Cheapass Games have been something of a hit or miss with many gamers. Certainly cheap but they've often been accused of being a single undeveloped idea rather than full blown games. I'd generally agree with this although I'm not sure that this is actually a condemnation per se. Being so cheap one might view them as "disposable" and I think they often provide good value for the dollar. That aside, when the issue of which games are the better releases the most widely cited title is The Very Clever Pipe Game. Originally released in 1997, it has recently been republished as part of the "Hip Pocket Games" division of Cheapass.
The game consists of 48 thin tiles (the original version had 120 tiles but you only played with 40 at a time.) with black and white pictures showing a network of pipes. The artwork is well done and probably the best I've seen in a Cheapass game. (Excepting their colour games such as Brawl or Falling, of course.) Each is twice as long as it is wide and has six "entry points" along the edges.
The basic goal of the game is to create closed sections of pipe in your colour. (A closed section is one in which all sections of the pipe have been capped off, i.e. no open ends.) Players have a hand of five tiles and they take turns placing them onto the playing surface. You don't need to place a tile such that it touches another but if you do, you must place it so that any connected pipes match colour. (i.e. you can't connect black pipes to white pipes.) If you create a closed section, you collect all the tiles that comprise that section and place them in your score pile. (Assuming the closed section was in your colour, it pretty much always will be unless you've made a terrible mistake.) You then replenish your hand to five cards and end your turn. Play proceeds until the draw deck is exhausted and the players have played all cards in their hands. The player that captured the most cards wins.
That's pretty much it for the basic game, the only significant addition being the concept of "pillars". Since the cards are 2 x 1 in dimension and may be placed horizontally or vertically the possibility exists of creating a 1 x 1 section of the "board" that is surrounded by cards. In such cases this area is considered a pillar and all pipes leading to it are considered capped. Very useful at times.
Played in this basic, two player version the game has elements of both attack and defense. Attacking in that you want to close sections of your own pipe in order to win those cards. Defense in that you also want to play cards making it difficult for your opponent to do likewise. Its best when you're able to accomplish both these goals with a single card play and its very satisfying when you can. Even when this isn't possible you really do need to keep an eye on what your opponent is up to, its almost assured that you'll lose if you simply try to "play your own game". Why is this so? Well, you might be happily playing tiles that slowly creates a closed loop for yourself but its likely that your more aggressive opponent will close one before you. When he does, more often than not the tiles he removes will tear great holes in your carefully constructed network. You need to keep an eye on what he's up to and recognize when you need to defensively play a tile that makes things difficult for him.
Those of you that actually read the little information box at the top of reviews might be wondering how this game accommodates three and four players. Not, as you might expect, by playing as teams. (After all, for a game purporting to be "very clever" this simply wouldn't do.) The cards also have two background colours. (Again very nicely rendered as either a corrugated steel or a concrete-like stone.) Additional players will try to create closed sections of these areas rather than the pipes. The rules of play remain exactly the same with no additions. Closed floor sections are a little different and, in my experience, they're harder to visualize. Essentially a section of floor is closed if it surrounded by floor sections of the other colour. To be honest the fact that the pipes obscure a small portion of the floor makes this harder to see but its not that difficult once you "get it". However, I don't think it works all that well in play. The problem is that floor sections tend to be much easier to close than pipes and so it doesn't feel well balanced playing with both of these. Closed floor sections tend to be small (sometimes even a single card which isn't even possible with pipes) but they'll often disrupt the pipe players networks enough that it isn't a fair contest. (Note: this is based on the original version of the game. Apparently some care has gone into adjusting the deck in this version with particular attention to balancing the floors vs. pipes methods of play.) This isn't too troublesome in any case as I think restricting the game to only two players is perfectly valid. Note also that you can play the game as a two player version where you both play floor sections. I have done this and while it works just fine I still find it inferior to the "pipes" version. First, it's easier to "see" the relevant parts of the board and how they interact and second, the game seems to work better when the closed sections involve more cards than the one or two that the fields allow. It is very nice to have an alternate way to play the game though so the inclusion of this feature can only be seen as a positive.
Either way, most of the games I played were of the two player, "pipes" version and as I already stated it works very well in this regard. I was a little disappointed that you succeeded more often than not by creating rather modest closed sections, usually three of four tiles. There's something eminently satisfying about playing a single tile that somehow transforms a convoluted, horrible mess into a nice, neat closed section. It is possible but remains a rare occurrence. This is a game that you'll win by hitting lots of singles and doubles rather than home runs. Not really a problem with the game but an observance that should be noted.
One thing that is a problem is that some of the cards are simply more powerful than others. Of obvious value are the cards with caps in your colour. These are vitally important and should almost always be used to cap sections. It's possible to close pipes without these but it's much more troublesome and difficult. I've played a few games that were decided by the fact that one player drew so many more tiles with caps than the other player. This is an issue with most card games though and I don't think such disparity in the draw happens all that often. A more often occurrence is that the players will draw these powerful cards at different times. So one player will draw more at the start and take an early lead only to have it whittled away as the luck of the draw evens out. Even when a game ends lopsided, the short playing time is quick enough that this isn't too big an issue.
Other powerful tiles are "branch" tiles in your opponents' colour. These are pipes that take a single end and split into three or four making it very difficult to close off. Very nice to have but I don't think they're quite as powerful as the cap tiles. The reason is that there are many ways to place tiles that hurts your opponent so what seems like a "boring" tile can actually be very useful. Much of this is due to the fact that you aren't required to play a tile such that it touches another. Consider the following board (you're playing the white pipes):
The black player can easily create a closed section by playing on the gray space. At first it might appear to be difficult to stop this, but by playing a tile thus...
...you seriously restrict the tiles that black can use to close off his section. (Since he must also match the colour of the pipes on the tile you just played.)
All in all this is a very good game and in my opinion the best of the entire Cheapass line. In fact, the most disappointing thing about this release is that they didn't give it a full deluxe treatment. The cards are rather thin and a little troublesome to place and pick up. (It works much better if you play on a tablecloth rather than a bare table by the way.) I even went so far as to glue the tiles onto thick illustration board and cut them out so that they're nice and thick with a heavy feel to them. I think the game is good enough that it deserves the best possible components. More to the point, I think the game is good enough that it would justify the higher price that these components would demand.
Wishful thinking aside, this is as close to a no-brainer as one can get. It's a good game at a very cheap price, buy it.
- Greg Aleknevicus