Radio Review #94 – Aviary

 

aviary_cover

(2016 – Frost Forge Games, The Game Crafter)

 

“Can’t keep my eyes from the circling skies….”

 

Originally under contract with Game Salute, Bryan Johnson’s designed trick-taking game, Aviary, had been sitting in a backlogged queue for over two years when he was able to come to a friendly mutual agreement with the publisher to recoup the rights to the game, self-publishing it now through The Game Crafter. Bryan’s first published game, Island Fortress, successfully funded through Kickstarter in 2013, and saw players take the role of various architects, constructing the different sections of a fort for the Governor, mixing elements of action selection and pattern building with an interesting auction mechanic. With his follow-up design in Aviary, Bryan tackles the more straightforward trick-taking mechanic, but still finds a way to implement new and unique ideas to the genre.

Aviary is a trick-taking game for 2-4 players, in which players are a group of students on a field trip at the local Aviary. There are four different card suits in the game, and each represents a different section of the Aviary (East Aviary, West Aviary, the Raptor House, and the Owl Barn). Each suit contains 14 cards contains various species of birds and information about the continents where they can be found. Each time a player wins a trick, he will take the leftmost card in a queue. He is now considered to have seen this bird in the Aviary.

Each Round, players are given three assignments that may include things such as viewing birds found in Australia, view the most overall number of birds, or even viewing the rarest (high value card) birds. Players will receive Victory Points at the end of each Round depending on how well they’ve accomplished the teacher’s assignments. After four Rounds, the player with the most Victory Points receives the highest grade from the teacher and wins the game.

 

 

 

Components:

– East Aviary cards

 

– West Aviary cards

 

– Raptor House cards

 

– Owl Barn cards

 

– Pigeon cards

 

– Assignment cards

 

– Assignment markers

 

– Extra Credit card

 

– Dealer card

 

 

 

Setup:

At the beginning of the game, a dealer is chosen and given the Dealer card. This player will then take all of the Aviary cards (East Aviary, West Aviary, Raptor House, and Owl Barn) and shuffle them together, dealing 12 cards to each player to create their starting hand. Players will use these cards when attempting to win tricks during the current Round.

The remaining 10 cards are then placed face-up in the middle of the table, so that there are two rows of 5 Aviary cards. These are considered the “Observable” birds for this Round. That means that these are the birds that students will have a chance to see during the current Round. When a player wins a trick, he’ll take the active Observable for the turn. Obtaining certain Observables will help players to complete certain Assignment cards.

Speaking of Assignment cards, there are two types in the game. Yellow Assignments pertain to viewing birds from specific countries or sections of the Aviary, while Orange Assignments contain various overall goals for a Round. Both of these Assignment decks are shuffled separately, then two Yellow Assignment cards and one Orange Assignment card are revealed for the 1st Round. Since Yellow Assignment cards request birds from specific countries or sections of the Aviary, players can place red and green Assignment markers to help everyone remember which Observable cards relate to which Yellow Assignment.

For instance, the two current Yellow Assignments are to observe birds found in Australia and to not focus on those found in the Owl Barn. Each Aviary card contains information about the section where the bird can be found in the Aviary, as well as their native country. In this case, the Dealer will place a green Assignment marker on all Observables native to Australia, and a red Assignment marker on any Observable found in the Owl Barn. Now players have an easy reference when looking at all of the birds in play as to which Assignment corresponds to which Observable.

Finally, extra credit will be given to the student that stays a bit after everyone else has left and is able to observe the last bird in play. The Extra Credit card is placed behind the Observable furthest in the Round (starting at the card to furthest to the right side, on the bottom row) that does not contain an Assignment marker. Players will collect Observables from left to right, beginning at the top row, then moving to the bottom row. Therefore, this card will be the last in play for each Round. Sometimes filthy Pigeons will find their way into the Aviary. They are simply nothing more than a nuisance and can not be used for completing any Assignments. If one of these Pigeons are the final Observable in the play area, the Extra Credit card is placed underneath the Observable to its left (as long as it also doesn’t contain an Assignment marker). Basically, its always placed underneath the last Observable that is not a Pigeon and does not contain an Assignment marker.

 

After setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:

 

 

 

Gameplay:

At the beginning of each Round, players will look at the 12 cards in their hand and will need to decide on which 2 to discard from play. Since there are only 10 Observables in play (essentially 10 tricks to win), players will only keep 10 cards for each Round. It’s important to take a look at the Assignments given and the layout of the Observables when deciding which cards to discard.

Each card (except for Pigeons) contain one of four suits; East Aviary (green), West Aviary (blue), the Raptor House (red), and the Owl Barn (brown). There are cards numbered 1-14 of each suit. With the addition of the 2 Pigeons in the game, the total deck of Aviary cards is 58. A Round will begin with players attempting to collect the 1st Observable, which is the leftmost card in the top row. To do this, the player left of the current Dealer will play a card from their hand. Then moving clockwise, all other players must also play a card that matches the suit of this card. The player that has played the highest card matching that suit is considered the winner of the trick, and immediately collects the Observable card, placing it in front of his play area.

For instance, the Scarlet Macaw is the active Observable that player will be playing for. Player A is interested in collecting this card this Round, as one of the Assignments is crediting points for finding birds from South America. Since he’s attempting to win the trick, he’ll want to play a higher numbered card.

 

He decides to start the turn by playing a red (Raptor House suit) numbered 12. Player B, C, and D will then be required to also play cards with the Raptor House suit on their turn. Player B plays a 3, Player C a 7, and Player D a 6. In this case, Player A would win the trick and collect the Scarlet Maw into his play area. All played card are then discarded from play.

