[Larry Levy is one of the best known voices on gaming. His internet posts always attract attention for his insightful commentary and he has written for many game review publications. Not only that, Larry also conducts unofficial “game of the year” award tabulations, attracting voters and interest from around the world, with his highly entertaining – and thought provoking – The Meeple’s Choice Awards. There’s more. Larry has had one game published (Head to Head Golf) and is currently one of the committee members for the International Gamers Awards. Larry has also done something no one else, to date, has done. Larry contributed an entry to our popular Game Classic series (the ONLY one not written by me) when he wrote up Ohio in the Fall 2005 issue. But that wasn’t Larry’s first appearance. That was in the Winter 2004 issue with his review of Santiago. In this, his 9th review, Larry puts his cards on the table!]

(Pegasus Spiele, 2-5 players, ages 10 and up, 45 minutes; about $10)


Reviewed by Larry Levy

wampumIt’s interesting how boardgame themes seem to come in waves. One year, pirates are all the rage, the next year it’s dungeon crawls. This Essen, for example, out of nowhere there will be four or five games centered around wine. Great minds thinking alike, I suppose.

Games about the American frontier are enjoying a bull market recently. Carson City, Homesteaders, Dice Town, Pony Express, El Paso, and Dakota are all set in that romanticized period known as the American West. Wampum goes back even further, to the colonial days when the newcomers from Europe sought out the existing Indian tribes not for extinction (sadly, that would come later), but as trading partners. The setting is colorful enough and it enhances an interesting game.

Wampum is designed by Jeff Allers, who is turning out to be a man of many talents. Many of us first encountered Mr. Allers through his wonderfully written “Postcards from Berlin” articles for Boardgame News in which he describes the culture of Germany’s capital city through the eyes of someone raised in the United States. It turns out that Allers is also a gifted game designer and titles like Aber bitte mit Sahne (aka Piece o’ Cake, or the Pie Dividing Game), Alea Iacta Est, Eine Frage der Ähre, and Circus Maximus have emerged from his creative mind over the past couple of years. Wampum is his latest game and it might be my favorite of Jeff’s designs.

The game is based on the practice of some Eastern Native American tribes of commemorating life events with stringed shell beads called wampum. These items were much prized and often exchanged to formalize treaties or given as marriage gifts. When the European settlers arrived in America, they soon realized the importance of the beads to the Indians and began using them as a form of currency (a practice which continued in the colonies until the early eighteenth century). Consequently, the players in Wampum are trying to obtain as many of these valuable beads from the Indian tribes as they can.

The game is played with a deck of 90 Wares cards, equally divided between five different types of trade goods. Each card has a wampum bead on the back, and since the object of the game is to collect these items, these are like the cards in Bohnanza (which show coins, the VPs in that game, on the back). There are a number of Indian villages equal to the number of players and each begins the game with a few cards dealt face-up to the middle of the table. Each player starts with a hand of five cards and the game can begin.

The first player places a number of cards face down next to one of the Indian villages. These are the cards he wishes to trade and the number of cards represents his bid to trade at this village. The next player does the same thing but if she wishes to trade at the first player’s village, she has to play more cards than he did. If she chooses to do so, then the first player can’t change his bid but must instead shift his cards to another village. Each player turn proceeds in the same way, with the possibility of cascading bid changes as a bumped bid can bump another player’s bid if it has more cards. At the end of the phase, each player will have a bid at one of the villages.

Next, each player takes their income by drawing two cards from the deck and adding them to their hand. You then must check the hand limit. Each player cannot hold more cards than the highest bid plus three. So, for example, if the most cards that any of the players placed at a village was 5, then the hand limit for each of the players would be 8. Any additional cards are put out of play. The player with the highest bid also will be the start player on the next turn.

wampum2Finally, the trades at each village are resolved. The Indians in the game act like most trading partners in that what they really want are the things they don’t already have. If you offer them something they already possess, they’ll politely agree to trade with you. But only if your bid contains nothing but new items will they give you what you really want: wampum.

That’s the rationale behind the trading mechanic. At each village, the player trading there exposes their bid cards. If at least one card from the bid matches one of the cards at the village, there is a simple swap, with the player taking the village’s cards and adding it to his hand and the bid cards becoming the new offered cards at that village. However, if none of the cards in the bid matches any of the village’s cards, the player takes one card of each type and adds it to the village’s cards. He then takes the rest of the bid cards, turns them over, and places them on his score pile. They are now wampum and will be worth victory points at the end of the game.

