GemPacked Cards, by Eduardo Baraf, is a game in which players compete to earn the most points by collecting multi-colored gems, achieving goals, and buying special cards. Players who make the best use of the resources they have available, taken advantage of opportunities presented by the display, and get a little lucky have the best chance at winning the game.
In the name of full disclosure, I would like to state upfront, that I consider Eduardo a friend. I will make every effort to not allow this to affect my review of GemPacked Cards, but believe it is only right to make it clear to anyone reading this article.
The set up varies a little depending on the number of players, but the basic core of the game remains the same. The deck of cards is used to construct a, 3×3 for two/three players and 3×4 for more players, grid of squares and diamonds. If any action cards should appear during the initial set up simply shuffle them back into the deck and refill their space on the grid. Draw a number of Rocket (Goal) cards equal to the number of players plus one. Place the Sun and Nova cards next to the board, as well as the Red Dwarf Card if there are three or more players. A first player is selected by whatever means you wish or by using the method recommended in the rulebook, by allowing the cutest player to go first…a risky proposition given the otherwise low level conflict in the game, but the choice is yours.
A player begins a turn by examining the grid, if there are 7 or more diamonds in the display the player may wipe the board completely and refill it before proceeding. Next, the player draws two pips from the bag and places them face-up in his play area. A player may now take any number of actions that he is able, in any order, that he wishes. The available actions are as follows:
- Buy a square from the card grid by discarding to the common pool the necessary pips to create the square’s color.
- Buy a diamond from the card grid by discarding out of the game the necessary square cards to create the diamond’s color.
- Sell a square card by discarding it from the game to take out of the common pool any two pips that could create the square’s color.
- Buy a Rocket Card, Sun Card, Nova Card, or the Red Dwarf Card if available, paying the required cost in pips and/or cards.
Once a player has done all of the above that he is able or wishes to, he now fills in the empty spaces on the grid from the top of the draw pile. If this results in any special cards being revealed, resolve them accordingly. In the possible, but unlikely event that a player is unable to purchase any cards from the board for the entire turn, he may take an extra pip from the bag. The next player now begins his turn following the same procedure.
The game continues in this fashion, with players alternating turns until the last pip is drawn from the bag. Once this occurs, all players receive exactly one more turn starting with the active player. Victory point totals are then compared, with the highest total winning. In the event of a tie, the player with the most pips remaining is the winner. Any further ties are considered shared victories among the tied players.
GemPacked Cards is an accessible, family friendly game capable of providing a light, but fun gaming experience for the entire family. It is easy to learn for all ages and plays quickly, with an average game lasting approximately 20 minutes. Although lighter than most games that I play, it is very easy to see how GemPacked Cards could appeal to young gamers and those who prefer a casual gaming experience. Despite my tragically bad picture taking skills, the game has a very cute card art and excellent graphic design. How will little kids possibly resist the illustrations if a gaming curmudgeon such as myself cannot?
GemPacked Cards is a smoothly designed game, as are all that I have played from Eduardo Baraf, with mechanics that flow seamlessly together. Although it is a fairly simple game, the internal economy is quite clever and I very much enjoy the trading up and trading down aspect of it. I feel this is a mechanic worth exploring further in a more complex game, but fits nicely behind the scenes of this lighthearted game of brightly colored gems and smiling diamonds. The use of primary and secondary colors as building blocks make it a great game to play with young kids dipping their toe into the world of gaming! I think this is because we all like to feel validated by demonstrating our knowledge, and even little kids are aware of what colors combine to make other colors. When a child recognizes this system, one of the few they already know, the outcome will almost certainly be a positive reaction, thus creating even greater enthusiasm for playing the game. As gamers, we are well aware of the educational value games possess, and introducing light learning in such a positive manner where the child is already familiar with elements of the underlying system can only be a good thing.
Another feature of GemPacked Cards is its re-playability. Due to the variable set up of the Rocket Cards and the random nature of the display, no two games will be exactly the same. I am not generally a fan of randomness, which I will discuss later, but there is no denying the replay value created by these elements. If you are not turned off by such things, GemPacked Cards will see many plays at your table.
Like all games, there are a few concerns worth mentioning. These are primarily warnings to certain types of gamers rather than full on criticisms of GemPacked Cards, but must be noted. If you are a hardcore gamer, GemPacked Cards will likely be too light for you, except to play with your kids or as a filler between games. How do you tell if you are a hardcore gamer? If you have to ask yourself, “Am I a hardcore gamer?” you are not one and should be fine. If you cannot stand randomness, GemPacked Cards will probably not be for you as it has plenty to go around. While the randomness is abundant, it is not as luck based as you may think, because one can count cards/pips to try and make superior decisions to their opponents. You may lose any given game to the luck of the draw, but in the long run better decisions will win you a higher percentage of games.
Aside from the randomness, the only mechanical issue I have with GemPacked Cards is a clear first player advantage. The first player will always get to more pips sooner than other players because the turn order never changes. This can simply result in earlier players having options available that never make it to those who play after them. However, this is less of a concern than normal, because the game is so quick and light in nature. If luck or turn order bites you in a 20 minute game, get over it. Unless you are playing in some sort of underground high-stakes GemPacked Cards game, of which I am unaware, it will be ok. These can be major issues in more strategic games of longer duration, but in a fast filler like GemPacked Cards, they are minor things.
In conclusion, GemPacked Cards is another fine game from Eduardo Baraf. A perfect mix of appealing art and simple mechanics on top of a solidly designed engine that can be enjoyed by friends and family of all ages. If you are looking for intense competition look elsewhere, but if you are looking for quick, easy going fun, this one is a gem!