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Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(US Games Systems, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 30 minutes; $19.95)

mysteryrummyescape1Sometimes, if you’re very fortunate, you get hold of a winning formula and it pays dividends. For Mike Fitzgerald, that formula is the Mystery Rummy franchise. For over a decade, starting with Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper (featured in the Fall 1998 Gamers Alliance Report and written up by me both here and for GAMES magazine), the release of a Mystery Rummy game was always an attention grabber. That initial release was quickly followed by Murders in the Rue Morgue (Fall 1999 GA Report), Jekyll and Hyde (Spring 2001 GA Report) and Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld (Summer 2003 GA Report). Now, after over a decade’s hiatus, these titles are joined by the fifth official entry in the series: Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz.

Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz is a joint design with Mike Fitzgerald sharing the credit with Andrew Korson. The game comes neatly packaged as two decks of cards: Plan cards and Action cards. Although the title might lead you to think otherwise, the goal here is to STOP criminals from escaping from the legendary prison, nicknamed “The Rock” and, by doing so, score 100 points to win.

To begin, all players receive a “Foiled” card with the Plan and Action card decks shuffled separately into two draw piles. The Plan deck consists of two different types of cards: plans (which come in 7 different colors of 12 cards each) and “Escapees” (criminals who, in real life, attempted to break out of the prison). From the Plan deck, cards are drawn, one at a time, until an Escapee is revealed. That Escapee is placed aside (in the “yard”). Non-escapee cards are placed, face up, in a row that becomes the discard pile aka “Solitary” with their colored edges easily seen. Now, each player gets a starting hand of 10 Plan cards.

On a turn, a player may either draw 2 cards from the Plan deck (aka the Cell Block) OR take the last card on the discard pile (Solitary). He may then make (or lay off on) a meld.

mysteryrummyescape3Should a player have three (or more) Plan cards of the same color, he may meld them in front of him. (Alternatively, if a meld is already in play and the player has a card or more that matches, he may “lay off” and place those cards in his display.) Players may not make more melds than there are Escapees in the yard but they are allowed to play one (and only one) Escapee card to the yard on a turn. Once playing a meld or laying off, a player gets to draw an Action card.

Only one Action card may be drawn each turn no matter how many melds or “lay offs” are done. Action cards are all beneficial and allow a player to do something extra. (More on that later.) A turn ends by discarding a card to Solitary. Play continues until 8 or more cards of the same color are on the table. At that point, that escape plan is foiled.

All Plan cards are worth 2 points each. In addition, every meld must be accompanied by an Escapee. All melds have a corresponding, specific, Escapee recognized by the same color. “Generic” Escapees (those colored in gray) add 5 points to a score but if you manage to have the matching Escapee with your meld, 10 points are added. The player triggering the scoring gets to choose one of the Escapees in the yard or in his hand to be included in the meld. Other players who also have cards of that color in their displays may also add an Escapee (either generic or the matching color) to the cards they have as well but only if they have that card in their hand, not from the yard. Scored cards go under your “Foiled” card to be totaled up at the end of the round.

mysteryrummyescape2A round ends in two ways. If the draw deck runs out, the round is over and collected cards are scored. A round also ends if a player manages to go out by discarding the last card in his hand. If no plans have been foiled when this happens, that player scores the value of ALL Escapees in the yard and no one else gets anything. (So, with two generic 5s and 2 specific 10s there, that player would get 30 points!) If at least one plan has been foiled, then the player going out gets a bonus of 3 points for each Escapee present in the yard to be added to his “foiled” cards. (In the above example, he would add another 12 points to his score for the four Escapees in the yard.) Rounds continue as necessary until one player scores 100 or more points. High score wins!

Card quality in a card game is an important consideration and here, quality is quite good. These cards will stand up to a lot of playing (although they are a little thick for card “riffling”). Colors used are easily distinguishable which is a very good thing when you need to color-coordinate melds. The bits of information on the card about escape attempts from Alcatraz and the criminals who tried them add a very interesting bit of history to the atmosphere too.

As mentioned, players get to draw an Action card on a turn whenever making a meld of laying off. The addition of an Action deck to impact on rummy play was a concern as the danger of too much randomness in a card game (and card games, by definition, come with a degree of randomness) was a distinct possibility. Fortunately, in practice, the Action deck proves to be a positive providing several valuable functions.

Some Action cards help get Plan cards stuck in “Solitary” back into the game, allowing players to “liberate” them thereby making completing melds more attainable. One such Action card even allows a set to be made out of only 5 cards instead of the standard 8. Others provide for more card draws which can put more Escapees into the mix which, in turn, allows more melds to be made. In short, it prevents the game from “locking up”, keeping the action moving ahead.

Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz focuses on offense rather than defense. There is little advantage to be gained by not playing cards in colors already on the table. While holding back may hinder an opponent from scoring, it actually works against you as you won’t score when that meld is eventually made and, without at least one card of a completed meld in your display, you are denied the opportunity to corral bonus points for Escapees in your hand.

Because Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz builds on the familiar game of rummy, many players will feel comfortable with the basics before even opening the box. Since play is very straightforward and fast moving, the game is a perfect entry level design, encouraging casual gamers who like card games to explore a variation on the genre. In the body of work that comprises the Mystery Rummy opus, Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz is “rock solid” and a worthy entry in the series.


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