 

As with most trick-taking games, there is always a trump suit. In Aviary, this trump suit is the suit of Owl Barn (brown) cards. Players are always required to play the matching suit of the first card played in the turn if they have one in their hand. However, if they do not have the matching suit, they can choose to play a card from any other suit. If they play an Owl Barn (brown) card, they have trumped the original suit and will now win the trick if no higher Owl Barn card is played. Note that once a suit has been trumped, the next player is still required to play a card matching the originally played suit if he’s able.

For instance, the next Observable in the row is the Zebra Finch, which is also native to South America. Since a current Assignment is crediting players for finding birds from this region of the world, players will be interested in winning the trick and collecting it.

 

Player B begins this turn by playing a blue (West Aviary suit) numbered 14 card. Player C plays a blue 3 card. Player D however is out of cards from the West Aviary suit and decides to play a brown (Owl Barn) numbered 4 card. This trumps the original blue 14 played by Player B. If Player A doesn’t play a higher numbered brown card, Player D will win the trick.

 

While Player A has an Owl Barn card with a higher number in hand, he also still has a West Aviary card in hand as well. Therefore he is forced to play this blue numbered 11 card. Player D wins the trick and adds the Zebra Finch to his play area. All played cards this turn are discarded from play.

 

Pigeon cards are the only cards that can be played at any time, even if they could follow the suit originally played. They have no effect on the other cards in play, and in almost all cases, players that play a Pigeon will lose the trick (in most cases, this will be the intention of the player). The only rare exception to this is in a 2-player game where both players happen to play a Pigeon card during a turn. In this case, the player that played the Pigeon first would win the trick. In addition, Pigeons can not be used when scoring Assignments. For instance, if an assignment awards points to the player with the highest total number of birds, Pigeons would not be included when totaling this amount. It’s also pretty lame to boast to your teacher that you’ve observed a Pigeon. If a player wins a trick where the Observable was a Pigeon, he’ll score -1 points at the end of the Round.

 

 

 

End of a Round:

After all 10 Observables have been collected (the player collecting the Observable with the attached Extra Credit card, also takes that card), the Round is over. Players will now total points according to their three Assignments. For instance, seen above, the two Yellow Assignments credits 1 point to every student for each observed bird native to South America, and 3 points to the individual student who observed the least amount of birds from the West Aviary. The Orange Assignment credits students credits 3 points to every student who was able to observe birds from at least three different sections of the Aviary.

Player A finished the Round with following four Observables. He was able to observe two birds native to South America (including one with the Extra Credit card), but did not observe birds from three different sections of the Aviary. He was able to stay away from the West Aviary, not observing any birds from there, although he did brag to his teacher about seeing an molting-feathered Pigeon.

Player A would be rewarded 2 points from the 1st Yellow Assignment, and 1 point from the 2nd. Both Player C and himself were tied since they both observed no birds from the West Aviary. In the case of a tie, this 2nd Yellow Assignment awarded 1 point instead of 3. He was not able to complete the Orange Assignment so he received no credit for that one. He was awarded another point for his Extra Credit card, but also lost a point from his molting-feathered Pigeon. Therefore, after the 1st Round, Player A has 3 points.

 

The player to the left of the Dealer will now receive the Dealer card, and will reshuffle all 58 Aviary cards, dealing a new set of 12 to each player, then revealing the remaining 10 to the central play area as Observables. Then a new Round begins as explained above.

 

 

 

End of the Game:

After players have completed four full Rounds, the game is over. Points from each of the four Rounds are totaled together, and the player with the highest number of points wins the game.

 

 

 

Thoughts:

While at first glance it may seem like another trick-taking game, Aviary is surprisingly unique in how it plays. Most importantly, throughout a Round, players are not trying to win every trick. In fact, a player’s low numbered cards may become as important as their higher numbered cards, depending on the given assignments. There are many instances in which a player will purposely want to lose a trick, either because the current Observable gives him no benefit, winning that Observable may restrict his chances to score points from certain Assignments, or it may result in taking an annoying Pigeon card. It can make for some interesting decision making, in which you’ll want to save certain higher-end cards for the higher point-earning Observables, while saving lower numbered cards to lose the Observables that can end up hurting you in the long run.

The cards are designed in a way so they function both as Observables and suit cards in hand, making for some creative strategy in which players have limited knowledge of which cards players don’t have in their hands. For instance, if a player sees that a blue (West Aviary) 14 is one of the available Observables in a row, they have the blue 12 in hand, and the blue 13 has already been played, they can feel pretty comfortable that they’ll be able to win the hand by playing their 12 (of course, it could still be trumped). This adds a unique, supplementary element to the regular card-counting feature used in many trick-taking games.

A majority of trick-taking games require a player count of at least 3+, however its important to note that Aviary works extremely well as a 2-player game. Since players are both trying to win and lose specific tricks and attempting to complete various assignments, it can make for some compelling head-to-head gameplay. Attempting to figure out the suits that your opponent has in hand, while vying to set them up to take Observables they don’t want, versus acquiring or purposely losing the Observables that are most beneficial/less alluring for yourself, makes for a great back-and-forth in a two-player setting.

Although I’d love to see higher-end card quality and art, Aviary is a wonderfully solid trick-taking game. It may go under the radar because its lack of advertising through a larger publisher, but it’s well worth a look. The way in which Aviary works as a 2-player trick-taking game without missing a beat should be acknowledged and praised. And while a 2-player game provides more of a head-to-head, back-and-forth structure, a 3 & 4-player game introduces more card-counting strategy. All player counts feel balanced within themselves and work well. Released this past week, Aviary can currently be found on The Game Crafter website.

 

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