Highly strategic brain-bending card game

We are Dark Flight, a two man team made up of Nick Halper and Jordan Draper. We grew up together, playing in bands, doing art and photography work, and even going to school together, but in very different subjects. Jordan, the Industrial Designer, is the creative eye of the team; his focus is primarily on art and design, but he also provides a lot of guidance in manufacturing, shipping, and outreach. Nick is a Neuroscientist, working in the field of brain computer interfaces by day, and game design by night. He provides a lot of the technical knowledge in programming, mathematics, and probability for the games, but also contributes financial and legal work required to keep a company running. Poison Bottles is our first tabletop game, and we couldn’t be more excited!

Poison Bottles is a card game for 3-4 players that draws on elements from a number of classical card games such as Hearts, Nines, and even Memory. Of course, it comes with a number of twists of our own design.

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In Poison Bottles, each player starts with a 5-card hand and a tableau of 9 face-down cards arranged in a 3×3 grid. The goal of the game is to score the lowest number of points possible on your own tableau, while wreaking havoc on your opponents’ boards by disrupting their combos and laying points.

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Play takes place in a few phases. The first phase is the Trick Taking Phase; during this phase, players play cards from their hand to determine the winner of the trick. High card of the lead color wins, unless a poison bottle card is played, in which case the rules of the trick are reversed. In this case, the lowest card of the lead color would win, and the player that played the poison bottle gets to keep it as negative points at the end of the game.

At this point, you can begin to see the influence that playing so many rounds of Hearts had on Jordan and I, but you may also be wondering what is supposed to be done with the 9 face down cards. That is where the next phase comes in.

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During the Peeking Phase, each player looks at any one face down card in the game; these cards can be on their own board or even on their opponents’ boards! In this way, you begin to learn a bit more information about the state of you and your opponents’ tableau of cards.

We really enjoy the limited information portion of this game. You only know so much about the state of the game before you have to start taking actions, and it is interesting to see the different strategies that players employ.

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The next phase demonstrates Nick’s love of asymmetrical games, and our mutual enjoyment of games that require you to calculate tradeoffs and opportunity cost.

For the losers of the Trick Taking Phase, each player gets to swap a card from their board with a card from their hand during this Swapping Phase. It can be one that they have peeked at before, or a completely different one. The goal is to get the lowest number of points possible on your board, and rows of the same number count as 0 points. After each player has finished swapping, they protect one card with their protective rat meeple, and play passes to the winner of the Trick Taking Phase.

The winner of the phase does a similar action, but they perform it on their opponents’ boards. This is called the Attacking Phase, and the winner will swap one card from their hand onto each opponents board, leaving the replaced card face up.

There are a lot more tradeoffs in this phase than first meets the eye. To win a trick, a player would typically need to be playing high numbered cards, but by expending their high number cards in tricks, they have less high numbers to lay onto opponents’ boards. Similarly, there is a tradeoff in whether a player would want to win the trick at all. Attacking others is great, but by continually attacking other players, you never get to work on your own board.

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There is a lot of strategy that goes into deciding when to win a trick, when to lose a trick, and when to play a poison bottle. On top of that, there is strategy in what you decide to pursue on your own tableau. Poison bottles are worth -3 points in tricks, which can help your final score, but they are worth 11 points on an opposing player’s board, making them valuable to use in the attacking phase. Of course, you wouldn’t want to place too many on any one board, because 3 poison bottles in a row is -30 points, making them a high risk, high reward strategy that only same players are bold enough to pursue.

In the end, Poison Bottles is a game based on making the best educated decisions on limited information. It has trick taking, memory components, player interaction, and a variety of strategies.

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To get to this point, it took a lot of work! Jordan and I spent over a year and half altering our original concept to come up with this balanced final product. It is interesting to see how different the game has become compared to the original concept. Originally, there was no attacking phase; winning the trick allowed you to modify your own board, but the game was way too slow and way too boring, you hardly ever interacted with other players! Eventually it went through phases of too much to memorize, too many phases, too much aggression. Finally, we arrived at a game that people had fun playing, and they always came back for more.

Poison Bottles is now on Kickstarter.

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