The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Lucky 13

Designer: Joseph Weaver
Publisher: n/a
Players: 2
Time: 5 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

Lucky 13 is a two-player game that, according to the designer, derives from an ancient Mayan game. The game is simple enough: Each player has eight blocks with numbers on each and turns are taken placing one on the 4x4 board. Four of the blocks have 1, 2 or 3 on each side, three have 4 or 5 and the final block has 0 on all sides. When placing a block you can place any number face up (only the face up value has any effect on play). Victory is similarly straightforward: either form a row, column or diagonal of four cubes that sums to exactly 13 or force your opponent to make a line that sums to 14 or more. If neither play manages this, then the game is a draw.

When playing, the first obvious tactic that strikes is you is to avoid placing the third block in a line as this gives your opponent the chance to complete it and win the game. With only 16 squares though this becomes rather difficult and so you start maneuvering so that if you are forced to play the third block then that line totals either 7 or less or 14 or more. This way your opponent cannot win by completing it. (In the latter case, if someone is forced to complete it then they'll have lost the game.) The second obvious tactic involves keeping one of each type of block for as long as possible. If your opponent has played all his 4/5 blocks while retaining your own, then will often have a way to guarantee victory. This leads to further strategies wherein you try to force a player to use the last of a type of block to set yourself up for a win.

The greatest cause for concern about Lucky 13 is that it might be solvable. That is, there are moves that either the first or second player can perform that guarantee a win or draw. The game has a relatively few unique moves as far as abstract games go so I would not be at all surprised to discover that this is the case here. However, if this is so, it does not appear to be a trivial proof. I've put a little thought into it and have not been able to say definitively that it is or isn't solvable. So, either way, I think the game has merit. If you're not inclined to analyze it, then you could play without concerning yourself about this. If you are, then I think it provides an interesting mental exercise that some find enjoyable.

A far bigger problem in my mind is that the game lacks excitement. I just don't find it all that interesting creating arithmetic sums and so it fails to capture my imagination. In some ways, this game feels a lot like Quarto but that game had the unique feature of the pieces' four distinct properties (tall/short, light/dark, square/round, solid/hollow). Identifying identical properties in Quarto had some interest whereas adding sums in Lucky 13 does not.

Fortunately, the game does present some interesting "problems" that you must work through when playing. That is to say, you can often foresee a string a moves that will either guarantee a win or allow you to escape defeat. It's when these situations arise that I found myself enjoying the game, the downside is that only about half the games played turned out this way. Very often we had situations where it was clear that the game would end in a draw unless the other player made an obvious blunder. These games were rather boring as both players would make their obvious move, one after the other. I think a 50/50 mix of "interesting" and "boring" games is acceptable though in a game that plays so fast (especially since the "boring" games go very quickly, often just 2 or 3 minutes). I'm somewhat concerned that this ratio will tend more to the boring side as players gain experience but I haven't reached that level myself.

The production of Lucky 13 is somewhat amateurish but still very nicely done. The blocks are wood and feel nice and solid in your hand and each type is colour coded which is a nice touch. The box is also wood and the top flips over to form the playing surface. The rules are pretty clear for the most part but there is one omission: what happens if a player simultaneously creates two rows, one equal to 13 and the other over 13? The designer did not have a definitive answer but I played that this counted as a loss. My feeling was that it created more interesting situations where you can defend and counterattack and that this was a good thing.

Lucky 13 is billed as "a great coffee house game" and I think goes a long way to determining ones enjoyment of it. It's not a game that I will be clamoring to play and there are the concerns about it being solved. As such, it's not something that I'd want to devote a great deal of time to. However, as a quick, relatively light diversion, I think it works reasonably well.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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