Pumafiosi is the second in a series of three games from designer Reiner Knizia and publisher Bitewing Games. Called the Criminal Capers trilogy, the series consists of three card games. All three games—Soda Smugglers, Pumafiosi, and Hot Lead—occupy a seedy underworld of anthropomorphic animal gangsters and cops. All three feature simple rules, easily teachable in under five minutes. You might even be able to teach all three in that time, actually, assuming a particularly keen audience. Finally, all three feature absolutely fabulous art from Paul K. Halkyon.
Obligatory Goodfellas Reference
Pumafiosi has players struggling to secure their place in the hierarchy of the Pumafia, the Puma Mafia. Players are dealt a personal draw pile of ten cards from a deck of cards numbered 1-55. The cardplay in Pumafiosi is a sort of suitless trick-taking game, with the winner of each trick placing their card on the ladder of hierarchy cards in the middle of the table. Each rung is worth points varying from -3 to 10, scored at the end of the round.
I have just described a boring game in which players must, surely, score ever-decreasing amounts of points as the round goes on. The first player wins and puts their card on the 10. The second player puts theirs on the 8. Etc., etc. Worry not, Reiner wouldn’t do that to us. The magic of Knizia designs often comes with the “but” or two appended to a rules explanation, and Pumafiosi is no exception.
“But” the first: The winner may place their card on the ladder, but the winner isn’t the player who played the highest card. It’s the second-highest.
“But” the second: The winning player for each trick places their card on the ladder of hierarchy cards in the middle of the table, but if another player places a higher card on the same rung, the previous card will move down a space and the player who put that card there immediately loses a point. If the next rung is already occupied, whichever one of those cards is lower will get bumped, and that player loses a point. If the next rung is already occupied, etc. This can (and occasionally will) continue all the way down the ladder, until someone ends up dead on the sidewalk.
Much of the strategy in Pumafiosi relates to cutting players down to size. A player who pulls way ahead of everyone else will be the subject of intentional hits over the course of subsequent rounds. As you grow more familiar with the game, you start to experiment with different approaches. You learn to seize the moments when you can influence who will or won’t win a particular trick, especially in three-player games. It’s a fun, sharp, interactive game with light rules. You can’t beat that.
All three Criminal Capers titles include optional rules that can be added for a small boost to the complexity. I stress small; you could play Soda Smugglers and Hot Lead with the additions first time around and you wouldn’t notice they were there. The optional rules for Pumafiosi are the most involved, but also the most rewarding. The game includes optional single-use tokens that increase the risk/reward factor and create a wider variety of decisions. The bullet proof vest keeps a card from losing points as it slides down the ladder, allowing for riskier early plays. My favorite is the wedding ring, which you can place on an opponent’s card when you force it down the ladder. At the end of the round you score that card’s points instead of whoever played it. This, this is fun stuff.
As a final note, let us discuss the title. Pumafiosi is, we can all agree, a terrible title. I love puns, but Puma + Mafia = Pumafiosi is atrocious. The groan-inducing quality of this title is made all the worse by the knowledge that the French edition of Rooster Booster, the Knizia design Pumafiosi improves upon, has possibly the single most sublime pun in history for its name: Poule Position. A board game about putting chickens as high on a ladder as you can manage, and it’s called Poule Position. Magnificent.
Make sure to check out the other the other two games in the Criminal Capers series: