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.