“I see your bet and raise you the Crystal Cave.”
“I call with the vestiges of Avalon.”
“I cast Dominate!”
“I counter with Fortitude. For the last time Skeletor, you can’t force someone to fold.”
“Very well! I call with this lost Valyrian Vorpal Blade and raise with two of the lost palantir.”
“Stop trying to goad Gandalf. I Dispell Magic on what appear to be transmutation stones.”
“Ehh, that’s too rich for me. I fold. Wait, unless we’re accepting Atlantean relics?”
“You know we don’t, Harry.”
“Ok, then, yeah, I fold…”
“I, however, will call the bet and offer up a ticket to the sealed Shangri-La conclave party. I have a flush.”
“Full House, 11’s and 5’s.”
“Skeletor loses with two pair…Morgan?”
“Sorry boys, four 9’s. I’ll expect my winnings by morning. Now, who’s up for another round?”
In ancient times, when magic still reigned, sometimes magic users would gather for a recreational card game not unlike modern poker, except that the stakes were higher and there was far more sorcery. Hocus is a modern recreation of that game. In it, players must use the cards in their hands and a few few spells at the ready to hopefully win big.
Wizards or no, there is no preparation required with Hocus. The game is comprised of a single deck of cards and 24 Spell cards, so Hocus is playable almost immediately out of the box. Every card in the deck belongs to one of four suits and has a value of 0-14, depending on the number of players. In addition, every card has a Pot value of 1-5.
To begin, each player receives a set of three Spell cards from one of the game’s eight schools of magic, either chosen or distributed randomly. The player to start the game is also chosen randomly, but in each successive round the first player is the one with the fewest points.
Hocus is played over a number of rounds, broken into turns. First, each player is dealt 8-10 cards. On their turn, they must take one of six possible actions. Three of these are identical for every player, which are:
- Build A Community: Put a card from their hand into one of two central rows of cards on the board, called a Community. Each Community may only have four cards in it.
- Build A Pocket: Put 1-2 cards from their hand face-down in front of them to form a Pocket. Players may have up to two Pockets, but each is limited to two cards.
- Build A Pot: Putting a card from their hand face-down next to a Community.
Players have three additional actions courtesy of their Spell cards. Spells are unique and more powerful actions but otherwise serve the same purposes.
When both Communities are full, each player takes one final turn before ending the round. At the end of the round, players perform a Showdown. The first player selects which Community is resolved first and players may chose a Pocket to use towards that Community.
Cards are then simultaneously revealed, with players using the Community and their Pocket to create the best five-card hand using standard poker rules. That Community’s Pot is revealed and the winner scores that many points. The process is then repeated for the other Community.
Afterwards, a new round begins. All cards are collected with the exception of any Red-suited Owl cards that were won in a Pot; those cards are instead kept in play. Each Owl card has a unique one-shot effect that can be used in addition to a normal action the following round.
If after the Showdown a player has reached at least 25 points, the game is over. That person has reached the number necessary to demonstrate once and for all that they are superior in their understanding of all things mystical and arcane.
Well, either that, or they’re an actual wizard. In which case there really was no chance.
Grasping Newfound Powers
No matter the story or setting, if a world contains magic users, there will undoubtedly be some set of rules to accompany them. By its nature, magic is unlimited, bound only by whatever you can conjure up with your imagination. Without constraints, magic is the solution to nearly every problem, and without power limits, it hinders storytelling. If left unchecked, pure magic would overwhelm most characters by providing more answers to their problems than they could feasibly process.
A similar thing occurs with Hocus at first.
Hocus is fairly easy to teach, regardless of whether you have prior poker knowledge, and this ease of accessibility is a major mark in the game’s favor.
However, simple rules doesn’t inherently translate into simple gameplay. With up to two different Pockets per player and at least two Communities every round, grasping even basic strategies can be initially challenging. Do you lead off by seeding a Community with a card, for instance, or do you defer an early action by Pocketing a solid pair? And how do you balance between strengthening your chances at winning a Community with ensuring there will be points to collect if you win?
Such consternation crops up almost immediately. Unfortunately, there’s no in-game roadmap for new players on how to best proceed. For some, particularly Daredevils, this lack of handheld guidance is intriguing since you’re free to explore the game’s varied and nuanced play styles. Others, however, will find Hocus’s lack of initial direction is problematic, leaving a first impression that ranges from confusing at best to completely frustrating at worst.
This is compounded due to the game’s Spells. Each trio of Spells more than doubles your tactical options, but they also further complicate deducing what your first course of action should be. Moreover, every school of magic in Hocus behaves quite differently, which is commendable, but it’s also a double-edged sword as this diversity also fosters analysis paralysis in newcomers. As such, even for a lightweight game, Hocus has a significant strategic learning curve that must be overcome to be fully enjoyed.
