Two for One Review: Janken Deck and King’s Key Deck

When I was a kid, long before I even put a dent in the massive pile of board games in our basement, my brother introduced me to the simple joy of a deck of cards. In my mind, it was magic that you could play the hundreds of different games with the same cards. This was probably the origin of “games that fit in your pocket”. In my university years, I developed a brief but intense love affair with Tarot, when I learned that one deck could be more than just visually different from another. It can be based on an entirely different system. That’s why I got excited when I received my review copies of the Janken Deck and the King’s Key deck, designed and created by Jeff Daymont. I love the idea of taking something familiar and turning it sideways, just to see if it would work. And based on what I’ve seen so far, it does work. 

Let’s start off with Daymont’s already published work, The Janken Deck. According to the information that comes with the deck, the original Japanese game that eventually became Rock Paper Scissors was called Janken. So when Daymont decided to try to make a deck of cards based on the familiar Rock Paper Scissors concept, that’s the name he chose. What makes things really interesting though, is that the Janken Deck is based on 5 symbols, not 3; which means it is based on the Rock Paper Scissors Spock Lizard variant that was created by Sam Kass and Karen Bryla and made famous by The Big Bang Theory television show. But to avoid lawyers, Daymont had to replace “Spock” with Water. I was amazed to find out that you could make this substitution while keeping all the relationships intact. For those who need a quick refresher, it goes something like this.

Scissors cuts Paper

Paper covers Rock

Rock crushes Lizard

Lizard drinks Water

Water rusts Scissors

Scissors decapitates Lizard

Lizard eats Paper

Paper absorbs Water

Water erodes Rock

Rock blunts Scissors 

Using this system, combined with the standard Ace to King card system, leads to a 70 card, 5 suit deck that is both colourful and beautiful. The art is fantastic, with the face cards of each suit associated with different global cultures. The Green Lizard suit has a distinctly Asian flavour including China, Japan and Korea. The Yellow Paper Suit represents Egypt, Carthage and Africa. The Orange Rock suit combines Persia and India. The Purple Scissors has an American slant, combining Maya and Native American themes. And, not surprisingly, the Blue Water suit takes it inspiration from islands like Hawaii and Tahiti. 

But a deck, no matter how pretty it is, is just a stack of paper unless you can do something with it. So, what can you do with a 5 suited deck? A surprising variety, in fact. You can add an extra layer of complexity to familiar card games like Memory, Klondike and Gin Rummy. You can turn other games into card games, like Tic Tac Rock (familiar to those of you who read the review of Toe Sham Bo), or Codebreaker (the old guess the colours game, but with cards). You can even create hybrid games like Old Fish (Old Maid + Go Fish). 

But the games my friend and I enjoyed the most were completely unique. Corner to Corner and Edge to Edge are two variants of a game that is best described as “checkers played on top of cards”. These are 2 players games that are played on a 5 X 5 grid of cards, using improvised game pieces (stones or coins or whatever). In Edge to Edge, each player has 5 pieces, and the goal is to get all your pieces from one side of the “board” to the other, by moving one card at a time. How do you move? You can move your piece to a new card only if the card you are currently on can “beat” the card you are going to. For example, you can travel from a Scissors card to a Paper card. But you couldn’t move from one Paper to another Paper, or from Lizard to Rock. You also cannot move to a card that already has one of your pieces. If you move onto a card that has your opponent’s piece, that piece is removed from the board, and has to be returned to its owner’s start line. If you can’t move, you can use your turn to replace a card under one of your pieces with a new card. This is a surprisingly strategic game, and can take quite a bit longer than your average card game. Corner to Corner is variant of Edge to Edge, where each player only has one game piece, and the goal is to travel to the diagonally opposite corner. In this version, you can’t jump your opponent’s pieces. And the strategy involves less circling around trying to get into that last open space, and more getting to one square away from the corner, and then switching cards until you get something you can use. Not quite as much of a challenge, but still fun.

Looking at this already completed deck, I have great confidence that the King’s Key Deck is going to turn out great. The quality of the cards is impressive, the artwork is fantastic, and the games are creative.

Let’s talk about the prototype copy of King’s Key that I received. As a prototype, of course it isn’t a shiny, glossy, completed deck. It’s a blocky, sharp-edged stack of cardboard, with the perforation bumps still visible. It’s the kind of deck you are afraid to riffle-shuffle in case you ruin it. But that’s not important; it’s enough to get me excited. I can see the bright colours, the symbols, the artwork; but more importantly, I can hold it in my hand, which helps to understand this completely different system. 

