Händler der Karibik: A four-sided game review

Handler der KaribikHändler der Karibik is a small box push-your-luck card game. It was sold for a minimum donation of five euros at Essen 2013 to raise funds for the Austrian Games Museum. An English edition with some slight variations will be released this year under the name Port Royal (adding a fifth player).

The original game takes two-to-four players about 30 minutes to play, needing only the 110 cards that come in the box. The game is simple to learn and is certainly at the lighter end of the gaming spectrum, but the way the cards come out and the amount people try to push their luck leads to a surprising amount of variation.

The cards are of good stock with a linen finish. The game has, as you may have guessed, a nautical/pirate theme and the cartoony artwork is colourful, fun and perfectly in keeping with the game’s feel. The rules are only in German, but they’re downloadable in English via Board Game Geek.

Teaching

Handler card typesAs with most of the best light filler games, the simplest way to teach Händler der Karibik is to play a turn. However, it’s probably worth quickly running through the four card types before you get going (as not all may show up in the first turn).

To win the game a player must have completed at least one expedition and have a total of 10 victory points (this may change a little in Port Royal). Expeditions are worth 2-5 points, people 0-3, so it doesn’t take long to be in a winning position; as long as you’ve nailed an expedition, of course – and there are only five in the deck.

Handler people cardsThe bulk of the deck is made up of ‘people’ and ‘ship’ cards. Ships give money, which you spend on people to add to your tableau.

These will do a variety of tasks (more later), from helping see off ships you’re not interested in to helping complete an ‘expedition’ – the third type of card. The final card type is ‘tax increase’, which makes it risky to hoard money (if you have a lot of cash when they come up you lose half – much like the robber in Catan).

The first part of your turn is to ‘discover’, followed by ‘hire’ and/or ‘loot’. Turn over the first card of the deck: if it’s a taxes card resolve it; if it’s an expedition it is put to one side and can be claimed by the next player (including you) who can meet its requirements. In either case, flip the next card.

Handler ship cardsUsually though it will be a ship or person card. If it is a person, and you have enough coins, you can ‘hire’ them; if it’s a ship, you can instead ‘loot’ its coins (1-4, with cards from the deck used face down as currency); otherwise, you can push your luck and draw another card.

You can continue to push your luck until you’ve drawn two ships of the same colour; if this happens, your turn immediately ends with you being empty handed.

But importantly, once you’ve stopped and bought a card, in turn order, each other player can then also buy one of the remaining cards. On the plus side, you will get one of the coins they pay with; but on the other, you’re giving up cards to your opponents on your turn. So how far do you really want that middle row to grow?

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: For such a light game, Handler der Karibik packs in a lot of interesting moments. People stay invested because they know they may get a shot at hiring or looting every round, while the shuffle really mixes things up. No expeditions early can make things tense, as you simply don’t know what to go for, and while the theme is pretty pasted on the colour and art really helps make it an enjoyable experience.
  • The thinker: There’s more game here than at first meets the eye. Ships have a battle value, so by collecting soldiers with ‘sword’ symbols you can fight off low coin ships you don’t want – or high coin ones your opponents will. But they’re not directly helping you towards the expeditions. Will you have time for the long game? Yes, it’s swingy as hell, but its a filler with decisions to be made and I enjoy the game.
  • The trasher: In Handler der Karibik you can keep pushing your luck for that one big turn; because if you manage to get four or five different coloured ships drawn in one turn, you can buy two or even three cards in one go (rather than one) and perhaps swing the game. Fortune doesn’t often favour the brave here, but when it does its great! All it needs is an expansion with some ‘screw your neighbour’ cards.
  • The dabbler: Turns are really varied; you may flip a four-coin ship and end your go immediately, leaving your opponents with nothing as they groan at your luck; or you may flip 10 cards or more as the others egg you on to even greater risks – preferably in pirate voices. You can add super quick set up and pack down to the simplicity, plus the small box, and what do you have? A real winner, me hearties!

Key observations

Handler der Karibik boxHandler der Karibik doesn’t come in for too much criticism; if anything it is damned by faint prize with ‘nice’ coming up a lot. But for a filler this is pretty much par for the course.

Some say it can be too slow, which we have experienced once or twice. But more seriously, and related to the speed complaint, is that you’re not always going to get a reliable game experience.

I do have some sympathy with this position. I’ve seen games where you simply never get a shot at an expedition, making winning impossible – or where a string of dull cards come along in a lump making for five minutes of boring turns.

But this is a 20-30 minute game revolving around a single deck of cards; its inevitable and, frankly, not the end of the world for most people. You’ll know if this is the kind of thing that will irritate you and your group and if it is, you should probably steer clear.

Conclusion

Handler der Karibik coin cardsI picked up Handler der Karibik on a whim at Essen. I liked the idea of supporting a board game museum and there was a pile of promos being given away with it too. What could go wrong? As it happened, I got a fantastic little card game.

In fact, I’d say this has knocked previous favourite Archaeology: The Card Game off its perch as my go-to filler card game. That also suffers from the occasionally bad experience due to the luck of the draw, and while it has more fun in the take-that department I think I prefer the push-you-luck of Handler right now. The artwork is streets ahead too. This may change over time, as we’ll have to wait and see quite how much legs the game has, but so far so good.

Handler der Karibik is, unfortunately, hard to get hold of right now. However the new version, Port Royal, was released by Pegasus Spiele in Germany this week and should be available elsewhere soon for around £10. If you like to have a few push-your-luck card game fillers in your collection I would certainly recommend picking this up, as it rather elegantly does exactly what it sets out to do.

