A sense of humor can be a warning flag in games – scatological humor doubly so. Too often, game designers think just because they have a sense of humor about the theme they can be frivolous about the game design. So it was with trepidation that I approached Poo: The Card Game. The colon is important; after all, you wouldn’t want to mistake the game from just any old regular poo. Not that you’re likely to make such a mistake: the glossy 110 cards in the set are all beautifully designed, brightly colored, fun to read and dominated by a lurid greenness, not any kind of brown. What’s more, the game’s odor is not at all unpleasant.
Nor is it unpleasant to play. Although it is simplistic and random, designer Matthew Grau has not skimped on making sure the rules work. The cards are clear, the rules are easy to learn and fun can be had for two to eight players whenever you need a half-hour filler game. And it recreates perfectly all the fun of being a poo-throwing monkey, in a cage filled with your poo-throwing colleagues. The theme means it isn’t one to pull out in front of your grandmother, but anyone who can’t quite stop themselves from giggling when they say the title should get more than a few giggles from playing the game.
The rules are so simple they fit on a teeny tiny A5 page, but are very well explained regardless. It also helps that all the cards not only explain what they do but they also generally explain how others can react to that play. You can learn to play in a few seconds and apart from a few tiny questions the first time out, we never needed the rules again.
It helps that the mechanics are so natural and familiar. Start with five cards. Play one on your turn. Only play out of turn if you’re responding to an attack. Any time you play a card, draw a card. It’s a schema well worn in game design, which stops me from suggesting they borrowed the rules wholesale from Atlas Games’ Lunch Money. The similarities don’t stop there, however. Both games involve launching attacks doing 1, 2, 3, or 4 points of damage (in the case of Poo, this being a measure of poo-coverage, not pain), and both games have cards labelled Block and Dodge to avoid them. Both games have special cards that allow you to do multiple attacks or attack multiple targets. Both games feature one card which is a regular attack doing 7 damage. Both games have players being knocked out when they score 15 points of damage/coverage. Both have healing cards that heal four points of damage.
Game design is not rocket science; it is not too difficult for anyone with his or her head screwed on to realize, for example, that if you’re dealing between one and four damage, fifteen makes a good target. And game designs go around and around, because what works is used again and again, and there’s no point reinventing the wheel. Still, the card breakdown is so exactly alike that of Lunch Money I find it difficult to believe Lunch Money wasn’t their specific inspiration, and if it was, it deserved a nod in the credits. It did not get one.
The other problem is that Lunch Money is still in print and, despite a few hiccups, is an excellent game. Indeed, for my money, it is better than Poo and fills a similar niche as a filler game. However, the games are not identical. Lunch Money has a dark, violent streak to its theme, and features disturbing art work and quotes (“Jesus hates you and so do I”) making it impossible to play with kids. Poo, however, features bright, joyous cartoon art that compliments its fun-loving theme and makes it very family friendly. Also more family-friendly is the inclusion of the Golden Banana rule which allows the first person knocked out to immediately return to play with 8 points of poo. There’s also the previously-mentioned cleverness of writing all the relevant rules on the cards themselves – Lunch Money was almost crippled by its need to look up the effects of special cards.
Lunch Money does have more tactical depth however – Poo is really down to pure luck of the draw. Lunch Money was also a game with a better balance of attack and defence – Poo suffers from it being way too easy to clean yourself, or indeed clean everyone at once, serving only to drag the game on. In large games this quickly becomes problematic as unless you pick on the loser to the exclusion of all others (assuming you have the cards to let you do that), it can take a very long time to knock anyone out (and then they get the golden banana anyway). While the back of the game claims a play time of between five and fifteen minutes, our first seven-player game lasted over an hour. Rarely has it gone less than thirty minutes, unless there’s only two or three of us. The game suggests taking out the cards that clean off your poo after the first run through the deck but that still means a long game and it’s a pain to organize.
Given how everything else in this game is so smooth and simple and quick and easy, it would be a pain to slow down and adjust the card mix. And you don’t want to slow down, because even if the games go longer than the box suggests, the play is lightning fast. Poo flies back and forth across the table at ridiculous speeds, and because it’s so easy to learn, you can get into the poo-flinging with equal alacrity. This speed – and the sheer fun of the poo flinging and the cartoony art – means nobody cares about the random factor to the game. And even at half an hour, it’s not something that is likely to get dull.
In other words, this is the perfect filler game. It’s simple to learn and ridiculously easy to play. It runs at a cracking pace and rarely lasts more than half an hour. It appeals to almost everybody and can handle anything from two to eight players. It’s not going to bust anyone’s brains but it may make them bust a gut from laughing. Poo may have no depth to explore, but there is something enduring and universal about a good poo joke, making it perfect for social gaming, mixers and cons. In short, it gets the job done – no pun intended.