English language edition
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In Balloon Cup, the players compete in several short balloon flights (hops) to collect the colored cubes associated with each hop. When a player has collected enough cubes of a given color, he earns the trophy card for that color. Players may even trade 3 otherwise useless cubes for 1 they can use. The first player to earn 3 trophy cards is the winner! Each player has a hand of eight balloon cards. The players play their balloons on mountain or plain hops. Players play their high-valued balloons on the mountains and their low-valued balloons on the plains. Players usually play their balloons on their side of the hops, but winds (and cunning) can cause them to play on their opponents side, a move that can ruin their opponents plans.
Two player games are tough to design, because the game must be interesting and close up to the end. Balloon Cup has a great mix of luck and planning that makes it very enjoyable, with short turns and interesting decisions. Like most great games, you have many choices, and most of the time you have to pick the best of many good moves to make.
I have played this game with many no-gamers (girlfriends, mostly) and other gamers, and it's always challenging and exciting right up to the end.
Cubes and Balloon Cards (valued from 1 to 13), come in five colors. Win a trophy by being the first to amass sufficient cubes of its color. Snag three trophies to win.
Each balloon trip tile, numbered 1 through 4, is allocated as many cubes as the trip's number. The cubes' colors are chosen randomly. Each turn, lay a card from hand faceup on your side of any trip tile, or on the opponent's side (a nasty but useful ploy!), and replenish. Cards played on both sides must correspond to the color distribution of the trip's cubes.
When the maximum number of cards have been played to a trip tile, add the values on each side. The higher sum wins the cubes for mountain trips, while the lower total wins on flat land. Flip the trip tile to display opposite terrain, add new cubes, and off you go again. Glenn invites both casual and seasoned gamers to new heights with his elegant first design.
A few years ago, Stephen Glenn nicely sent Marcia and me some DTP sheets and a ruleset for a game called 'Piata'. The game was clearly original and enjoyable; I remember sending Stephen some ideas based on our play, but even without modifications he clearly had reached a state that many new designers struggle with: simple but not simplistic.
Fast forward to 2003 and the ever-expanding Kosmos line of two-player games, where Balloon Cup is one of their newest releases and Stephen Glenn is now a well-deserved published author. Balloon Cup is the evolution of Piata and along the way the game play has improved, the theme is no longer Mexican, and the production is top quality.
The goal is to capture three of the five available ballooning trophies. There is one trophy for each of five colors, and to capture each you must pay the appropriate number of colored cubes. The gray trophy is claimed with just three gray cubes, while the red trophy requires seven red cubes. Correspondingly, there are more red cubes than gray cubes available in the game and thus the play is about getting the right number of cubes faster than your opponent.
Four numbered 'balloon hop' tiles separate the two players, numbered one through four. The tiles are double-sided with one side showing flatland, meaning low cards are valuable because you're close to land, or mountains, meaning high cards are valuable because you are high in the clouds. These are set alternating flatland and mountain, and then cubes are drawn from a bag to fill the tile with one, two, three, or four cubes respectively. These are the cubes that are first available to win, and of course once enough are won to buy a trophy, it's yours.
Players win the cubes on the tiles by playing cards. The card deck contains 45 cards distributed just like the cubes. Each set of color cards has a low of one and a high of 13, but only red has a full set of 1-13 while gray has just five cards (1, 4, 7, 10, and 13). Players play cards on either side of the tiles attempting to win the cubes there. The key is that the cards played must match the cubes exactly. For example, if the 'three' tile is holding a yellow cube, a blue cube, and a green cube, exactly one yellow, one blue, and one green card must be played on each side of the tile. For flatland tiles, the low sum wins the cubes once all the cards are placed; for mountain tiles the high sum wins. What makes the game work well is that on a turn you can play cards to either side of the tile. If I am holding the red 13, for example, it could be used offensively to play on my side of a mountain tile with a red cube, or defensively to play on my opponent's side of a flatland tile.
Play moves quickly with a play one, draw one mechanic. As soon as a tile is filled, meaning that the appropriate number of cards is played on each side, the winner takes the cubes and can buy trophies if they have enough. Then, the tile is flipped, meaning that mountains become flatlands and vice-versa, before new cubes are drawn to place on the tile. This makes keeping a balanced hand of high and low cards essential throughout, and the game's strength in card play is offset only by the frustration of sometimes uncomfortable possibilities. If you can play you must play, even if this means helping your opponent. For example, if the only plays available are yellow (meaning cards are already played corresponding to all other colored cubes on the tile) and I have the yellow 'one', I may be forced to play it on my side of a mountain tile rather than pass. Unlike Shotten Totten, tile cubes cannot be claimed if you can prove you've won it but all cards have not yet been played.
Since the cube draw is random for each tile, interesting battles pop up based on the current holdings of the players. It takes four blue cubes to win the blue trophy; if my opponent has two blue cubes already and then two blues show up on a single tile, I'd have to win that or cede blue trophy. Once a trophy has been claimed, the cubes of that color are not worthless since three of a kind can be used as a joker. I believe that this is a rule added in the Kosmos development, but in many games the winning trophy is claimed using at least one joker set. A disappointing part of the play is the fact that sometimes no play is possible; in these cases, you can discard up to half of your hand and hope to redraw a usable card. If you fail, you essentially lose the turn. These situations don't happen often and usually a tile will clear and new cubes will be drawn to create new play possibilities. Lastly, it's possible for the game to lock up since the card distribution exactly matches the cube distribution. If three gray cubes were drawn to the 'three' tile, for example, these could never be won since only five gray cards exist. Admittedly this is very rare, and a simple adjustment suggested by Wolfgang Ldtke and supported by the designer would have players checking the totals of each color cube on all mats each time new cubes are drawn.
Overall, Balloon Cup is a very nice addition to the Kosmos line. It plays with a weight similar to Heave Ho, meaning that it will be approachable to many but won't stretch the mind as much as Babel or Avalon. Stephen Glenn, founder of the Protospiel convention for game designers, has made a very solid impression with his first published game and two-player gamers are better off for it.