Monday, March 28, 2005

Review - James Ernest's Falling

FALLING is a frenetic card game for 4-8 players. Everyone is falling, and the object is to hit the ground last. It’s not much of a goal, but it’s all you could think of on the way down. – Blurb on the box of Falling

Say what you want about the game designs of James Ernest, but you can’t say that Falling is unoriginal. The premise alone is wacky. The gameplay is just as wacky, if not even more so.

The players are, well, falling. Come up with whatever reason you want. They could be stockbrokers who just invested in stock that went bust, skydivers whose chutes failed to open, aliens whose flying saucer just blew up… the possibilities are endless. As long as all the players are falling.

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On the way down, the players try their utmost to hit the ground last. The flap their arms, they whack each other; they use every option they can find. In the end, everyone hits the ground, but the one that hits the ground last dies like everyone else, but he wins the game.

This is a James Ernest game, and it is also a Cheapass Game. While Cheapass has a reputation for using cheap components, the smooth plastic-coated cards of Falling are reasonably sturdy. For your ten bucks you get 54 cards and a rulesheet. The art by Brian Snoddy is humorous and fitting for such a silly theme. The rules are reasonably clear and well-written, but this is a game best learned from someone who already knows how to play and can act as the dealer the first few times down to the ground.

The Game

Falling requires one person to be the dealer. This person is not falling; he is not a player. He deals out the falling cards to the players, acts on the cards used by the players, and keeps the game moving (and sane). In general, the dealer is going around the table, to each player in turn, and is dealing cards to them throughout the game until the deck runs out.

Each of the players has a “stack” of cards to begin the game. The dealer deals cards onto this stack. At any time, a player may pick up the top card of his stack. This card may be used either on himself or on another player, depending on the card. A player may only have one card in hand at any time, and once a card is picked up for use it cannot be returned to the stack.

How are cards used? There are three types of cards. The first type is the “rider”. A rider is a card played in front of a player, and it tells the dealer how to deal to this player the next time he gets to the player. The three main riders are “hit” (deal an extra card to this guy), “skip” (don’t deal a card to this guy) and “split” (start another stack for this guy). There’s an “extra” card that’s played on a rider, doubling its effect. Remember, you can either play a rider on yourself, or on someone else who doesn’t already have one in front of him. Once a rider has been “used” (the dealer has followed the instructions once) the rider is discarded.

Then there are the action cards. There are three of these things: “grab” (take someone else’s rider), “push” (give someone else your current rider) and “stop” (cancel any rider, or delay the ground). Each action card is used once then discarded.

Speaking of the ground, that’s the last type of card. If you get dealt a ground card and you can’t stop it, you become a red splotch all over the pavement. The Falling deck comes with five ground cards, and these are always the bottom cards of the dealer’s deck. There’s an infinite amount of ground, so when playing with more than five players, the dealer can just point at a player and say “ground” when he runs out of cards. If everyone else hits the ground before you did, you win. Congratulations.

How does the game play? The pace is set by the dealer. For a bunch of newbies he can deal slowly, allowing the players to look at the top card of their stack, pick it up if they want to, then use it on themselves or someone else before the dealer gets back to them. As the players get more comfortable with the game, and they can assess the situation, pick up and play cards faster, the dealer can speed up. The cards fly across the table. There can be some timing issues, when two or more players try to play cards in the same place at the same time, but these can be resolved quickly by the players themselves. After all, Falling is a game which plays out in three to five minutes. You can play again.


It’s a “real-time” game! What strategy? Isn’t it stupid?

Well, sort of, but not quite. Yes, you need fast reflexes and quick eyes to play well. If you have trouble picking cards up off the table, and you fumble a lot, you’ll probably get a bit frustrated. However, Falling is a game of stack management. All the turns before the dealer gets to the bottom of his deck are for “tuning” your stack to be nothing but skips (with extra skips) and stops, with maybe an occasional grab just in case. Get rid of hits, pushes and splits as soon as you can. Splits might actually be useful early on, since the extra stacks disappear if you empty them, but as the ground approaches, you’re playing with fire if you have more than one stack. (However, if you have a bunch of skips in both stacks that might work, since skips make the dealer skip all of your stacks.)

Timing is everything. You don’t want to play your skip in front of yourself too early, so that someone steals it with a grab, but you don’t want to play it too late either so that someone has time to stick you with a hit or unwanted split. Oh, and never pick up a push unless you’ve got a rider. If someone sees you holding a push he can stop your rider, freezing the push in your hand until someone else plays a rider on you. If no one does, you’re helpless.

So yes, there’s a bit of strategy. Seriously!

Reviewer’s Tilt

And yes, it’s a stupid game, but I think that’s the point. If you don’t take it seriously, you can have a good time with Falling. I don’t recommend playing with more than four players (excluding the dealer) with one deck, since it’ll be over too quickly. You can shuffle two Falling decks together when playing with five to eight players. If you’re new to the game and don’t have an experienced dealer, take it slow. Once everyone gets it, you can speed up. Of course, this is a game best played fast. I have to admit that Falling is lots of fun when you’re with the right crowd and in the right mood, filled with flying cards, cursing and yelling. You might even call it a party game.

There will be some people who will hate the game just because it’s stupid, or because it’s in “real time”. It’s surprising though that many people initially find the game disorienting, but once they give it a chance, they find that they’re played twenty games in a row.

Do I like the game? Yes, I like it for what it is – a different kind of filler for when no one really wants to do any mental lifting. That was unexpected, since I was fully prepared to hate Falling. It’s not going to substitute for meatier fillers, but if Falling is what the group wants to play, I’ll happily grab a spot at the table. Heck, I’ll even deal.


At Monday, January 04, 2010 3:24:00 AM, Anonymous Ed Freeman said...

I wouldn't call it a stupid game. The parts are simply, but with a bunch of people playing in real time juggling the possibilities calls for a lot of clock speed. It's not for a person that likes to sit and ponder their moves.


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