A to Z 2015 : ZAR

Our final entry into the A to Z (albeit, technically, days late) is another Filler/Gateway game. It shares very similar elements and game mechanics of Crazy Eights and Uno. Like those, this is a card game centered around matching cards and being the first to empty your hand — with a few added twists.

Let's take a look at the slightly more aggressive "screw your neighbor" approach of...

Up to 9 people can play ZAR (which I think would be interesting to play with so many!), and once the cards are shuffled together, each player is dealt the amount of cards equal to 10 minus the number of players (with a minimum and max cap of 3 and 7 respectively). For example, if there are 5 players, each is dealt 5 cards. The rest of the cards are place in a face-down Drawpile and the top card is then revealed (starting a Playpile). If it happens to be a Power card (these are 8 cards depicting either a Dragon or a Peacock), the card is shuffled back into the deck and a card is revealed.

There are 6 Basic Symbol cards in ZAR (Galaxies/Moons/Clouds/Suns/Stars/Lightning Bolts), which are essentially used in lieu of numbers. There are a pair of each symbol type in each of three colors (Blue/Red/Yellow), making for a total of 6 every Symbol card. There are 3 types of Command cards  — Crabs (Reverse Direction)/Frogs (Skip Next Player)/Wasps (Draw 2 Cards) — which trigger special actions to be taken when played. There are also a pair of each in all three colors. And finally there are the Power cards, as mentioned above, which act as Wildcards (Dragons focus on symbols, Peacocks on colors). Power cards are colorless, compared to how the rest are categorized, but each type has two different pairs for a total of 8 cards (two pairs of Dragon cards, two pairs of Peacock cards).

Once the top card of the deck is revealed, play starts with the player to the left of the dealer and goes clockwise. On a player's turn, they may either play a card from their hand onto the Playpile that matches the color or symbol of the card currently on top of it (or dictated by a played Power card or a Power card itself), draw a card and play it (or another) from their hand, or draw a card and pass the turn to the next player.

In these regards, it's very similar to games like Uno (even the abilities of the Command cards), with play continuing around the table matching cards and/or playing cards with abilities and/or Power cards, until someone empties their hand, ending the round. ZAR, however, features some mechanics that sets it apart from those that inspire it.

One example is playing a Double. This is when you have an exact pair of a card in hand and you may play both as your turn as long as it's not used to "Go Out". You can only "Go Out" with a single card.

Then there is Matching. Matching is when one player plays the exact copy of another player's card they just played. Doing this triggers two effects: the original player must draw a card for being matched and play then continues from the player who played the match.

NOTE: Matching can be done at any time, even out of turn order. This is one of the more quirky mechanics of the game, which can cause for some frantic gameplay! And confusing, depending on the cards being matched, like Command cards.

The Command cards are fairly self explanatory, except that they differ in that they Nest (or accumulate) their effects. Wasp cards are the most affected by this mechanic, since they don't require a Double or Match to trigger, and may be played in turn order. So for example, if one player plays a Wasp card, the next player has to draw 2 cards (and then take their turn), or play a Wasp card themselves, in which case the next player has to draw 4 cards, unless able to play a Wasp card of their own. This continues until no one can stack (or Match) more Wasp cards and the player unfortunate enough to be at the end of the chain must draw the accumulated amount of cards dictated.

If you play a Double with Frog cards, the next two players skip their turns. If Matched, the next two players in turn order from the player making the match lose their turn.

A Double with Crab cards cancel out one another and play continues in the current direction. Though, if Matched, play continues from the player making the match.

NOTE: Nested effects for Frog and Crab cards are most relevant when cards are played as Doubles and/or Matched (Frogs and Crabs, for example, can't be played in turn order, since the next player is either skipped or play is reversed, but may be matched).

Dragon Power cards allow a player to set a specific symbol, and Peacock Power cards allow a player to set a specific color. Dragon cards can be played on Dragon cards, Peacock on Peacock, but never intermixed between the two types.

When a player is down to their last card they must say "last card" (or some agreed upon phrase — I was taught to say "ZAR"). If they forget, and someone catches them (before someone else plays a card), asking "how many cards?" (or again, I was taught to say "Gotcha!"), they must draw a card. The final card played may also be Matched, meaning a card is drawn by that player and the round continues.

Once someone successfully empties their hand, the round ends, and each player scores the amount of points shown on their remaining cards in hand (the number listed on each card). Once someone hits 50 points, the game ends and the player with the lowest score wins!

Full Review Forthcoming

Have you ever played ZAR? If so, how did you like it? Where did you first encounter it? If not, does it sound like a game you'd be interested in playing?