Die sieben Siegel
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The future is a book with seven seals -- nobody knows what will happen. But a little planning can't exactly hurt in this game, since you not only have to predict the number of tricks you'll take, but also their color. Or instead, if you have terrible cards, you can become the saboteur and mess up the plans of the other players and win this unusual trick-taking game.
When all is said and done, this is another variation on standard trick-taking in which players must predict the number of tricks they will take. And while its not an earth-shattering addition, it is certainly worth acquiring for fans of the genre.
Each player is dealt a hand of cards and must then predict not only how many tricks he or she will take. But in the first of two twist, the players must ALSO indicate with which color card they will take the tricks. Players show their bids by taking colored chips from the supply. If there aren't enough left in the desired color, the player simply takes them from another player's bid and replaces them with white joker chips. Each time a player wins a trick, he or she turns in the properly colored chip or joker if they still have one; if not, they take a black penalty chip worth -3 points. If the player is lucky, there will be no more black chips left to take. Zero is the best score a player can obtain.
Red is always trump, and standard trick-taking rules apply. The second twist, though, is that one player each round may choose, instead of bidding, to become the saboteur. The saboteurs job is simply to foil others in their quest to make their bids. The saboteur starts a round with 4 negative points, which can then be reduced according to the other players' failures (by each black token taken by another player). An inventive twist!
This is a thoroughly enjoyable game, if you l ike trick-taking games to begin with. But after a couple of plays, I've seen a problem emerge. So far, it appears to me that the saboteur doesn't have enough control in the game to really accomplish much except in smaller groups of 3 and maybe 4. The bigger the group, the more the Saboteur's role is reduced to one of simply hoping that other players miss their bids. Sure, the saboteur can try to steal tricks from other players, which reduces their scores by leaving them stuck with colored chips they couldn't get rid of (worth -2 each). But the saboteur only really scores (reduces his or her negative score) if the saboteur can force others to actually TAKE tricks in the wrong colors, thus earning black tokens, and that's a different kettle of fish.
When all is said and done, this could have been a five-star game, but since the most interesting part of the game, the saboteur role, doesn't seem to mean much with more players, it's not flexible enough to get a top rating.
Der Sieben Siegel - "The Seven Seals" is a card game that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Wizard or any of the many popular variations of Nomination Whist. The clever twist that Stefan Dorra has applied to the basic trick-taking game is to switch the emphasis away from scoring bonus points for correctly nominating how many tricks you will take. In Seven Seals you have instead the much harder proposition of avoiding penalties for taking tricks that you didn't expect to win, or for failing to take tricks that you did.
The game box contains a card deck consisting of five coloured suits, numbered 1 to 15. With four players only values 1-12 will be used, and with three, only 1-9. With the deck comes a handful of cardboard markers -- or "seals" -- in colours that match the five suits, plus also black and white seals -- giving you the "seven seals" of the game's name. Finally there is a marker showing a hooded figure which is used to designate the player who has chosen to be the "saboteur" -- of whom more in a moment.
The aim of the game is to score the least penalty points by correctly predicting how many tricks you will take in each suit, and by avoiding taking any others. That could make for a very tame contest, as it would be perfectly possible for every player to meet his or her bid. However, in each round one player can choose to play as the "saboteur" whose objective is to ensure that everyone else goes wrong by as wide a margin as possible. His motivation -- if simple competitiveness were not enough -- is that he starts the round with a minus score, which can only be reduced by other people taking tricks that they don't want. Playing the saboteur is always fun and even with a truly "bad" hand -- even distribution and middling-value cards -- it may still be your best option since your penalty score will have an upper limit. I regard the saboteur as an automatic choice, and suspect it will almost always be taken by the player to the dealer's left.
Fifteen cards are dealt to each player. Then, each in turn may choose either to become the saboteur, or to take seals corresponding to the tricks he expects to win. So for example if Alan anticipates winning two tricks in green, two in blue, and one in red he would collect two greens, two blues, and one red seal and display them in front of him. A total of five seals are available for red, and only three seals for each of the other four colours. Thus it may happen that a player may anticipate winning tricks in a suit where all the seals have already been taken. In that case he takes the seals he wants from the player(s) of his choice, but replaces those he took with the same number of white seals. These white seals are effectively "wild" as they may be used for any trick that is taken -- nice flexibility to have, except that the penalty for failing to use them is double that for an ordinary coloured seal.
Card play is according to whist rules, with red always trumps. You must follow suit if you can, but may either discard or trump if not. Highest card or highest trump takes the trick, and the winner of each trick leads to the next. The player winning a trick must discard one seal of the appropriate colour -- if he has one -- or else must collect a black seal instead. If taking a trick with a trump, a player may choose to discard either a red seal or the seal of the suit which was led. Thus it remains possible to get rid of a seal by the judicious use of a trump even when you have no cards left of the appropriate colour yourself. If you are fortunate enough to have white seals they can be discarded for a trick in any suit.
When all cards have been played, the players collect penalties for any seals remaining in front of them -- two for a coloured seal, three for a black, and four for a white. The saboteur starts with minus four points but reduces that score by one point for each black seal collected by the other players -- so for example if three black seals are taken, he would score only minus one. Experience suggests you will do very well to average less than two penalties per round, and scores in double figures for a single round are quite possible. This is particularly so if you fail to grasp the point that there is no intrinsic value in winning any tricks at all in this game. Most of us have been conditioned to think that taking as many tricks as possible is a good thing -- particularly when fortune deals us a strong hand. However, in this game, slapping down consecutive masters, and winning half the available tricks, just makes life easier for everyone else. You will actually do better by bidding low on a strong hand and using length in a suit to force others to take tricks they weren't expecting.
If you like trick-taking card games that require a bit of thought, then my bet is that you will enjoy Die Sieben Siegel. It is a useful addition to the list of games fitting an end-of-session half-hour slot, and should also prove a handy crossover game for non-gamers. Anyone that has played Nomination Whist before should have no difficulty coping with the differences here.