I’m a bird lover. We have feeders and houses all over our yard, and springtime often sees us acting as a hatchery for ten bird families. While birds aren’t something I ever thought I’d see much of in board games, bird-themed games are suddenly flying off the shelves.
A couple of years ago I reviewed Birds of a Feather, a fun little card game about chasing a “Big Year” of bird watching. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the hype around the newest “birdgame,” Wingspan. Unfortunately Wingspan’s, well, wingspan, has overshadowed another “birdgame.” Piepmatz (Little Songbirds) was released late last year, but didn’t get much attention once Wingspan hatched. The question is: Does Piepmatz deserve its own flock of fans? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
Piepmatz is a set collection card game where the action revolves around birds gathering food from a feeder and dealing with the local wildlife pests. It’s a Darwinian struggle… The strongest birds get to sit at the feeder, while the others must wait on the ground. You, as a player, are trying to shift the fate of certain birds in your favor in exchange for points. The goal is to gain the most points by collecting pairs of birds, collecting the majority of each bird species, and gathering seeds.
To begin the game, the feeder base card is placed in the center of the table. Four seed cards are placed in a column above the feeder base, and the remaining seed cards are placed face down in a deck at the top of the column. (There are squirrels and crows in the seed deck. If any are drawn during setup, they are not placed in the seed column, but shuffled back into the deck. They’ll be messing with you later.) The bird cards are shuffled and one is placed on each perch of the feeder base card. Players are then dealt four bird cards for their hand. The remaining cards are placed face down in a draw deck, and three birds are drawn and placed face up in a line next to the deck.
(Note that there are different setup rules for two and three player games, involving using specific seed cards, removing birds of one species, and using the 2/3-player side of the feeder base card.)
Turns consist of three phases: Play a card, resolve its effects, and draw new cards.
To play a card, choose a bird card from your hand and place it face up at a perch on the feeder base card. This sounds so simple, but there’s more to it. Since there are already birds on the perches at the beginning of the game, any new birds are placed in a row behind the perching bird. They are considered to be waiting in line to feed. Any card you play is always played to the end of the row, or the “back of the line.”
It’s during the resolve effects phase that you determine whether or not your newly placed bird gets to feed. First, determine the total strength of the birds waiting in line by adding up all of their strength values. Now compare it to the strength of the bird sitting at the perch.
If the total strength of the birds in line is greater, follow these five steps, going through them multiple times, if necessary.
- Take a seed card. The difference in strength determines from which feeder position you will take a card. If the difference is one, for example, you will take the card immediately adjacent to the feeder base. If it’s two, you’ll take the one two places above the feeder base, and so on. If there is a squirrel or crow next to the seed card, you must take it, as well, and place it in front of you. This applies as long as the strength difference is between 1 and 4. If the difference is five or greater, take a seed card from the top of the deck, show it to all players, and place it face down in your score pile. If the card you draw is a pest, place it face up in front of you to deal with it later.
- Add a bird to your collection. Take the bird from the perch and add it to your collection face up in front of you.
- Resolve pest cards, if necessary. If you had to take any pests, carry out their effect(s) and remove them from play. Crows scare away a bird from your collection. Remove a bird that is face up in front of you from play. You must choose from the species of which you have the most birds. Squirrels steal seeds from your score pile. Shuffle your seed score pile and have another player blindly draw two cards from it and remove them from play. (You can look at the cards to see what you’ve lost.) If you have only one seed card, discard it from play. If you have no seed cards, the squirrel leaves empty handed.
- Move a bird to the perch. Move the highest value bird from the line to the perch. If there’s a tie, the bird closest to the perch moves onto the perch.
- Compare again. Calculate and compare the strengths of the birds on the ground vs. the bird on the perch. If the total is greater again, repeat these steps. Otherwise, move on to the draw new cards phase of your turn.
If the total strength is equal or lower, you do not take a seed card, or the bird at the perch. Instead, you can choose a bird card from your hand and add it to your collection directly. The strength of the chosen card must be equal to or lower than the strength of the card you just played to the perch line. If you don’t have a card that meets this requirement, move on to the third phase of the turn and draw new cards.
In the final phase of your turn, draw back up so you have four bird cards in hand. You can draw from either the queue of bird cards (replacing each card immediately after it is removed), or from the top of the draw deck. Also make sure there are four seed cards above the feeder base. Slide any remaining seed cards down toward the feeder base and fill any openings from the feeder deck. If you draw any squirrels or crows from the seed deck, place these in a second column next to the seed cards, starting from the bottom of the column and moving up. Only place one “pest” next to each seed card.
The game ends when the seed deck is empty. Each player gets one last turn, and then chooses two bird cards from their hand to discard. The remaining two bird cards in hand are added to each player’s collection and scoring begins.
Players receive five points for each pair of birds in their collection. (A pair is the male and female of each species of equal strength value, not just two of a kind.) The person with the most of each bird species receives points equal to the total point value of those bird cards they have in their collection. (Note that the total point value for each bird card is half of its strength total, rounded up. This value is shown via the eggs on each card, but it’s easy to overlook and accidentally use the strength value, instead.) Each player also receives the point values of any seed cards in their hand. Points are totaled and the person with most points wins.
Do These Birds Soar, or Poop on Your Head?
Spoiler alert: I love Piepmatz! While there are some minor negatives that I’ll address in a minute, overall this is one of my all time favorite card games and I don’t see it ever leaving my collection. (Except because people keep “borrowing” my copy and making me demand to get it back.)
Piepmatz first hit my radar when I saw people talking about it being an “Arboretum killer.” A while back I reviewed Arboretum and gave it a 9.5. At the time, I couldn’t imagine loving a card game as much as I loved Arboretum, so seeing something labeled as its “killer” piqued my interest. Could something be better?
I won’t say that Piepmatz has “killed” Arboretum for me but it has equalled it, albeit by surpassing it in some ways, while falling short in others. If you average that out, you get a game that (for me) equals Arboretum in my desire to play it, but which is better suited for certain gaming circumstances.
Let me unpack this a bit.
The things I liked most about Arboretum were the lovely art and the puzzly gameplay. The thing I liked least was the fact that the puzzle could turn into a real brain burner, and calculating your best option was often pretty stressful. Not only did you have to place cards and construct a path, you had to keep back cards that would allow you to score that path. It led to a lot of angst. It’s still one of my favorite games, but I have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it.
Piepmatz keeps the lovely artwork and puzzly gameplay but eliminates some of the stress and angst, while still requiring enough thinking to make it a solid brain workout and a good strategy game. I’d say that while it leans toward the more thinky end of the card game spectrum, it still works as a game for casual gamers, or something that can be played on a weeknight without your brain exploding. It doesn’t “kill” Arboretum for me, but it is a better choice for me to bring out when we want to think hard, but maybe not to the point of turning our brains inside out.
The most fun part of Piepmatz for me is chasing the good combos you can generate if you play well and the cards break in your favor. It’s fun to run through the steps multiple times when the strength of the cards on the ground keeps coming up higher than that of the bird on the perch. If you can bend things your way, you can pick up multiple birds and seed cards this way.
Of course, there are times when you don’t want to do this because you know that if you do, you’ll have to pick up a pest or two along the way that might take away the cards you just spent time gathering. In that case, you might want to figure out if you can possibly stick your opponents with the pests. Maybe you play a card with a low strength from your hand, ensuring that you don’t get a seed card at all. Figuring out when and how to make the combos work in your favor (or against your opponents) is the real fun of the game.
Other times, you’ll want to put a card from your hand into your scoring collection directly. In that case, you’ll have to play a card that keeps the strength of the ground birds low enough not to surpass the bird on the perch. Oh, and the strength of the card card you want to keep will have to be lower than or equal to the card you place in the line. What you want to do and what you’re capable of doing are not always the same, and you can end up in some tight spots. It’s finding a way out of these spots that’s the fun of the game.
Piepmatz throws another twist into the mix by making you gather the male and female of a species with the same strength if you want to score pairs. In many set collection games, two of a kind is enough. Not here. It’s frustrating (in a good way) to see males or females keep appearing in the game when you need the opposite gender. Or the right gender pops up, but its the wrong strength. Grrr. But when the right one comes along, it’s a joy when you can nab it and add it to your collection. (And it’s agony when your opponent gets it first.)
This is all the most fun when playing with two players. With just two, you can better strategize your play to work the perch line in your favor. With more players, things change so much from turn to turn that it’s difficult to work out any sort of plan and have it stick. At higher player counts, the game shifts to a more tactical, “make the best of what you can,” sort of game.
Piepmatz is also a game that you can play “care bear” style, or you can play a more cutthroat game. It is possible to simply play cards to the tableau without overthinking how to mess with your opponents. In some of our two player games, we reached an unspoken agreement that I would play on one perch, and my husband would play to the other. We both worked our own puzzles this way without actively trying to hurt each other. Other times, we’ve really gone after each other, trying to stick the other with bad cards and pests. Either way is fun, and it’s nice that you can choose to play how you want.
In either case, Piepmatz is a pretty mathy game. You’re always adding numbers in your head. What’s the strength if I play this card? That card? Which seed card will I have to take if I play this card, or that one? It’s not difficult math at all, but with four cards in hand each turn, AP prone players can slow things way down if they must math out every single option for every card. This gets worse the more players you add. A four player game can drag on if everyone is calculating every option to death. Also, if you don’t like doing this kind of math work, Piepmatz won’t be fun for you. Piepmatz is a thinky game and that’s part of the joy, but it’s not designed to be an hour’s long slog, either. It is possible to think too much and suck some of the fun out of it. (I’m married to a math nerd, so I’m just putting it out there…)
Piepmatz is very easy to learn and play (but difficult to master), and on the whole offers a very clean design. There’s not much here to trip you up learning-wise. What will trip you up is figuring out how to manipulate the cards so that you outscore your opponents. As I said above, the joy is in learning how to generate the good combos. This isn’t something you’re likely to “solve” on the first play. Piepmatz, like Arboretum, requires multiple plays before it really clicks in your brain. But once it does, it’s a joy to play.
I feel like the replayability is on par with most card games of this type. Games don’t change much from game to game, except in the “luck of the draw” when birds and seed cards come out. The replayability is in learning how to make the most of whatever hand you are dealt. Most card games rely more on skill development rather than overall novelty to encourage replays, and Piepmatz is no exception.
The game looks great on the table and there’s more theme here than you might think. Yes, it’s a game that boils down to the numbers, but there’s a Darwinian struggle going on at this feeder. The birds with the higher strengths get to feed, while the “lesser” birds just wait in line. Bigger pests come to take away your food, or scare you away from the feeder. No, it’s not a bloody, epic battle, but the card play makes sense thematically.
Overall, Piepmatz gives me what I love in a card game: Simplicity of play mixed with a little brain burn and a fun puzzle to solve. There’s a surprising amount of depth in this small package. It hasn’t killed Arboretum or any other card game for me, but it has winged its way onto my shelf for keeps. It’s a game that I can bring out with less experienced gamers as a way of warming them up for a brain twister like Arboretum, and it’s something we enjoy playing when we want a thinky puzzle with a little less angst than something like Arboretum offers. These birds definitely deserve their own flock of fans.
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