Thankfully, the game incidentally offers a means of rectifying this via its Classic Mode. In it, players only use the game’s three basic actions. That’s it. This is very useful as a means of understanding the fundamentals and flow of the game before adding in the more complicated wizardy bits.
Once over those initial hurdles, though, Hocus’s replayability shines like a fireball. Part of this comes from the compelling intrigue of combining publicly-created Communities with hidden cards to create the best poker hands. The other part is due to the wide variety of Spells flung about.
Each magic faction in Hocus has its own distinctive style. Alchemy focuses on manipulating Pots, for instance, whereas Storm’s strengths lie in affecting the Community. With eight different schools of magic, you are guaranteed a healthy dose of variation from session to session. Every faction offers its own strengths to aid you, and each Spell feels incredibly powerful compared to the basic actions. Yet it’s remarkable how balanced the factions are to one another – even if it may not always feel like it.
Indeed, while it’s not explicitly stated, Hocus intends for you to play into your magical allegiance for the biggest impact. Darkness Spells, for example, are more defensive and focus on reacting to cards played into Communities than contributing to them. That said, Hocus stops short of forcing you into a single way to play a faction, so you are free to play in whatever style you wish regardless of affiliation. However, the game definitely rewards you for playing into your faction’s capabilities.
What’s more, every faction also provides a form of checks and balances against the machinations of others, making for an even richer thematic experience. Hocus’s theme of wizard poker is felt throughout, but Hocus is at its peak when one mage is using their Spells to stifle and countermand the intentions of another. Because of this, even though it’s fairly light on flavor otherwise, the interplay of spell-wielding mages should be enough to entertain most Immersionists.
Similarly, expect Tacticians to fall under Hocus’s spell. Poker in any variation is always a cerebral exercise of shrewd table reading, calculating the odds, and guessing what your opponent will do next. That remains true here as well. However, Hocus also fosters the necessity of adapting to an ever-changing table state – something you bet this group will enjoy. Spells continuously alter the landscape in any given round, and the ability to adjust from turn to turn while still planning for the end of the round is essential.
To that same end, due to the intrinsic uncertainty of how rounds in Hocus unfold, this game is far less predictable than traditional poker. Some will enjoy Hocus because it’s similar to poker while offering a wholly different system to explore. For others, they’ll be enticed by Hocus because of how vastly different classic poker it behaves. However, more ardent poker players, as well as Strikers, will likely find the game simply too chaotic by comparison to hold their interest.
In either case, you won’t see Architects anteing up for this one at all, as its transitory nature offers little for them to latch on to.
All of this entertaining spellcrafting comes with a few caveats, though. Firstly, for all of Hocus’s vibrancy and variety of options, it takes time to learn how to offset the actions of opposing mages. Nowhere is it actually mentioned that Storm is strong against Darkness or that it’s weak against Flame, and so much of the dynamic cross-faction gameplay must be inferred to fully tease out all the game’s hidden substance.
The second issue ties into why most wizards have a spell book to begin with: those who try to memorize every facet of the magical world are bound to go crazy. That concern exists with Hocus too. For a 30 minute card game, there is a lot of monitoring, from watching the Communities and the speed of the round to deciding which Spell to cast – not to mention the wrinkles a well-timed Owl can throw into the mix. As a result, although most games of Hocus are short, engaging, and can be won in as few as a couple rounds, expect Socializers to be split on this game’s appeal.
Finally is the game’s artwork. Make no mistake: Hocus is a beautiful-looking card game. The tarot-style artwork for the cards is superb with bright imagery and clear layouts. Yet it could have raised its profile further if there was some variation of the art depending on the card values. As it exists, the same picture is used for every card in the suit, whether it’s a 1 or 13. By contrast, though, the Spell actions are largely text-based, which come off as a missed opportunity for some extra flavor when paired against the higher caliber art of the deck. In either case, this is a minor nitpick and doesn’t detract from the game’s overall worth.
Hocus [feather] falls as the type of game that’s easy to learn but difficult to master. Just as no two wizards behave exactly alike, nor too do games of Hocus. This game skillfully merges elements of traditional poker with a bevy of player actions to create a table experience unique unto itself. With impeccable artwork, quick gameplay, and a diverse array of strategies at the ready, Hocus has levels of breadth and depth that aren’t easily discerned at first.
However, the same things which make Hocus so dynamic and replayable can also work against it, as its asymmetrical play styles and need to react to a continually-shifting board generates a moderate learning curve. This can give the impression that the game is sometimes too smart for its own good and may leave some opting for more traditional poker grounds. Make it through the game’s early trials, though, and you’re likely to find out just how bewitching wizard poker can be.
Hocus is a product of Hyperbole Games.
Cardboard Republic Snapshot Scoring (Based on scale of 5):
Rules Clarity: 4
Replay Value: 4
Physical Quality: 4.5
Overall Score: 4.5
Photo Credits: Lord of the Rings from Warner Bros Studios.