At the time of this writing, Christmas was only a few weeks away. The smell of pine, fresh egg nog, and the sound of excited children were still fresh in my mind. I think it’s fair to say that there are not too many board games centered around this holiday. So, I was definitely interested in trying out a new set collection game from the veteran design team of Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle.
Holly Jolly will have you gathering around the Christmas Tre to decorate it and apparently, swipe some ornaments and presents while you are at it.
The game centers around a shared Christmas tree made up of 3 lights/tinsel cards, surrounded by 9 ornament cards. Below the tree are 4 present/stocking cards.
On a player’s turn, they draft one card from the 3 available lights/tinsel cards and place it over one of the three lights/tinsel currently on the tree. Note: there is no mechanical difference between the tinsel and light cards. Then, the player adds up the sum of the numbers of the 3 lights/tinsel cards currently on the tree. If that number exactly matches an ornament on the tree, the player can collect it. If not, they can take a present/stocking from below the tree instead. Cards are refilled and then the next player takes their turn.
Turns will go by in this manner until either the ornament or the stocking/present deck runs out. The player with the most points wins.
Despite being a seldom used theme, I thought the designers did a great job of incorporating a Christmas feel into Holly Jolly. It’s also helped driven home by the fun artwork from artist Robin Banks. Decorating a tree, grabbing presents, and collecting your favorite ornaments all feel right at home here.
As for the gameplay, overall, we enjoyed it. It was definitely easy to learn, and combined with the theme, makes Holly Jolly a game you can play with just about anyone. Most of the cards use standard set collection mechanics you’ve seen before: Majorities, sets with increasing value, all or nothing, and low points with special powers. While there is not much new here in that regard, these tried-and-true concepts work well in the game.
Despite our enjoyment of the game, there are a few areas that bogged things down. First is that sometimes you can get stuck with all high numbers on your lights/tinsel cards, and low numbers on the ornaments. This can grind the game down as you have to slowly work your way down on those numbers to make the ornaments accessible again. But during that time, you are basically just claiming 1 of 2 cards. However, if another player doesn’t want to help drop the tree numbers down for other players to get the first pick of a card, it can really mess things up. I kind of wish there was a way to wipe the lights/tinsel cards and redraw them if they stagnated at too high of a number for too long.
The other issue with the game is at higher player counts. I think it’s great at two. OK at 3, and passable at 4. The problem is twofold. One is that it can be hard to collect sets if 3 cards are disappearing between your turns. You are left to react to whatever is on the tree. It’s basically down to the luck of the draw at this point. The other issue is that AP and downtime become pretty rough. Since the board state will change so much between turns, you can’t really plan ahead. That means that once it’s your turn, you need to examine the tree, the available lights/tinsel cards, and find the best play. Multiply that by time 4 and you have people reaching for their phones between turns.
Holly Jolly is a good game with a clever use of its theme. While overall we enjoyed it, it’s probably not one I’d pull off the shelf too often, especially if I have 3-4 players. That being said, for a quick playing game that I can enjoy with family and friends, especially around the holidays, it fits the bill.
Final Score: 3 Stars – Tried and true set collection mechanics with a fun Christmas theme. But probably best saved for lower player counts.
• Higher player counts can bring out AP
• Games can stagnate when the tinsel/light cards don’t refresh quick enough