Cockroach Poker Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2004
Playing Time: 20 Minutes
You get a bunch of cards that are one of eight suits, represented by different types of critters and bugs (rats, spider, stink bugs, etc.). You pass a card face down to a player and say what it is. But you can lie. That person can either believe you or call your bluff. Either way, if they’re right, you get the card face up (this is bad). If they’re wrong, they get it face up in front of them. Whoever loses and has the card has to start the next round (also bad). Lastly, a player can Pass instead of trying to figure out whether or not you’re lying, look at the card, and pass it to someone else at the table and either claim it’s the same creature or a new one, and the lie detection begins anew. If you’re the last person to receive the card in a round, you can’t pass.
As more cards come out, it becomes easier to suss out lies, since certain players will want to offload particular types of cards and you’ll have more in play to begin to eliminate possibilities.
This is a “one loser” game as opposed to one winner. The first person to get four cards of a single suit, or to run out of cards entirely, is the loser.
It’s just a stack of cards. The art is kinda amusing, as the creatures are all a bit different even within the same suit, giving some distinct personalities. Otherwise, the minimalism of components and box is a selling point for this game.
The cards also (just barely) still fit in the box when sleeved, which is something I think many gamers will want to do after playing a handful of times.
The Joys of Dumb Fun and Meta-Intrigue
There isn’t much to this game. So why is it great? Because it takes the essence of a particular idea (bluffing) and presents it in a streamlined, funny format. It’s the staredown in Poker after a big bet, over and over again, minus the actual Poker, yet it manages to keep the tension of those moments alive.
It also effortlessly creates narrative moments. Someone will get two Cockroach cards back to back and will be reeling from the sudden turn in fortune. Then the next player to hand them a card will look them dead in the eye and say “This is a cockroach.” Watching that player squirm is a delight.
Watching 3-4 players on the brink of losing, trying to stave off getting that final, fatal card is tense and hilarious, even if you’re one of those players. Watching someone have a string of being correctly called out 3-4 times in a row is hilarious (again, even if it’s you). By the 3rd or 4th, they’ll be so shell shocked that there will be an audible sigh of relief if the player they hand a card to decides to pass it to another player. Being the player who has one face-up card in front of you, safe and secure, while everyone else is the table is near losing is incredible. For the “secure” player, they can be smugly amused at everything else going on, while the others would likely love to gang up on them, but likely can’t because they’re focused on getting someone else to the losing finish line, so to speak, before themselves. For clarity, I’ve seen impromptu grudge matches get a secure player in trouble in a hurry, but it’s an interesting strategic dynamic when you internalize that whoever is doing the best isn’t necessarily your enemy but is potentially your greatest ally at the table.
Some tables will even end up with an unspoken telepathy to get a certain type of card to a particular player. The silent agreement to try to stick Bob or Suzy with all of the Flies, for example, is a case study in emergent gameplay and obtuse communication skills.
Games are quick, so it won’t overstay its welcome. Some more or less pure bluffing games suffer from this type of game bloat, but Cockroach Poker manages to feel breezy even at max players.
There’s a “Royale” version of this game with some new mechanics and options. I haven’t played it, but also don’t think it’s necessary. “More” isn’t what makes this game good. The utter simplicity and focus is.
However, I believe you can play the base game with Royale, so it may be the best single purchase if you own neither.
Who Won’t Like This
Strategy gamers. Anyone who likes empirical systems to manipulate. Anyone who doesn’t like bluffing games, since that is almost all this is. Also, while the art is cartoony, if you really, really hate bugs, the theme may turn you off.
I also find the “one loser” dynamic to be great fun, but for the less socially inclined, it could feel like a kind of ostracization.
Cockroach Poker – Conclusions
There are a handful of popular board or card games that are a single thing, distilled down to their core essence. Another I’ve covered (or will cover? It’s hard to remember when my blogs are scheduled) is Can’t Stop, a distilled press-your-luck game of dice rolling and taking chances.
Both serve an important, singular function, but I like Cockroach Poker better because of how intense the interpersonal moments can get. Another game I’m a fan of, “The Mind,” is similarly visceral in how personal decision points seem to be. And it’s because, like everyone in the best Poker movies, you’re playing the person, not the game.
If gaming is about people (and it is for me), this game is Exhibit A in the game getting out of the way to facilitate engagement with your fellow players. Cockroach Poker isn’t a mechanical experience; it’s a loose template upon which to hang a bunch of distinctly human moments.
The game is about $13 on Amazon last I checked. It takes up the space of about two decks of cards on a shelf. For the amount of fun I’ve had with it, it’s one of the best fun-to-cost purchases I’ve made in my life, both in or outside of gaming. A friend of mine stated matter-of-factly “everyone should own Cockroach Poker” when we talked about its price, size and simplicity. I almost want to agree. There’s no such thing as a “must own” game, but outside a standard deck of cards, it’s also been the biggest slam dunk in my collection when comparing cost to number of plays and depth of my enjoyment.