Board Game Review: Occo – A Game of Tarot
For a long time, tarot cards have been associated with fortune telling and other pursuits, but the original deck of tarot cards was simply used to play a games, much like a modern pack of playing cards. In Occo, now available on Kickstarter, a full Tarot deck with rules for play (and not for soothsaying) is back and ready to go.
The Basics. The basic deck consists of four suits: Cups, Swords, Wands, and Coins. Each suit goes from 3 to 10. Then each includes face cards of Jack, Knight, Queen, and King. Finally each has an Ace and a Deuce at the top. Mixed in with the four “minor” suits is the “major” suit which is simply numbered from 0 to 21 and each card is individually named and illustrated.
Players are dealt seven cards and one is turned up. Then, each player has to either draw one card, or play a card from hand. A card can be played if it matches the suit or the number of the face up card. However, there are tons of special cards in Occo.
Threes and Nines will automatically skip the next player (or two). Queen’s and Kings reverse play order. Knights can be played on anything and can direct a suit change. Jacks can be played out of turn order and in succession. Queen through Deuce are “penalty” cards. If I play a Queen, then the next player has to draw one card as a penalty. Unless that player can play another queen or a King through Deuce in the same suit. Then their penalty gets added on and the next player has to draw both penalties unless he can continue the penalty chain.
Meanwhile the Major suit is chock full of special powers. Two through five are the purple cards and generally allow you to pass or eliminate any penalty coming your way. Six through Twelve are green cards which generally allow a random change of suit for the cards. Thirteen through Sixteen are red cards which generally give or avoid penalties to others. And, seventeen through twenty-one exist solely to avoid deuce penalties.
When a player is down to one card they have to call it. Then, when they go out the hand ends. All players add up points based on what’s left in their hand. After five rounds, the player with the lowest points is the winner.
The Feel. The game is enjoyable in the same way that Gin Rummy or Bridge are enjoyable. There is strategy, sure, but most decisions are relatively straightforward. Occo does allow for clever plays here and there, but any given hand is just as likely to be relatively pedestrian as it is to have something exciting. It does have some additional novelty, though, from the mere fact that it’s played with a complete tarot deck.
In many ways, Occo is difficult to discuss. Like Rummy, it’s a game that requires some effort to learn, but afterward can be played relatively effortlessly. Once the rules are firmly entrenched in your mind, play becomes relatively automatic. There are a few tense, strategic moments, but mostly you play based on what you have in your hand or hope for a good draw (though “good” depends on what is showing and what has come before). In fact, most of the strategy boils down to a handful of “rules of thumb” that, once known, significantly lower the need for great skill in the game.
At first, the game seems more complex than it really is. Lots of cards have special actions associated with them. The major suit is essentially a set of 25 special cards most with unique powers. But, once learned it doesn’t offer substantial depth. It mostly offers complexity. Complex games might be neat, but complexity in and of itself is not typically desirable.
Also, the rules are so densely packed with specific situations that it sometimes overlooks questions of much broader application. The rulebook, at least its current incarnation, is densely packed and does not call attention to critical pieces of information which resulted in my early plays being wholly unrepresentative of the true game. Hopefully, the full game will have a revamped or improved rulebook as the current version is simply inadequate and, in places, confusing.
As a minor example, it says the first card turned over is deemed the “indicator” and other played cards have to match it. When a card is played on top, does the indicator change to the new card? My assumption is yes based on other traditional card games, but the rules are unspecific. Because that first card is given the special title of “Indicator,” it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that the indicator only changed with the playing of a Knight or other green card.
Once those rule questions are cleared up, the game of Occo is actually sort of interesting. Although, again, it is interesting in the same way that traditional card games are interesting. I found nothing truly exceptional about Occo, nothing really that blows me away and seems novel, original, or inspired (other than the quaint use of a Tarot deck). Still, if you like traditional games, Occo may be worth picking up.
Components: NA. I reviewed a pre-production copy which is not representative of the final product.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 2 of 5. Occo doesn’t feel overly random, but there just isn’t that much room for break out plays or long term strategy. Instead, if someone happens to play a good card for you, you can make a great play. If they happen to play a bad card for you, you might get penalized. So, your options are more dictated by the luck of the draw than any master plan of your own. But, like any other card game, you can enhance your odds by following some basic strategy rules.
Mechanics: 2 of 5. The rules are far more complex than they need to be and, in truth, merely cover what would otherwise be immediately recognizable as a rather pedestrian game. There’s nothing new here, no great innovation. And the multitude of rules, penalties, and counters provides more confusion than fun – at least at first.
Replayability: 2 of 5. This will greatly depend on what you are looking for in a game. If you want a rummy-like game that you can play while visiting relatives, then you might play this quite a bit. My dear departed great grandmother (who I called “nana”) loved Rummy, Kings in the Corner, and games of that caliber. She would probably enjoy Occo and get more replay value from it. For me, though, it just isn’t what I’m looking for.
Spite: 1 of 5. Despite the myriad of penalties and mortalities, Occo does not feel like a spite fueled game. Every card has a counter, so there’s no guarantee of giving cards to opponents. In fact, with the right card play, the penalty might come swinging right back and hit the person who started the chain.
Overall: 2.5 of 5. Occo is very much a take-it-or-leave-it type game for me. I probably won’t ever suggest a game of Occo with anyone. It’s just too reminiscent of classic card games I’ve already very much had my fill of. But, I also wouldn’t refuse to play if someone else wanted to. Play time is very reasonable and it provides a very even experience. A little like a boat ride on a calm lake. Nice enough, but not particularly exciting or memorable.
(A special thanks to Scott Hill for providing a pre-production review copy of Occo)
(Revised October 12, 2013 after clarifications were made to the rulebook)