Pairs : A Review

Every so often a game arrives that appears on first glance as old a time immemorial, but also as fresh as the latest Spiel des Jahres winner. Pairs is one such triumph that landed on my doormat recently. With it scaling from 2 to 8 players, suitable from the very young to the wizened poker generation, there's no reason for you not to stop reading right now and head to DriveThruCards and order yourselves a few decks.

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Coming from James Ernest and Paul Peterson’s Cheapass Games, the premise is straightforward, 55 cards numbered from 1 to 10, with one 1, two 2s ... up to ten 10s. On your turn you can Hit, and you don't want to get dealt a pair. If you do, you score points equal to the card just dealt. Or you can fold, keeping the lowest card currently in play as your points. Get too many points and you lose.

Once one unlucky punter bags a pair, hanging on to one of the cards as their score, or wimps out and folds, all cards in play are burnt to a discard pile in the centre of the table.

Reaching a pre-agreed total means you lose. Your group will need to choose what losing entails, and this may constitute a forfeit, giving a coin to all the other players, or buying the next round, depending on your age, maturity level or both.

It is also staggeringly well artworked. Originally available in 12 different decks on the fully funded ex-kickstarter, it really does cater for all audiences. The kickstarter absolutely smashed its target of $12k with a total of over $300k, and it's easy to see why. Giving people the draft artwork, choice of decks and plenty of stretch goals meant this ran and ran, and I'm delighted to finally see the finished product.

The Pirates deck by Brett Bean is one of my favourites, but the fruit based Pears (geddit?) deck is also lovely. The one that will be accompanying me to the pub with my drinking buddies will be Barmaids by Echo Chernik. Featuring German bardames carrying from 1 through 10 steins of frothy German ale, it's a delight.

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How does it play?

I decided to trial it with the most difficult of audiences, these guys pull no punches and will destroy a game that doesn't grab their attention in seconds and allow them to get one over on their mates for the duration of the play time. On an under 11s rugby trip to a recent autumn international at Twickenham, I peeled off the cellophane and announced to five 10-11 year olds deeply engrossed in their iPads and iPhones, "who wants to play Pirates Pairs?" Immediately they packed away the technology, trotted off to wash their hands and cleared the table of typical boyish detritus (sweets, muffin crumbs and fizzy drink bottles).

60 seconds later we were off, forfeits were chosen ("shout 'Come on New Zealand!!' To a train carriage of England shirted rugby fans, and "Gangnam dance all the way to the end of the carriage and back"), and they were hitting and folding like World Series of Poker professionals. Howls of delight and derision then ensued for the next hour.

What was especially pleasing was to see true emergent gaming coming from the lads themselves. "Let's play 'last man standing'" asked one, so instead of the first player out being the 'loser', they just sat out until we eventually crowned a winner.

Anything else?

Each deck of Pairs also comes with a couple of variants to spice things up, different win conditions, different scoring mechanisms. These are themed, so the Pirates deck has 'Port' and 'Starboard'. All decks also have the rules for Continuous Pairs where instead of everyone burning their hand, only the person who folded or hit a pair scores and burns their hand. This is a nice twist, and keeps things rattling along, not that the base game is any slouch. You can also check out the full rules, including all the variants at the Cheapass Games - Pairs site, or download the Pairs Companion pdf which hosts everything in one neat package.

If you fancy trialling the mechanics without dropping a tenner on a deck, Cheapass also give you the print and play files. Print out onto reasonable weighty cardstock and guillotine the 55 cards before inserting them into some cheap card sleeves from eBay and away you go.

Final Verdict

After seeing a breathless Twickenham roar on the English Lions to a narrow defeat to the All Blacks, a sodden trudge back to Twickers station and tumbling onto the 7pm East Coast train heading north from Kings Cross, I was looking forward to a bit of shuteye. Not a bit of it. "Can we play Pirates Pairs?" came the cry from across the aisle and I knew then that this was a keeper.

Hopefully we’ll get enough interest from UK retailers to make it worth their while importing a few boxes, and I’ll update the review if anyone manages to find them over this side of the pond. In the meantime, you can order the Pears deck from DriveThruCards.

Disclaimer : I backed this Kickstarter with my own money, and am not affiliated with Cheapass Games.

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