Review: Cockroach Poker Royal
It’s the arsenic-laced wafer thin mint of board gaming, and there’s always room for its lies and laughter. The one thing more impressive than Asmodee daring to call Skull “the very quintessence of bluffing” is that actually, I don’t think they’re wrong.
Two months ago I was in a pub with a friend who I trust completely. “If you like Skull,” he said, “Then write this down. ‘Cockroach Poker’. Best £10 you’ll ever spend.”
Today I’m the proud owner of one “Cockroach Poker Royal”, the en-complicated 2012 sequel to 2004’s Cockroach Poker. And I’ll tell you what! It’s not just a great game of lying to your friends. It’s a great game of lying with your friends.
The basic game of Cockroach Poker is incredibly simple. To set up, you deal the game’s entire deck out to 2-6 players around the table. On each card is the sort of horrid, foreign creature that keeps the residents of England ensconced on our island. There are Cockroaches, Stink Bugs, Scorpions, Flies, Toads, Rats and Bats. Actually, we do have toads in England, but if you see one then you can write a letter to the Queen and she’ll send someone to have it shot.
Play proceeds with one player taking a card from their hand, and sliding it (face-down) in front of any other player. “This is a rat,” you might tell them.
That player then has two choices. One! They can decide whether the person who gave them the card was telling the truth, declaring “Yeah, it is a rat,” or “No, it isn’t a rat,” and turn it face-up. If they were wrong, the card goes face-up in front of them for the rest of the game. If they were right, that card goes face-up in front of the player who gave it to them. The first player to have four of the same animal in front of them is the loser, and the game ends.
So that’s obviously dangerous. Option number two when you’re given a card is simply to look at it, and then pass it on to another player at the table, doing exactly the same thing again. “He’s telling the truth! It really is a rat,” you might say. Or perhaps you’ll change it up- “He was lying. It’s really a cockroach.” And then that player decides what to do- whether to call you out or pass it on.
A lot of the time this will continue until the card finally arrives at the last player left, who can no longer pass it to anyone and has to guess if you’re lying. Which is hilarious, because everyone else at the table is complicit in this category four storm of bullshit- they’ve all seen it.
Theoretically, telling whether an entire table of friends is lying to you should be easier than telling if just one person is lying to you, right? But no. Imagine it:
Player #1: (Passes a card to player 3) Here, have a lovely toad.
Player #3: (Looks at card, passes it to player 2) He’s lying, it’s a rat.
Player #2: (Sighs, checks card, passes it to player 6) OK yeah. It’s a rat.
Player #6: Haha. It’s a toad, isn’t it. (Looks at card, passes it to player 5) Wow! No, it’s really a rat.
Player #5: You’re lying, aren’t you.
Everyone: CALL HIM OUT!
Player #5: …
(Player 5 nervously looks at the card, to the laughter of the entire table, before passing it to player 4)
Player #5: It really is a rat.
Player #4: (Having no players left to pass the card to) I hate you all.
Finally, the player who gets a card branded to the table in front of them starts a new round, by selecting a card from their hand and giving it to a player of their choice.
Inititially this is going to seem like silly fun, but look closely and you’ll see Cockroach Poker’s terrible cunning. First of all, the way you really hurt people is by giving them cards depicting animals they already have in front of them.
Let’s say you’ve amassed 3 of the 4 Bats you need to lose the game. Someone can give you a card and tell you it’s a bat, and the pressure to say they’re telling the truth so you don’t lose the game if it IS a bat will feel like an elbow working its way between your ribs.
But then they know you have to agree that it’s a bat, so they’ll have given you something else, so it’s safe to say they’re lying… right?
Likewise, you have a ton of information in the form of the cards you’re holding in your hand. Ten minutes into the game there will be an entire rotten house’s worth of pests on the table, and by adding the stink bugs on the table to the stink bugs in your hand you can figure out that – for example – your opponents are only holding one more stink bug, allowing you a degree of skepticism when someone passes you a card and says it’s a stink bug.
Then there’s always the tantalising play of keeping a whopping a whole pack of the same animal in hand – bats, say – until the rest are on the table, so you know that any claim of bat is a lie. But if you display this knowledge too confidently, others player might learn this, too. Or maybe that’s your plan, and then you can RELEASE THE BATS!
Am I giving you a headache yet? It’s fine. The joy of Cockroach Poker is that you can give it all of your brainpower and heartache, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, but it’s just as much fun to laugh and play cards almost at random. I really, really like it.
The art’s absolutely adorable, as well. You’ve never been so charmed by so many filthy creatures who want to lay eggs in your hair.
I actually really like the theme on Cockroach Poker, too, thin as it is. It makes filthy, cackling creatures out of you all. I promise I am not high when I say you can imagine scorpions playing this game, free from the maths of traditional poker that scorpions sometimes struggle with, just clackin’ their lil’ mandibles in delight as they catch the same friend out again and again.
What extras does the “Royal” edition have? Well, I’d still recommend you buy it for the adorable selection of animals wearing crowns…
…But I’m yet to be convinced that you actually want to play with the new cards, since they double the length of the game’s rules explanation without making it obviously better.
You get the new “Royals” suit (seen above) which force a player to take both the royal card and a card from a penalty deck in the middle. So putting a royal in play is a dangerous play since it can blow back on you. That’s nice. But it can sometimes mean players lose the game unexpectedly.
You also get a couple of jokers- a card that is no animal at all (so it’s always a lie) and a card that’s every animal (so it’s never a lie), and these cards actually go into the hand of the player who receives them, and they discard a card to be placed in front of them, with everyone else having to keep a little mental bookmark that they now have that card and are more likely to be lying / truthing (that’s not a word).
But I struggle to regurgitate a wad of excitement to spew onto these new mechanics, so that you, my babies, might devour them and grow strong. Cockroach Poker is great because it’s simple, funny, clever and satisfying. Do the royals and the jokers make it simpler, funnier, cleverer or satisfyinger? No.
Then again, we’re getting these features for free, so who are we to complain? You might as well hunt down the Royal edition just for the extra stuff, play with the simple cards, then bring in the rest if your brood ask for it, spitting playfully at you and batting their many, many eyes, begging for you to change things up.
Is Cockroach Poker Royal the best £10 I ever spent? I guess not. Is it better than Skull? Nah. But it’s one of those games where, if I’m round your house and see it on your shelf, I’ll make a delighted chittering sound and change my mind about draining you of precious fluids. I’d happily live in a world where you’re never more than 20 feet from a copy of this game.