Updated: Feb 29
My usual quip when trick-taking games are mentioned is that my parents only had me so they could have a fourth for Bridge. Needless to say, I played a lot of card games in my formative years: Rummy, Cribbage, Canasta, and I even went on to be president of the Bridge Club at school. One card game that used to send shivers down my spine (in a bad way) was predictive Whist, (aka Israeli/Romanian/Serbian Whist, also Oh Hell). Being young, I wanted to win, and I never seemed to be able to hit the target spot on. Forty years later, there are a plethora of trick-taking games to delight those who have the genre in their DNA, even some two-player ones -- as unlikely as that sounds. So, joining Fox in the Forest (Foxtrot/Renegade) and Claim (White Goblin) in this diminutive 'Jones Theory' bucket, is Herrlof from Jolly Dutch Productions, designed by Alexander Kneepkens and Inge van Dasselaar, with art by Tristam Rossin.
The players in Herrlof take on the role of Norse magnates battling to be King. To this end, there are four suits of clans with cards numbered 1 to 9 and three each of two special cards, the N (aka Nothing) and the Triple Triangle (aka Zap) (sorry, they really don't seem to be named in the rules!). Usual trick-taking tropes apply: winner leads, highest card wins unless trump, and so on. The modern innovation of cards-with-powers holds true in Herrlof, too, with 1s stealing a trick, 3s trading a card with the deck, 6s swapping a card in hand, and 9s ceding the lead. The Nothing automatically loses unless played before another Nothing; the Zap negates the trick, although a Zapped Zap changes trump suit.
So far, so Fox in the Forest. However, while that game has set victory point margins which craft a cunning but repetitive edge, Herrlof asks its players to choose their target number of tricks in secret. As well as 1 point per trick taken, the incentive for achieving your goal is 10 points (toward a target of 50); with a much-needed consolation bonus of 5 for winning just three, four or five tricks: those bonuses stack, too, meaning you're unlikely to exceed the ten-round limit. With the Zap cards eliminating up to three tricks out of each hand of 15, and the usual input randomness of the deal, you can see that playing to your prediction is like hitting a moving target. This is fine, because it's fun to do - or to try to do, at least - and very satisfying when you succeed. All trick-takers have hidden nuances, heuristics that reveal only with experience, and Herrlof is no exception, bringing its own sleight of hand to the table.
The pocket-size box contains a scorepad, two quick-reference cards as well as the quirkily illustrated playing cards, and also the one thing that lets the game down, the rule sheet. While not badly written per se, the rules are in a strangely zig-zag order as if the text blocks had been laid out for a pamphlet then thoughtlessly transferred to a fold-out sheet. This leads to seeming non-sequiturs and unnecessary confusion. It doesn't help that the steps of a round are numbered 1, 1, 3, 4 and 5. However, if you can get past these typographical traps, a good two-player game lies behind the obfuscation; and a game which can accommodate a third player with a minor modification.
As time passes, skills accrue, and now I find myself in my father's position of experienced trick-taker and game-player manipulating the predictions at whim rather than being dragged hither and thither. Herrlof is a good trick-taker, but possibly comes a little late to the party with the aforementioned titles already taking up a chunk of room in the two-player trick-taker bucket. It doesn't quite send shivers down my spine (in a good way) but I'd happily give you a game, especially if you can give me the name of those two unnamed cards.
(Review by David Fox)