Monday, 15 October 2018

Review - Sh!thead and the Dares (Shithead, Palace, Karma, etc.)

Published by Imagination Atlas Ltd
For 2-5 players, aged 13 to adult


Sh!thead and the Dares


A little while back, I invited a group of friends to come over to play board games. It's the sort of thing I do.

It was one of those lightweight games and heavyweight beers sort of events, and as the evening drifted into the night, several guests drifted away.

By about 3am, there were just three of us left. One of the remaining guests produced a deck of cards and suggested we play a little game he knew. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But it was late at night (or early in the morning), I'd had one too many sherbets, and what followed was something akin to a game of Go Johnny Go Go Go Go.



It turns out, the game my guest tried to teach me was actually Shithead; a game I'd played a few times before, but with slightly different rules, and with slightly more blood in my alcohol stream.

And that's the thing about Shithead: Most people have probably played it at some point. Only it might have been called Karma, or Palace, or Ten-Two Slide, and it might have had slightly different rules. You might even have played a version where you have to complete a forfeit if you lose (most likely downing your pint, because Shithead is often a drinking game, which is why it should really be called Shitfaced).

You see, like many games you play with a regular deck of 52 cards, Shithead isn't new. It's ancient, and globe-spanning. It's a game for social gatherings, but it's also a game that backpackers play as they huddle with strangers in hostels. It's well-travelled, and just as with people, travel has changed it. There are now countless slightly different versions.

One of those versions is Sh!thead (with an exclamation mark). Or to give it what appears to be its full title: Sh!thead and the Dares.

That's the version I'm reviewing here.

The box for Sh!thead and the Dares


Oh... And for the sake of full disclosure, I didn't pay for my copy. I was recently contacted by the publishers and asked if I would like to receive a review copy. That was quite a nice turn of events considering the initial email I received had the subject line "Shithead." Usually there's only one way that sort of dialogue goes.

Anyway, I was happy to receive a copy in the post, but have to admit, I was questioning what the USP for the product might be. After all, Shithead is an old game you can play with any old cards you have around the place; why would you need to buy this version?

Turns out there are several reasons. Whether you consider them compelling or not is up to you.

First of all, this is a custom deck specifically for playing Sh!thead (note that exclamation mark again). If you've ever played a regular game of Shithead where sevens are glass, and eights make the order of play reverse, you'll know there's a potential for confusion, especially with new players. There's no chance of that here, because the special cards have relevant iconography and the rules printed right on them.

Speaking of rules, I'll briefly run through them here, because they're a specific mix of base rules and variants you may not have played before (which would be the second reason why you might consider picking up this version of the game).

The deck of cards comprises four sets of cards numbered one through 10, and four each of three power cards. Additionally, there's a second deck of cards, ominously labelled "The Dares" (but more on those in a minute).

A hand of cards from Sh!thead and the Dares


To play Sh!thead, each player receives three face down cards, each with a face up card on top of it, and a hand of three cards. The player with the lowest card in hand starts, placing it in the centre of the table. Play then proceeds clockwise, with each person trying to match or beat the current card on the stack. If you can play a card (or multiples of the same value card) you do so, and then draw back up to three cards in hand. If you can't play a card, you have to take the whole stack into your hand, and play continues with the next player starting a new stack (probably, because the rules omit this rather important detail).

So far, so mundane.

Wild cards and power cards add a wrinkle to proceedings. If you play a four, the next player must go lower; if you play a six, the next player misses a go; if you play an eight the order of play reverses; if you play Reset, you set the value of the stack to zero; if you play Invisible, the next player must play as if your card wasn't there; and if you play Burn, you wipe out the stack and then play another card to start a new stack.

Once the deck is depleted and you've played all the cards from your hand, you play with the face up cards you were dealt at the beginning. Once you're out of face up cards, you have to start playing with your blind cards, which can really screw you up because you don't know what those cards are until you play them.

And that's it.

Play continues in this manner, not until there's a winner, but until there's a loser. In other words, you play until only one person has any cards in hand. That person is the Sh!thead.

A game of Sh!thead and the Dares ready to start


Now, as previously mentioned, the loser often ends up having to sup an ale or something similar, but in Sh!thead the publisher has gone one better and introduced a deck of dares. The idea is, you draw a dare at the start of the round, and the loser has to complete that dare.

