Reviewer Reviewed On Publisher Designer Published In Rating
January 18, 2006 Real Deal Games Paul and Jennifer Sturgis 2006 6.5
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Okay, you're a game designer, and you want to come up with the perfect game. Why not take two ideas of a lot of popularity, and combine them? Actually, this is something that I would highly recommend a designer NOT do. Mixing games of different types usually results in a mutated monster of a game, one that tends to be worse than both of the genres it is trying to represent, and pleasing fans of neither. On the front of Parlay (Real Deal Games, 2005 - Paul and Jennifer Sturgis), it boldly states "All the Fun of Poker and word games rolled into one!" I will admit I was extremely hesitant going into this and even cautioned my first playtest group about how I wasn't very sure of how the game would work.

But you know what - I really did enjoy it. I'm not sure that poker fans will be excessively pleased with the game, but it's an excellent word game with a bit of poker thrown in. Both of the mechanics are probably present in an equally strong way, but I think the word aspect of the game overcomes the bluffing. Games are fairly easy, allow some choices, and are certainly more fun for me than a boring game of Scrabble! If I'm gonna play a word game, it's going to be one with suspense!

A deck of special Parlay cards is used in the game - each card matching one in a normal deck of cards, with two jokers included. Cards also show one of the letters of the alphabet, as well as a number which corresponds to the frequency of the letter in the alphabet (i.e. An "O" is worth five points, while a "J" is worth thirty-five). Each player is given a Stay/Fold chip, and a score sheet and pencil. Players choose what kind of game they can play. One can play many variants of poker, including Texas Hold'em and Unlucky 7's, but I'll just mention the basic version of the game - Quick Draw.

In this game, each player is dealt five cards each with two cards placed face up in the middle, the "Community Cards". Players, starting with the dealer, can discard up to three cards from their hand and draw one from the deck to replace them. Players then look at the cards in their hand, plus those in the community. Using the seven letters, players write down on their score sheet the best word they can make and the associated point value of that word. Players also take note of the best poker hand that they can get with their cards (using a maximum of five cards from their hand/the table).

Each player decides whether or not they will stay or fold and place their chip face up accordingly (hiding it with their hand). Starting with the player to the dealer's left, each player then announces their word to the other players. Anyone can "call someone's bluff" if they don't think a word is legal (basic Scrabble rules apply). If the person calling the bluff is correct, they gain 15 points; otherwise, they score zero points and are out of the hand. Players then reveal whether or not they've stayed in the hand. Each player who "folded" simply scores the total sum of the letters in their word. All the other players reveal their hands, and the player who has the winning poker hand, according to traditional poker rules, scores bonus points - effectively doubling their score for that round. All the other players who "stayed" get nothing. The winning poker hand also gives its player a length bonus for their word, if applicable - 15 points for a five letter word, 45 points for a six letter word, and 100 points for a seven letter word.

Scores are tallied, and the next round begins. The first player to score over 500 points is the winner!

Some comments about the game…

1.) Components: The deck of cards is very similar to that of a traditional playing card deck, with only the letters and numbers being added on both sides of the card - in the middle. The poker chip artwork surrounding these numbers and letters helps keep them thematic, while not detracting from the readability of the playing card. The Jokers have a star in their corner (meaning that they can be any suit and number) and a question mark instead of the letter (meaning that it can be any letter). The cards are of extreme high quality, and the fold/stay chips are also quite nice. Everything fits, along with a score pad, into a small sturdy box with a lid.

2.) Rules: The rulebook does not take for granted that you understand traditional word games (such as Scrabble) or any version of poker. Instead, it uses its eleven pages to very nicely lay everything out, explaining about proper word usage as well as the ranking of traditional poker hands. I found the game fairly simple to teach, even to players who had never touched poker before and those who had picked it up quite easily.

3.) Which?: So is it poker, or is it a word game? The answer is a mere "a bit of both". However, I strongly believe that a good word game enthusiast will probably do better than an excellent poker player. Sure, it's nice to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, but it's also good to know when to use the word "cuisine". I’m fairly bad at poker (except when I get really lucky), yet I was able to stay competitive in Parlay, simply because I was able to think up excellent words.

4.) Fun Factor: However, players who adore poker yet puke at the thought of word games aren't going to suddenly see the light and joy of fun games. I think that Parlay can quite possibly convert word gamers to poker, but not the other way around. It feels like a word game with a bit of poker in it. But even that feels a bit of an overstatement, as one can shrewdly get a lot of points by winning critical hands. It's a lot of fun to throw down one's full house and win a six letter word bonus (I would say seven, but I haven't seen it happen yet). Parlay takes the most fun parts of word games (actually making the words) and adds in the fun of poker (bluffing) for a very entertaining game.

5.) Stay or Fold: This decision, to be made each turn, is usually critical. If I have a bad poker hand and a high scoring word, the decision is quite simple. If, on the other hand, I have a terrific hand and a good scoring word, why not stay in the hand? But what about Sam? Maybe his hand is better than mine, so shouldn't I fold? The fact that a player can get points for folding and quite possibly none for staying makes the decision gut-wrenching at times and adds a lot to the spice of the game. Joker cards add a lot to this. Sure, they help you have a great poker hand and add to your repertoire of possible words, but they also give zero points.

6.) Speed and Players: The game covers up to six players and can be played in about forty-five minutes. This makes it an ideal game to pull out and play when folks want to socialize and not spend too much time concentrating on the game. Although, it does get awfully silent when players are trying to come up with a word from their cards.

7.) Variants: It's nice that you can play a good variety of poker games from the deck, but I was certainly quite content with Quick Draw. Texas Hold'Em added a bit to the poker version of the game but was a little distracting with the words. It just didn't mesh together like it should have.

If you're a fan of either genre and have at least some interest in the other, then Parlay is actually a good combination of the two. It's not going to turn people into word enthusiasts, and those who despise trying to form words with letters won't be won over by Parlay. Yet, for folks like me, who enjoy both genres, Parlay actually was a clever, pleasant experience - one that made Poker more than bluffing and word games more than simply the best "dictionary brain". For once, a compromise game such as this actually works and shouldn't be discarded because a player isn't keen on the idea of them mixing.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

UPDATE March 2, 2006

When the designer read my review, he sent me this

" Here is a quote from your review where the rule is stated incorrectly:

"All the other players reveal their hands, and the player who has the winning poker hand, according to traditional poker rules, scores bonus points - effectively doubling their score for that round. All the other players who "stayed" get nothing. The winning poker hand also gives its player a length bonus for their word, if applicable - 15 points for a five letter word, 45 points for a six letter word, and 100 points for a seven letter word."

The actual rule is that only the player with the highest HAND SCORE (base word score plus bonuses) who stays gets to score their points. The winning poker hand does effectively double your base word score, but it is quite possible to win the poker hand but still not have the highest Hand Score of all players who stayed.

This is generally as a result of another staying player with a length bonus. Any player who STAYS qualifies for the length bonus for 5/6/7 letter words, so let's say a player has a 6 letter word with a base word score of 50, plus the 45 point length bonus for a 6 letter word, that would give them a Hand Score of 95 (50+45). If another player were to stay and win the poker hand with a base word score of 45 (and a 3 or 4 letter word), that player would have a Hand Score of 90 (45+45).

Thus, the player who won the poker hand would get a zero for that hand, and the player with the 6 letter word would score their points.

Now, if the player with the winning poker hand in the example above had a 5 letter word, they would have scored (45+45+15) for a Hand Score of 105, winning the hand, and scoring their points.

The 15 points for a successful Bluff Call is also added into your Hand Score, and can sometimes tip the scales between winning and losing a hand, as in the example above. "

I have since played it the correct way, and it has enhanced the game - making it more of a word game with poker elements rather than an even mixture of both. My apologies to my readers for messing up.