Games: Push-Your-Luck

Anyone who has ever played Blackjack knows the dilemma at the heart of every push-you-luck game. Do I stay with this crummy 15, or do I request another card and possibly bust? Every game has some element of risk-reward, but push-you-luck games are often nothing but, the agonizing do-I-or-don’t-I decision distilled to its essence.

Because of their simplicity, push-you-luck games rarely afford opportunities for strategic play. But what they lack in depth, they make up for in accessibility (most can be taught in moments) and excitement. Where other games might be a 10k, push-your-luck games are more akin to a 100m dash–and are likely to give you the same cardiovascular workout.

Here are some of the best:

Can’t Stop: The epitome of the push-your-luck genre, Can’t Stop was unavailable for quite a while, but was reprinted by Face 2 Face Games earlier this year. Roll four dice and group them into scoring combinations. Every time you succeed, you advance your markers on the board–and are given the opportunity to roll again. You can call it quits at any time and “bank” your progress, but if a roll produces no combinations, everything you earned during the turn is lost. You can find a slick computer implementation of the game at rollordont.com, but goading on other players is half the fun, and it should really be played against real people. Can’t Stop is one of those classics that I recommend unreservedly to anyone who enjoys games.

Incan Gold: The newest entry in the push-you-luck category is also one of the most popular. Players are Indiana Jones-eque explorers, infiltrating forgotten ruins in search of treasure. Everyone enters the temple as a group and, on each turn, the top card of the deck is turned over, revealing either treasure or a hazard (rock slide, poison gas, snakes, etc.) Afterwards, each player has the option to take the money and run, or venture yet deeper in search of greater riches. Those who flee get to keep all the treasure they collected; those who are still in the temple when the second of a particular hazard is revealed get nothing. The group dynamic of Incan Gold makes it even more fun than Can’t Stop in my opinion, and it plays in half the time.

Exxtra: I like the stripped down, almost austere design of Can’t Stop, but Exxtra is perfect for those looking for a little more meat. Here again you are rolling dice, hoping to improve your position and avoid busts. But in Exxtra, you must compare your rolls to those of the other players, and this added interaction makes the game feel a little deeper. One indisputable advantage of Exxtra over Can’t Stop: it can accommodate up to six players, while the latter only works for 2-4.

Cloud 9: Very similar to Incan Gold, though Cloud 9 puts the players in a hot air balloon rather than in an Incan temple. On a turn, the current pilot of the balloon (it rotates every round) must play a specific combination of cards from his hand. If he succeeds, the balloon rises, and everyone aboard has the potential to score more points; if he fails, the balloon crashes to the ground, and those who hadn’t yet bailed get nothing for the round. Simple and engaging, Cloud 9 has been a favorite of my game group for years.

Circus Flohcati: Take a card from those face up, or, if you don’t like any of the ones available, turn over more cards. But if you ever turn over a card identical to one already face-up, you lose your turn and get no card at all. As just a deck of cards, Circus Flohcati is compact enough to fit in a pocket–perfect for bringing to your local tavern.

Viva Topo!: You know, for kids! This strays a bit from the cash-in-or-keep-rolling formula at the heart of the other games on this list, but the push-you-luck element is definitely in there. Send you mice to get cheese; the more mice you send, the greater the possibility of reward–but the harder it will be to get anything at all. This game has great bits, and is playable by kids as young as 4.

Lastly, the push-your-luck game I have probably played more than any other is simply called “10,000,” and is playable with nothing more than five dice and a scorepad. We played this incessantly when I was in the Peace Corps. Full rules are here.

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18 comments.

  1. While Viva Topo! is recommended for ages 4+, it’s pretty slick for adults as well. Especially when those adults are under influence… With more players, the cat is cruel. Cruel. Which is fun, of course.

  2. Exxtra can handle up to 6 players.

  3. Can’t Stop is a game I thought only my family knew–it’s one of my mother’s favorites, and I’m happy to see it back in production!

  4. How do they compare to chess?

  5. We’ve had Can’t Stop since it’s original release, and have been waiting for the kids to get old enough to appreciate it – we’ll definitely look into Topo.

    Have you ever done a review of any or all of the Gamewright card games? I find most of them quite good for the 5-10 crowd and am curious for the opinion of a real games player.

  6. Oh curse the appearance of ‘10,000’ or ‘Farkle’ or any of the myriad of other names this demon-spawned game has taken on.

    So…

    Addictive…

    Must Call Friends Now…

  7. Cosmic Wimpout is my all-time favorite press-your-luck game. But it is the only game I’ve ever played which requires you to take an iron to the playing board.

  8. A classic that I’ve always enjoyed is “Pass the Pigs” – you toss small rubber pigs that earn points depending on how they land. It’s great socially because it features small pigs and is very simple.

  9. 10,000 is my favorite work game. I’m a 911 dispatcher, so if we get interrupted (which happens all the time), it’s easy to pick it right back up.

  10. We play farkle anytime there is a large family gathering. Lots of fun, easy to learn, very portable and as mentioned- easy to stop and start if needed. Plus, the name just sounds dirty! “What are you doing? Well, all us cousins are just sitting around farkeling….”

  11. What ever happened to the cliche rotation project? Is it no more? Were there no good entries? What happened?

  12. Jon: Cosmic Wimpout is available for online play at gametableonline.com (Hope I’m not violating a comments rule by mentioning the site. I have no affiliation with GTO other than as a player.)

    Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to ask: Has Matthew done a survey piece on the several options for boardgame players to play online? BrettSpielWelt, SpielByWeb, Mabiweb, etc.? Have I just missed it?

  13. Also a “Pass the Pigs” fan. It’s really easy to play, the rules are hilarious, games are short enough to keep the kids involved and the push-your-luck aspect keeps it interesting for the adults. Plus, very portable — the whole setup comes in a case the size of a deck of cards. We took this one camping and used it on the afternoon when it rained, hailed and thundered.

    Friends brought “Cosmic Wimpout” along on a houseboat trip and it was pretty fun, but I think of it as being in the Yahtzee category rather than the blackjack category.

  14. I highly recommend Viva Topo too!

  15. Huh… I’ve always played Farkle with 6 dice…

  16. Actually, strategic play is possible in Blackjack. Unfortunately, casinos consider having and using the necessary skills to be cheating (personally, I think that notion sucks and that it should not be legal for casinos to ban intelligent players; maybe they should consider changing the rules to stack the Blackjack odds even more in their favor than they already are). It’s called card counting, and can be adapted to any other variety of push your luck game where there is a finite pool of known numbers from which your next number will come. You just keep track of the ones that have been used up already and you can calculate what the actual odds are for you next choice. There’s no guarantee that it will get a good result on any particular turn, but in the long run, playing the odds will work in your favor.

  17. Have to say thanks, the family has been playing Farkle for the last week. Even though every time one of the kids says the word farkle, my husband and I snicker. (Are we the only ones who use that as a polite word for f*ck?)

  18. Candy, you just reminded me about a Laugh In sketch I always loved involving the huge Farkle family all of whose children looked just like next door neighbor, Ferd Berfle.