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Players are magicians mixing magic cocktails, scoring points for collecting and laying out ingredients and advancing on the career ladder. Extra points for really imbalanced cocktails. During each round players negotiate for revealed ingredients, swapping and yelling (at least, that's how it works at our game sessions). There's a great extra rule to hasten the negotiation, and experienced players will appreciate this: The player who is done negotiating first throws (places) his magic stone in the ring and receives a bonus. Negotiations end when 3 stones are in the ring. When the Magic Lightning card appears, the game ends. The player with the most advanced career wins.
Zaubercocktail is essentially taking the trading phase of the 12-hour game Civilization and surgically removing it into an enjoyable 1-hour game.
At the start of the game, each player is dealt a hand of ten cards. The cards have an 'ingredient' (basically the cards can be referred to by color--though watch out for gold and yellow) and the more of a particular card you use, the better cocktail it makes. Some ingredients are more common than others and are scored appropriately.
A round commences with the drawing of a score card to indicate the scoring for the round. Then the players trade cards with other players. Like Civilization, the trading is a free-for-all. There are no set turns, just yell out your deal! Unlike Civilization, all information in the trade must be honestly given (no calamities and no bad cards) and you can trade any number of cards for any other number of cards (2 cards for 1), etc.
Once you are satisfied with your trades, you place a stone on the board. Once three stones are placed, the round is over. Then each player secretly makes a 'cocktail' consisting of one or two ingredients. The best 3 cocktails score points, and the worst is penalized. (The exact amount depends on the scoring card drawn at the start of the round.) Also, the first player to declare he is finished can get a bonus of 2 points, but only if his cocktail is one of the best two.
Each player is dealt 5 more cards, the next scoring card is drawn, and the game continues. The game lasts 7-10 rounds.
This game is good for at least 5 players (the number I played with), and probably better with more. The decision whether to stop or continue is important. (Granted, you may get more useful cards, but your opponents may, too.) One element is intentionally saving cards by playing a weak cocktail in a low scoring round to make sure you'll win the higher scoring rounds.
The text on the German edition indicates the color of the ingredient. It may be more convenient to refer the cards by color while playing. If you do so, language should not be a huge problem.
The only negative I can see with this is that it may get a bit repetitive, but it's definitely fun for what it is.
"I'll trade three Blue Schlumse for a Faranblatt." Another member of this magical Stock Exchange cries, "My Kingdom for a Giraextrakt!" Satisfied with your lot? Then display your token to cease trading. All trading ends when a third player stops. Everyone reveals a collection of cards showing two ingredients. The current randomly drawn Recipe Card determines how far players with the highest scores advance on the track, and how far the lowest-scoring player retreats. Those who displayed their tokens move ahead if they finished in the top three places; otherwise, they go backward. A player wins by reaching the Finish or being closest to it when the deck runs out. What Teutonic turbulence!
Zaubercocktail is one of four new games by Kosmos in their new "Spiele fr Viele" (Games for Many) series, along with Eden, Bali, and Gnadenlos. This is the lightest of the four, and comparisons to the classic "Pit" are inevitable. This is because the idea is to collect sets of cards by a free-for-all trading mechanism, and those with the most valuable sets over time will score the most points. It is not as frantic as Pit, and there are some card management strategies to consider, but beyond this don't expect too much.
The board is interesting, as it sits in the game box and shows a scoring track and has recessed spots for three jewels. Each player has a jewel, and placing jewels in these spots determines when the trading ends and creates an opportunity for bonus points for the first player to halt their actions.
The card deck consists of 155 'ingredient cards' and a set of 'recipe cards'. Initially each player receives 10 ingredient cards, which incorporate 10 different ingredients plus four jokers. Ingredients is a poor term in the game, though, since you are not combining different ingredients to make a recipe, but rather collecting sets of the same ingredient. A recipe card is revealed, which shows the points for scoring first, second, third, or last place in the round, and then trading begins. Like Pit, trades are called out loud ("I am looking for Silbergrass, anyone willing to trade one for a Faranblatt?"). Each card set shows a scale that determines the value of various numbers of that type; for example, the Weissbeeren cards show that one is worth 20, two worth 42, three worth 66, and four worth 92. By comparison, a Blauer Schlums card requires seven to get to 63, and of course the cards are balanced so that their values are related to the probability of collecting the sets.
As soon as someone feels ready to display, they put their jewel in the first spot on the board (which represents the ring on a hand holding a goblet). Then, two more players can place their jewels in the remaining spots, and as soon as this happens the trading ends. Each player then reveals one or two sets of cards only, and tallies their total points. The first three players move forward by the amounts shown on the recipe card, and the player in last place moves backwards by the amount shown on the card. All revealed cards are discarded but only five new cards are dealt to each player, so hand management is crucial to avoiding the negative last place points. In addition, the player who placed the first jewel gets a bonus if they finish in one of the top four spots, and loses ground if they fail in this.
This is the whole game, and it works well enough but simply is not very exciting. The recipe cards have variability, making it sometimes valuable to hold a big set of a card that will pay off more, and probably the most influential strategy is determining when to place the first jewel. The bonus for a top four finish is significant over several rounds, but the risk of losing points is also real. Being too stingy in the trading or unwilling to be flexible based on what the market is offering can result in static hands that leave you caught when the scoring comes.
As you would expect from Kosmos, Zaubercocktail is nicely produced with fine quality, high-color cards. The game works with seven players, something that comes in handy at times, and is light enough for non-gamers and party situations. It is unclear to me exactly what Kosmos is trying to do with this new niche strategy, since this game is themed somewhat extravagantly and it looks appealing, yet the play is simple and straightforward. The others in the series are clearly more original. Like other games of this type, it can be played more seriously but that seems to defeat the purpose.