Ox-heads galore

Review of card game Hornochsen by Pevans

Hornochsen is another little card game that owes something to 6 nimmt!. In this case it is the inventor (Wolfgang Kramer) and the use of the ox-head symbol on the cards. The deck is mainly cards numbered 1-98, each also having a number of 'ox-head' symbols. Cards are either green - in which case the ox-heads will count towards your score - or red, which count against you. (6 nimmt! players will have spotted differences immediately.)

To start the game, each player is dealt a hand and some cards are laid out on the table in a clock-face arrangement (the precise numbers depend on the number of players involved). Each player also gets two special cards: a '+5' and a 'x2'. Unusually for a card game, the precise rules mean the game takes a couple of minutes to set up.

Players take turns to lay 1-3 cards on the table, which gives players a lot more options than if they were laying just the one card. Number cards are added, 6 nimmt! style, to the set whose top card is the highest value that's lower than the card being played. I hope this makes sense - here's an example: if there were four piles with the top cards 8, 21, 25 and 42, the 24 would go on to the 21 and the 96 on to the 42. If the card played is lower than all the cards on top of sets, then it goes onto the highest number (4 would go on the 42 in the example above). This is an important rule as these plays significantly change the game - particularly later in the hand when there are fewer sets left.

Special cards are played to the inside of a specific set. When someone puts the fifth card on to a set, they pick up the set, together with any special cards attached to it, and add all the cards to their scoring pile.

The hand ends when all cards have been taken - the number of cards ensures none are left over. Players then go through their scoring piles adding up positive and negative ox-heads. To this they add any '+5' cards and subtract points for any special cards still held. The resulting score is doubled for every 'x2' card. Tot up the scores and play either to a target total or for an agreed number of hands.

For a card game, the mechanisms are rather complex - one reason the rules are so long - and take a while to master. It is quickly apparent that the ability to play between 1 and 3 cards in a turn means that any set is vulnerable to being taken as soon as it has a second card on it. Assuming one player has enough cards in the right range of numbers. And that aren't too punitive! There are lots of tactical ploys and plenty of decision making - your decisions being largely based on what you reckon the probabilities are. All of which makes for a slow game as players look through their options and calculate the odds each time they play.

Having said that, I'm not convinced that the game is particularly deep. With only a proportion of the deck dealt out each hand it's impossible to predict what cards players have in their hands, let alone whether they will play them. So all the analysis seems pointless. The best approach is to play the game briskly, taking enough time to avoid obvious pitfalls, but not trying to find the single best play.

As a follow-up to 6 nimmt!, Hornochsen is disappointing. The former is a very light game that is great fun to play. A hand is over quickly, but still subjects you to lows and highs as your chosen card either escapes any penalties or lands you in the soup. The latter is a moderately complex card game that offers the opportunity to analyse each play in depth, but does not reward the analysis. The end result is that you have a slow-moving, thinking game in which you still have little control over what happens. Not recommended.

Hornochsen was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and published (in Germany) by Amigo. It is for 2-6 players and takes 60 minutes to play. Pevans rates it 4/10.
This review was originally published in Games Games Games 138, December 1999.

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