|NMBR 9 (2017)
|Meeple Like Us
If Barenpark is Bear Tetris, then NMBR 9 is Tetris Bingo. It’s a spectacularly straightforward game – one that even I’m going to find difficult to stretch out into our trademark patent pending Meeple Like Us format. Oh yes, we have patents pending. For those worrying if they’re infringing on our intellectual property with their own reviews, fear not. According to several of the friendly and undoubtedly fun-to-be-around souls on Reddit you’re only in danger of that if your articles are ridiculously long, unbearably pretentious, and full of endless amounts of tedious snark. If that’s not you, you’re going to be just fine! If that is you though then you’d better lawyer up, buddy. I’m coming for you. I’m coming for ALL OF YOU.
Patchwork focuses on the button-based economy of cutthroat quilting. Barenpark invests heavily in the furry feng-shui of bear arrangement. NMBR 9 on the other hand eschews theme entirely, presenting itself only as a vaguely eroticised version of Sudoku. You grab numbers from the box, tenderly slide them together, and then layer other numbers onto their entwined forms. You’ll have ones inside fours, fours tag-teaming nines, and nines laying prostrate on everything in an act of numerical domination. It’s borderline pornographic. Well, sort of – it’s the kind of pornography I imagine that Will Shortz sees when he closes his eyes. These digits get everywhere, and you won’t believe what they end up doing.
The game genuinely could not be simpler. Every turn, someone flips over a card from the central stack of twenty. Everyone playing picks a tile of the appropriate number from the box. For the first tile, you just flop it limply in front of you like an intensely sad arithmetic puzzle from the world’s least engaged schoolteacher. From the second tile onwards, the game gets interesting. Your job is to lay these numbers in increasingly stacked up levels because the higher they are, they more points they are worth. Every tile you place on the table is worth nothing – they’re on the 0th floor and as such useless to everyone. You want to draw big numbers, and you want them to be placed on top of a floor constructed of smaller numbers. You want to build them tall, because that’s how you win. The problem is, building them tall isn’t easy. It’s not easy at all!
There are strict placement rules in NMBR 9. You can’t place a tile unless it’s either adjacent to a tile on the same level, or the first one built on that level. That’s easy to begin with, but it becomes increasingly difficult the taller you build. But more than that, you also need to make sure that if you’re placing a number on a higher level, every single square of its shape is underpinned by a tile on the lower level. That’s bananas! But it’s perhaps the third rule that’s most mean spirited of all – every tile you place on a higher level must overlap at least two other tiles. You can’t just make a nice bed for the eights and nines and then stack them up tower block style – you need to vary the pattern with every successive floor of the structure. You don’t lay them neatly on top of each other, you interleave them like the threads in a complex, ever changing knitting pattern.
You’ll want to do that, too – when scoring comes around each tile is worth its face value multiplied by the level it’s on. The three and the five in the image above – zero points. Nil point. The six that’s layered on top though is worth six points. You absolutely need to build upwards, because building outwards gets you nothing. Nothing.
There’s an obvious strategy at play here – you use the low value numbers to make foundations for the higher value numbers. You interlock pieces together to form solid rafts upon which more lucrative numbers can be placed. Those ones? Phbt, get rid of them. Use them to fill in the holes in the flooring. A two? That would need to go five floors up just to be worth more than a nine placed on the first floor. Don’t waste a two on scoring. Scoring is for closers. Put that coffee down, two.
The problem is that this strategy rapidly turns to utter garbage because of the random draw of tiles. You shuffle the central deck of cards and then call out the numbers as they’re revealed. You might get lucky and the first few tiles end up being a one, two and a five. You can sacrifice those easily enough – nobody will weep for any of them. There are though only two of each number in that deck, and you might just as easily see the first three draws being two nines and an eight. That stings, but along with that pain comes a powerful incentive to adapt to the changing points economy. Drawing big cards to begin with is the cattle prod that spurs your decaying meat brain into action. You don’t need to score big, you just need to score better. Everyone else has the same rough start, so it’s up to you to wring the most out of the numbers that come your way.
At the end of the game, you peel off your numbers in reverse order and total them up and the player with the phattest stacks, as I believe the kids say, wins the game. That’s it – that’s all there is. There’s no clever twist or surprise mechanism yet to be revealed. It’s just a very straightforward game of stacking tiles on top of other tiles and then doing some arithmetic. And despite that, it’s good even if I’m hesitant to call it fun. It’s satisfying, but not particularly scintillating. It’s vaguely intellectual and not especially visceral.
