Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Bottle Imp

Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

The Bottle Imp is widely regarded as the best 3-player trick-taking card game. It is played over a number of hands, and a complete game ends when one player reaches a pre-determined score. Every hand one player will score negative points while the others will score positive points, so players are always trying to avoid becoming the negative scorer, or if you know you are likely going to be stuck being the negative scorer, you will want to minimise the damage by not letting your opponents score too many points.

At the start of a hand, all 36 cards numbered from 1 to 37 (number 19 not included) are distributed to all players. Each card belongs to one of three colours, and the distribution is uneven, red cards mostly having big numbers, yellow mostly small, and blue more evenly distributed. Card number 19 starts at the centre of the table as the bottle value. When a player starts a trick, all others must follow suit if possible. You can play a card of a different colour only if you don't have cards in the leading colour. If all cards played are higher than the bottle value, the highest card wins the trick and the player who played it claims the trick. If one or more cards played are lower than the bottle value, then the comparison is only done among these cards to determine which card wins the trick. Also, in this case the winning card becomes the new bottle value (i.e. the bottle value will only decrease), and the bottle goes to the player who has just won the trick. Winning tricks is usually good, because every card is worth points, but if you are the one stuck with the bottle at the end of a hand, you don't score the tricks you have won. Instead, you score negative points for some cards set aside at the start of the hand. So the game is a tricky balance between winning tricks and making sure you don't get stuck with the bottle at the end of the hand.

The coin icons along the sides of the cards are the point values.

The card in the foreground is the reference card, showing the distribution of the card colours. It is very important and very useful especially if you are new to the game. The card in the background is the bottle card, which is valued at 19 at the start of a hand.

After cards are dealt and before a hand starts, players pass 1 card each to their left and right neighbours, which means you will have a little information about what cards your opponents are holding. Usually you give them small cards, i.e. the tough ones to get rid of, so this information is often useful. Also before a hand starts, every player contributes one card face-down to the imp's pile, which is the negative score for whoever holds the bottle at the end of the hand. This means not all cards will appear during the hand. Each player knows a little information that others don't. You can decide whether to put a high-score card or a low-score card into the imp pile depending on whether you think you will be the bottle guy.

The Play

I have only played two games, both as 3-player games, but one was a single-hand learning game, and the other was a short one with a fixed 3 hands. I find that by the time you see your hand of cards, you already need to roughly plan how you should play out the current hand - how to get rid of the low cards, which colour to rid yourself of first, when and whether to get the bottle, etc. When the hand starts, you switch to a more tactical mode and adjust your plans according to your opponents' card plays. I find that sometimes even after the first few tricks, you can already guess that you are the one who will be stuck with the bottle, because you are holding a small card which will likely sooner-or-later get you the bottle. In this sense every hand is quite strategic. You need to plan up front for the end-game (of each hand).

Card counting helps, if you prefer to play in a competitive way. The reference cards that come with the game help a lot.

The Thoughts

I find The Bottle Imp to be quite a clever game. It's trick-taking, and thus has all the elements of such games, plus some more - don't get stuck with the bottle! This is a game that rewards repeated plays, as you hone your skills and learn the tactics, much like many other traditional card games. There is much skill involved. It reminds me of Sticheln, an interesting trick-taking game that I quite like and is probably best for four or more.

Buy from Noble Knight Games. Status: in stock (at time of this post).


Welcome said...

halo Mr Hiew
you blog really helping me after i came back from Taiwan(my game experience influeced by taiwan)
keep up!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

My boardgame hobby also started when I was in Taiwan. I also have a Chinese boardgame blog at, if you are interested.