This guest review was written by Chris Fenton; lapsed blogger, father of two young boys, and a teacher who has spent years successfully integrating modern hobby board and card games into the classroom environment.
Unter Spannung* is the 2016 reprint of 7 Ate 9: a light family/children’s card game of addition and subtraction. This new version is from Amigo Spiel, designed by Maureen Hiron and with art from Christine Hoffmeyer.
The aim is to be the first player to have played all your cards and this is done through a simple method of addition or subtraction. The game is for 2-4 players and plays well with all player counts. Games generally last the 15 minutes the box claims, but can increase depending on the age and mathematical ability of the players. The box lists the game as for ages 8+ and while I would say this is pretty accurate it could be played with younger players depending on their ability.
This is a simple maths game with little to no theme, beyond the new title (‘under voltage’ in English) and art based on electricity. The cards are clear and easy to read, ensuring players can quickly and easily ascertain what they need to do to be able to legally play their next card. The cards are of a high quality and durable and with the game currently available online for less than £10 this is great value. As with other Amigo Spiel titles in this line the game fits nicely into a pocket, making it brilliantly portable.
Unter Spannung is a relatively simple game to teach, as you either play a card or draw a card; but it does have one or two elements that could confuse a new player.
The aim of the game is to be the first to get rid of all of your cards. There are 73 cards numbered between one and 10, with each numbered card coming in three colours (green, yellow and red). In the centre of each card is a +/- value, determined by the colour of the card (green +/-1, yellow +/-2, and red +/-3). This central value determines what cards can be played next.
At the start of the game the cards are dealt equally between the players as draw piles, with the final card being placed faced up in the centre of the table. This is the start of the discard pile and it determines which cards can be played next. For example, if a yellow (+/-2) number 5 card is played then the next card played must either be a 3 or a 7. Players then draw a hand of four cards from their draw pile and are ready to begin.
It is possible for players to play cards which add or subtract for a total above 10 or below zero. In the case of going beyond 10, players simply subtract the 10 (so a total of 12 would become 2, meaning a card of that value may be played). If the total goes below zero you instead add 10 to the value, so a total value of -2 would become 8.
This is a simultaneous play game; so as soon as the game begins players may start placing legal cards from their hand onto the discard pile. Players may only play one card at a time and must announce the new value as they place the card.
If a player cannot place a card from their hand they can draw from the deck that was dealt to them at the start of the game. There is no hand limit, allowing players to continue drawing until it is possible for them to place a card.
Play continues until one player has played all their cards. It is possible, near the end of the game, for a situation to arise in which no cards can be played despite players having all their cards in hand. In this situation, players put their hands face down in front of them and the bottom card from the discard pile is moved to the top. Play then resumes as normal.
The four sides
These are me, my pupils, the teacher and my eldest son.
- The dad (avid gamer who secretly prefers euros to thematic games, but don’t tell anyone!): Unter Spannung is a good fit for our family games collection. It is a perfect balance of light, fun and portable with high-end tool for teaching and the improvement of mental maths skills. It fits perfectly with my eldest’s current learning at school and even some of the targets he has been set by his teachers. However the simultaneous aspect of gameplay means it just isn’t accessible currently in this format (eldest is only 5 and while the maths is not beyond him the pace required to be able to play simultaneously is). Instead we modified a few aspects and it has become a tool for the support and practice of skills currently taught in school. We moved to turn taking, which allows time to process and make decisions on which card to be played next. As both familiarity with the game and mathematical ability grow this game will find its correct place in the format it was meant to be played.
- The pupil (an amalgam of my pupils, aged 9 to 11): This game is great fun. I enjoy the fast pace and the competitive nature. I need to pay attention at all times which is great, as I can get bored waiting for my turn in other games. I find it tricky to work out what I’m allowed to play when the total goes below zero. Sometimes when the maths is trickier I get stuck and it feels like I miss lots of turns. I enjoy the game with people who are the same ability as me at maths, but not when I play against someone who is really good.
- The teacher (primary school teacher to engage and educate pupils via board gaming): A perfect light card game, durably made, which actively encourages both mental maths skills and rapid recall of known addition and subtraction facts. This can work right across the classroom for almost all my pupils. If I had enough copies I would consider using this for a warm-up activity before a maths lesson or even as an early morning activity at the start of the school day. I would need to think carefully about grouping my class for this however as I know one or two will either be over-whelmed or just won’t engage if they are in a game with a more able counterpart. I might consider adapting the “below zero” rule to help the game flow more easily.
- The eldest son (aged 5, interested in “daddy games”, competitive, but with a short attention span): I like doing adding and taking away, we do lots of this in school with numbers up to 10 and all the numbers inside 10. I like this game because I get to practice my adding and taking away but sometimes I’m not in the mood and I can find this tricky and that makes me grumpy. I can’t play when everyone is going at the same time it is too confusing and the number in the middle changes too quickly. I also find it very difficult to tell some of the cards apart, especially the 6 and 9. I’m starting to recognise that different colours tell me how much I need to add or takeaway without checking the middle of the card.
The fact Unter Spannung is a simultaneous game with minimal options means the pace of play is high and the action can get frantic.
However those who are even slightly self-conscious about, or have a perceived weakness of, their mathematical ability are going to feel intimidated by the game (I can speak from experience here having played this with a teacher who holds a degree in mathematics and is a leading teacher in the subject). The high pace that can come about may also leave a player feeling isolated and unable to play, particularly in four-player games.
Some gamers may also feel the rules for above or below 10 are clunky and can slow down the pace of the game. While I don’t feel this is a huge issue for the beyond 10, if anything it made sense in this situation. I do feel that the beyond zero rules could be better and that by adapting these the game would not suffer from some of the slowdown issues that many have complained about and which confused many of the younger gamers I played this with.
Unter Spannung is an educational game but unlike many games that fall into that category it doesn’t use that as its main selling point. Instead, as part of the Amigo Spiel small box range, gamers know that they are going to get a lighter card game that is entertaining.
Our household is not yet ready for the game as it was intended to be played but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be played. I’m looking forward to the day, in a few years time, when I get to say, “Okay, but today we aren’t going to take turns!”
My biggest issue, and the issue that certainly is most talked about in relation to Unter Spannung or 7 Ate 9, is what to do when passing below zero? While I understand why the designer settled on ‘add 10’, you move well away from the issue of continuing to go below zero; the concept can be very hard to grasp for those who have had little to no experience of negative numbers and, let’s be honest, the lower end of the age rating is certainly the target audience.
So overall this fun and sometimes frantic game is more likely to find itself being used as a learning tool within a classroom than being played as a filler game during a games night. That isn’t a bad thing however, as one pupil pointed put after a game in class, “I didn’t know doing maths could be so much fun”.
* I would like to thank Amigo Spiele for providing a copy of the game for review.