Saturday, August 02, 2014

Little Packs of Fun: Pack O Game's GEM

Almost actual size.
Any trip out to a restaurant with the Joneses quickly becomes an exploration of what we've just happened to bring along for entertainment. As a family, we often engage with each other as much over games as we do anything else. We like to play together and Adrienne is usually the master of ceremonies or, more appropriately, the game master of these excursions. She has a knack for finding simple portable games that can keep our kids, ourselves, and our friends entertained even through a particularly long wait at a restaurant table or at a side table in any waiting room. Over the years, she's put together a collection of everything from kids' games with handy travel games from HABA to portable push-your-luck dice games like Cinq-o to card games like Cabo.

For these games, portability often outranks playability. After all, it is hard to pack a lot of fun or depth into games that don’t have much use or space for elaborate components. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Witness the explosion of “micro games” in recent years and the meteoric rise of the simple game Love Letter ,  a game of sixteen cards about passing a love letter to a princess. Clever design and well thought out game mechanics can make even the most humble of game components sing in the hands of a gifted designer. Chris Handy is one such gifted designer and his soon to be released Pack O Game line of gum package sized mini-games are further evidence that clever design and thoughtful game mechanisms can carry a game beyond its modest packaging.

I first came across a Chris Handy design, when our community game night received a donation of his game, Cinque Terre, for our game library. Cinque Terre is a delightful game of delivering sets of fruits and vegetables from inland farms to the five coastal cities of the Italian Riveria. The game had a very simple and approachable theme that matched the actions players could choose during each of their turns. All this simplicity and loveliness masked a much deeper game that became readily apparent about halfway through our first play session. Not only was the game pleasing to look at and easy to pick up, it was fun… and challenging. Chris is also known for his horse racing game, Longshot. While I have not played it, by all accounts it combines these same elements; simple and pleasing design matched with remarkable depth.

When Chris put out a preview offer on Twitter to try his one of his new ultra-portable games before their Kickstarter, I jumped at the chance. The Pack O Game lines of games is marked by the design constraint of each game having to fit into a package about the size of a pack of gum (Pack O Game… pack of gum). He had a number of demonstration copies to choose from ranging in complexity from one, Casual difficulty,  to three, Challenging difficulty (I know what you are thinking, “a challengingly difficult game in the package the size of a pack of gum? Yeah, right?” Just bear with me).  I chose to try out a copy of GEM.

GEM is a simple auction game for two to four players that is  played across six rounds and lasts about twenty minutes. Each player is a jewel collector trying to corner the market gaining lucrative sets of gems through properly leveraging their assets. The game consists of thirty cards with each having the dimensions of a very flat piece of gum. Twelve of those cards are Coin Cards, while the other eighteen make up the Gem Cards that the players will attempt to acquire during play. Each card has a green marking at one end with a number inside representing its Invested value (how much it is worth when you spend it in the game) and a red marking on the opposite end that represents its Leveraged value (how much money it takes to recover its value and rotate it to its Invested side).

Each player starts with three coins, worth one, two, and three “money” respectively, face up in front of them with the Invested sides up showing that all three cards can be used to bid on and buy gems during each auction phase. The gem cards are spread, face down, in six random piles in the center of the table. During each round a pile of Levereaged gems is revealed. Then each player bids from their non-leveraged assets, at first coins and later any gems they’ve previously taken, for the right to make a selection from the revealed gems. 

Subsequent players can increase the bid (as long as they can pay for it) or pass. After a couple of passes, the highest bidder takes the gem card that they were eying and places it face up displaying the Leveraged side (red) at the top in front of them. The tricky thing is that the bidder doesn’t have to say which card they want. They can choose any one that is left in the pile. Then they rotate the amount of Invested assets in front of them equal to or greater than their bid (you don’t get change) to those card's Leveraged side to show that the player has spent those assets. After all the gems have been acquired in that round, players can spend any left over Invested assets to turn Leveraged gems to their Invested sides. Coins automatically reset each round, but Leveraged gems do not. At the end of the last round, players earn points for every gem on a card that have its Investment side up. They earn two points if they share the majority of any gem type with at least one other player. Finally, they earn three points if they have the sole majority of any type of gem.

