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.
“Another thing. The winner of the trick takes one of the cards they didn’t play into their hand.”
I run my finger across the corner of the deck. 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. 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.
I played my first several games of 9 Lives without the rule about picking up a card when you win a trick. I completely missed it. An embarrassment. A pox upon my house. Etc. The problem with writing about it now is that my thoughts exist in concert with this other version of the game, a version that doesn’t exist.
Without picking up the tricks, bidding exists on a knife’s edge. Experienced trick-takers find themselves making 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.
With all the rules in place, 9 Lives becomes more slippery, a game about wiggling through tight crevices. It becomes muddier, too, but in a way that I really enjoyed. 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. The review has been updated. My apologies for missing it in the first place!]