Trick-taking games are one of the earliest types of card games. They were invented in China and spread westwards during the early part of the second millennium. In this game, the designer, Stephen Coffey decided to go back to the roots of these games by basing his new trick-taking game “Emperor’s Hand” on the five Chinese Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Trees and Metal.
The five elements are the five suits present in the game. The original concept here, is that each of the five elements interacts with two other elements, following two specific circles: one of creation and one of destruction.
According to the creation circle, water is collected by metal containers, which are created from earth, which is created by fire which is fed by the trees, which are nourished by water. In a similar way, in the destruction circle, water is muddied by earth, which is parted by trees, which are cut by metal axes, which are destroyed by fire, which is quenched by water.
The game is comprised of a deck of 54 cards, 50 elemental cards of five suits, with values of one to ten for each suit, and four dragon cards that spice up the game. Each card has 3 numbers on it: its base elemental value, a bonus value which adds to the value of the card if cards of the element that created this element are played and a penalty value that decreases the value of the card if cards of the element that destroys that element are played.
During setup, the deck is shuffled and five cards are dealt to each player. The player who goes first is the emperor and plays a card from his hand, face up. Each other player, going clockwise, plays a card from his hand face down. Then all cards are revealed and the scoring of each one is calculated in order to decide who wins the trick. The player with the highest scoring value gains a point and becomes the new emperor. Each other player draws back up to five cards in their hand. Play continues until one player reaches five points.
The value of each card is calculated, starting with the base value on the card, which can be increased or/and decreased according to the elemental interactions. For example, for a tree card with a base value of eight, a bonus of one for water cards and a penalty of three for metal cards, if 2 water cards and one metal card are revealed, the card’s value will finally be seven.
According to the number of players, several variations are included in the game to provide that extra flavor needed in every game and add strategic depth. The dragon cards are a valid option for any size of players and present a nice twist to the game, by providing special circumstances that affect all players. For example, the dragon of the South Sea, states that this turn, all elemental penalties are doubled.
The gameplay of “Emperor’s Hand” is very streamlined and the rules are super easy. Anyone can learn to play within minutes, however in order to master this game a lot of practice is required, as in all trick-taking games. The value of the card you choose to play each round is highly influenced by the cards opponents play. Being able to predict what cards other players will play is a rather daunting task and a good memory of cards already played will help a lot.
The simplicity of rules makes the game easily accessible to all gaming groups regardless of their experience with games.
I always regard highly games with strategic depth, but “Emperor’s Hand” is also a game that is fun to play. The most enjoyable moment is certainly when the cards of a trick are revealed, hopes for winning the trick are crushed and a lot of tasty comments hit the table.
The small packaging (just a regular box of playing cards) makes the game ideal, to take on a journey and it can entertain from 3 to 6 players, being equally good with any number.
The presence of many optional rules, adds to replayability. Each optional rule is well thought and proposed for a specific number of players.
The artwork of the game is in a preliminary version, with a Kickstarter project being planned in order to achieve better artwork. In this kind of games (strictly card games with strategic depth), graphics don’t really play a big role, however no one has ever said no to a nice graphic design.
All in all, I had a lot of fun, playing “Emperor’s Hand” and I would gladly play it again at any given time.
For those who want to try the game, you can download the free, print-and-play version here.