The Sound of Other Peacocks - A Pikoko Review

Peacocks are an odd bird. Their flying capabilities are the frequent punchline for the 2010 action/comedy movie The Other Guys. The bird nor its eggs are a notable luxury when served as a meal, yet farmers still raise them (I actually have memories of driving up to farms with a peacock standing in the driveway).

And what noise do they make? Is it a squawk, a caw, a holler, or a hoot? Feel free to ask Scott if you ever see him in person. He was quick to look up and imitate the bird’s sound while playing his first game of Pikoko, from Brain Games.

This game, Pikoko, is a tricky one to talk about (pun for sure intended).  

When looking at a game, a lot of times it will fall into two categories: imitating and reinventing. Many times, a game is compared to another game, like when people say Clans of Caledonia is similar to Gaia Project or Terra Mystica. Other times a designer takes what is known and common for a mechanic and shifts in a manner that reinvents it.

The latter is what Pikoko designer Adam Porter has looked to do with trick taking, while still having a slight bit of imitation of a cooperative card game. Basically, he took a trick taking game, one where you are bidding on the number of tricks you think the other players and yourself will take, and combined it with the blind hands of Spiel des Jahres winner Hanabi. Hands of cards are tucked into plastic peacocks, keeping human hands free to hold the bidding tokens.

“How does that work?” most people ask before seeing it in action. “I need to know what I have in my hand to know how many tricks I will win.”

But that’s just it! You know far more than your hand and nothing else. It’s the reverse! You know what cards everyone has except you. So your bids come from evaluating the table before bidding on each player with a closed-fist wager. It’s almost paralysis-inducing as you look at all the information to determine who will win what.

“So that makes sense,” most people will then reply, “but am I just playing my cards at random since my cards face out towards the other players?”

In some trick taking games, gameplay like that might make sense. Instead of using smart card play to fuel the game, they look to thrive off of the chaos. No, the second change to trick taking that sets Pikoko apart is that players are playing the hand belonging to the person on their left. So no blind card play, just a small bit of information that each player is left without—the reverse of what trick taking is generally about.

It sounds cool, but does it work? Generally yes. Let me start with the positives. It sticks to traditional trick taking, where everyone must follow suit if possible with a better suit/color of card (aka the trump suit). One nice addition it offers is the addition of multi-suit cards. Playing off the peacock theme, some of the feather cards are of three colors. If picked by a player and it has the lead suit, then it must be played for it.

Why does this help Pikoko? Reflect back to the bidding part of the game. Tokens will be placed in front of each peacock to state how many tricks each player thinks they’ll win. If one thing goes awry, that bid goes down the toilet. Maybe a player takes one trick too many and they’re left scratching their head how they’ll recover. In comes the multi-suit cards. Now instead of playing one as trump, they use it to lead in one of the other colors, putting favor in the hands of everyone else. Very smart.

One additional thing I’ve yet to mention is the confidence cards. After each hand is bid on, players then bid on themselves off the information they’ve collected from all other bids. Then they have a small hand of cards with each in-play peacock, picking one face-down where they are most confident in their bid. A correct confidence card scores three points and an incorrect one results in a lost point. There is also a simple “+1” card that gives a player a point if their bids don’t match the tokens of the table. This gives the scoring one tiny twist that is quite rewarding when pulled off.

And as expected from one of my reviews, I quite enjoy the art. There are a bevy of colors, not only with the peacocks themselves, but also the front and back of their feathers. And the sly and doofy looks the peacocks have about their faces gives me quite a chuckle, particularly purple.

There are not a ton of problems with Pikoko. The game is a little difficult to operate. Cards can get stuck in the peacock card holders and if fanned out in the holder the wrong way, it is impossible to see the number on the cards. Just keep in mind when placing the cards that the circles on the backs need to be showing.

But here is the difficulty with Pikoko: After thinking about it over and over and over, I’m not sure who the intended audience is supposed to be.

Is it for fans of trick taking games? That is hard to say. The analysis paralysis that can come arise during the bidding phase can slow the game to a pace that can frustrate those accustomed to other trick taking games. Even ones that are played with a traditional deck of cards (such as Euchre, even though it’s not one I personally enjoy) thrive off of the speed of play.

Is it to introduce players to trick taking? I would say that is a much stronger ‘no.’ When trying to get a handle on the standards of the genre, processing all the other hands and bidding them on them is can be a lot to handle.

It’s obvious that it’s not necessarily a gateway game, but could it be a smart filler for gamers? This is the one that I’ve thought on the most. It has the chemistry of a thinky filler, but Pikoko is fighting with a lot of fantastic games to get table time. There are a lot games that I personally would pick to play before I pick Pikoko off the shelf.

I like Pikoko, even with the audience limbo it floats in. It’s trick taking, so if you like the mechanic and want something different/unique in the genre, then this is a good one. I can’t recommend it as a gamer’s first trick taking game. But if it is placed it front of you to play, don’t hightail it away from the table. And if nothing else, make various bird sounds to match the snide smile out of the corner of your peacock’s mouth.

Verdict

5 out of 7