Vincent Lemaire, Jean-Michel Maman, Charles Amir Perret
2 - 6
7 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

Jacks. One of the oldest games in the world. Old enough that Homer’s Odyssey contains references to a game very much like it, and it’s likely that the game is even older. It’s old enough, in fact, that it was originally played with bones from sheeps’ ankles, mistakenly called knucklebones (which is another common name for the game). Said bones are to be thrown and caught in various ways, and the most able player wins. The simplest throw consists of throwing one special bone, the jack, up in the air, using the same hand to pick up other bones from the ground and then catching the jack again. Repeat until all bones are in your hand or you are incapacitated by a jack to the eye. The second case means you don’t win the game, by the way.

That would be a neat trick if I didn't have to duel.
That would be a neat trick if I didn’t have to duel.

While variations of Jacks are still played by kids all over the world – not with bones, because that would be considered unhygienic nowadays – Oss is the first attempt to bring this very, very classic game to the boardgaming table. To make the game work for us boardgamers, Oss includes a large wagering element. (By work I mean make it more appealing, not enable us to actually play it well. I don’t think anything does that, in my case.) Every round you bet on one of three available Trick Cards with your Tribal Cards. The Tribal Card shows a number from one to four that means two things: on the one hand, it’s the number of points you will score if you succeed in performing the trick you bet on, but on the other hand it’s the number of bones you have to pick up in order to succeed. In the basic throw described above, called Aslik in Oss, playing a four means you have to pick four bones from the table while tossing the jack – bones and jack are plastic pieces in the shape of the actual bone. That’s not so bad, at least if you’re less clumsy than me, but the exotically named tricks get worse and worse from there. To do Polopo, for example, you have to hold four bones between your fingers and then, moving only your fingers, move them until you hold them all in your hand. At least there’s no throwing the jack on this one. No such luck with Maradono, where you toss the jack, but instead of grabbing the bones you have to throw them into a goal made of two cards. If the description of the trick you are supposed to perform is unclear, which it often is because the descriptions are short and the English translation isn’t perfect, you can use your smart device – phone, tablet, glasses or even your toaster if it has a camera – to scan the QR Code on the card and watch a short video of how it’s done. Or you can go to the game’s YouTube page and see all the tricks there. But I must warn you, those videos are very depressing because those bodiless hands are actually good at the game.

Dramatic Reenactment of an Actual Catastrophe
Dramatic Reenactment of an Actual Catastrophe

Only one player can perform each trick, however. If two players wish to attempt the same, they have to do a Duel instead. Duel’s are a completely different pile of tricks that are performed competitively between two players, either simultaneously or taking turns as in Bola-Bola, a form of bone tennis. While a good idea in theory, the Duels are my least favourite part of Oss. It’s not because the Duels are bad, quite the contrary, they are fun. I dislike that, in games with four or more players, you can’t avoid them. There are only three solo tricks each round, there are four players… you can see where this is going. With six players, you might end up not playing a single solo trick, that’s pretty disappointing. With only 15 solo tricks, you will have tried everything after a couple of games, but doing the same five Duels over and over is boring.

You could decide to only play Oss with three players, but then you’d be missing out on the part that is a lot of fun again with more players, the Challenges. After all players perform their Trick or their Duel, the last step of a round is the Challenge in which all players participate. Winning the Challenge is worth four points and makes you the starting player for the next round. That’s not a big advantage or disadvantage, except that it gives every single other player the chance to force you into a duel. Strike that, that is a big disadvantage.

At this point it will not come as a surprise to anyone that Oss is not a very strategic game. There are some tactical decisions to be made – what Trick to try, who to force into a Duel and especially when to discard Tribe Cards to try and repeat a trick – but this is still very, very much a dexterity game. The question you should ask yourself is not whether you are any good at those. It’s perfectly okay to be hilariously bad at something, as long as you enjoy it. So the three questions you should ask yourself are, in this order: “Do I enjoy dexterity games?”, “Do I own easily breakable things that random flying bones could devastate?” and “Will my cat try to catch the flying jack while I’m playing Oss on the floor?” If your answers are “Yes”, “No” and “Yes, but she’s really adorable when she does it”, then Oss might be for you. And it will definitely improve your hand eye coordination. Not your hand eyes coordination, though, because one eye will be disabled by a clumsily thrown jack. But that’s a small price to pay for victory.

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  1. Also – when played correctly, an Oss player can control the fabric of time itself.

  2. I don’t doubt it for a second. Once you can throw up the jack and collect five bones while dancing a half-jig backwards, bending space and time seems pretty straightforward.

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