Challenging the Oneness of UNO
I found a copy of UNO in my small card game boxes this week. I don’t remember where I got it, likely a gift from a relative, but seeing that flat red box brought a wave of nostalgia, reminding me of evenings many years ago of camping and beach trips playing this no-frills number game. We often played a MAD Magazine-themed variant which had slightly different action cards and a super-cool red plastic card tray.
All sentiments aside, that brings me to this week’s question: can UNO hold its own against modern card games?
As far as sales and distribution, Mattel’s UNO is hard to beat. It has high brand recognition, a compact size, and a cheap $6 MSRP. You can find UNO just about anywhere. Usual places include Walmart, Target, by the register at grocery stores, travel/gas stations, Goodwill shelves, the jigsaw puzzle closet you find in beach house rentals, your grandparents’ RV, and maybe the pub down the street, buried under a stack of dog-eared Trivial Pursuit cards wrapped in thick rubber bands.
According to industry analytics, UNO is enjoying increased sales growth in 2017 and is the top (non-collectable) card game in the United States. Mattel has released and licensed UNO variants across all kinds of pop culture IP and sports teams. The UNO train is far from slowing down, and as a card game it is as ubiquitous as you can get. It is literally number one.
What about UNO’s gameplay?
Chances are pretty good that you’ve played UNO, or its public domain ancestor Crazy Eights, but I’ll give a brief overview.
An UNO deck includes cards numbered 0–9 in four different color suits. Players are given a hand of seven cards to start. The way to win a round and earn points is to shred your hand until you have no cards left. On each player’s turn, they may play a card to a common pile that matches the top card in either color suit or number, or get a card from a draw deck. There are also wild cards that will change the active suit, change the direction of play, skip the next player’s turn (ugh), or make other players draw more cards. When someone is down to one card, they yell “uno!” just in case others can’t see that they have only one card left, I guess. When a player does manage to go out, they earn points based on the values of whatever is left in the other players’ hands. Rounds are played until one player reaches 500 points, or (more likely) everyone gets bored and does something else.
There certainly isn’t any grand strategic moments in UNO. You may have a decision point every so often between playing this card or another, but most of the time it is clear which card is the best to play. Luck is the main factor. It’s quite maddening when you are down to one card, only to earn a fistful of cards a few turns later due to swingy luck, or opponents dropping +4 draw cards. On a subjective note, its frightfully banal graphic design makes it one of the worst-looking mass market card games I’ve seen.
Now, I don’t mean to disparage those who enjoy playing UNO, but there are so many great card games today that drive more player decisions and deliver way more energy than what UNO provides.
Here are three I recommend.
The goal in Red7 is pretty simple: you need to be winning the game at the end of your turn. Each player is given a hand of 7 cards that are ranked by color and number. On their turn players have an option to change the win condition; it could be “highest card”, “most cards of a single number”, or “most cards of a single color,” for example, or play a card from your hand, as long as you are winning. If you can’t, you are out. The strategy in Red7 is about effectively building your tableau, planning ahead to weather the changes in the win condition, and lasting longer than your opponents. It is a quick game, about four minutes, but it is packed with a lot of great brain-crunching power.
In Dutch Blitz, each player has a complete identical deck of cards, except for unique back designs to differentiate the players. Using card-handling elements of both Skip-Bo (UNO’s spiritual sibling) and Klondike solitaire, players are trying to get rid of all the cards in their deck by building up shared consecutive-numbered piles. However, it is simultaneous play, so you have to be quicker than everyone else, too. Dutch Blitz is best described as tense and frenetic. Expect slapped hands, cards flying off the table, accusations, and laughter.
On a quieter note, Love Letter delivers a lot of game using only 16 cards. Each card is ranked from 1–8 with the “Princess” at the top, and the lowly “Guard” at the bottom. To win, you need to be the last player standing, or the player holding the highest-ranked card when the draw deck runs out. Each player is dealt one card, and on their turn, they will simply draw a card and play a card. Each of the card ranks has a unique special ability that allows you to, for example, trade a card with another player, or maybe guess what card another player holds. In that case, if you are correct, they lose. It is a game of deduction and risk, you may decide to hang on to higher-ranked cards that are riskier to hold, or use lower-ranked cards to pick off your opponents faster if you have a good idea what may be in their hands. This is another super-fast game with rounds lasting only a few minutes, and a full game sliding in under twenty. Love Letter is great to carry around and play just about anywhere.
While I miss that sweet red tray of the MAD Magazine card game, I have no great desire to play UNO anymore. The fact is, there are so many better-designed card games today. I encourage everyone to give them a shot.
You can get Red7 from Asmadi Games, Dutch Blitz from its website , Love Letter from AEG Games, or all of them at your friendly local game store, like this one!