While Janken is a regular deck, plus a little bit more, King’s Keys is something completely new. Daymont describes it as a “4 x 4 x 4 system”. Four numbers, four colours, and four “items” (symbols), making a 64 card deck. The colours are the Red mountain kingdom, the Green forest kingdom, the Yellow sun kingdom and the Blue ocean kingdom. The items/symbols are Keys, Coins, Shields and Axes. But, technically, the deck is 72 cards, not 64, because of the 4 Kingdom Banner cards and 4 Joker cards. I just want to mention that the Joker artwork shown on the Kickstarter page is much, much cooler than the very basic images on my test deck (my favourite is the Yellow Joker who is trying to “steal” his key). Another thing that I just noticed, is that even though this is a colour based deck, they have made accommodations for people who have problems identifying colours. In addition to being a kingdom’s colour, each card also has that kingdom’s icon. For example, the 3 of Green Keys does have 3 green keys, but each key also has tiny trees printed on it. Red items have tiny mountains; Yellow items have tiny suns; Blue items have a wave pattern. It’s subtle enough not to be distracting, but there if you need it.

So, what can you do with a 4 x 4 x 4 deck? My deck came with a pamphlet describing three games: Memory, Trio Treasures and the namesake game, The King’s Keys. Memory is the game we all know, and is good for young players, or to introduce yourself to the cards. The difference is, the card pairs don’t have to be completely identical. Instead, they have to have at least 2 traits in common. One step up in complexity is Trio Treasures, which has you looking for 3 card melds; either three of a kind, or a low (1,2,3) or high (2,3,4) run. But it’s about more than just the numbers. Each trio has to have all its colours the same, or all different; all its items the same, or all different. The more things in common, the more points it is worth. A three of a kind is worth 15 points, plus the total of the numbers on the card (for example, three 4s would be 15 + 12, or 27 points). A Low Run is worth 10 points, and a High Run is worth 15 points. A Flush, three of the same colour, adds an extra 10 points. A Match, three of the same item, adds 15 points. Flush and Match together adds 30 points. So the highest possible points for a three of a kind Trio would be three 4s, Match and Flush for 57 points. The highest score for a Run Trio would be High Run Match and Flush for 45 points. You start with a hand of three cards, and on each turn, you draw one card and discard one card. When you lay down a Trio, you can choose to discard and draw three new cards, or keep your extra card, and draw two cards. The game ends when the deck has been gone through once, or when someone gets 300 points, whichever happens first. The challenge here is whether you decide to take a simple trio, or risk trying to go for a more difficult meld worth more points. 

I didn’t get a chance to play The King’s Keys, because it requires exactly 4 players, but I will try to explain it anyway. This game is a little intimidating, with rules that are more complex than most card games, but about the same as the average board game. In this game, each player is the king of one of the four Kingdoms, trying to collect Guards (shields), Soldiers (Axes) and Treasure (Coins), while keeping the Keys to protect ( or open) vaults. At the start of the game, each player has a hand of 4 cards, and their Kingdom Banner in front of them. You can only ever have four cards in your hand, but you don’t discard extra cards. Instead, you can store them in your Vault (for Coins and Keys) or your Dungeon (for Axes and Shields). You also perform one action per turn. 

You can place a Guard (shield) in front of you; guards from your own Kingdom (colour) are free, but guards of other colours must be paid, using Coins of that colour. For example, a Red player could play the 4 of Red Shields for free, but would need cards worth at least three Yellow Coins to play the 3 of Yellow Shields. If you have cards worth 10 Shields of any colour in front of you, or all 4 Shield cards of your own own colour, then you win.

You can play a Soldier (Axe) card on your turn to raid another Kingdom’s Dungeon or Hand. Like Guards, Soldiers from another Kingdom must be paid using Coin cards. Unlike Guards, though, Soldiers will never attack their own Kingdom. So a Red player could use Yellow Coins to play a Yellow Axe, but they couldn’t use it to attack the Yellow player, only the Blue or Green players. The number on the card is the number of cards you steal from the other player. If you play the 4 of Axes, you can steal 4 cards, but that 4 of Axes goes into the Dungeon that was stolen from.

You can also use an Axe card to steal directly from a player’s hand. The rules are the same, except that the Shield cards in front of the player guards their hand. So you can only steal cards if your one Axe card is worth more than all their Shield cards.

The next thing you can do is steal from another player’s vault. To open a vault, you need a key that matches that player’s colour. The number on the card is the number of cards you are allowed to steal, but you have to leave the Key card behind in the vault.

Finally, if at any time you have all four cards of any item of another player’s colour, that player is removed from the game. 

There are a lot of ways to win this game. If you have all 4 Shields of your colour, or enough Shields of any colour to make ten points (with the right combination of coins). If you have all 4 Axes of your own colour, or enough of any colour (with coins) to make ten points. If you have all 4 Coins of your own colour, or all 4 Keys. Finally, if all other players except you have been eliminated, you win.

If The King’s Keys is too much for you, there are a lot of other games on the JankenDeck.com website. My friend and I enjoyed Collection Agency, a combination of Memory and Trio Treasure, where players search for three card melds among a face up grid 12 cards. There’s also poker variants (Brag), rummy variants (King’s Rummy), trading games (the Bazaar) and matching games (Chain Reaction, Five of a Kind).

If you want the opportunity to try one or both of these decks, go to the King’s Keys Kickstarter campaign page and make a pledge before December 7, 2019.

[Or to learn more about the campaign, read Dave’s CrowdFUNding Spotlight, from last week.]