It's an attempt to make this into more of a party game, and to create opportunities for hilarity as your friends do dumb stuff. Unfortunately, I'm really not keen on this sort of "enforced fun," where rules exist solely to encourage wacky behaviour....

You know, I should probably elaborate on that point a bit. Indulge me...

Party games aren't at the top of my list when it comes to a preferred way to spend my time. There are some I love, but there are lots I dislike. For me, a great party game is one that encourages people to be funny and creative in their own way. Cards Against Humanity fails to hit the mark, because you don't get to be creative, you just get to say something written on a card, while Snake Oil and Deadpool vs the World are right on target because they give you the tools to create your own fun. You get to be as funny and silly as your imagination allows, because the game inspires you rather than constrains you, and you have the freedom to express yourself. This is in complete contrast to games that ask you to gargle the national anthem or crack an egg on your head. Party games work when the humour comes from you, not when you're asked to do something zany.

Even if I did enjoy the concept of the dares, I'm not sure the ones in Sh!thead would do it for me. A few seem to have potential for a chuckle (ring someone and sing Happy Birthday to them), but many aren't particularly inventive, with one especially lazy card going so far as to say, "make up your own dare." Other dares, such as hopping on one leg through the next round sounds like gruelling torture and is going to be a bloody nuisance for everyone at the table, and dares asking you to teach a stranger Sh!thead or to cook one of your opponents dinner are clearly working on the mistaken belief that someone is going to honour their commitments to the dares in the days or weeks following the game. That seems unlikely.

But it's an interesting idea, none-the-less, and a valiant attempt to give the traditional game a more modern (and structured) style.

A selection of dare cards from Sh!thead and the Dares


Really, that's what this product is all about: Putting a modern spin on a classic. And it really does feel quite modern, from the minimalist card design and streamlined play to the slightly tongue-in-cheek voice of the rules leaflet.

And that's no bad thing really.

Honestly, I'm really in two minds about this one. I see the benefits of having a custom deck, and I can see why some people would enjoy the dares, even though I don't. That being the case, let's sum up by talking to two different personas.

Persona A:

Sh!thead benefits from all the pros of any other variant of the game you've played before. It's quick, it's portable, and a lot of people already know it. It's the perfect little game to take on your travels or for playing down the pub. On top of that, it has the added benefits of a rules set that's a little easier to grok than some more traditional variants, a clean graphic design that makes it immediately apparent what each of your special cards does, and an additional deck of dares to add an element of risk to play. There's even a deck of "adult dares" available as a separate purchase. Overall, it makes a classic game a bit more accessible and much easier to learn.

Persona B:

Sh!thead suffers from all the cons of any other variant of the game you've played before. It's a simple filler game, or a silly drinking game. It isn't completely without strategy (there's a certain level of skill involved in taking the card stack to get good cards in your hand for later play or burning the stack to jettison cards that are going to cause you problems if someone else claims them); but how much deep thought can you really employ when the end game involves blindly flipping cards you drew at random? With just two players there are a few opportunities for tactical play, such as playing a six to get back-to-back turns, but with four or five players it's difficult to formulate any kind of strategy. This new version uses custom cards, which makes it easier to learn, but denies you the flexibility that comes from using a regular deck, thereby making it harder to introduce your favourite variants (and in fact, there aren't any variants in the rules leaflet, which is a bit of a missed opportunity). Furthermore, while the graphic design is clean, it's not particularly exciting. Finally, the introduction of the dares creates a kind of enforced silliness that's going to fly or die depending on your crowd.

And having said all that, I guess the big question is, which persona are you?

For me, I would say I'm happy to have a copy in my collection, and I'd willingly whip it out in the pub with friends (not the first time I've said that). I'd leave the dares in the box, though. I would say that for the £10 asking price on Amazon it's not a bad buy, and it could well be the perfect gift for any students heading off to university who might need a fun way to break the ice with new people. It's certainly a hell of a lot better than Go Johnny Go Go Go Go, anyway.



Thank you to Imagination Atlas Games, and in particular Clark Beecroft, for providing my review copy of Sh!thead. You can get your own copy, plus the additional adult dares deck, by visiting Amazon.

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