Dia de Los Muertos Review
on Apr 5, 2017
Though I love looking at the sprawling expanse of a huge game spread across the table, there is something equally delightful about a small card game contained in a simple tuckbox. Dia de los Muertos is one of those games.
Dia de los Muertos is a trick-taking game with the unnecessary, though novel, theme of the three-day Mexican holiday that remembers the dearly departed. Like other trick-taking games, someone will lead with a card. Others must follow suit, unless they cannot, and the highest (or lowest) card, regardless of suit, will take the trick. Each card has a value of 2, 1, 0, or -1 on it and scores are tallied at the end of the game. However, there are a few things that Dia de los Muertos does to this classic design to make it a worthwhile game unto its own.
All three suits, denoted by the border and icon under the number.
First, there are only three suits: skull (black border), offering (red border), and flower (white border). Of the cards numbered 1-20, all will have either an up or down arrow on them. When played as the lead card, this determines if the highest or lowest number will take the trick. Second, and perhaps the most interesting part of the game, is the “take” symbol on five cards in each suit. When played, this card lets you pick up a previously played card, banking it into your score pile. The round only ends once everyone has played a card, so it’s possible to play more than one card per round, depending on whether or not someone takes your played card. This makes for a highly tactical “do what’s best for now” kind of play. If you get a chance to grab a 2-point card now, might as well go for it. Just make sure you’re not going to be stuck taking the whole trick that is now worth -3 points after all those takes got played!
There’s no denying the colorfulness of the game.
Since the game ends when someone is needs to play a card but has none remaining in their hand, there’s not a lot of time for long-term strategizing. This isn’t a bad thing. The dynamic nature of Dia de los Muertos is the exact thing that makes it so engaging. A good trick-taking game will push you toward agonizing choices as to whether or not it’s the right time to take the trick, finding an opportunity to screw over another player, or avoiding getting yourself dumped on. Dia de los Muertos is as much about grabbing the right trick as it is managing your hand in hopes of better positioning later on. At the same time, all of this can make it difficult to know what the “best” play is. Picking the right card can often be an opaque decision in one turn, but clear as crystal in the next. However, all of this is fairly minute criticism given that the whole game plays in 15-20 minutes.
While we’re on the subject of the game’s flaws though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the graphic design. The cards are incredibly busy. Though each of the 20 cards in each suit has its own artwork, the images are overwhelming when trying to quickly process what suit, arrow direction, point value, and potential “take” symbol you have on the card. To make it worse, the point value is only on the left side of the card, so if cards are upside down in your hand and splayed to the right, you won’t be able to easily see the number. The borders are also difficult to distinguish from one another and the backgrounds of the high/low cards don’t match accordingly. None of this ruins the game, but it’s a clear case of the game likely losing appeal for some people because of the stylistic choices. In fact, I’m not a fan of the sugar skull art style at all.
The upside-down card on top wasn’t so obvious when I took the picture.
A full game of Dia de Los Muertos is quick to play and ridiculously easy to teach. It’s been a huge hit with my game group, even among those who aren’t even fans of trick-taking games to begin with. Furthermore, being able to accommodate 3-6 players without losing any of the interesting game play pushes Dia de los Muertos over the line as acquisition-worthy, top-off-your-order filler for any kind of gamer. And if you want a little more challenge in your game, you can try the advanced variant in which the trick is split and divided between the two players with the lowest and highest card. Very tricky!