PECKING ORDER (Immortal Eyes/Winning Moves Games, 2 players, ages teen to adult, 30 minutes; $23.95)

   Pecking Order, the first release from the Immortal Eyes imprint launched by Winning Moves, is a Richard Garfield design combining simplicity with a strong undercurrent of bluff and strategy.

   Pecking Order comes with a mounted board and two identical decks of cards. Each deck consists of 12 numbered cards (numbered 1 through 12) and a Jaguar card. The board displays 10 "perches" on each side, numbered 1 through 10. Each player shuffles his deck and places them, face down, in a stack. Turns alternate and, on a turn, the active player draws the top card from his stack and must decide where to place it.

   Cards may be placed on the your side, face down, onto any one of the 10 perches. If the perch has no cards on the opposite side, you have successfully made a claim for control of that perch. The card remains where it is and the turn is over. However, if your opponent's card has already claimed that perch, a challenge is triggered.  At that point, the enemy card is revealed. If the active player's face down card is higher, the revealed card is removed from play, the attacking card remains face down and the active player now controls that perch. If the attacking card is lower, the attacking card is removed from play - sight unseen. (The defending card remains face up.)  If the unvalued Jaguar card is revealed, BOTH cards are removed from play and the perch remains unclaimed. If card values are the same, ties goes to the attacker UNLESS a special power comes into play.

   Three perches are "special" and offer unique advantages that add to the strategy. Whoever controls perch 1 WINS all tiebreakers. This is a potentially huge boon to the defending player. Control of perch 3 enables that player to immediately look at ANY one of the face down cards played by his opponent. (That card is then returned to its face down position. Perch 8 is unusual as it is the only one with TWO branches. Controlling one or the other does not necessarily force a confrontation (cards have to occupy directly opposite branches to trigger a fight) but controlling BOTH branches earns you a bonus when scoring occurs.

   When the final card is played, points are tallied. Players earn points equal to the number of the perch they control. So controlling perch 5 earns you 5 points, controlling perch 10 earns you 10 points etc. The exception to that rule though is perch 8. As there are two branches there, it is conceivable that each player can earn 8 points for that perch but if one player manages to control BOTH branches, 19 points (a three point bonus) is awarded.

   The start player alternates after each scoring. After four rounds, the player with the highest cumulative total wins!

   Despite the ease of play (you really can learn the game in minutes), Pecking Order offers some interesting choices. At first glance, it seems that all the action would take place at the high end of the board where the 8, 9 and 10 perches are. In practice, that isn't quite true. The ability of the 1 perch as a tie-breaker adds value to the lower end of the board. The same can be said for perch 3 since knowing what card your opponent has played is valuable intelligence modifying the bluffing aspect of play. But let's not downplay bluffing which adds considerable spice to the action. If you can "read" your opponent's mind and outthink him, you can maximize your cards. (I managed to capture the 10 perch with the play of a 1 card during one playtesting session!) And let's give credit to the impressive artwork by Doug Kovacs which only adds to the pleasurable ambiance.  (Although, as long as we're talking graphics, why is the SAME backs used for each deck of cards? Different colored backs to differentiate each player's deck while not imperative certainly would have made sense.) Four rounds of play work well but, if you're strapped for time, you can reduce the rounds to two (so each player gets the chance to go last in a round) with no effect on the fun.

   Pecking Order is a two player game of bluff and counter bluff that serves well as an opening act to a night of gameplay or a suitable closer to a full gaming evening and is an auspicious opening act for Immortal Eyes.  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy

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