LLAMA (technically L.L.A.M.A. but that’s a pain to type) is a simple card game from Reiner Knizia which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2019. This was yet another game I managed to try on BoardGameArena.com. It is light and quick, with a dollop of luck. It looks like a brainless casual game, but there are some subtle and clever twists to it.
A game is typically played over several rounds. Your goal in each round is to minimise collecting points. Points are bad. In this game you don’t want points. The game ends when someone reaches 40pts. At that time whoever has the fewest points wins.
The cards in the game are numbered 1 to 6, and there are also llama cards which are worth 10pts. At the start of a round everyone is dealt 6 cards. When a round ends, you gain points based on cards left in hand. Each card value scores just once, e.g. if you have three 5’s, you will score 5pts, not 15pts. If you are able to play all your cards, i.e. go out, that’s the best. You end the round immediately. You may return one token you have scored in a previous round. White tokens are worth 1pt each, and black tokens 10pts. If you have a black token, naturally you will pick that to return.
It’s not necessarily bad if you can’t play all your cards. On your turn you can decide to exit the round voluntarily, scoring points for cards remaining in hand. If you are not going to score many points, this may be a sensible thing to do.
On your turn you have three options, and you may only pick one of them. The first option is to simply play a card. You may play a card which matches the top of the discard pile, or a card which is one rank higher. If the discard pile shows a 6, you may play a 6 or a llama. Llamas are one rank higher than 6’s. If the discard pile shows a llama, you may play a llama or a 1. The numbers wrap around. The second option is to draw a card. If you don’t have any playable card, you may be forced to draw a card. That is unless you want to take the third option – exiting the round. When all but one have exited, the last player may no longer draw cards. He can still try to play as many cards as possible. When he is unable to play any more, he will be forced to exit the round too, thus ending the round.
That’s all there is to the rules. It sounds so shockingly simple that it doesn’t feel like much of a game. Everyone is just taking turns to play a card, and if you can’t, you draw a card. It sounds pretty brainless, but I assure you it’s not.
To be absolutely honest, you can play LLAMA in a brainless way. You can play it like a luck-heavy casual game and still have fun with it. Being the nerdy gamer, I cannot help but dig into the subtleties of this innocent-looking game. When you play, everyone is getting rid of bigger and bigger cards, and in theory, by the time you cycle through all the numbers, someone can finish playing all his cards. For example the discard pile starts with a 4. Starting with 4’s you start shedding cards, working your way up to llamas, then down to 1’s, and eventually going up to 3’s. If things go well, someone will be able to go out by this time or earlier. I think when the player count is low, this feeling is even more prominent. In practice, this doesn’t regularly happen. Sometimes the numbers go up faster than you’d like, or you have too many cards of the same number than you are able to play before someone else plays the next number. When an opportunity passes, it is painful because you know you will need to wait a full cycle before you’ll have a chance to play that number again.
On your turn, there are at most two numbers you can play. Since ideally you want to play all your cards, playing the smaller card seems to be an automatic choice, if you happen to have both numbers in hand. However things are not that straight-forward. Let’s say I have three 6’s and a llama in hand. The previous player has just played a 6 on top of a 5. Should I play a 6 or a llama? Since I have three 6’s, it’s unlikely I can play them all before someone moves on to llamas. I’m going to score 6 points regardless of whether I have one, two or three 6’s in hand. Then I might as well push past 6 and play my llama. That way I can hopefully burn the next guy (or guys) who is hoping to play his single 6. If I’m going down, you’re going down with me, right? Speeding through the numbers is an effective tactic to hurt your opponents.
The choice between drawing a card and exiting is not always easy to make. When you are unable to play any card, if your hand won’t be scoring many points, it’s probably a good idea to exit. Drawing another card is risky. When others still have many cards, you exiting can create tremendous pressure on them. If some poor fellow is holding many cards, and everyone else exits one after another, he’s probably going to crash and burn. The most damning situation is having a hand which is neither too big nor too small when you can’t play any card. It’s rather painful to exit, but if you draw a wrong card, it can be even more painful. Juicy decisions!
It is not always bad to have a huge hand of cards. If you can form a tidy sequence with your cards, when everyone exits together to try to push you off a cliff, you can smugly play out your hand in one fell swoop, and gloat! OK, don’t gloat. That’s unbecoming. Sometimes you are really tempted to just draw one more card hoping to complete your beautiful sequence. It’s exciting and horrifying at the same time.
The player count will make the experience quite different. I have only played with three players. I think the game will be more fun with more players. It supports 2 to 6 players. With more players, the numbers will progress more quickly, more people will miss out on certain numbers. It’s going to be more painful all around, and that’s great! Frustration is good!
When the top card in the discard pile is a 3, I can play a 3 or a 4.
I have exited the round, so my cards are semi-transparent. I only have two 1’s, so I will only score 1pt.
Han (on the left) has already scored three black tokens, so he has more than 30pts now. If he hits 40pts, the game will end.
It’s a little ridiculous that I spew so much strategy about such a simple and light game. I’m a Knizia fanboy all over again. LLAMA is highly suitable for casual players. You don’t really need to think so hard or so much. It can be played in a relaxed manner. It’s more a party game than a strategic card game. For gamers, it’s a clever filler. It can be a good gateway game. It’s certainly a gentle way to introduce people to modern games, even though it’s slightly devilish. A big part of the fun in LLAMA is watching others crash and burn harder than you do. The game should not be about minimising your losses. Trying to maximise others’ losses is probably a more effective strategy. Go catch your opponents with their pants down (i.e. with llama in hand).