The best thing about the game is that almost every specific objection I have about it is very easily resolved with simple house-rules. It’s over a bit quickly for me, but there are so many tiles in the game that really you can keep going as long as you like (within the bounds of player count). NMBR 9 supports up to four players, which means there are eight of each number in the box. For a two player game, you could simply reshuffle the deck at the end and use up the rest of the numbers available. You can play it solo, and in that scenario you could end one game and roll right into the next a total of three times. If you keep your previous structure as the starting point of the next, you’ll have a whale of a time. For three and four player games that’s not really an option, but it’s unlikely you’ll find enough people willing to tease out the length of this spatial numberwang simulator anyway.
Part of the reason for that reluctance is that the game is, I think, too ‘solvable’. You know how many of each number are in the deck, and there are real strategies you can come up with to structure your edifice in the best way regardless of the order in which they are drawn. That’s also easily resolved by secretly removing a couple of cards from the deck – that way you can’t rely on tried and trusted connections between numbers because there’s a risk they won’t appear. Combine that with a reshuffle after the first round of placement and you might find a game where you never see a nine, or the ones and twos are missing. That adds a bit of additional unknowability into what is otherwise a very knowable puzzle.
However, even within the solvability of the vanilla game NMBR 9 does incorporate the failure cascade that makes these kinds of games interesting. You don’t make this arrangement in circumstances of your own choosing – you’re making it based on the mercy, or not, of the deck. You can happily build away at a foundation that’s going to net you mega points for the nines and the eights, but you’re relying on them coming out when you’re ready to receive them. One unfortunate draw in that respect can send your entire plans spiralling off in smoke and flames, and the rest of the game becomes a desperate battle to salvage what you can from the wreckage. That’s not only desirable in a game like this – in my view, it’s a mandatory part of the design. With the full deck available though you develop compensatory techniques that mitigate this. You can have branching plans that permit throwing a lasso around the randomness, and effectively taming it. You need to sacrifice a portion of your playing time to correct this deficiency, and that’s a substantial cost that shouldn’t be under-estimated. You can certainly fix that in one and two player games, but you just don’t have the pieces available to solve it for games of three and four players.
And that leads into what is probably my most serious objection. This is a very solitaire game. It’s pathologically solitaire, in fact. It’s not that there’s limited competition, or all the competition is entirely indirect. There is no competition over pieces. As with Karuba, the only thing that changes from player to player is the layout into which you place the pieces. You can simply go right ahead and mirror what an opponent is doing and guarantee you’ll get the same score as them. You won’t win that way, but neither will they. There is nothing in the game to prevent this, or even disincentivise it. The only thing other players do is act as a kind of pacer – they set the context within which score evaluation is done. You would lose nothing in that respect if someone played a game in the afternoon and sent you their score and the card order for you to beat in the evening. There’s just no reason why other people need to be involved in NMBR 9, and I think that’s a tremendous failing in any board game. Your mileage will of course vary, but I look to board games as an escape from more solitary pursuits of pleasure. NMBR 9 is a group activity in the same way as people sitting together reading their own books in a comfortable lounge. It’s companionable, it’s certainly not unpleasant, but they’re not really adding more to the experience than a contribution of body heat. The kind of games I like the most give me reasons to talk and laugh with friends. NMBR 9 doesn’t give me those reasons – in fact, it takes them away because it replaces engagement and interactivity with a puzzle that closes us away from each other.
Within all of this though you need to keep in mind that ease of modifiability– as part of writing the review of this I did a three solo game chain where the end point of one game was the starting point of the next. I found myself getting drawn in even though it was mostly for the purposes of taking pictures. NMBR 9 started to take on new forms and open new strategies and tempos for play. I was able to treat the first round purely as foundational, the next round as score optimisation, and the final round as outward expansion within the framework of failure I laid out for myself.
In the end, I had a massive sprawl of tiles that I didn’t even bother to score – it was the placement that was the fun, and the score didn’t even matter. NMBR 9, because of its simplicity, easily lends itself to people treating it as a kind of toy-box containing components from which they can engage themselves. If the overly solitaire nature of the game is an issue, you can easily mix it up yourself. You could make it every time a zero is drawn, you get to place it for your opponent. You could have a lot of fun with that and start to bring your friends back into the experience.
When it comes to a review though, I don’t think it’s at all appropriate to place too much emphasis on the game as it could be with your modifications. You take possession of a game which is a box of components and a set of rules. You’re not taking collection of a kit to put together at your leisure. The issues I have with NMBR 9 can all be solved, but they all need you to do it and I think that lets the designer too readily off the hook. Nonetheless, this is a game that comes out of the box in a very enjoyable state even if the purity of the design means it misses the mark on my real world expectations of play. NMBR 9 could have been better then both Barenpark and Patchwork. It isn’t though, and I don’t think it’s fair that the job of making it so should fall to the player.