There’s a moment in teaching 9 Lives that I’ve come to savor. Across four teaches now, I’ve workshopped it, honing the delivery, the timing, the gestures. It has become something of a magic trick, eliciting surprise and delight from people learning the game.
Like any moment worth savoring, it has to be earned.
First, you make sure everyone at the table is familiar with the basics of trick-taking. At this point, I’ve taught so many trick taking games that I have a demo ready.
Then you establish that purple is always the trump suit. So far, so straight-forward.
The next step is to show everyone how bidding works. 9 Lives includes a small board designed to look like a rug, and four cat tokens. In turn order, each player places their cat adjacent to either a single number, indicating they plan to win exactly that many tricks, or a pair of numbers, which means you’re not as confident about threading the needle. If you pick one spot and you’re right, you’ll score four points. If you pick two and you’re right, you’ll score two.
In any event, choose carefully. If you’re wrong, you’re going to lose points.
“There are no other points in this game,” I tell the assembled as I start to shuffle. “It’s all about the bid. You do not gain any points for winning tricks in and of themselves.” This is worth clarifying, since most trick-taking games with bidding also award points for individual tricks.
At last, it’s time. “Oh,” I say, as though I’ve forgotten. I hold up the deck with its back to the audience, only the top card visible. “There is one more thing.” I fan out the deck, revealing the backs of the cards, which correspond to their individual suits. “You know how much of each suit everyone else has.”
It has yet to fail to get a response.
Taiki Shinzawa’s 9 Lives is about as straight-forward as trick-taking designs get. The only wrinkle is the decision to have each card’s back reveal its suit, but that’s all you need. It’s a tremendous idea, one that really sings at a table full of seasoned veterans.
If you are experienced in trick taking, you’ll make more clinical bids, but those clinical bids are also more precarious. Because you can see everyone else’s suits, you can make informed decisions, but that also means your opponents can deduce your plans and ruin them. Many rounds in 9 Lives have followed a similar arc, where I feel confident about my bid until about the halfway point, when I realize that another player could choose to short-suit themselves and ruin both my hopes and my dreams.
BoardGameTables.com did a characteristically superb job with the production, though a few of the numbers on the cards can be hard to read when you’re getting started. The cat tokens are charming, especially if you get the oversized wooden ones, and the colors on the cards are bold. They include different stencil designs on the backs, to facilitate play for those who have difficulty with seeing color. 9 Lives is a light and tense card game that is welcome at my table any time. It is not a genre-defining masterpiece like The Crew or Cat in the Box, the latter also designed by Shinzawa, but it is a terrific illustration of the big differences little changes can make.
[After publication of this review, it was brought to my attention that I had missed a rule. After each trick, the winner chooses one of their opponents’ played cards to add to their hand. I will revisit 9 Lives soon to play with this rule in mind, and adjust the review as necessary. My apologies for missing it in the first place!]
One part of 9 Lives is critical and not mentioned – the winner of the trick gets to take one of the other cards played to the trick and put it in their hand! How many games are there where you can be void and then not be void?
Jonathan, I somehow managed to miss this rule! This is terribly embarrassing, but I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. I will play 9 Lives again soon and adjust the review once I get a chance to do so.