Nanuk is a party game, a card game, a bluffing game, a gambling game, and a group psychology game. That's quite a mouthful, but it is actually a simple game. Players are Eskimo hunters planning hunting excursions to the Arctic tundra. They bluff about how many days they can last on the punishing tundra and how many animals (of a specific type) they can bring back. They outdo one another, until eventually someone will say that's impossible. Then this naysayer and the "highest bidder" split the group into two. Other hunters must decide to join one of these groups - whether to join the hunting trip or to stay home. The participants contribute food to prepare for the excursion. If it is successful, all participants gain food (and glory). If it fails, then the doubters gain food instead. OK, that last bit of the story doesn't quite make sense, but it is necessary for the game to work. Here's how the story translates to game mechanisms:
At the start of a round, every player holds 3 cards. Cards come in four suits - fish, bird, seal and deer, and each such animal card has one or two animals of the same type. The start player initiates the bluffing by indicating on the game board how many days he thinks the hunting party can last on the tundra, and how many animals of a specific type can be bagged. The next player must then decide whether to doubt him or to further raise the stakes. If this next player thinks he can do better, he updates the board by increasing the number of days he thinks he can last. The animal type and count can be changed, but it is not mandatory. Increasing the days in itself already increases risk, because every additional day spent hunting increases the chances of drawing a card with a polar bear icon. Polar bears cause hunts to fail, unless there is a lucky charm card to distract them.
When a player eventually decides to be the naysayer, the rest of the group must decide which side to take. The hunt leader and the naysayer both may try to convince others to take their sides. The decision to go or to stay put is made secretly and simultaneously. Once decisions are revealed, the participants may contribute cards for the hunt. These cards may not necessarily be of the specific animal type being hunted. Contributors can give whatever they like. These cards are shuffled and then revealed, and the hunted animal type is counted. After that, the hunt leader draws cards from the draw deck one by one, until the hunt fails because of a polar bear encounter, or until he reaches the number of days he said he was going to last. If the hunt is not failed by a polar bear, the leader checks whether he has reached the target number of animals. If the target is reached, the hunt is successful, and all participants split the loot, which is cards contributed by participants plus cards drawn from the deck. If the hunt fails, the loot goes to those who stayed home instead.
In the background, the markers on the game board indicate that the active player thinks he can do a one-day hunt and catch six (5+1) fish. In my hand are a fish card, a bird card and a seal card.
I'm not exactly sure of the loot splitting process, because in our game we decided to randomly distributed the cards as equally as possible, so that we could play more quickly. In the official rules the players get to see the cards and pick what they want.
The game ends when the draw deck runs out. Players then score points using all the accumulated loot cards (not hand cards). Every complete set of four animals is worth 3VP, and every pair of similar animals is worth 1VP. Highest scorer wins.
We did a 7-player game, and in the case of Nanuk, I think it is definitely the more the merrier. More players means it is possible to have high ambitions. There is more uncertainty, and thus more excitement. Sometimes you feel positive that many will join the hunt, and you go for a high target because you have that together-we-can-do-this feeling. Sometimes your gut feeling betrays you and you find that even your loudest supporter was just kidding. We certainly had a lot of table talk - claiming we had so many animals of a certain type, urging others on to make ever bolder claims. Most of us were new to the game and we were mostly optimistic, especially early in the game. That lead to very ambitious targets. Ian, who had played before, said we were crazy bold. And then our early excursions were mostly successful too, which fueled the optimism even further. Whenever we had a decent number of participants, the hunt was usually successful. Only towards mid-game people started to consider staying home more often. That was when decisions became trickier. You don't want to end up on the wrong side of the divide. It is usually better to end up in the bigger group. Hunting party or opposition party, there is a higher likelihood that the bigger group will end up being right. However if you happen to be in a minority group that is right, it can be very profitable. Imagine a big group of losers going hunting and putting together a huge pile of cards, and then you being the only guy staying home, but being right. That would be a major windfall. And you get to put on a smug I-told-you-so look too.
We were quite a rowdy bunch. At one point someone started asking do you have birds, and another guy (was it me?) started saying you should have at least one. Sorry to Wai Yan, the only lady at the table. We were a bunch of 30+ year old adolescent boys. Eventually it was Wai Yan who won, because she made the correct judgments frequently, and thus collected many cards.
In the last round of the game, we realised how unbelievably lucky we had been throughout the game, and why. Most expeditions, as long as they were being supported by enough hunters, were successful. It probably made us more optimistic and careless than we should have been. In that final round when we flipped over the cards for the final hunt, we found that many of the polar bear cards were at the bottom of the deck. No wonder we didn't see that many polar bears earlier. Needless to say, that final hunt failed miserably.
My accumulated loot at game end. Two complete sets of animals = 3VP x 2 = 6VP. Two birds make 1VP. That's a total of 7VP. I have one extra bird. Wait, that doesn't sound right.
Nanuk feels like Liar's Dice. It's a simple party game suitable for big groups. There's group psychology, push-your-luck, and bluffing. There's an exciting gambling feeling too. It is best played as a light game, and I think the variant of randomly distributing the loot is a good one. If you want more control, you can use the official rules which allow participants to pick cards.