Sarkophag* is a very light trick-taking card game with a neat twist. If you’re familiar with the game Little Devils, Sarkophag is almost identical – please refer to ‘Key observations’ below for the slight differences.
In the double-deck sized card box you’ll find 60 cards and a rulebook. The game is currently only available in German, but the English rules are available to download in a format that fits easily into the box.
While the game box suggests this is a three to six player game, it really doesn’t work with three (as explained below). But with four to six players it offers a 15-minute game experience that sets up and packs down in no time – and with a price tag around £10.
In terms of production, Amigo provides its usual high quality linen finish card stock. The artwork is pleasingly cartoony (I particularly like the fat little cat mummy) and all the information you need is easy to make out on the cards. The game is language independent, so once you’ve printed off the rules you don’t have to worry about the cards.
Sarkophag turns trick-taking (think Whist, Hearts etc) on its head: essentially you don’t want to win any tricks, ever. It also simplifies the concept, so once you’ve gone through a trick everyone should have the hang of it.
That said, it can feel a little counter-intuitive and you will probably get a few tricks that cause confusion. But it is very simple to describe the situation on the table without anyone having to give away what they have in their hands.
Players are dealt 10 cards each and there will be 10 hands – so you’ll have to play the lot. Each card has a number (1-60) and an amount of mummy heads (0-5) – that’s right, no suits. The idea is to have the least mummy heads in tricks you’ve won by the end of the game; hence, if you’ve won no tricks you’re in good shape!
If leading a trick the one rule is you can’t lay a card with five mummy heads on it unless you have to; because the person leading the trick can’t win it. The next person clockwise then lays a card – if it’s higher than the first, everyone has to also lay a card higher than the first one, and vice versa. If you can’t you can lay anything as prescribed, you can lay the opposite – but now the hand’s rules also flip opposite in terms of who’ll win it, making you even more likely to lose. The loser of a trick starts the next one.
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 good to see Sarkophag has become the 15-minute game Little Devils promised to be. But it is still massively dependent on luck, as a bum deal means you can be out of it before you begin. The question you need to ask yourself is – do you care? The game is cute to look at, only needs a card shuffle, and can be taught in five minutes. It can last as long as you like as additional plays only mean an extra 15 minutes, while no one I’ve played it with has particularly taken against it. It’s a simple, clever and elegant design that’s worthy of praise.
- The thinker: While this will never be a deep game, there can be some strategy here. You may decide to win a trick, especially if you can win a low scoring round with a low scoring card – letting you then lead with one of your higher cards. But unless you’re playing with six players you no longer have the perfect knowledge you had with Little Devils, making it more of a crap-shoot. This is a good leveller for a family game, but not for a serious card-counter or strategist. People who enjoy a memory element to their filler games should seek out the original.
- The trasher: Sarkophag works well and I like the fact you’re trying to make others win tricks – but it’s simply too luck based. Sure, it’s funny when you see someone take a massive load of mummy heads in one turn; but it’s very rare you feel you did it to them deliberately – the sucker just got unlucky with the draw. I wish the game had a little more depth so you could really ram home the comic nastiness the game thrives on. I want to know what you have and to be able to try and make you pay for it! But even so, I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I had fun playing the game as-is.
- The dabbler: For me, this is a fun family game that anyone can play. It’s good to see Little Devils without the devils, as that did put some people off – but that said it still isn’t for everyone. The simple fact is that not everyone enjoys trick-taking games – many grew sick of it having played too many of these kinds of games with the family growing up. Those people aren’t going to be won over here, as if anything Sarkophag is even simpler than the old classics – so to them, probably even more ‘meh’. It’s a fresh take on the idea, but only if you like the idea already!
If you own Little Devils, there is little reason for you to invest. The main difference, beyond the retheme, is the addition of 6 cards to make it a 60 card deck. Each player has 10 cards instead of nine, and you simply deal without removing any cards depending on player count (so it’s faster, but less predictable).
As with Little Devils, Sarkophag is NOT a three-player game. Player one leads, player two decides the direction of the numbers, player three has to play a card: there’s no anticipation or dread, just a dreary and prescriptive experience where the person in third almost always ends up stuck with the trick.
So the question is – should I play this over Hearts, Spades, Whist etc? For many the answer will be no. But for an introduction to the trick-taking genre for anyone from eight and up it totally works, while the tiny rules overhead also makes it one of the quickest draws in town if you have a few gaming minutes to spare.
But £10? This is hard to justify for 60 cards in a box, which is simplifying classic games you can play with a standard card deck. But that’s your call.
I think the changes made in this edition are all improvements, as they play to the games core strengths of speed and accessibility.
It may not win over many ‘proper’ gamers, but for me it offers as much fun as any game of this size and length has any right to – a great addition to my arsenal of gateway games. Cost will be an issue for some, but for me I think it offers enough replay value to be worth a punt if you think it’s in your wheelhouse.
* I would like to thank Amigo Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.