The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine ★★★

Trick-taking, the last frontier. For all my gaming experience, nothing remains as intimidating as four grandpas playing Bridge or Hearts. Hidden behind simple rules and a familiar façade there’s an amount of trickery and depth I’ve never been fully able to understand.

The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine, a cooperative take on the genre, has made me see the possibilities for the first time and all while having fun.

TRICK-TAKING

Trick-taking games are a traditional genre of card games whose most notable titles include Bridge, Hearts, Tarot and the hobby-adjacent Tichu. The basic mechanism is all of them is that each player plays a card and whoever has the best one wins the namesake “trick” or hand. Of course, how that best card is defined is usually quite involved and while you might win one trick quite easily, winning more than the other players can be a challenge.

The Crew is unusual because it’s fully cooperative. Here, the goal is not to beat other players, but to complete a series of 50 increasingly difficult missions with them. These rank from giving a player a certain card to winning tricks with the weakest play to making sure a player gets all the cards of one colour.

These missions are listed in the manual and are meant to be played in order. Missions include a certain number of tasks, which are distribution between players and tell you which cards you must get. They also list any additional twists, rules changes or details that make these tasks more challenging.

The actual trick-taking is extremely simple. The winner of the previous trick plays a card and all other players must follow with a card of the same suit, if possible. Whoever played the higher number wins and takes all the cards in the trick. You do this until you clear the mission or screw up spectacularly.

At first, things are easy. You learn how to give cards to other players so they can complete their tasks. You learn how rockets, the trump suit that wins all tricks, work and how to manipulate the board so you can use them. Soon you are taught how to lose intentionally to sneak cards of a different colour and you are off to the next level of play.

LEARNING

This is the true appeal of The Crew: It’s a 50-mission tutorial on how to play trick-taking games. It teaches you all possible moves and slowly ramps up the difficulty to keep up with the previous challenges. It’s the perfect introduction to the genre because it’s focused on making you understand its workings.

In this blog, I often stress the importance of good play. Games can never be greater than the capabilities of its players. If we all play carelessly, without thinking or not knowing what to do, the experience is going to suffer. It’s why I write strategy guides, because a better time playing games requires experience.

And thanks to The Crew, now I have that experience. The Crew not only teaches you to win but how and why a certain move is the correct one. It shows you how to win with a poor hand, to do angle tricks and learn how to guess what your other players have.

The Crew is not the best game in its genre. Compared to Tichu, Stick’Em Up or the classics, it’s too straightforward. It leaves little room for clever play and, sometimes, the right play is too obvious. Similarly, missions can become significantly easier or harder depending on the card draw. A good gamble can result in a walk in the park or make you lose on the spot.

And while the cooperative aspect is neat, I’m not sure it competes with that genre. Limited communication makes this closer to a deduction game, like Hanabi, than a game of cooperation like Pandemic. In that sense, it’s not very different from a typical trick-taking game played with a partner.

But while The Crew may not be the best game in its genre, it can be the right one. And that’s something much more important than sheer quality. I may recognize Stick’Em Up as a superior game in a vacuum but I’ve yet to win a single game of it. I often sink to minus 60 or 80 points at the end of the table, dumbfounded. So while it may be the better game, it’s not the game most adequate for me, as a player.

EDITIONS

The game’s components, as simple as they are, are pleasing. Bright colours and good cardstock are not impressive qualities, but I welcomed them during play. The mission descriptions are a bit loose, but there was only one mission in which the instructions weren’t clear enough so as to be an issue.

In fact, the edition I was sent by Kosmos UK features several improvements over the original release. Not only is the quality of the printing higher, they improved the design of the cards. The numbers and colorblind symbols are no longer layered on top of the picture, but given their own white background to help them stand out. Likewise, task card now have their own design, which is easier to read at a distance.

These small changes are commendable. They do not stand out on the shelf nor draw our attention when we see the game in pictures, but they do improve the experience. Being willing to go back to the original files and modify them to introduce an improvement is something very few publishers are willing to do.

Kosmos also advertises a “Helper app” featuring a tutorial and the whole list of 50 missions. While interesting, it’s not a very interesting feature. The tutorial is clunky and slow and the list of missions is pointless if you already have the manual. I’m a big proponent of digital integration whenever it can provide a better experience, but this app is better passed over.

The game supports three and four players well and is better with the latter count, the manual includes variants for two and five. While nice, I haven’t found them particularly compelling. The 2-player variant has a dummy called JARVIS whose plays are chosen by one of the real players. The five player variant simply accommodates the sharp rise in difficulty caused by dividing cards further between more people. They may be worth playing in a pinch but I would not choose them over playing other game, if available.

THE CREW: THE QUEST FOR PLANET NINE (2019)
DESIGN Thomas Sing ART Marco Ambruster
Sensit Communication
PUBLISHER KOSMOS UK LENGTH 5-10 Minutes per hand
NUMBER OF PLAYERS 3-4 (Best with 4) SCORE ★★★

A copy of the game was provided by Kosmos UK for review purposes.

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