Updated: Apr 12
Designed by revered game designer Reiner Knizia and published by AMIGO and VR Distribution, LLAMA proved to be quite a controversial choice when it was shortlisted in 2019 for the coveted Spiel des Jahres award. It's a simple 'ladder climbing' card game that's very like UNO (Amigo) where the 2-6 players are playing numbered cards that either match or are the next number on from the card that was previously played.
The game is played with a deck of 56 cards numbered 1-6, plus Llama cards which play on a 6 and restart the numbering (in effect they function as both 7 and zero). You start with a hand of six cards and, on your turn, you can either play a card from your hand that matches or is one up from the previously played card., or you can draw a card from the face-down draw deck and add it to your hand. At any point you can decide to quit, taking you out of the round. A round ends when everyone has quit or if a player manages to get rid of all the cards in their hand. At the end of a round, players score negative points for the value of each unique card in their hand or at the point when they quit; so if, for example, you have three 2s in your hand, you only score -2 points). Llamas are worth -10 points, so you don't want to be caught with those in your hand.
Essentially this is a push-your-luck game where you are making a tactical choice of whether to withdraw and accept a moderate negative score or stay in and draw cards at the risk of increasing your negative score. If you're the last player left in, you can continue to play cards from your hand but you can no longer draw, so going all out as the last remaining player will depend on you having the full 1-Llama sequence for all your cards. Of course if you end up being stuck with a full sequence in your hand when another player goes out, you'll get hit with the maximum penalty in negative points (-31 points). The game ends when a player ends a round having accumulated -40 points. The winner is the player with the fewest negative points.
After the first round, there's an added incentive to going out - you get to discard one of your negative chips. If you've only collected white chips (worth 1 point each), the extra bonus for going out will only be worth a measly 1 point but if you've collected a black chip (worth 10 points) or previously exchanged 10 white chips for a black chip then going out will be worth a 10 point bonus. This also therefore works as a catch-up mechanic.
LLAMA isn't a deep game but it's an easy-to-play family game with a high luck factor. It’s less 'take that' than UNO and it plays quickly so works as a light filler-length game. There’s a lively argument about whether or not LLAMA is a game of subtle tactics. Noting that there are eight of each of the seven card types, the judgement call on that depends on whether or not you're an accomplished card counter. For us, the puzzle is more why Llamas feature at all in this abstract game and why the title is set out as acronym. Perhaps there's a clever German pun at work here that was lost in the translation to English.