Anansi card game: A four-sided review

Anansi is a trick-taking card game for three to five players (for solo and two-player variants, see below). The colourful artwork comes from Nigeria (Dayo Baiyegunhi) and South Africa (Emmanuel Mdlalose) and has enough originality to stand out from the crowd.

The box lists the game as being suitable for ages 10+ and as lasting around 30 minutes. The time is pretty accurate, (20-40 depending on player count). And the age is about right. As while it’s light on rules the subtlety in scoring could be lost on younger players.

The game is a reprint of 2016 release Eternity. For a simple comparison between the two, scroll down to the relevant section below. This twin-pack sized card box contains 96 cards and should set you back a little over £10. This is about standard for a game of this size. And the card stock is of good quality, so I’d say OK in terms of value.

Teaching the Anansi card game

As with all the best trick-takers, Anansi takes the basic concept and makes a couple of subtle twists. The key to success here is to ‘inspire’ your followers. This means matching the number of tricks you win with the amount of followers you collect each round. Followers (0-2) are printed on the cards, with higher value cards having more followers.

A game last three rounds. In each you’ll be dealt 8 or 10 cards (depending on player count) and play that many tricks. The 42 game cards are numbered 1-14 in three suits. After dealing there will be two left over. These indicate the starting trump suit – which is where things get interesting. Before play the three separate cards (each showing a suit) are placed in a row, randomly. From left (strongest) to right, this indicates the trump strength of each suit. The two spare cards are placed in this area. If they’re the same colour, that suit is trump (as it has two cards). If different, the stronger suit becomes trump (as they have one card each). The value printed on the card is ignored, as only the suit is important.

The clever bit

The start player in a trick must lay a card, but the next player has a choice: lay to the trick, or gain followers (see below). Laying a card follows typical trick-taking rules: follow suit if you can, or trump/ditch a card of another suit. Best card wins the trick. To gain followers, put the card to one side until the end of the trick. Then look at the number of followers on the discarded card (either 0, 1 or 2). Take that many follower cards. Then add the card to the trumps area, potentially changing the trump suit for the next trick.

Once all tricks in a round are completed, players score. It’s vital not to have more followers than tricks won, as that scores 0 for the round. Otherwise, score one point per follower/trick-won pair. Plus, if you have exactly the same number of followers and tricks, you get bonus points. The bonus increases each round, giving those falling behind ample chance to fight back. After three rounds, the player with the most points wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s hard to make trick-taking games stand out in a crowded market, but Anansi’s art does the job well. And once you start playing, the subtle twists draw you in. Its clever that the high numbered cards (likely to win tricks) are the ones you need to get the most followers. Simply counting your high numbers doesn’t equate to roughly how many tricks you’re likely to win. Because you’ll equally want to discard some for their followers.
  • The thinker: Many trick-taking games have you predicting how many tricks you think you’ll win. But here it’s often a moving target – an interesting strategic and tactical conundrum. The way trumps work really mixes things up. Some rounds it won’t change at all, where in others it’s in almost constant flux. Better still for the strategic thinker, all cards are in play at all times. Even in a three-player game, where some are left out, the unused cards are on display. A very interesting and fun game.
  • The trasher: I like the constantly shifting goalposts in Anansi. They keep everyone on their toes throughout each round. The first few games are tricky as you get your head around the subtleties. But once you start thinking about everyone’s hands, rather than just your own, things really get interesting. Having just three suits gives less opportunities to ditch cards rather than follow suit. Which means on unlucky rounds things can be a little on rails. But for the interesting elements it adds to deciding trumps I think it’s worth it.
  • The dabbler: While the game is pretty, and clever, you need a group of trick-taking fans to make it sing. There’s not much here to hold the interest of those who don’t dig traditional card games. It can also become frustrating if you don’t get the hang of it quickly. And it can be quite a heads-down affair, as there’s loads to think about to manage to get the all-important balance. That said, I really liked it! You just need to pick the right crowd.

Key observations

Not everyone is going to like the changing trump mechanism. If you like the Wizard-style planning, this may not be for you. This is very much a game with a changing landscape hand to hand – as tactical as it is strategic. If you don’t want a bit of chaos in your trick-taking, the Anansi card game probably isn’t for you.

Only having three suits can create some bum hands. It’s more likely you’ll be able to follow suit, so sometimes you’re lefty unable to affect proceedings much. Which can be frustrating. Also ,the way the scoring ramps up works in terms of keeping players in the game. But it’s also frustrating if you do well in round one but less well later. Why are you getting less points, just because you got your good hands early? I can see this being house-ruled out of the game by more serious players.

Anansi is a trick-taker with a few clever bells and whistles. But it is very much just that. So if you don’t like trick-taking games, this is unlikely to convert you. However, it could certainly turn the heads of ‘traditional’ card game players. But the balancing of tricks to followers will also put some off. As while I find it a fascinating puzzle, others may see it as a chore getting in the way of ‘proper’ trick-taking play.

Comparisons to Eternity & the two-player/solo rules

I preferred the presentation of Eternity. The whole package, from the tree tokens to the scorepad and pencil, oozed class. But I applaud HeidelBAR’s use of African folk lore and artists. They’ve created a unique looking product celebrating a culture under-represented in the industry. Fitting at this time, when the Black Lives Matter movement is rightly on our minds.

The two-player rules have been directly ported from the original game. Players play two cards each per hand, while a dummy hand slowly reveals the cards not in-game each turn, keeping a bit of extra tension going in terms of learning which cards are in play. It’s fast and quick, but works very well.

They’ve also added both a solo version and an extended variant for the 3-5 player game. As all these rules take up just a single sheet, I can’t fathom why they didn’t just include them in the box. But in these days of almost constant connectivity, I guess it isn’t really a problem. The extended version seems a bit pointless to me – why not just play again? But it’s always nice to have more options available, so why not? I’m sure some people will like it.

The solo rules are a riff on the two-player version. It’s incredibly simple. Your imaginary opponent has a face-down deck of cards. Each round they play (randomly) first and last, starting and finishing each hand with you playing two cards in the middle. It works fine, but is hardly inspiring. It will pass time in a push. But trick-taking games are surely about reading your opponents? I guess nowadays everyone feels as if their game ‘needs’ rules for as many different player counts as possible.

Conclusion: The Anansi card game

I love a good trick-taking game – and Anansi is one of the better ones I’ve played. While simple to teach, it has that extra level of complexity to stand above some of its competitors. But it doesn’t overdo it in terms of extra rules, meaning you’ve got a better chance of selling it to new and traditional card players. Plus the artwork is bright and colourful. A bit gaudy and shiny for my tastes, but I doubt it will put anyone off playing. It’s just great to see a fantastic game back in print.

For me Anansi is more enjoyable and original than popular trick-takers Diamonds or Skull King. I’d list it as a must-have for genre fans and a should-try for anyone who is a vague fan of trick-taking games. It will be staying in my collection. But if you already have Eternity, there’s no need to pick this up unless you love the artwork. You can simply download the solo/long game rules sheet (linked above) if you want to try those variants.

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