Here’s an example since this procedure has proven to be quite unintuitive. Suppose Laura is trading with a village that has 2 grain, 1 fur, and 1 tobacco. If her bid consists of 1 grain and 1 rifle, it has a card in common with the village. Thus, there is a trade and she takes the four cards offered by the village and adds them to her hand, while putting the two cards she used to bid into the village. (Four cards for two—not too shabby.) If instead, her bid consisted of 3 rifles and 4 jugs of alcohol, none of her bid cards are the same as the ones the village is offering. In this case, she would add 1 rifle and 1 alcohol to the village, and take the remaining 5 cards of her bid and add them to her scoring pile.

After this, a new turn begins, beginning with the new starting player making a bid at one of the villages. This continues until the draw pile runs out during the Income phase. There is one additional round after that one is finished and then the game ends. Each player exposes his hand and adds one card of each type of good they possess to their wampum pile. The player with the most wampum wins.

Wampum sounds simple, but after the first game, some subtleties are discovered. Part of this comes from the bidding system, which is a variant of Evo-style bidding (where players simultaneously bid for multiple items). The variant in question is the same as the one used in last year’s Peloponnes (Winter 2010 GA Report), which is no coincidence, as Allers is a good friend and sometimes co-designer of that game’s designer, Bernd Eisenstein. Allers helped to develop Peloponnes and Eisenstein gave his blessing for him to borrow the mechanic. But it plays very differently in Wampum because bids can have varied roles depending on what village they’re played at. After all, what might be a VP run at one village will become a simple swap at another because the cards there are different. Thus, you really have to think about how many cards, and which cards, you want to bid (and it’s usually a good idea to have a Plan B).

The key rule of the game is a surprising one and that’s the hand limit. Obviously some kind of limit is necessary to keep players from doing nothing but building up huge hands and then scoring them at the end. But the way the rule is applied greatly affects the timing of the game and Wampum is essentially a game of proper timing. If everyone makes smallish bids, you’ll have to worry about your hand size as it will be fairly low. But once someone makes a big bid (almost always to try to obtain wampum), the other players are now free to keep more of their cards and might decide to continue to go for swaps at the villages. You still might try for VPs because of a favorable card setup at a village but big bids definitely affect your play. It’s also reasonable to try to anticipate when an opponent will make a big bid, based on the size of her hand. This contributes to the tempo of the game and is an attractive feature.

Timing is the key skill as you try to work your plays based on the size of the other players’ hands and when the game will end. Experience definitely helps and that isn’t immediately obvious upon reading the rules. But despite this, the game retains the light feel required of a filler.

The two ways of trading aren’t complicated but in most of my games, at least one player has screwed them up. They’re just more counter-intuitive then they seem. So take the time to carefully go over them in your rules explanation, with an example or two to illustrate them. You might also want to allow a mulligan the first time a new player confuses the two situations.

Allers’ games tend to have a reasonably high luck factor and Wampum is no exception. The luck here comes from the two card draw each turn. I’m not sure how much luck this injects into the game. Certainly it’s nice if the cards you draw match the ones you’re collecting. But it’s unusual to receive cards that don’t help you at all. I think it’s a factor but skillful play will usually prevail in this game.

wampum3I’ve played Wampum with 3 and 4 players and enjoyed it with both of those numbers. The 5 player game should play okay but since it would only last six turns, I wonder if it might be a bit short. Since the two-player game uses three villages, I have concerns with that number as well, as it may not be combative enough. But I can recommend the game with 3 or 4 players.

Pegasus did a good job with the game’s production. It comes in a nice compact metal box, hinged on one side for easy opening. The cards are sturdy and easy to shuffle. The colors are vibrant and easy to distinguish and the differently shaped icons make the game color-blind friendly. All in all, a nice tidy package that will take up very little of your precious shelf space.

Games themed around Native Americans need to tread a cautious path, as many folks in the U.S. (and elsewhere) are sensitive to the terrible way they’ve been treated over the years. On that front, there’s good news and bad news. The good is there is no stereotyping in the images or theming. It’s nice to have Indians in a game where they aren’t being fought. However, some may wince at the fact that one of the trade goods is rifles even though there’s historical precedent for that. A worse crime, however, is that another of the goods is alcohol, featuring a picture of a bottle labeled “Good Ol’ Booze”. The problem is that alcoholism is a terrible problem with the Native Americans of today so this could be seen as insensitive by some. This was a late thematic change by Pegasus (originally the fifth good was horses) and by the time Allers found out about it, the cards had already gone to print. He’s told me that if the game is picked up by an American publisher that he hopes the original image will be used instead. So not the worst example of this kind of thing but something that could have been avoided with a little more care.

Overall, though, I quite like this little game. It plays quickly, but good judgment is necessary to do well. Experience pays, as getting the timing right takes some familiarity with the mechanics, yet the game is picked up easily enough. It makes a fine opener or closer to a gaming session.


Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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