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HaggisTitle

Haggis is one of my favorite card games. It’s like a two- or three-player version of Tichu (another favorite), only without the partnership aspect. I was so excited to hear it was getting an iOS release, especially after enjoying the excellent Tichu app (from a different and better developer).

Let me tell you everything you need to know about this app: It has no multiplayer support. None. Not even pass-and-play. That’s bad enough that you should balk at it no matter the price, but they went and sealed it by implementing one of the sorriest AI opponents of all time. I’ve never lost to this game. Often I’m done beating well before it gets to 50 points. And I am by no means an expert Haggis player. I’ll go ahead and review it, but save yourself some time and skip the rest of this and the app until they get around to adding multi or a decent AI.

Playing the Game

The main goal of Haggis is to get rid of the cards in your hand as quickly as possible (a la Gin, Tichu, or Gang of Four). There are other layers of strategy at work, though. You can bet 15 or 30 points at the start of every hand that you will go out first, and your opponent gets them if you are wrong. You also get 5 points for every card left in your opponent’s hand when you go out, which adds up quickly if you can find some killer combos to dump your hand in a hurry.

The big thing strategy-wise, however, is the bomb. Every player gets a Jack, Queen, and King at the beginning of each hand that are worth 3, 4, and 5 points, respectively. The only other cards in the deck that are worth points are 3s, 5s, 7s, and 9s, which are worth one point each.

Normally you take a trick by playing a higher-ranked combo than your opponent, ranging from single cards to enormous straight flushes. You have to play the same number of cards and type of combo as your opponent, making it very important to get the lead if you have a big combo that you don’t think they can follow. But these big plans are held in check by bombs, which are combos that can take any trick. The smallest bomb is a 3579 of different suits. Next is the JQ bomb, then the QK bomb, and both are topped by the JQK bomb. The real terror is the 3579 of one suit, which beats everything and is a great way to conserve your JQK for use as wilds.

The fact that all players begin with JQK makes for some delicious and agonizing choices. It is always tempting to weave those wilds into a huge combo, but if you don’t have a 3579 bomb to back it up with you leave yourself wide open to an opponent using their JQK to bomb your big play or a future one. It’s like a big, awesome game of chicken to see who will blink and use a wild card first.

But the most interesting thing about bombs, and one of the design elements that make this one of the best cards games ever, is this: When you bomb a trick, you get the lead but your opponent gets all the cards you just took.

This is huge. Imagine your opponent bombed a trick with a QK (adding 9 points to it). Do you let her have it and take those points, or do you put your JQK on it and get the trick but hand her 9 points back plus another 12 from your cards (and points from whatever 3s, 5s, 7s, and 9s are in the trick)? Clever bomb play can turn a bad loss into simple stalemate or a big win. You have to outguess your opponents, and you have to outplay them. Two qualities all the best card games have.

Crapp

So how does the app handle all this? Wonderfully, in terms of aesthethics and interface. The physical card game has gorgeous and simple art that is retained here, and even though it doesn’t support retina displays everything is perfectly clear on both my iPhone 4 and iPad 3.

Card management is stellar. You can’t arrange them individually, but you’ll never want to thanks to the included sorting options. Press a button and it arranges them in ascending order by suit. Press it again and it arranges them in ascending order by value. The former is perfect for finding runs and 3579 bombs, and the latter is perfect for finding pairs, three-of-a-kinds, and four-of-a-kinds. Better still, if you find a bomb or other combo you want to keep separate from the rest of the hand you can select those cards and press a retain button to pull them all off to the side. My god, it is a thing of beauty.

Game over. Note the computer got nearly half its points from this one final hand. Pathetic.

But then you play and it all falls apart. The AI sits passively as you rid junk singletons from your hand, setting it up for a can’t lose power play. It uses its wild cards frivilously, handing you a bomb advantage. It uses its pairs conservatively, giving you leads no sane human would ever let you have. It is a sucker, and a fool, and hapless. The only tension to be had comes from making 30-point bets without looking at your hand first, and also letting the AI rack up a triple-digit score before you start playing. It is a joke.

And there’s no multiplayer. I know I’ve already said it, but it bears repeating. The developers have said they might add it later if the single-player game sells well enough, which is about as backwards as thinking can get.

This is a brilliant game misrepresented by a brain-dead app. It deserves better, and so do you. Buy the physical version and don’t spend time or money on this until they let you play with other people or program an AI that doesn’t remind you of the time you had to play checkers with a three-year-old.