pure genius. As a whole game, it’s like if you were playing Risk, but you got rid of everything except for rolling to see who won a fight.
To make matter worse, you’re limited to some very small hands of cards, which means it can be really tough to make the play you want. I might desperately need to recruit some workers, but only have cards to promote my non-existent workers into non-existent soldiers. You don’t so much decide what to do as you just play whatever you can when it’s your turn.
Now, I’m sure John could point out how I’m playing this wrong. I mean, I’m reasonably certain I have the rules right, but John probably knows how to find some strategy in this game. I don’t, unfortunately, and while John and I are friends, I’m in Texas and he’s in Georgia, so he wasn’t able to demonstrate the game. I’m left feeling like I played a game that almost worked, and wondering what John was thinking when he made it.
Hopefully John will still send me free games. I’m reasonably sure he will, and I hope he does, because when he’s on, he’s really, really on, and he can come up with ideas you just plain never saw coming. But the downside to thinking this far outside the box is that every now and then, the wacky ideas stink. Sometimes they’re downright rank.
A spark of genius is hidden in this game
It’s hidden pretty deep
You can’t get Rank. It’s sold out. If John has any sense, it won’t be reprinted.