When it comes to card games few are any more popular than rummy.
As a two-player option gin rummy -- created in 1909 -- in particular is a great way to wile away more than a few hours on rainy summer days, or cold winter evenings.
Rummy, probably because of it familiarity, and the easily adaptable mechanic of creating melds, has become the root game behind a number of variants.
As is often the case the variants, because they are building on an already well-understood and very workable system, become better than the root game.
As good as gin rummy may be, there are a few variants out, most emerging in the last decade which are actually deeper games, without getting so bogged down in complexity that the game loses its appeal especially for the more casual card player.
Among the recent developments is Little Bighorn Rummy, a 2012 release by designer John Longstreet.
As you might think from the name the game is themed around the battle between Col. George Custer and Chief Sitting Bull, one of the most fabled conflicts of the American west.
On June 26th 1876 Lt. Col. George A. Custer drove his seven companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn River where he met a vast gathering of Native American nations not willing to back down. Custer's fate and place in history was sealed as he and 255 of his men were killed at the Little Bighorn.
It is the battle which is the backdrop for Little Bighorn Rummy.
Longstreet said working on a historic theme was a natural.
"Being a History teacher and having my concentration in 19th century American History I've always loved the American West," he offered.
"I've read and studied Native American and Military History for 40-plus years. Little Bighorn was the apex of much of both of these two cultures.
"When I decided to tackle the subject I had already played a few board games that you could classify a typical 'war games'. You know, hex and counter, move and attack. I didn't want to repeat this. "What always impressed me about the conflict was the hectic nature of the event. Many of the Indian accounts, Sitting Bull included, mention that they did not believe that they were going to win and up until the final moments of the battle they felt the battle was possibly lost.
"I began to search for some kind of mechanic that would allow me to play both sides at the same time, if that makes any sense."
So Longstreet went looking for what could portray the event in game format to his liking.
"Searching my own game database I remembered Mike Fitzgerald's Jack the Ripper Mystery Rummy. It let you play all of the suspects of the crime," he said. "So I began to look at a rummy-style game.
"The only drawback was I knew that 'rummy games' had gained that 'dime-a-dozen' aspect as so many have been created. I had to try to add new concepts or enough history themes to make it work."
Longstreet said he started with the cast-of-characters, Braves, Companies, Chiefs, Custer, and Sitting Bull. "What to do with them?" he asked.
"The first thing I decided was to use Custer as a 'bad' guy. He did die didn't he? I used a little 'Hearts' here and made him count as a negative number.
"I started with Companies: a commander worth three-points, a guidon flag two-points, and five troopers one point each for a 10 point company. I tried to do the same for Indians and chiefs"
Not all went smoothly, admitted Longstreet.
"Early play-testing with my wife was blah, so I went to another idea that was brewing. The separating Chiefs from Indians and adding the Coup Stick options to steal points," he said. "This changed play drastically. A move I was looking for to help build a mechanic that added spice to the game that would change strategy and play. Next I wanted to find a way to deal with the negative Custer card.
"I added the Staff card for a little revisionist history. The staff cards could be melded alone or could be used to add to Custer to help escape him and escape the negative point.
"But was that fair?
"Well Sitting Bull was Custer's foil, logic said develop a card that would stop Custer from escaping. Easy, days before the battle, Sitting Bull went into a trance at the Sundance ceremony and foresaw the Battle. A sundance card played on Sitting Bull prevents Custer's escape if not yet accomplished. Now other cards were developed with historical meaning -- scout cards, villages, and special cards to lend more advantages to build points."
The backs of the cards have a historic photo of both leaders and it makes for a dramatic looking card back.
Actually the art of this card game is pretty amazing. Card fronts include historic photographs including personas such as Major Marcus Rena, Captain Miles Keogh, Chief Spotted Eagle and Chief Dull Knife.
Other cards rely on artwork, much of it primitive in nature, but equally historic. As an example the 'Chief's Coup Stick" is artwork from a native American participant in the Sioux War in 1876.
As a variant Little Bighorn Rummy is about set collection, or melds. In this case players collect melds of both Native America and U.S. Cavalry.
Where the game adds from the root game is in the addition of special support cards which impact play. It maybe a situation of being able to play a single card to the table (rather than needing an initial meld of three cards), or the special card might allow actions such as going through the discard pile in search of a card you need.
It is the special cards, and the actions they allow which give Little Bighorn Rummy its uniqueness.
Now in broad terms this game does not offer anything radically new, but what it does offer is satisfying just the same.
I will suggest rummy fans are going to like this one quickly, but the great art and historic western theme should bring new players to the table to try it.
I loved the art at first look, and the special cards add enough to make it different enough from gin rummy to make you want to play it again.
Longstreet admitted the art is a definite draw.
"What will attract players -- first I have to admit Matt's (Art Designer Matt Hulgan) fantastic artwork is a plus," he said.
"But I hope that the historic appeal and quirky game play will bring people to the game and keep them playing it. To be honest, some hands run very plain and simple, but when chiefs and sticks come into play and point are stolen, Custer shows up and you don't want to lay down you staff meld because your opponent might steal them to put on that Custer card, or you can't 'sluff' off Coup cards, etc., hands can get tense trying to go out before your opponent racks up points.
"To me that's a sign that there is strategy and mechanics in a game."
Little Bighorn Rummy is easily in my top-10 variants on the game, and likely breaks the top-five, and there are many out there.
Check it out at www.ftfairfieldgames.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact email@example.com
--Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct 3, 2012