Since its founding in 2015 with a new edition of Stefan Risthaus’ Arkwright, U.S. publisher Capstone Games has tended to specialize in fairly involved games. The publisher has a “Simply Complex” line for designs with more straightforward gameplay, and the first two titles in its “Iron Rails” line have simple rules that lead to challenging gameplay, but Capstone is still best known for sprawling titles like Wildcatters, Maracaibo, Three Kingdoms Redux, and Pipeline.
On June 17, 2020, however, Capstone Games will release its first card game — the first-ever English-language edition of Klaus Palesch‘s fantastically good card game Sticheln, with this new version being titled Stick ‘Em. Here’s an overview of the gameplay for those not familiar with the design:
In more detail, at the beginning of each hand, each player simultaneously selects and reveals one card from their hand, with the color of this card representing their “pain” color. At the end of the hand, each card of this “pain” color that they’ve collected (including their initial card choice) is worth negative points equal to the card’s face value. Each card of another color that this player has collected is worth 1 point.
To play out the hand, the active player leads a card, then each other player in clockwise order plays one card. If all cards are of the same color, then whoever played the highest card collects these cards, then leads the next trick; if all cards are not of the same color, then whoever played the highest card of a color not initially led collects these cards, then leads the next trick. (One exception: A zero card can never win a trick; ignore them when determining who wins a trick.) In effect, each color played in a particular trick that doesn’t match the color of the card led is considered a trump card, and the highest trump wins. In the event of a tie, the earlier played card breaks the tie.
Contemplating my choices
Play as many hands as the number of players in the game, summing each player’s points over those hands to determine a winner.
The funny thing about Stick ‘Em is that the rules for the game fit on a single tiny page, yet the gameplay itself can be quite complex — which makes the game a natural fit for the Capstone Games line. The simpleness of the game comes from its openness: You can choose a card from your hand to represent your pain suit, and since you don’t have to match color when playing on a trick, you can play anything!
Yet if you do such things thoughtlessly, you will fail over and over again. Playing Stick ‘Em is akin to climbing a mountain of pebbles. You must carefully consider each step you take, gaining ground slowly and often yielding for others to advance because one poorly chosen card can lead to disaster, with you being buried by those pebbles after losing your footing and plummeting down the mountain.
I got to discover this sensation again at GAMA Expo 2020, where I played Stick ‘Em for the first time in fifteen years(!) with Capstone owner Clay Ross, Capstone representative Justin, and members of the BGG coverage team Candice Harris and Jon Cox. Jon said that people in his game group had warned him away from Sticheln for years due to its complexity, so he was surprised by how quickly Clay and I taught the game. (That quickness was contrasted by how long it took Jon and me to teach Tichu to Clay and Justin the subsequent night. The rules for that game go on forever!)
Once we started playing Stick ‘Em, though, Jon had one head-slapping moment after another as he kept finding that all the normal habits of trick-taking play are turned inside out in this game. Voiding a suit, for example, isn’t necessarily good. Your initial choice of pain color matters because you’ll need protective cover in order to avoid taking that color. If, for example, I use my sole green card to designate my pain color, then when someone leads green — which someone definitely will — I’ll have to play a non-green card, thereby trumping the trick, and if everyone else can continue to play green (or dodge with a zero or lower number), then I’ll eat a huge pile of points.
Capstone owner Clay Ross laughs at his misfortune
This happened to me in the final hand of our five-player game, with me playing second and feeling confident that someone would play over me with a non-pain color in order to collect five points. Instead the three players downstream from me all played high cards in my pain color, and I was effectively out of the game.
Clay Ross, who had fighting with me for the lead, went into the final trick confident of his victory, only to discover that he hadn’t been counting the cards played of his pain color, which meant that when he played off-suit in that trick, he ate the three highest cards of his pain suit, losing 37 points in one go and giving me second place with a score of -1.
In that instance, Clay needed to hold a low card of his pain color because if someone had led yellow, he would be on suit and someone else would have trumped that trick. If someone hadn’t led yellow, then he still probably would have bested by a higher number. The challenge, though, is that you often need to play — or think you need to play — a low pain color on an earlier hand to dodge lots of points, yet in those situations, the other players might just hold on to those pain cards since they’d be wasted in that trick.
The more that you can count cards, the better as then you’ll know that if you play, say, an 8 of your pain color, someone will be forced to play an off-color card, which means you won’t eat those points yourself. If someone else shares your pain color, then perhaps they might even end up with those points should they not be able to dodge.
In case you hadn’t gathered this so far, Stick ‘Em is a game that encourages players to play spitefully and kneecap opponents. You frequently find yourself in a position to (possibly) win a few points depending on how the rest of the trick plays out or poison the trick with a card that will stick either the player currently winning the trick or a player downstream, with that card being a disincentive for them to take the trick — although they might be able to drop a card that will prick you instead.
For as simple as Stick ‘Em is to teach, the game will challenge you over and over again with each hand that you play, with the player who goes first in a trick having a different challenge from the player who goes second, third, or next to last. The rhythm of gameplay is unique to this design, and I’m not surprised to find it still in print after more than 25 years — only surprised that it took this long for the game to be released in English!