I have read about Abluxxen before. It is designed by the dynamite duo Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling after all. The rules sounded simple, but I could not wrap my head around the strategy even though I understood the rules. It was like reading a page in a novel, understanding every word and every sentence, but having no idea what the passage was talking about. I did not actively seek out the game, but I was pleasantly surprised by it when I had a chance to try it recently at Boardgamecafe.net.
The game is a deck of cards numbered 1 to 13, eight cards for each number, plus five wild cards. At the start of the game everyone is dealt 13 cards. The game ends when one player plays out his hand, after which you do scoring based on how many cards you have played in front of you (1pt each) and how many you still have in hand (-1pt each). The person who goes out is often the one who wins, but not always.
On your turn there is only one action you can and must take - play a set of cards. A set of cards can be any number of cards, but they must have the same value on them, e.g. three 2's, seven 6's. When you play cards in front of you, you should play them in rows, with each new row partially covering the previous row, like in the photo below.
Your most recent set is vulnerable, while earlier sets are safe, as long as they are being protected by that most recent set. By "vulnerable" I mean a set can be attacked (or "abluxxed") by another player. Whenever a player plays a set of cards, he checks whether the number of cards in the set is the same as any other player's current vulnerable set. If so, he needs to compare the values on the cards. If the current set being played has a higher value than the sets on the table, then those vulnerable sets are abluxxed. The active player first decides what he wants to do with each set being abluxxed. He either (a) takes the set into his hand, or (b) declines. In the former case, the victim must draw back the same number of cards. These can be picked from the 6 face-up cards at the centre of the table, or drawn from the draw deck. If the active player doesn't want the abluxxed set, the victim now gets to decide between (b)(i) taking the cards back into his hand, effectively wasting one turn and also exposing an earlier set, and (b)(ii) discarding the cards and redrawing.
It is good to have many cards with the same value, because that means you can play many cards on the same turn. Moreover, large sets are difficult to make, and are thus also harder to get abluxxed. Higher card values are good, because you have less risk of getting abluxxed, and you have better chances to abluxx others. I love using the non-word "abluxx"! Abluxx Abluxx Abluxxen. I hope it is not a swear word in a language I don't know.
We played with 5 players, which is the max. BGG says the game is best with 4, and works well with any player count from 2 to 5. I was mostly clueless for the first two games, and things only started to click towards the end of the second game. The rules sound simple, but there are actually quite a few tricks and tactics to the game - emergent strategies. For example, fishing. When you see a card in the card display at the centre of the table that you want, you can play a single card hoping someone will abluxx you, thus giving you the chance to take that card from the display. To enhance the likelihood of getting abluxxed, you may even want to play a card of the same value as another player who is also fishing. A player abluxxing both of you can claim multiple cards of the same value, which is very tempting.
You don't know other players' starting hands, but most of the time during the game you can see what cards they are collecting. Usually they either rob cards from other players, or take cards from the central display. They can draw cards from the draw deck, which would prevent you from knowing what the cards are, but then such blind draws are risky and thus undesirable. Card counting is a skill that can be put to good use. You don't need to memorise everything. It will already help by having a general idea of what values others are stockpiling. If you see one person collecting tons of 1's but never playing them, he may be preparing for a final kill, playing all his 1's at one go to end the game.
It is important to watch your opponents and have a good grasp of the pace of a game. Don't get caught unprepared for game end. Getting a large hand of cards is tempting. It means more flexibility and opportunities for powerful plays. However if you misjudge the tempo and someone else ends the game while you are unprepared, you will end up in the red.
I find the set collection quite exciting in this game. Normally set collection in other games is fulfilling. In Abluxxen it is not only fulfilling but also anxiety-inducing. You are never quite sure when the right time to play your huge set is. Play it at the wrong time, and you can get abluxxed, which is very painful for large sets. Your attacker will likely claim your set, forcing you to redraw. When you need to redraw many cards, chances are you will get a lousy mix, which translates to many more turns needed to clear your hand. When you have a large set, you often want to hold and wait. You may want to wait for others to play the same number of cards as your set but with a card value higher than yours, so that it would be safe by the time you play yours. The other side of the coin is you may want to wait till someone else plays a weaker set so that you can pounce on him. This is a nasty, nasty little game!
There is a psychological element. If you see that most other players are going for pairs and triplets, you may be able to get away with playing some loose singles.
The X card is the wild card. If you play a set containing only wild cards, they are considered to have a value of 14, i.e. they beat all other cards.
The thing that strikes me most about Abluxxen is how difficult it is to describe it. It's not a trick-taking game like Bridge. It's not a climbing game like Big Two or Fight the Landlord. It appears to be a traditional card game, since the only information on a card that matters is the value. The colours have no gameplay meaning. They are just nice to look at and they ease gameplay. There is no suit. Once you experience Abluxxen, you will find that it breaks the traditional card game mould. It is refreshing and thought-provoking. It is amazing how much strategy emerges from such simple rules. When Kareem taught us the game, he said it was quite evil. I asked whether it was as evil as Sticheln, and he said probably more so. Now that I have played the game, I can't say he's wrong. Abluxxen is a highly interactive and clever game. Abluxxen Abluxxen Abluxxen.