Games: Crazy Old Fish War

Finding a game that both my 9-year-old son and I can enjoy playing together is a challenge. First, it needs to be a game he likes, otherwise there is no point in playing at all. Preferably I find it at least somewhat enjoyable, or I will be reluctant to agree to play. (We do still occasionally play Candy Land and Snakes and Ladders, but the focus generally shifts from the game itself to the conversation between him and whatever character he has me pretending to be.)

The matter of skill level is a difficult one. The ones that require knowledge or skill or generally more interesting, but they make it difficult for him to win without me deliberately letting him. (I do usually ignore opportunities to take advantage of mistakes he has made, but I don’t deliberately make mistakes myself – though I do sometimes manage to make mistakes by not paying close attention.) If he doesn’t win close to half the time, he won’t want to play.

I tried getting the Young Players Edition of Trivial Pursuit to deal with this problem, and it is partially successful. The questions are still a challenge for him, but if I answer questions from the Genus edition, I have only a small advantage over him. We tried having me use the Baby Boomers Edition, and I will play it again if he asks me to, but I found most of the questions nearly impossible. For one thing, I was born at the very end of the Baby Boom (or past it, depending on whose definition you use). Plus it seems to assume that Baby Boomers’ interests center around entertainment, which is my weakest category (along with sports and leisure) in the Genus edition.

Then there is the matter of time. Sometimes I just don’t have the time to play a long game, and other times I do have time but would rather keep some of it for myself (such as now, when I have a cold). His attention span is also limited, though it has grown in the last couple years so that now we actually do finish games more often than not. But it is not uncommon for him to abandon a game in the middle (regardless of who is ahead) when someone else is doing something more exciting (e.g. playing a new PS3 game), or just because he lost interest.

Finally, there is the question of where to play. All horizontal surfaces in our house attract stuff, the way picnics attract bees, ants, and flies. I clear off enough space to play, but it takes very little time before it is cluttered again. (I could spend more time keeping things put away, but then I would have even less time to spend playing with him or having any time to myself. Probably not a very good excuse, but over the years that’s the choice I’ve made.) Most of our games are board games, and besides the board itself there may be stacks of cards, the “bank” (as in Monopoly and Life), score sheets, etc., requiring a fairly large playing surface.

Yesterday I found a game that seems to address all of these issues quite nicely. Just the name itself is intriguing. Crazy Old Fish War is, as you might guess, a card game that combines elements of Crazy 8’s, Old Maid, Go Fish, and War. The deck is made up of numbered cards (one to eleven) in five bright colors (except the eights, which are multi-colored), plus three “old mermaids” (they don’t look very old at all, really).

The basic play is that of Crazy 8’s – match the color or number of the card that is showing, or use an 8 to pick any color you like. The Old Mermaids are also wild cards, but when you use one, you have to draw five cards from the pile, which makes it harder to be the first to go out. So it’s not quite like Old Maid (I don’t quite remember how to play, but I think of Old Maids with a remembered sense of dread), but an Old Mermaid is not a very welcome card.

The difference is what happens when you can’t match the top card, even with an 8 or a mermaid (you have to play a card if you can). Instead of simply drawing a card, you either Go Fish, or declare War. You can ask an opponent if he has a numbered card that matches one in your hand, and if he does, you get it and play it (it doesn’t have to match what was already there). Of course, this eliminates a card from his hand, not yours, but at least you don’t have to draw a card from the pile. If he doesn’t have a match, you do have to draw a card.

The other choice is War. Pick a card from your hand and put it face down. The person you declare War on does the same. High card wins (if the opponent plays an Old Mermaid, that is considered high card), and the loser has to take back his card and an extra from the draw pile. If there is a tie, you each play another card. If one of you runs out of cards, you take one from the draw pile. (This evening we had an unbelievable quintuple war, with both of us drawing cards from the draw pile after the first two!)

One thing the rules are not clear on, and which I haven’t found an answer to on Hasbro’s website (the game is listed in their store, but not under Customer Service – perhaps it is too new), is whether a Crazy Eight or Mermaid played as a result of winning a war lets the person who plays it change the color. I’m inclined to say yes, if only because the reason the War was declared to begin with was because someone had no matching card to play.

One amusing twist is that (since Crazy 8’s is much like UNO) when you are down to one card, you yell out … the name of a fish. And it can’t be one that has been used before. (My son was quite dismayed about this. I assured him that only meant not used before in the same game, not never used before.) Since the 8’s display an octopus (naturally!) rather than a true fish, I decided that this could include shellfish, crustaceans, cephalopods, etc. The rules don’t mention any penalty for forgetting to say a fish name, so I just remind him each time, and we have fun thinking of more fish.

Each round (what I would call a “hand”) goes pretty quickly. The longest one used almost the entire deck (there was one Old Mermaid that never got picked up). First person to win three rounds wins the game. We played two games last night, and it was fun (we laughed a lot, and I probably talked more than was good for my sore throat), didn’t take too long, and fit on the sofa cushion between us. I won the first game, he won the second. Tonight he promptly won the first three rounds in a row – perhaps because he is wearing his St. Patrick’s Day “This is my lucky t-shirt” t-shirt.

I’d say this game is definitely a winner.

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