Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans,” relates the travels of the eponymous train as it heads south down the Mississippi from Illinois to Louisiana. For me, one specific couplet has always captured the romance of playing card games on a long train trip:
Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score
When you travel, you’re playing cards to pass the time, and it’s fun… enough, but who wins and who loses isn’t really the point of the exercise. It’s just an excuse to hang out without having to have the conversation carry itself as the miles drift by.
This is how I feel about That Old Wallpaper, a new card game from AEG, designed by Danielle Deley and Nathan Thornton. It feels like the kind of game you’d be happy to find at a rented beach house if you forgot to bring any games with you and were dreading a weekend of having to actually talk to your family, or something perfect for a long train ride, but not something you’d look forward to for your weekly game night when you could be playing something you could really sink your teeth into instead.
Mechanically it’s quite simple to learn and easy to teach. Players each choose one large card numbered from 1 to 10 each turn (for 6 turns) and do this for 3 rounds, so the game has a total of 18 turns. Each turn you’re trying to avoid picking the same number as any other player and using those numbered cards to bid on smaller cards with wallpaper patterns on them. You then place the wallpaper cards you win onto a tableau you’re building. You are trying to create matches of left and right halves of wallpaper patterns, keeping in mind your score hinges on balancing the mix of large- and small-sized symbols of each color. The winner will be the player who manages to use luck (or skill) to acquire the piles that accumulate extra cards, especially if that player is also able to get a lot of wallpaper with pattern matches on both the vertical and horizontal sides of the cards selected.
You set up the game by giving all players their 10 numbered cards and having them draw five of them, shuffling the big stack of wallpaper cards and dealing out as many cards (face up) as there are players, and putting down a big round token for each player in age order, youngest to oldest.
Players then play three rounds of six turns, simultaneously bidding one of the five numbered cards in their hands, with the idea being if you bid the lowest card in a given bid, you’ll get the faceup wallpaper card closest to the deck of wallpaper cards, if you bid the highest card, you will get the faceup card furthest away, and if you bid the ones in the middle, you’ll get the cards in between, in numerical order. On a normal flop of the cards and a normal selection of numbered cards, everyone will get one card, but not every flop or bid is normal, which is where the wrinkles come in.
• Wrinkle number 1: If a wallpaper card has a red oval in the middle, you add another card to its column, repeating until you draw a card without an oval. Some columns will have extra cards which tend to lure players to aim their numbered cards at these juicier targets, creating more ties.
• Wrinkle number 2: When players tie, only one of the tied players gets wallpaper cards. Whoever’s disc is closest to the deck gets to pick one of the tied-for piles, while the other player(s) will get a “hazy memory” card, a sort of booby prize with one wild pattern on it instead of the usual four patterns. This is much less good. Then the tie-winner’s disc moves to the back of the line so that player will lose the next tie.
Once players get their wallpaper cards, they start making patterns with them, aiming to balance the large and small patterns of each color because the score is always based on the lesser of each pattern you accumulate for each color. So if you get four of the large green patterns but only two of the small greens, your score for green is based on having just two small. This requires you to plan before you bid and react when you don’t get the card you wanted.
On the wallpaper cards there are also some golden patterns that act like wild cards that match anything (except other golden patterns) and also some special symbols that add points at the end of the game, separate from the pattern matching element. The player with the most of those ovals (the ones that add extra cards to the stacks of cards) will lose 2 points, while the player with the fewest ovals will gain 2 points.
If you’re on a train or at the beach, That Old Wallpaper seems like it could be a perfect complement to your primary activity of traveling or lounging. The game plays quickly—18 simultaneous turns over 3 rounds—so you can play the game once to figure out how it works, then give it another go once everyone has learned the rules. If the train still has 500 miles ‘fore the day is done, you’ve got a fun little game to keep you company, but if you’re home and you’ve got other games you could be playing, you might think about swapping in something else. Because while That Old Wallpaper is simple to learn and simple to teach, it’s also not really all that compelling as a primary focus kind of game.
At least not for me. It was definitely fun enough to pass the time but not something I cared enough about to burn any brain cells to try to win. I played with my sister-in-law when she had a cold and she didn’t want to do much, which struck me as another great use for That Old Wallpaper—it’s the kind of light filler game you can play if you’re feeling a little under the weather and just want to pass the time with a friend without too much stress. Or maybe play with a tween who is past Crazy 8s but not ready for Poker yet.
That Old Wallpaper is designed to be played with 3 to 5 players, but there is a nice set of rules for 2 players where you play a bot named “Grandma” who doesn’t care if she wins or not, as long as everyone has a good time, and that’s really how I felt too. Maybe I’m just becoming a Grandpa.
Final Score: 3 Stars – I’m going to give this a perfectly average 3. Nothing wrong with the game at all. It just didn’t bring anything special. Kind of like old wallpaper.
• Its got pretty patterns on the cards.
• I could see it being a game you could play with tweens/younger teens or even younger kids if you didn’t worry about who wins.
• Would also maybe be fun as a drinking game.
• It was fine, but not much more than that, and so while I’d happily play it, I can’t see myself ever asking to play it.
• I wasn’t on a train or passing a paper bag, or I might have enjoyed it a lot more.