I think I first read about Cloud 9 at Gamer Chris' blog. I know it's a simple push-your-luck game, so when I visited Meeples Cafe with the family recently, I decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
Players participate in hot air balloon rides, and try to score as many points as they can on each trip. Every round a different player becomes the pilot. The other players - the passengers - get to decide individually whether to score points and leave the balloon, or to stay on board hoping the balloon will ascend to new heights (which would bring even more points). The pilot rolls some dice (the number depends on the current altitude), which determine what cards are required for the balloon to continue ascending. The passengers make their decisions after seeing the die roll results, basically guessing whether the pilot will be able to play the required cards. Once everyone has made up his mind, the pilot must play cards if he has the required ones. The only exception is wild cards. A single wild card fulfills all dice requirements, but the pilot can decide whether to play it. If the pilot can't or won't play the required cards, the trip ends, and everyone still on the balloon scores no points. So the trick is trying to leave the balloon to score points as late as possible, and not get stuck there when the trip abruptly ends. It's like chasing a stock market bubble. You want to get out and make a killing right before the bubble bursts.
All four players still in the hot air balloon. The dice icons on the clouds indicate the number of dice to be rolled to see what cards are required for the balloon to fly higher. The point values of the altitudes are: 1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 20, 25. So the higher you go, the more tempting the next level becomes. The highest possible score of 25 is half of what you need to end the game. However it's not easy getting there.
The cards. You only need one wild card to satisfy all requirements depicted on the dice.
If only one player remains on the balloon, the rules change a little. This sole remaining pilot decides whether to leave or to stay before he rolls the dice.
After every trip, everyone draws one card, the balloon returns to the starting point, and a new trip starts. The game ends after a player reaches 50pts, and the highest scorer wins.
The rules are very simple, and my children (8 and 6) understood immediately. However they easily gave away their hand because when they looked at the die rolls and then at their cards, we could easily tell from their reactions and facial expressions whether they would be able to play the required cards. That made the lives of the passengers too easy. So we asked them to not look at their cards at all when they were pilot, until after all passengers have made their decisions.
Chen Rui (6) scored big in one of the early rounds, and maintained a comfortable lead. In contrast, Michelle and I floundered far behind. We were too greedy in the early game and stayed on the balloon longer than we should have. We were too desperate in the late game because we were behind, and again took bigger risks than we should have. We never managed to catch up, not even close! Chen Rui at one point told us she could easily cruise to victory by scoring just one or two points every trip. And she was right! She was already near 50, and we were nowhere in the vicinity. Shee Yun (8) put up a good effort catching up, and ended up just 1pt behind Chen Rui, who ended the game by reaching 51pts.
Game end situation. Chen Rui (yellow) had just reached 51pts. Shee Yun (orange) was only one step behind. Michelle and I (red and green) were far far behind.
As in most push-your-luck games, in the late game, if you are ahead, there is little incentive to take risks. You can afford to take smaller risks and you will likely cruise to victory anyway. If you are behind, then you must take risks and hope for greater rewards. You are behind anyway, so you might as well gamble and hope for a lucky break. Because of this nature, push-your-luck games can become less interesting in the late game. How big a problem this is depends on personal tolerance. Cloud 9 was brisk and fun for me, so although I had this familiar feeling again, it didn't bother me too much.
One interesting twist about this game is how the pilot has no option to score and leave. That means sometimes before it is your turn to become pilot, you already need to think about bailing out. The points you are going to get may not be very attractive, but then you have to balance that against whether you think you will last two consecutive rounds. This can be a tricky decision.
You can determine what colours your opponents are likely short of whenever a trip ends. If a player can't play 2 green cards, then he either has no green cards, or has only one, or has a wild card but is not willing to use it. The next time he is pilot again and needs to play green cards again, it is probably a good idea to bail out. However it may turn out that he has just drawn a green card after the previous trip. So you never know!
Cloud 9 is a simple game of brinkmanship that works as a family game, a party game, a children's game and also a filler. It's a game that really tickles human greed. You are constantly engaged because every round you need to decide whether to take your winnings, or to raise the stakes. You are constantly gambling and hoping your luck will hold. I truly enjoyed playing this with my family. I probably won't suggest it when I plan a game session with seasoned gamers, since we tend to plan around heavier and more complex games. But it's a blast to play with the right target audience and on the right occasion.