Sophia Wagner‘s Mada is a quick-playing card game that Swiss publisher Helvetiq debuted at SPIEL ’22.
The game comes packaged in a tiny box ideal for travel and less than ideal for getting attention on store shelves. As with many card games, photos of Mada make it look flat and uninteresting. Cards with numbers…again? As such, I’ll stick mostly to text and leave the visuals to the video that shows many examples of gameplay in a few minutes.
Each round in Mada, one player busts and scores nothing, while everyone else scores the top card of their discard pile. The closer you are to busting, the more you score…but you’re also closer to busting, which is the primary tension point of the design.
The deck features cards numbered 1-13 that are worth 1-6 points as well as three special types of cards. On a turn, you either play, draw, or take a chance. When you play, place a number card from your hand on your personal discard pile; the number played must be equal to or higher than whatever is currently on top.
If you can’t play, then maybe you can draw and get something playable, whether a number card, a lemur card (which lets you place the top number of your pile on the bottom, thereby giving you more room in which to play), a double lemur (which swaps your pile with another player’s), or a scorpion, which forces you to discard a card from hand, giving you more room to draw in the future. (Your maximum hand size is three.)
If you can’t play and you can’t draw, then take a chance. Flip over the deck’s top card and see whether you can play it. All of the special cards can be played this way, and maybe you’ll get a number card you can play. Phew! You live until the next turn.
When someone can’t play and chance works against them, everyone else scores the top card of their pile and discards the rest of it, while that round’s loser discards all of their pile and any cards in hand they don’t want, then the next round begins with the player on their left. As soon as a player has scored five cards, the game ends, and whoever has the highest score wins.
Playing over Indian food at BGG.CON 2022
In general, Mada plays lightning fast because decisions are straightforward, but the game has just enough to it that your choices have an impact. You can take a chance early in a round with no cards on your pile and a full hand, hoping to draw something low and extend your life, that is, your playing time in the round, the number of turns you can play before dying. Maybe you land a 1 or 2, which means you can chance again next time; maybe you land a 12 or 13, and everyone else rushes to place a card on the table so that they can score when you will (clearly) go bust next turn…but then you play another 12/13 or you play a lemur to reset your pile, and suddenly everyone has put themselves in a bad position by jumping high in their pile.
Sometimes you play early in a round to have potential points on the board; sometimes you want to draw for a full hand to give yourself more time while others rise in their piles; sometimes you use the double lemur to swap to a low pile so that you can play cards; sometimes you use it to swap for a high pile because another player is likely to die on their turn.
Mada is a great example of why I love card games. Small choices on the part of you and other players combine with the randomness of the deck to create a mix of steady progression and high impact effects. You make meaningful choices, yes, but you’re also playing the odds of what others can do and how the deck will treat you, with no certainty as to how things will turn out.
I’ve played Mada six times on a purchased copy with all players counts, and the only downsides have been slow players (which is an Eric problem more than a design problem) and the two-player game, which feels flat compared to playing with three or more. With only two players, one of you is crashing each round, so your choices seem simpler and less interesting, e.g., the double lemur giving you one option instead of many.
For gameplay examples and a sense of the game flow, check out this overview video: