Purple Pawn writes about hundreds if not thousands of games each year, mostly after glancing at the box, rules, or press release. While you can’t judge a game solely by any of these, we think it’s fair (and our right) to post about what we think the game might be like or whether we have been enticed to play it after a first cursory look.

Steven Mcclain is not the first publisher or designer to write to us after one of these posts, upset that our post didn’t sing the praises of his game DD Mau properly, which we surely would do after playing the game. Steve got several of his early customers to pile on the comments in defense of his game, which I described as UNO+, i.e. something like UNO but with a bit more to it.

Funnily, that’s what all of the comments said, too, but they claimed that the “bit more” was light years more, on steroids more, not even a comparison more, and that it was unfair for me to malign the game without having played it. And how deep the game is, with all kinds of nifty plays. “Strategy like Chess” one commenter even wrote.

After some emails with me, Steve calmed down and turned out to be pretty cool. He send me a complementary copy of the game to review. I played a few games, with both three and five players.

Looking at the game a little more closely, the game still seemed a lot like UNO, with essentially the same cards, even many of the same special cards. It, like UNO, Taki, and other games are all derived from Crazy Eights and similar games. Some let you play more than one card at a time, some have different special power cards, but essentially a turn based matching/shedding game, of which Pagat lists several hundred.

It looked like the best chance the game had to excel above UNO and the like was an oddity it had about scoring: at the end of each round you gain negative points for the values on the cards you use to go out, and positive points for all the remaining cards left in your hands. Unlike most of the other games in this genre, this looked like it would provide a certain amount of tension about whether or not to hold on to higher valued cards. If you toss out the high cards, you won’t get many negative points if you go out. On the other hand, if you keep the high cards, you  might get stuck with a high valued hand when someone else goes out.

Unfortunately, while this idea does play a very small part in the strategy of the game, it is too small to make any significant difference.

And that’s all of the good news.

DD Mau is not UNO+, it is, rather, UNO- (not a significant minus, but a minus nonetheless). There are many, many reasons for this.

First of all, although the cards are fine quality, the game comes in two boxes of cards with no paper rules. Rather than printed on paper as you would expect, the rules are printed on cards that take up half the deck of the second box. 112 cards: 80 playing cards, and 32 cards containing rules, FAQs, and power card summaries. I understand that printing requires 56 card blocks, so once the designer realized that his game had 80 he was in trouble. But this was not the best solution. Reading rules over 32 cards is a minor annoyance.

Playing cards and UNO cards have number on the corners for easy reading but also have big central numbers to help people with weaker eyesight. The non-power cards in DD Mau all have the same abstract picture of a paint-splatter of a man (no game or, seemingly, thematic purpose). Speaking of which, the game sure looks like it has some kind of theme having to do with magicians or criminals or something, but nothing in the rules or cards hints at any kind of theme, other then some mysterious pictures.

Secondly, the rules are not written all that well, which ups it to a mid-level annoyance. The rules, goals, and play are not presented, in my opinion, in a clear and organized fashion. To whit, just understanding how to play a few of the power cards required a series of clarifying emails with the designer.

Thirdly, I can’t blame the rules writer altogether, because the rules themselves are simply unnecessarily convoluted. Cards that seem simple in UNO (“Reverse”) require a paragraph of text to explain, partially because the writer can’t simply write “reverses play direction”, but also because each card has little niggling rules exceptions. For instance, the Reverse card, unlike the other power cards, requires the player who played it to play again. The Skip card can be combined with exactly one other of the penalty cards in a specific type of chain. There is a Take 2 card that skips the next player’s turn, and one that doesn’t. One can be played on any color, one only on the same color. Etc. etc. etc.

You have to pour over the exceptions with a fine-toothed comb. I’m reading them again now and still having trouble keeping them in my head. And the power card summary card is not any help with these exceptions.

This is the type of design you would expect to be caught and beaten out of a game by a good series of play-testing session. One commenter on my original post said “You can learn how to play UNO in ~5minutes; it takes HOURS to learn how to play DD MAU secondary to all of its complexities.” How right he is.

Fourth, even considering how convoluted and exception-prone all the power cards are, two of the cards are so convoluted and bizarre that I am still scratching my head over them. One is called Link Master, and it allows you to play a sequence of cards. In particular, unlike on most turns where you can play any number of cards of the same value as long as the first card played matches the color of the top card on the deck, if you play a Link Master you can play any number of cards of the same value (as usual), and then add a sequence of cards – only of the same color – starting with the last card of your set, and then top it off with any number of cards of the same value as the last card in your sequence. So you can play 4a 4b 5b 6b 7b 7c 7d. The sequence must be a minimum of three cards.

There is a joker power card called the Master Mau which allows you to simulate any other power card, and if you simulate a Link Master using a Master Mau, your sequence does not have to be of cards of the same color.

Furthermore, you cannot play a Link Master alone; it must be played together with another card.

Furthermore, there is a Deck Master card, a card that appears to have absolutely no game play value whatsoever, but which cannot be played unless you first play a Link Master. Unless you are going out, in which case you can play as many Deck Masters as you like without Link Masters, dumping them as you go out. What the heck is a Deck Master? The dealer is first determined by everyone drawing cards until one player draws a Deck Master. After a player goes out, the presence of a Deck Master in the sequence of cards used to go out, or in the hands of the players who are stuck with cards, determines who the next dealer is.

Why? Why bother with Deck Masters? Cut the cards to see who goes first and then make whomever goes out the next dealer. And Link Master: just say that it lets you play straights. Done.

For all this complication, in the games that I played, no one ever had more than around 6 or 7 cards in their hand, and so no one ever had a straight that could possibly have made use of the Link Master card, anyway. I briefly considered the possibility of purposely drawing cards in order to make use of a Link Master, but the chances of this doing you any actual good seemed quite remote.

Lastly, we come back to the scoring. The reason why my hopes were dashed about having some tension between holding or playing higher valued cards is that the game is, essentially, UNO. On the vast majority of your turns, you play the only card you can play, or you play the only card that makes any sense to play, and that’s all there is to it.

A game is scored until someone has over 505 points. After two hands in one of our games, the player in last had 120 points, so a game is going to take ten or more hands. If a player’s running score hits between 500 and 505 at the end of a hand (the rules say “In the event that a players [sic] score is 500, 501, 502, 503, 504, or 505, …”), the score is reduced to 400. And players can always score negative points. So the game is not actually guaranteed to end, ever.

To sum up, I see no reason that anyone should pick up this game rather than UNO. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t have a fun time playing it. Like many games, the fun is likely to depend more on the people you’re playing with.