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Monday, April 19, 2004

Austin Poker
Games that are not poker, but incorporate elements of poker (such as poker-style betting or traditional poker hands), are generally a poor lot of games. First, they suffer from the obvious comparisons to poker, since they are, like so many games, inferior to true poker. But many poker-themed games tend to be not just worse than poker, but downright bad. Go to boardgamegeek.com and search for the term "poker," and you will find many games that have a rating below 6 (BGG uses a scale of 1-10): Poker Bingo, Star Poker, Piratenpoker, etc.

At the Gathering I was fortunate to play a game called Austin Poker that is one of the best poker-themed games I've seen. Austin Poker was designed by Alan Ernstein and is published by a small company called Hangman Games. I met Alan at the Gathering and he seemed like a very nice guy, and I figure Hangman Games can use all the word-of-mouth it can get, so I'll describe Austin Poker in my blog on the off-chance it piques the interest of my still-in-the single-digits-but-growing audience.

In Austin Poker you start with some fake money, and essentially play 4 hands of 5-Card Stud at once. One twist is that each player has his own deck. You start by drawing 11 cards, and from that 11 choosing your 4 hole cards for the 4 different hands you'll be playing. Then you lay, face-down, what will be your first four up-cards for each hand. Starting with hand #1, players reveal their upcards and have a round of betting. Then they reveal cup cards for hand #2 and bet, and repeat that two more times. Then players draw 1 more card from their deck for each hand they have not folded. So if you didn't fold at all, you're drawing 4 more cards. If you do fold one or more hands, you're drawing fewer cards. Then you pick what your next card will be for each hand, and repeat the whole betting process. Do this until you've completed the betting on all 4 hands, just like in 5-card Stud.

When you win a pot, you not only win more money but also the chance to buy "bonus" cards. The theme of the game is that you're building an Old West town (presumably Austin), and whoever has the best town at the end wins. So the bonus cards have names like "Sheriff," "Bank," and "Saloon." The cards that have names of buildings generally give you money. So at the start of each hand you would get an extra $4 if you had previously purchased the "Saloon" bonus card. The cards that have names like "Sheriff" or "Undertaker" generally allow you to perform some special action during a hand, such as swapping out a poor hole card for a better one. All bonus cards are also worth varying numbers of victory points (VPs). As you collect bonus cards, you accumulate VPs, and the first person to 35 VPs (the number varies based on ther number of players) wins.

Perhaps the most interesting part is that each of the bonus cards corresponds to an actual card from the deck. So the Saloon might be the 10 of diamonds. When you buy the Saloon, you're not only buying the VPs it gives you and its money-making ability, you're also buying the 10 of diamonds, and can thereafter use the 10 of diamonds in one of your 4 hands. Clearly, the bonus cards that correspond to aces are very valuable. Thus, when you're deciding which of the 4 hands you want to try to win, you look at the bonus cards you can buy. Certain bonus cards are associated with certain pots. Specifically, you can only purchase "club" bonus cards if you win hand #1, you can only purchase "diamond" bonus cards if you win hand #2, and so on. The game board marks the areas for the 4 different pots by suit to help you keep track.

So the strategy is interesting. First off, you want to win pots so that you'll have more money to bet with in future rounds. Second, at the beginning of the game you want to win bonus cards that generate extra income for you to supplement what you win in pots. Some of the special powers granted by bonus cards are also powerful. Finally, you would also like to buy bonus cards that correspond to aces and kings. And to ultimately win the game you need bonus cards that are worth VPs. But the bonus cards are balanced: Those that generate high incomes give only 1 VP; those that grant good powers correspond to lousy ranks such as 2 or 3. And so on. Difficult choices = need for strategy.

I played one game at the Gathering with 4 other players, but we only got through 2 rounds (we didn't quit out of boredom, but rather because a game tournament we wanted to play in was starting). It was a little difficult to keep track of the 4 different hands, but we were getting the hang of it. When the game broke off I had nearly gone broke from betting too much and coming in second-best in two hands in the first round. Fortunately, the rules provide a small base income to all players before each hand, even those who've failed to win a pot. Plus, when you go broke you're allowed to go "all-in" on one of your 4 hands (although you must choose which one and fold the others). Another player was in similar straits, while the other 3 players had managed to purchase income-generating cards.

Two of the players I played with do not play poker -- they have played poker, and even enjoy it, but refuse to play for real money -- and they seemed to enjoy Austin Poker quite a bit. I think this is the type of player that Austin Poker is geared at. Players who are completely unfamiliar with poker will have a hard enough time learning the poker hands and the way betting works, and will likely be overwhelmed by playing 4 hands at once and dealing with the bonus cards. On the other hands, players who enjoy playing poker for money may find it frustrating to spend 1-2 hours at a game that is very much like, but is not, their favorite pastime. I fall a little bit into the latter camp -- if you've got 5 players (the ideal number, according to the designer) who enjoy poker, why not just play poker? Nevertheless, I think I will buy Austin Poker and bring it out with family, non-poker-playing friends, or even late in the evening of a poker night when not enough people have shown up and/or too many people have gone broke. Currently not available in stores, you can purchase Austin Poker from the Hangman Games website.

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