In this double feature review, we take a look at two new trick-taking games: Tournament at Avalon and The Crew. How do they compare? Who are they for? Are they worth the plunge?
If I slapped down a 20-page rulebook in front of you and told you that these were the rules to a trick-taking game, would you be alarmed? How about TWO 20-page rulebooks to two different trick-taking games?!? Now your fight-or-flight instincts must be screaming. Perhaps they should be…
After all, trick-taking games are meant to be quick, simple fillers, right? Several months ago, I believed this to be true. But after plunging into two such 20-page rulebook trick-taking games, one of which (The Crew) just won the Kennerspiel des Jahres Award, and determining that these are unquestionably the best trick-taking games I have ever played, I am now a believer.
So is 20 pages of seemingly excessive rules the secret formula to making a killer trick-taking game? On the surface, I’m inclined to say yes, because that’s just about everything that The Crew and Tournament at Avalon have in common. The Crew is a slick, streamlined, cooperative, mission-based game where each play lasts about 5 minutes. The ultimate challenge of The Crew is in successfully completing missions 1 through 50 like a long, mysterious, poetic journey through space. Meanwhile, Tournament at Avalon is prickly, chaotic, cut-throat game that can last up to an hour or more as players spend each trick beating on one person like a piñata that spills out increasingly insane vengeance upon its attackers until one piñata finally splits in two.
I won’t hesitate to admit that both of these trick-takers may not be for you. While they reside in the same mechanical spectrum, they operate on completely opposite ends. If the possibility of falling behind early and spending the rest of the game trying to claw your way back to the top while your leading opponents pounce on you like sharks to a bleeding prey sounds dreadful, then steer clear of Tournament at Avalon. If a quiet, methodical activity of reading your teammates minds and puzzling out a pathway to victory sounds dull, then The Crew may not be for you.
Then again, perhaps you are like me. Maybe you’re happy to roll with the punches and simply want to experience trick-taking at its finest. In Tournament at Avalon, you may be completely fine with being the favorite piñata of the round because you see the fresh gaping wound in your side for what it truly is: a firehose of retribution. You may be the type of competitor who loves to form shaky alliances with fellow weaklings to surround and beat down the mighty. And when you are the current King of the Hill, you welcome the opportunity to bob and weave around targeted attacks and gleefully watch as swinging blows skim past your head to land squarely on your neighbor’s face.
Likewise, you may crave the addictive cycle of arranging your hand, scoping the team objectives, and plunging into the unknown of each mission in The Crew. You love the thrill of taking calculated risks, the tension of spending your single communication token wisely, the drama of tight victories and narrow defeats. You treasure the unspoken rhythm that your crew develops through the highs and lows of each new challenge.
With both of these designs, you can rest assured that you are in good hands. Tournament at Avalon supplements all of its chaos with flexibility within your hand and negotiability among players. I haven’t played its predecessor, Tournament at Camelot, but I understand that some of the rules changes magnify these very strengths. Unique cards and abilities can feel wildly overpowered in certain contexts, but that is merely another challenge that opponents can nearly always overcome. Every decision matters—the order and timing of cards being played from your hand are essential to navigating the endless traps that opponents contain in their own hands. Deflecting attention away from your own good standing and directing aggression toward below-the-radar leaders through playful banter and contextual reasoning are essential to swaying the group and tilting the odds in your favor.
The Crew’s sequential missions expertly teach your team through layering challenges with optional assist bonuses when certain missions seem impassable. Each failure always contains a valuable lesson. The dreaded opportunity for quarterbacking in this cooperative is non-existent thanks to the private hands and limited communication. The simple premise of The Crew somehow never gets old as simply changing the mission or player count introduces a new wrinkle and a fresh feeling.
Tournament at Avalon and The Crew are not only two of the best trick-taking games I have ever played, but they are also two of the best card games to be released in the past several years. They’re the kind of games that I plan on packing and bringing with me when hanging out with friends or family, even if those people aren’t gamers. While the 20-page rule books demand an upfront investment from a good teacher, once one person is past the initial hurdle, the games become surprisingly easy to teach and manage for others. Best of all, they only seem to get better with each play as you discover just how deep their trick-taking wells go.
This concludes my double-feature review of Tournament at Avalon and The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine. Have you tried either of them yet? What are your favorite trick-taking games?
Review written by Nick. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games