Dead Man’s Draw Review

Dead Man’s Draw, from Mayday Games (Viceroy, Chopstick Dexterity MegaChallenge 3000), is a fast-paced push-your-luck card game of pirates and treasure and the occasional kraken for 2-4 players.  First created as a digital game by Stardock Entertainment (which I think is awesome), I admit that I was entirely skeptical about translating the game into a tabletop format.  Fortunately, I was wrong – Dead Man’s Draw made the jump surprisingly well from tablet to tabletop.  Even more fortunately, the game is still a riot to play.

Of course, it’s more fun if you play with the right people…

So far, so good
So far, so good (fair notice – the game mat doesn’t come standard, but it *is* cool)

Component-wise, the game consists of a deck of special playing cards (we couldn’t resist showing off the totally optional though amazingly swag playmat, available from Mayday).  These cards, each in the 10 Dead Man’s Draw suits, all range in value between 2 and 7 (with one exception, which I’ll get to).  On your turn, you will flip over the top card of the deck until you either bust or choose to stop.

Busting is easy – to have your turn end in unceremonious ruin, all you have to do is draw a second card of any suit you’ve previously drawn that turn.

andysmAndrew:  Sure, it’s easy to bust, but I mean, what harm could one more card do?

jessmJess:  Famous last words.

If you choose to stop, you get to keep all the cards you’ve drawn, adding them to your score pile.  Interestingly, only the highest card of each suit contributes its value to your score.  Which means if you have the 4, 5, and 6 of Anchors, you only add 6 to your score.

Things are going fine! The Kraken made me draw 2 more, and the map let me grab the key from the discard pile!
Things are going fine!

andysmAndrew:  See?  It’s not that much!  I mean, it’s hardly worth stopping now.  Just one more card.

jessmJess:  I predict heartache.

Now, if all you were doing was drawing until you stopped or busted, Dead Man’s Draw wouldn’t be much of a game.  Where the real cleverness comes in is the different suits.  Each suit has a special power that activates as you draw.  That means that (nearly) every time you draw a card that doesn’t bust you, you have to trigger a unique special ability (can you see why I thought this was going to be a terrible translation from digital?).  Most of these abilities are helpful, either getting you bonus cards or harming your opponents.  However, one or two of them can get you into serious trouble.

The suit abilities are:

  • Anchor – Even if you bust, you keep any cards you drew prior to drawing the Anchor
  • Cannon – Force an opponent to discard one card they have banked (one reason why having more than one card of a suit is good)
  • Chest – Nothing on its own, but doubles the number of cards you get if you also manage to draw a key before you bust
  • Hook – Play one of your previously banked cards, putting it at risk but also immediately activating its ability
  • Key – Works with the chest
  • Kraken – Forces you to draw two more cards (no, that’s not good.  No one ever says “oh good, tentacles”)
  • Map – Shuffle the discard pile and draw the top three, playing one
  • Mermaid – Passively worth between 4-9 rather than 2-7
  • Oracle – Take a peek at the next card to be drawn before you decide to keep going or stop
  • Sword – Steal an opponent’s card and play it
Good reference cards make the game easy to follow, even without the awesome playmat
Good reference cards make the game easy to follow, even without the awesome playmat

andysmAndrew:  As you can see, there are lots of little rules to keep in mind as you draw.  Most cards do something immediately, but a few are either passively beneficial or at the minimum harmful to your opponent.  So not only are you looking to draw cards for points, you also want to take advantage of their awesome powers.  So, you know.  Just one more card.

jessmJess:  It’s like watching a car crash…I just can’t look away…

Players keep going back and forth, drawing cards and either banking or busting, until the deck is depleted.  Once that’s done, each player adds up the values of the highest card of each suit she has, and a winner is declared! one treasure chest too many.
That…is one treasure chest too many.
Some of the available pirates. I do wish the traits were explained on the cards, though
Some of the available pirates. I do wish the traits were explained on the cards, though

andysmAndrew:  NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

jessmJess:  It’s the only way you’ll learn, my love.

Dead Man’s Draw is simple, awesomely chaotic fun, made all the better when you play with people who have…questionable betting strategies.  Dead Man’s Draw is also incredibly portable, needing only enough table space for you and your opponents to lay out your cards.

In translating Dead Man’s Draw to tabletop, Mayday games wisely chose to keep the ‘traits’ feature from the video game.  These variable player powers add a neat bit of spice to the game, making each player particularly awesome at one gameplay mechanism, like Cannons destroying all the cards in a stack rather than the top, or banking Mermaids automatically as they are drawn.  Some of them are ridiculously powerful, whereas others are simply very powerful.

andysmAndrew:  Honestly, I don’t even think the traits are necessary to enjoy the game, but they absolutely add another layer

Some of the variant game modes
Some of the variant game modes

of strategy to the luck-driven gameplay, and they make it that much less likely you’ll get tired of the game any time soon.

jessmJess:  There are also rules variants that you can add, like Sudden Death mode (first to 50 points wins instantly) or All Hands On Deck, which punishes you for any suits you are lacking at the end of the game.  There’s lots going on in this little box!

Dead Man’s Draw plays 2-4, but we like it best as a 2 player head-to-head game.  With 3 or 4 players, it can be too easy for someone to end up getting picked on, especially if they get an early lead and everyone else piles on; 2 player mode (which is the native gameplay mode in the digital version) eliminates any potential imbalance by only providing a single target for your Cannons and Swords.

andysmAndrew:  The ability to accommodate more players is great, but for me, this one belongs in the 2 player pile.  But that isn’t to say it’s not good for bigger groups!  It plays so quickly that it’s easy to do a round robin, with players swapping in and out for multiple head-to-head bouts of piraty goodness!

Of course, there is one thing you must know going in – this is absolutely a luck-based game.  And it is totally possible to have a series of bad pulls that sink your chances even before you really get started.  But the game is so quick and light that it’s tough to get salty about it.

Well, *that* was abrupt.
Well, *that* was abrupt.

jessmJess:  Oh, that was dangerously close to a pirate pun, but we’ll let it go.  It’s definitely a game firmly rooted in the luck of the draw, but with a name like Dead Man’s Draw, what else were you expecting?  And it’s a total blast!

We think that Dead Man’s Draw has a place on any gamer’s shelf.  It’s light and fun and fast (once everyone gets used to the various card powers), and a great addition to any collection.  Grab it (and a mat or two, if you like) and get to flipping cards!

(The scurvy dogs at Mayday Games sent us Dead Man’s Draw for review.  Not only did their generosity not affect our review, we were downright skeptical of a tabletop translation of the digital game we already enjoyed.  We were pleasantly mistaken.)


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