Much of the recent buzz surrounding trick taking games can be tied to The Fox in the Forest, due to it pulling off an impressive feat: working trick taking into a two-player game. Yet while Spires advertises a range of 1 to 4 players, it deserves equal fanfare for providing an even less common experience. Games that work well with three players are hard to come by, but Spires is one of them.
This is not to dismiss playing Spires with a full complement of players, as that is an equally enjoyable experience. But Spires crafts a unique trick taking experience by eschewing some of the genre’s staples. For instance, players are not forced to follow suit, and depending on the result of simultaneous action selection, some players may not even play a card in the current trick.
The most common feature in this new crop of trick taking games is the brewing of strategic tension as players debate whether winning or losing a trick is more beneficial. While that’s true in other games, there’s added pressure in Spires to get things right. Victory in Spires is point-based and driven by set collection across six suits of cards. The goal is to collect 3 or less cards in a suit (via winning tricks) in order to score 5 points for each card. However, collecting 4 or more cards breaks the bank, and all of your cards in that suit swing to -1 point.
At first, Spires is a slow burn. Players begin building up their six sets, but do so cautiously as to not bust through that value cap of three cards per set. Negative points are just around the corner, though. Throughout the game, almost the entire deck of cards will filter its way into players sets, causing many of them to fall into negative-point territory.
Once that realization sets in, the true game of Spires comes to the fore: dragging your opponents down with you. There’s no multi-round play or reshuffling of the deck here, so there’s no turning back once your sets begin to grow. Saddling your opponent with unwanted cards truly packs a punch, but since most of the deck comes into play, everyone is more or less in the same boat.
The actual process of playing tricks in Spires does warrant a bit of explanation, if only to express just how suddenly a player’s sets can grow. Turns begin with a market setup, where three cards from the deck are displayed in individual market slots. Players then simultaneous reveal which market’s card they would like to add to their tableau. If they alone chose a market, they simply add the corresponding card to their set of its colour.
If there is player overlap in market selection, though, a round of trick taking is played. The contested market card is the active suit, so the highest card played in that suit will win the trick. Spires has a unique deck construction, though, where values presented on cards do not repeat across suits. These 12-card suits form a sequence ranging from 1 to 72. This is important as a trump suit is also in play. The suit falling numerically below the active suit acts as trump, but only if no card in the active suit has been played.
When a trick is resolved, the sets will grow. The winning player adds not only the card that they won, but also every single card played in the trick. If all players in a 4-player game aim for the same market card, this can easily turn a trick into a 5-card poison pill.
Spires adds two additional scoring opportunities in order to keep its late game fresh. There are three sets of bonus symbols scattered throughout the suits, and majority possession of those across all of a player’s sets can award big bonus points. The deck is also peppered with some special cards rewarding immediate victory points or some hand management abilities. When these come out, they are added to a market in addition to the set card present there.
Both of these present opportunities to cut losses on sets that are ballooning in size. Once a set reaches 4 cards, what’s one more negative point on the pile? When the opportunity presents itself to edge in on a special symbol majority, or straight-up win some VP, you take it. Just be careful your opponents don’t join you and further poison the prize.
The whole package comes together quite nicely in Spires, as the strategies are clear yet difficult to execute. Managing a count of 72 set cards (plus 14 bonus cards) is no easy feat even for the most seasoned card player. The indirect player interaction, as well as the ability to take risks and cut your losses, are both welcome additions to the trick taking formula. As the gameplay makes Spires worthy of repeat play, it’s worth noting that the game looks quite nice on the table as well. Thematically, each set represents a spire in a castle, growing taller as cards are added to the set (while growing too high angers the king). The colourful cards and visual representation of the theme will only help Spires stand out in today’s crowded field of quality card games.