The cover of Surfosaurus MAX — a SPIEL Essen 23 debut from designer Ikhwan Kwon and publisher Loosey Goosey Games — is an eye-catcher, a suggestion of what a game might look like if Peter Max were hired as cover artist. (The art is actually from Matthias Mödl, who has worked on all Loosey Goosey titles to date.)
The color explosion continues on the cards, with the deck having seven suits numbered 1-12. The cards could be tamer, of course, but why not have something along these lines? If nothing else, you can’t help but see this game when walking the Messe or scrolling online. The first step to selling a game is to make people know it exists, and given the competition these days, neon might seem like a natural approach.
As for what you do in the game, you try to score surfing dinosaurs to max out your points compared to everyone else. It’s all there in the title.
More specifically, each round in Surfosaurus MAX you and your fellow players will play cards to the table, then determine which cards make the best poker hand — and those cards are then scored by whoever played them. In short, you want to co-operate with others to ensure that your cards score at the same time that you are competing with them for the most points.
Each player has a hand of seven cards. The round’s starting player plays a card face up on the table and draws a new card, then everyone else does the same in clockwise order, then you do that one or two more times (depending on the player count), then you determine the best card combination made of four cards (with 2-4 players) or five cards (with 5-6 players):
• Best: Straight flush
• High cards
Ties are broken in favor of higher numbers, so in a straight of 10-9-8-7-6-5, only the highest four/five cards score. If you end up with a six-of-a-kind or a straight of 10-10-9-8-7-7-6, all of these cards score, but the tied cards are worth only half points. Everything else played in the round goes in the discard pile.
Low-value cards are worth more points — e.g., 1s and 2s are 12 points when scored fully, whereas 11s and 12s are only 2 points — but the high cards tend to win hands, so both high and low numbers can be good.
Will a pink flush win? A straight? Maybe something else?
Whether they will, in fact, be good depends on what everyone else does, which is why Surfosaurus MAX has won me over. You can’t build a winning hand on your own, but must work with others, so you need to anticipate what someone is trying to achieve with their card plays, then push to make that happen — or offer an alternative narrative for others to join.
I’ve played Surfosaurus MAX eleven times so far on a review copy from Loosey Goosey Games with player counts from 3-6, and since I’ve been playing with new people almost every game (with eight plays at BGG.CON 2023), I try to make it clear what can score in the early part of a turn: “Orange 4 on the lead. Okay, now orange 7 joins in. Oh, wait, red 7 has jumped in, so we have two 7s and two orange. What are you going to do?” I don’t know whether me talking like this annoys people, but I’ve noticed some people having a difficult time understanding that their piecemeal plays can turn into a point pie in the right situation.
(In the two-player game, you reveal two random cards from the deck during the cardplay, with those cards then being removed from play whether they score or not, and I don’t care to play with or against AI opponents, so I doubt I’ll ever try this set-up.)
In many ways, Surfosaurus MAX feels like a two-dimensional Trendy. In that 2000 design from Reiner Knizia, players have a hand of three number cards, with numbers going from 3-7. Players keep playing and drawing one card in turn until a trend arises: three 3s, four 4s, etc. up to seven 7s. Those numbers score, and everything else is tossed.
Trendy includes special cards in each suit — one worth two of a number, and one that trashes all of a number in play — but otherwise it’s extremely straightforward: Be part of a trend to score; even better, aim to start the trend so that you can (ideally) be part of it twice. (Trendy is one of my go-to examples for how Knizia presents a setting through gameplay. The cards could be blank, but when you play the game, you feel like you’re trying to join others to make a trend peak. The runway imagery is just a bonus to hammer home that feel.)
In Surfosaurus MAX, cards have both number and suit, so you can combine them in more ways, which makes the gameplay more interesting when compared to Trendy.
So many options to lead…except for that stupid pink 2
Additionally, you play only a limited number of cards each round — e.g., twelve cards with six players, eight cards with four players, and nine cards with three players — so you can often make choices of what to play…or not play…in order to maximize your points. Sure, completing a straight flush sounds good, but maybe if you complete it, someone will play a higher number on the straight to cut out your (now sixth-ranked) card.
Having seven cards in hand gives you info to work with over multiple hands, and if your memory is good, you can keep track of what’s scored and what’s been discarded. (Depending on the player count, discards will be shuffled to make a new deck for later rounds. Also, for some player counts, you remove a few cards at random, which makes it impossible to count cards precisely.)
Not everything is perfect in Surfosaurus MAX. For a reason I can’t understand, the publisher indexes all of the cards with two digits, such as 01 and 05, so when a 01 is played, those across the table often read it as a 10. You just can’t help it! Similarly, a 10 can be read as 01. This is another reason I narrate the play; I don’t want someone to be surprised at the end of a round when the five “10”s don’t win.
I use the background color to name the color of the card, but for (again) some unknown reason the red and yellow cards both have white — the foam at the wave crest — at the top of the image rather the background color, so you can conflate the colors into a non-existent white suit when the cards are splayed in your hand.
Red and yellow…not white
Perhaps I should use the symbol index on a card instead of its color, but all of these symbols are white, so most of the time it’s hard to make them out clearly compared to the background color.
Finally, sometimes the winning hand in a round is locked early, which means the last players in a round — instead of being in a position to determine what scores — can only dump a card in the hope of bettering their hand for next time. Sure, on occasion you don’t have the right card to make a scoring combination, but when you don’t even get the opportunity to be in that position, well…this happened to the same player three times in one game, so the experience was kind of a bummer for them, despite randomness like this being natural in a card game.
That said, I dig the feel of this design, which often compels people to chant at the table: “Tens! Tens! Tens!” or “Nines are fine!” Any game that inspires chanting is probably a winner, right? The chanters are invested and care about what happens; they’re engaged, and importantly you care about what others do because it directly affects what happens to you. Together we can score — or together you will defeat me.
Kwon is also the designer of Pyramido, a 2023 release from Synapses Games that I’ve played three times, and while that game is a fine design, it’s fine in the most damning way possible. It’s acceptable. I’d have no objections to playing it, even though I’d prefer to play something else.
Pyramido mirrors a current trend of players interacting almost entirely via drafting, with each player building a clever arrangement of domino-style tiles on their individual player board. Sure, you can be clever in how you arrange tiles, and you refill the empty slot in the tile market from one of two stacks of visible tiles, so you usually have a choice as to what’s available for the next player, but I haven’t had any emotional investment while playing. I’m playing heads down to maximize points, and the other players at the table could be automatons for all that I know.
That’s not the case with Surfosaurus MAX where I’m urging you to join me in a victorious hand and your cardplay feels more like a personal attack or a joining of arms against others.
Ideally this game will land international distribution — with modification to some of its graphics — and others will get to enjoy Surfosaurus MAX as much as I have.
In my most recent game, I scored ten cards out of twelve played; maybe it’s time to retire…