I really have enjoyed my time with GEM. We have a demo copy of the game, which doesn’t usually fully reflect on the final production quality of most games. However, even the demo copy is of incredible quality. It is obvious that Chris has put a lot of time and attention into both the design of these games, but also into its promotion and early marketing. He’s paying attention to the small details that make for great Kickstarter campaigns. When I told him that I was impressed with our copy of GEM’s flexible plastic coated cards as we would likely be playing it at restaurants, food courts, and coffee shops, he assured me that the final production copies would be even better. That’s impressive for a game of this size and it helps with the “table appeal” of the game.

I am a huge proponent of “table appeal.” As many long time readers, and our Great Big Table podcaster listeners know, Adrienne and I put a bunch of effort into evangelizing the board game hobby. To that end, we write about gaming with our children and in our community both here and on Great Big Table. We co-host a monthly community board game night to try to encourage members of our community to play games with each other and with their families. I also run a weekly game group that plays in public places where I work and I have been known to set up games in food courts with signs to invite people to come and play those games with me. “Table appeal” is the quality of a game that gets a non-gamer to take a second look and ask “hey, what is that?” And that’s the question that starts a conversation about board gaming that can potentially introduce a newcomer into our hobby.

There are a number of aspects of GEM, and the other Pack O Game titles that lend to that table appeal. First is the size. Generally larger board games or games with a gimmick, like Rampage for instance, pique the general public’s curiosity. They just have to know what it is that they are witnessing. In some cases, like that of toy furniture or functional miniatures, being small can also get us to take notice. Such is the case with these games, People want to know what those little cards on the table are all about. It helps that the cards are beautiful in GEM. The brightly colored gems on a dark background speak to the “ooo... shiny” magpie nature that lives within many of us. HUE, another game from the line, looks like a proper painting from Mondrian when the game comes to an end. Finally it is the motion of play combined with the groans and celebrations of the players that are the linchpins of, at least, GEM’s table appeal. Few people have seen a game where you slide cards around the table and rotate them to confer some action of the players. From a distance, it is intriguing and if one starts to pay attention they will notice people enjoying themselves centered around that very activity.

GEM is a great game. From its portability to its production values to its table appeal to its devilishly clever and challenging game play, it is a great value in a small package. Chris is launching a Kickstarter to fund the production of a commercial version of the Pack O Game line of games. There are a number of backer levels that can get you anywhere from one game for a $6 pledge to all four Pack O Game titles (plus any stretch goal games that get unlocked) for $24. There is also a 48 hour early bird special that will allow you to get these already affordable games for an even better price. You get even more from there, but I will let you explore those options on your own.

Just head over to to be directed to the Pack O Game Kickstarter. I believe the Kickstarter will launch on Monday, 8/4/2014, and will run for twenty nine days. You can also sign up for Chris’ email list to be kept up to date about news and information related to the Kickstarter over at There’s also a video on the Kickstarter page (which I’ll embed here once it the campaign goes live),  where Chris makes his pitch. It’s worth watching.


Let us know in the comments if you pick up GEM (just a $6 pledge) or any of the other Pack O Game titles. We’re always looking for new games to add to our portable game library. Let us know what games you keep in your car or backpack or pocket that you bring out to entertain yourselves, your kids, and your friends when you are out in public.

***Baby Toolkit is an assortment of words compiled by two geek parents between the requests, interruptions, and digressions that arise in a family of five. Broadcast from the Midwest, our incremental plan for world domination starts here and includes affiliate links to A small potion of purchases made through those links goes to blog upkeep. We also podcast about board games at While we received a free copy of GEM (and all the paper jewels therein), we have no financial interest in or agreements with Pack O Games, Perplext, or Chris Handy. Gold star for reading the tiny print! Should I make it even smaller next time?