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GAME CLASSICS: OHIO

(Reiner Knizia has carved out a reputation for quality game designs and plenty of them. But not all of them have made a big splash in the marketplace as they missed out on the recognition some of us believe they deserve. In this installment of Game Classics, Larry Levy sets his sights on one of the lesser known Knizia card games: Ohio. )

OHIO (Jumbo, 1998, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 45 minutes; 1998, out of print)

 

One of every game designer’s Holy Grails must be to come up with a design that uses the simplest and most elegant of rules, yet is challenging and enjoyable. But can such a simple design actually have depth and really make you work the brain cells? It’s a tough act to pull off, but it can be done. I can think of at least one such game and the most surprising thing is that it isn’t well known at all.

The game is called Ohio and it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that the designer is Reiner Knizia. In Knizia’s early days as a professional game designer, he was known for creating simple sounding games that revealed hidden depths upon repeated playings. Few of them are as simple as Ohio, but though the game is as easy as pie to play, it isn’t necessarily easy to play well.ohio2 (1)

Ohio is a rolling trick card game, although for some reason it doesn’t feel like one. (Rolling trick games are played like regular trick-taking games, but players aren’t obligated to play each turn and the trick continues around the table until all the players have passed.) Each player begins each hand with the same identical hand of 11 cards. Ten of these are numbered, from 1 to 10. The other card is labeled “Ohio”.

The first player can lead any card to the first trick. Each subsequent player can either pass or play. If he passes, he cannot win the trick and takes no further part in it. If he chooses to play a card, it must be lower than the last card played. Ohio cards can always be played, as they are slightly lower than the previously played card. Thus, if the last card was a 3, an Ohio card could be played, but it would be beaten by a subsequent play of a 2 or a 1 (or even another Ohio). The vast majority of the time, though, Ohio cards are only used to beat 1’s, whereupon the only card that would beat it is another Ohio.

The option to pass or play continues clockwise around the table until all but one player has passed. That player wins the trick and takes all the cards that were played. She then leads to the next trick. This continues until one player plays his last card to a trick. The trick is finished and the hand ends. Each players’ score is equal to the value of the cards they captured in tricks minus the value of the cards left in their hand. Captured Ohio cards are worth minus 10. Ohio cards left in your hand are also worth –10.

The game can consist of a single hand, but it plays better if there is one hand for each player, with each player given a chance to lead to the first trick of a hand. Combine the scores for all the hands and the player with the high score wins.

So, yeah, the rules seem simple enough, but it’s hard to see where the scope for much skill is. After all, the players all begin with identical hands and the game is one of perfect information, so it would seem that hands would quickly fall into familiar patterns. In fact, there are just a few simple techniques that players soon learn (like keeping your low cards for the end of the hand). The real skill, though, comes from gauging the groupthink of the table.

Groupthink affects many boardgames and some of them (such as Puerto Rico) are based around them. It’s unusual to find it to be this important in a simple card game, but to properly play Ohio, you need to be able to anticipate how your opponents will react. Making things even more challenging, the table’s groupthink is likely to change several times over the course of a game and the successful player needs to constantly keep her finger on the pulse of the group.

These tendencies can be unpredictable, which keeps the game fresh. Maybe one player scored big on the first hand by hoarding his low cards, so everyone tries to emulate that. But if people are unwilling to play low cards early on, you can take advantage by winning nice sized tricks with 3’s or 4’s. This shifts the groupthink again, so that other strategies become effective, and so on. Correctly gauging where everyone’s head is at at any one moment is very satisfying

It’s the challenge of adapting your play to the changing strategies of the table that makes me think Ohio works best when played with one hand for every player in the game, as opposed to just a single hand. Over the course of three to five hands, players’ thinking can switch several times, which adds to the fun. With just a single hand, the game seems a bit simplistic.

In addition to judging the current groupthink, keeping track of the cards played naturally is an important skill. If this kind of memorization gives you hives, don’t fret; with only 11 cards per hand and identical starting positions, it’s a lot easier than for most card games. For those who really don’t like card counting, you can actually play the game with the hands face up, since there is no hidden information. However, this would probably add to the downtime, so the standard way of playing would be my preference.

The key rule of the game, and the one that really makes it work, is the fact that you have to subtract the value of the cards left in your hand. Otherwise, you’d never play the high value cards—they have no trick taking value and they add the most points to a trick that, all things being equal, you have less than even odds of winning. But now, you have to dump these cards eventually and the timing of when you choose to do so is yet another interesting decision that can depend upon the table’s thinking. It really is remarkable how many things you need to consider in such a simple game.

The other key rule is making the Ohio card a poison pill. The ten point hit for each card makes playing one a more interesting decision and also makes it more likely that there won’t be too many played to any one trick. Just giving the card a zero value wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.

I can testify that the game plays very well with four. Several gamers on the Geek speak highly of it as a three-player game, so that seems like a good bet as well. I haven’t played with five and although I think it would work well with that number, it’s possible that a loss of control could hurt the game. But I can’t imagine playing with two; that sounds strictly like a publisher’s wishful thinking. So stick to three or four players, and quite possibly five.

Game companies always have trouble figuring out how to present designs that can be created from items found around the house. Since the components for Ohio can be easily formed from one or two standard decks of playing cards, it isn’t surprising that Jumbo pasted a theme on the game. Their choice was unfortunate, however, since they took the game’s name as inspiration and declared the goal was “winning the most states of the Union”. Besides making little sense, this theme really has nothing to do with the gameplay. The card illustrations, which show more and more state outlines as the values get larger, are also rather unappealing and puzzling (since there’s no rhyme or reason for which states appear on the cards—and they left out Hawaii!). None of this matters a bit to me, but players who like some correspondence between theme and mechanics were no doubt disappointed. Jumbo would have been better off making the game themeless and either using elegant or humorous illustrations for the cards (like the beans in Bohnanza [Fall 1997 GA REPORT] or the squirrels in Control Nut [last issue]).

So if this game is so good, why is it basically forgotten? The disconnect between theme and gameplay may be one reason. Jumbo doesn’t always have the best coverage with their adult games; witness the Kramer/Rösner design Tycoon (Summer 1998 GA REPORT), an excellent game that is played far too little. The game may also be a little fragile, since if players insist on following the same strategies, the game’s dynamic nature won’t become apparent. But I suspect the biggest reason this is a lost classic is that many groups only played it as one hand per game when they were first exposed to it (that was certainly the case with my game group). Lots of fast fillers mention that they should be played multiple times, advice which is often ignored. Many of these games don’t suffer any ill effects from this (one good example is For Sale). But Ohio truly needs the multiple hands in order for the shifting groupthink to make its presence felt. With so many great games available, a simple sounding card game that did little to impress in its first, very brief appearance would be far too easy to forget. Whatever the reason, this unique game remains deep on the outskirts of most players’ awareness.

It’s probably too late to do anything to alter Ohio’s sad fate—it is long out of print and I can’t imagine there’s much desire in the gaming world for a reprint. But if you do stumble across a copy, grab it and try it out with your group. Games that can be explained in a few minutes that nevertheless feature difficult decisions are all too rare and deserve to be remembered and played. Knizia creates so many great games that it isn’t surprising that a few of them slip between the cracks, but it’s unfortunate that a design as good as Ohio is one of them. It deserved a better fate. – – – – Larry Levy


 

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