Can’t Stop: A four-sided game review

Can't StopCan’t Stop is a classic push-your-luck dice game that retails for just over £20. It takes two-to-four players and scales well, playing out in about half an hour.

It’s a very simple yet clever abstract game that’s light on components, so works really well as a filler game.

Originally released in 1980 by Parker (the current English language edition is from Gryphon Games), it was designed by much loved game designer Sid Sackson (Acquire, Sleuth, I’m The Boss and many more), who sadly passed in 2002.

All you need to play is four dice, a simple board and 11 pieces in four player colours (in fact the game started life in the 70s as a pen-and-paper game). It would be simple to make your own version and I’ve seen some lovely wooden versions.

The components in the Gryphon version (the one I own) are solid. The board/pieces have a traffic sign/traffic cones ‘theme’ and although a little garish its perfectly serviceable; I just like the game enough that I’d love a fancier version!

Teaching

Can't Stop rulesThe game is incredibly simple to teach. The rules are on a single two-sided piece of paper and the simplest thing to do is to just go first and play out your turn, rather than bothering explaining anything.

As I’ll prove now, it’s harder to explain than show… A player takes the four six-sided dice and rolls them, making two pairs of the results; so if you rolled 3,4,4,4 you would have to make a 7 and an 8.

The board has a track for each possible number (from 2 to 12). There are three neutral cones – in the example you would take two of them and place one on the first space of both the 7 and 8 tracks. You now roll again (if you want to) and again make two pairs of the results.

If (following our example) you rolled another 7 and/or 8, you could advance the neutral cones you’ve already placed. Otherwise, you can use your final neutral cone to advance another number. So, if you now rolled 3,3,4,4 you could take an 8 and 6; or two 7s.

Can't Stop cones longWhile you’ve got neutral cones unplaced, you’re not in much danger (at least early on). But once all three of your neutral cones are on the board, you have a tough choice. If you can’t make one of your three numbers with your roll, you lose all your progress.

So, to follow our example, say you’ve gone for 6, 7 and 8. If you then roll 5,5,5,6 you can only make 11 and 12 – the neutral cones are removed from the board and your turn ends with nowt.

You can of course decide to ‘stick’ before your next roll. If you do, replace the neutral cones with those of your colour and it’s the next player’s turn. The next time it comes to you, the exact same process happens – but this time the neutral cones move from the positions you’ve achieved before. If you push your luck and fail now, you only lose the progress from this turn.

You are all racing up each number to claim it. The easier the number to roll, the more of it you’ll need – so while you’ll need twelve 7s to claim them, you’ll only need two 12s. When you claim a number, everyone else’s progress on it is discarded. The first player to claim three numbers wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious amalgams drawn from observing my friends, and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: On the surface Can’t Stop may look simple and repetitive, but as the game goes on the dynamics shift. As fortunes ebb and flow you may be forced into crazier luck-pushing – but when it pays off it’s a blast. And as a game draws to an end and numbers are closed down, even that first roll can end in tears. For such a simple device, the game has a genuine story arc that’s always different.
  • The thinker: While I would be quick to jump on a poor game, it would not be fair to do that here. The game is a luck fest, but good judgement will make a difference; dice means odds and while every game will be touched by luck a good player will still win more than a bad one. That is enough to make a filler worthwhile and as a break between heavier games I’m always happy to play.
  • The trasher: There’s something brutally combative about Can’t Stop that has enduring appeal. Fortune doesn’t always favour the brave but at the same time this game rarely rewards over-cautious opponents; meaning there’s nothing more fun than chasing the timid up their chosen numbers and watching them fret all the way to the top. And one day, maybe, I can win in the first turn – I’ll always give it a try!
  • The dabbler: Great! The game can be taught in no seconds flat and, better still, everyone remembers the rules even if they only played once five years ago. You can socialise between turns too, as it’s easy to quickly work out the board position on your turn. But it’s just as much fun to ooh and aah, deride and cajole, as your friends try to make that tricky role-or-not decision.

Key observations

Can't Stop in playCan’t Stop is criticised by some for being a bit slow; especially in a four-player game, there can be quite a wait between turns.

But this comes down to your group. If you chat amongst yourselves, or like a lot of table banter, this really isn’t going to be an issue – quite the opposite in fact.

Beyond this, criticism tends to simply come down to personal preference. This is a simple push-your-luck dice game and if that concept really doesn’t float your boat, while this is a classic, it isn’t a miracle worker.

Conclusion

Sid Sackson was years ahead of his time and for me, alongside Acquire, this is his greatest gift to gamers. While more straightforward than his classic game of stocks and shares, this is every bit as enjoyable and in terms of push-your-luck dice games it simply hasn’t been bettered since.

Can't Stop cones

When he died (in his 80s) he left behind a personal collection of over 18,000 games. He was a true gamer and his love for the hobby shines through in his best designs: simple to learn, decisions to make, fun to play.

I wouldn’t say this about many games, but I think Can’t Stop deserves to be in pretty much every collection. It ticks so many boxes – it’s a good filler that’s easy to teach; its quick, with fast set up/put away time; it’s clever yet simple, while encouraging table banter and is suitable for all ages. What’s not to like?

I rate it 8 out of 10 and simply don’t have a bad word to say about it. If you’re new to the hobby, this one should definitely be on your shopping list; but don’t expect it to be more than it is – a fantastic game of gambling and luck that’s a great way to kill half an hour.