Lunch Money

Atlas Games produces this sick little game, and much fun it is. You get 110 standard-sized playing cards in a thin cardboard box, and one sheet of paper with the rules printed on it. Each player plays the role of a vicious little girl in the playground fighting her rivals for lunch money.

Before going on to describe the game itself, words must try to describe the design of the cards. A photographer has photographed his young daughter in a variety of inventive ways, creating a collection of blurred, dodged, shadowy, and jagged images that invoke a dark gothic atmosphere. When I first played the game, I didn't even notice straight away that the photographs were of girls, and had imagined that boys were shown. Some of the pictures need concentration to make sense of. Adding to the feel are many little phrases in a CHildiSh miX oF cAses, such as "I'm in MY HappY place. Aren't you?" which appears on the Choke card. The designs will appeal to people with a young and gothic sense of style and humour, while others may find them a bit disturbing.

Each player has a hand of five cards, which he replenishes after each turn. Players attack with simple attacks like Kick and Jab, and defend with cards like Dodge and Block. Attacks do damage points, which are subtracted from a starting score of fifteen, until a player is knocked out of the game at zero. Some cards like Hail Mary do lots of damage, while others, such as the bizarrely-named Pimp Slap do very little. Players may choose to keep their Block and Dodge cards for the big attacks. There are cards with special powers, such as Stomp, which halves the damage of the opponent's next attack, and Poke in the Eye, which renders the victim incapable of blocking or dodging the next attack.

Other cards act in conjunction, such as Grab and Headlock, and so it is possible that a player might play three or four cards on the trot to make up some fearsome attack. Some counter-attacks can be a nasty surprise too, such as Humiliation which sets up an attacker for an instant and near-unstoppable reprisal.

Learning the game is not tremendously easy, largely because there are many special combinations of cards, and so many cards with their own little quirks. The rules are not particularly clearly written either, and require a bit of interpretation and re-reading. To aid myself, I wrote a chart summarising how the various cards interact. Generous chap that I am, I have it downloadable for you here as a Rich Text File (.rtf), and I hope you find it useful. Once the game is mastered, though, it is nice and quick, and I found that first-time players are happy to play several games of it in one session.

The game is nicely balanced. At first, I thought that the weapon cards like Knife, and Chain were too powerful, since the user of such a card does not discard it after use, and can use it again and again, and there are only four Disarm cards in the pack. However, now I have played many times, I see that the weapon cards are not so great, partly because only by discarding cards can new cards be picked up. Similarly Headlock and Choke cards seemed at first to be pretty poor things, because they were difficult to get to work, and rendered both the attacker and the victim vulnerable to further attacks, as well as being very slow ways to finish someone off. The arbitrary viciousness of the game compensates for this, though, as players will usually choose to attack the weaker victims first.

The fight is all-against-all. It needn't be - one could have teams or temporary alliances, but the basic game is one of every little girl for herself. Part of the malicious fun comes from ganging up on one player at a time. If a player has not blocked or dodged a few attacks, then it seems likely that he has none of these cards, so if you have a nice Uppercut card in your hand, then you are likely to choose to attack that same poor player, because it would be a shame to waste it on someone else capable of defending themselves.

It is a good, well-balanced game, with lots of replay potential. It is nice and quick, a bit sick, and with a bit of a learning hurdle at first. Recommended.

Suggested House Rules:

1. The player who finishes off another player replenishes his hand not from the main pile of cards, but from the cards of his defeated foe. This means that there is an added incentive for being the one who defeats an opponent, since the victorious player gets to choose the cards from the hand of the fallen, and so is likely to end up with some particularly good ones.

2. The Humiliation card negates the last card played, and sets up the victim for a basic attack. So, if someone plays Poke in the eye on you, then you might choose to play Humiliation immediately, before the follow-up attack. Alternatively, you could wait for the follow-up attack before playing Humiliation, but if you do, then you still take the one point of damage from the first card, and are still helpless to defend yourself against the next player, because you have still been poked in the eye. Similarly, you might use Humiliation to negate the three points of a Powerplay, and not wait to see what the follow-up attack would have been, or, believing that the follow-up attack will be worse, you could take the three points of the Powerplay and negate the seven points of the following Hail Mary. This tones down the Humiliation card a bit, and makes playing it much more of a skilful choice.

3. Weapon cards are played down in front of a player and left down. The player then replenishes his hand to five cards, so that he has six cards in total. This makes weapon cards worth having. The fact that they stop you from picking up new cards when you use them is such a drawback that they are usually not very useful.

Playing tips

1. Very often, the best use you can make of your turn is to change cards. You never want to be without good defence cards, and it is worth shedding some poor attack cards to get them.

2. A very good tactic when there are still three or more players in the game is to pass, and do nothing with your turn. People usually attack people who have attacked them already, and so you make fewer enemies this way. Also, people will be inclined to believe that attacks against you would be wasted, since your passing indicates that you have a good defensive hand. Wait for the other players to beat each other up before making your move.

3. Place Stomp, Choke, Headlock and perhaps Poke in the eye cards away from the main discard pile, and in front of their victims. Leave them there until their effects have been negated. This is not a tactic, it is just something to make play easier for everyone to follow.

4. Have two discard piles. One is for cards played in the usual way, and the other is for cards discarded by players when they use their turn to change cards. This second pile is face down, and so people do not get to see what is being discarded. Unexpected counter-attacks are a part of the fun of the game. If people can see that you are discarding good attack cards, then they know you must be desperate for defence cards, and will attack you. Ignorance preserves fear and mystery, and thus fun.



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