Here’s a little factoid that’ll make some of you feel a bit old: the Soviet Union has officially been dead for almost 25 years. Yes, the demise of that once-colossal hodgepodge of Eastern European states is officially further back in time than the birth years of today’s college graduates. In our day and age, we have a lot to be thankful forits rise and fall. It gave us a Cold War that sparked a pop-cultural revolution in the West, and it also showed us that even idealistic, well-intentioned politics can birth a sadistic police state when adopted by the wrong people. But most importantly, it gave us a justifiable reason for the best entry in the classic era of Rocky films (Rocky IV is the best, NO DEBATE NECESSARY). America and the West may still have its fair share of enemies in current times (particularly those of the ‘blow-themselves-up-ask-questions-later’ variety), but at least we can all have a wistful giggle over how silly those red-bannered, sickle-loving commies were back then. We can also commemorate their folly through Nyet!, a Soviet-themed card game for 2 to 5 players that offers the leeway for some KGB-esque outmanoeuvring within its simple yet addictive focus on trumps and trick-taking.
As modern-day board and card games go, Nyet! is fairly lightweight - its container box could easily fit into a small rucksack or deep jacket pocket, making it perfect as a diversion while on the go. With a game board exactly as big as the box and a deck of cards the primary contents, it doesn’t take much effort to set up either. Production values are also pretty decent for a game that can travel, and the artwork is a particular highlight, focusing on caricatures of anthropomorphic animals decked out in variations of Soviet attire (and typically stoic Soviet expressions) that add a good touch of visual humour and character to the overall product. Real-world communism may be a dire, miserable slog on the most part, but the world of Nyet! at least looks like a fun place to throw cards around in.
The basic core of the game itself is also fairly uncomplicated. Each player first chooses a character to play as from a set of five persona cards and are then dealt a set amount of playing cards of differing values and suits (or in this game’s case, colours). Play then proceeds like many trick-taking games - each player lays down one card in the middle of the table and the highest value card wins the pile, with certain colours acting as trumps over other colours. Such play continues until players have used up all their cards, and points are added up according to how many tricks each player won, with the player with the most piles (obviously) claiming victory.
Where Nyet! comes into its own however is with a pretty ingenious game phase that takes place just before cards can be played. Along with these cards, each player is also given a set of tokens to lay on the game board, which itself is split into several rows of squares. Each row describes a particular type of rule for the upcoming card-laying phase (e.g the colour that will take trump status), and each square determines a specific variation of the rule (e.g blue, red etc.). By taking turns to lay their tokens on individual squares, each player can prevent a certain rule from being part of the next game. Once all but one square on each row are filled in, the actual game begins with rules determined by whatever is left uncovered. The result is a game backed by a subtle yet sophisticated level of coercive strategy. You can try to influence the game board to suit your own hand of cards, or guess what your opponents have and try to sabotage their chances of winning tricks. With even the number of points being definable for each trick won, no game plays the same way twice.
In fact, it’s points that end up unsurprisingly being the defining factor of the game. Nyet!, at least according to its rulebook, is designed to be played in a series of rounds in which points for tricks are added up at the end of each phase of play, and the player with the most points at the end of the game winning. The official recommendation is to play a series of eight rounds, and doing so gives enough ample time to reveal the true inventiveness of Nyet!’s rule-setting phase. With players getting wise to each other, each repetition of play is often more devious and conniving than the last. But it does also reveal some fundamental flaws - given the time taken with both dealing cards and playing the rule-setting phase, eight rounds of Nyet! can actually start to feel like a Russian literature epic towards the end of its length. Some rules also work better than others as game mechanics, while others will get completely passed up each round - in particular the possibility of forcing a points bonus of -2 per trick won, essentially forcing players to avoid winning piles. While it’s a Russian-roulette style game-changer in theory, practically no players that we played the game with were willing to take the risk of it, making it practically ignored on the board where a different, more appealing rule could have been added.
Lastly, Nyet! falls into a trap common with trick-taking games: the first player chosen each round will very rarely win tricks, Their chances are initially slim because of the sequential nature of play between opponents, but they are further dashed by the fact that Nyet! allows up to two separate classes of trumps each game round, giving players further along the play order a much bigger edge. This perhaps explains why Nyet! demands you don’t play one-off games: through continuous play, each player is given the chance to avoid being first player, and thus possesses a theoretically near-equal chance of success at the end of the game as anyone else. As a single one-and-done game though the playing experience is demonstrably unbalanced, which is bound to switch off players looking for a quick casual card game or two.
Nonetheless, Nyet! is most definitely a fun, clever and comprehensible little game if you have the patience to play its extensive suggestion of game rounds. It’s got a great look and employs a fantastically subversive twist on the trick-taking style of card games that’ll definitely keep you coming back for more. If you’re looking for variety in such a game genre, you’ll probably won’t do yourself much harm saying “Da!” to Nyet! today.