Merry, bright, and competitive! Create a new holiday gaming tradition with Christmas Lights, a card game where players must push their luck, trade information, and claim bulbs from the draw pile to finish their string of lights the fastest.
What Is Christmas Lights?
Christmas Lights is a holiday-themed game for 2-6 players age 6 and older, currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. A pledge of $15 secures one copy of the game, and the creators intend to get copies out in time for the 2018 Christmas season. A family friendly, highly interactive game with secret objectives and hidden information, the goal is to build and connect your two strings of lights before the other players—a thorny task given that players must accomplish this without knowing which cards they have in their hand, and can only see the hands of their opponents! Play time is 10-30 minutes. In addition to the main game, Christmas Lights will come with a second rulebook outlining nine additional games the cards can be used to play. These modes will be revealed during the campaign, and include some twists on recognizable favorites and some modes that I think would be friendly to players even younger than 6.
Christmas Lights Components
Note: I received a prototype copy for review, so the final components are subject to change.
The game comes with:
- 42 bulb cards (7 each of yellow, red, blue, green, pink, and purple)
- 8 plug cards
- 5 broken bulb cards
- 3 event markers
- 6 bubble bulb cards (wildcards)
- 6 event cards
- 18 unique pattern cards
- 6 character cards (snowman, Rudolph, Mrs. Claus, Santa Claus, girl elf, boy elf)
The delightful artwork hits the sweet spot between vintage and modern. For me it evokes memories from childhood days of yore—favorite Christmas cartoons, or the classic art of a nativity calendar—while some of the small cute details, such as the adorable emoji-like faces on the bulbs (the broken bulb has a little sad face!), bring a modern sensibility. Both the nostalgia and the cute are strong with this game. The box is travel-sized, ideal to pack for a family gathering or stow away with the holiday decorations.
I’ll get into the uses of all the cards later, but here want to note that the game is colorblind friendly, as the Bulb Cards have not only different colors, but distinct shapes. Yellow bulbs are stars, blue are round, green are triangular, pink are square, purple are sort of snowman shaped, and the red ones are the traditional oval bulb. Broken bulbs are, of course, broken. All the other cards are quite distinct from each other or have text, making the game accessible to players who might have trouble with the color shades.
The Character Cards don’t much impact the play other than to mark the first player (Santa), but the sweet illustrations add to the table presence.
My one minor complaint about the cards is that while the Pattern Deck has different back art (a Christmas tree), the Bulb Deck, Event Cards, and Character Cards all have the same back art, so they’re not quite as easy to separate from each other. It’s a small inconvenience during set-up, but not a problem that impacts the game play.
How to Play Christmas Lights
From the character deck, remove the Santa card and an additional card for every player at the table (a 6-player game will require all 6). Shuffle the cards and deal them randomly. The player who gets the Santa card goes first.
Shuffle the Bulb, Event, and Pattern Decks separately and lay all three in the middle of the table. Deal two Pattern Cards to each player—players look at their own Pattern Cards, but must be careful to conceal them from their opponents. Then deal five Bulb Cards to each player. Players may not look at the Bulb Cards in their own hand, but must hold them face-out in such a way that all the other players can see them.
Objective and General Rules
The goal of the game is to lay down Bulb Cards from your hand in the order shown on your secret Pattern Cards, and to complete both Pattern Cards before any other player. The Pattern Cards are all unique strings of five lights. No bulb is ever repeated more than once on the same card, so every card will have five different colors/shapes. You must work in sequence, completing one Pattern Card in order from left to right, playing a Plug Card to “connect” it to the second card, and then completing the next card. (The Pattern Cards can be oriented however the player prefers, but once the first bulb is chosen they must continue to follow the left-to-right order). When your first Pattern Card is complete and finished with a Plug Card, you must reveal that Pattern Card to the table to prove you met the goal. Then all the regular Bulb Cards are placed in the discard pile. Any Broken Bulbs or Bubble Lights used should be set aside next to the player until the end of the game—these can serve as a tie breaker at the end of the game.
The tricky part, of course, is that players are not allowed to look at the Bulb Cards in their hand (unless allowed by an Event card)—they can only see the hands of other players. However, if through the course of the game players come to learn the information on some of their cards, they are allowed to “mark” those cards in some way to remember later, for instance by placing them in a particular position in their hand or holding them in different hands. As long as other players can see all the cards, anything goes. But if at any point a player accidentally sees their own hand, they must discard it and draw new cards.
What to Do on Your Turn
Each turn has four possible actions—players can choose to do some or all of these actions, but they must be performed in this order:
- Swap: The active player can trade any one card in their hand for any one card in an opponent’s hand. Both the active player and opponent can look at their new cards before placing them in their hand. *This is an instance where it might behoove players to “mark” the new card, since they know what it is.
- Play: The active player can play any one card from their hand into their tableau. If the chosen card fits into the next slot in the Pattern, it stays. If it’s not the right bulb, it’s moved to the discard pile. Sometimes players will know in advance that they have the bulb they need to play next—if, for instance, they know they received the bulb in a Swap. However, players can also push their luck by randomly choosing a card from their hand that may or may not be the right one.
- Sale: The active player places any card from their hand face-up on the table, and then draws a bulb card from the draw deck to place face-up next to it. If one of the two bulbs can be played immediately—if it’s the next bulb required in the Pattern—the player can take and play that card, and/or they may offer a face-up bulb to another player in exchange for information. (If the active player played one of the two bulbs into their own tableau, they can offer the second card in trade. If they weren’t able to play either of the two bulbs, they can offer one of the two in trade, giving more options to their opponent). In order to accept the trade, the opponent must be able to play their chosen card immediately into their tableau. When trading for information, the active player can ask one question of their opponent to help them figure out what’s in their hand. For instance, they might ask, “Where is the purple bulb in my hand?” (which would elicit not only whether they have a purple bulb at all, but also its location), or, “Am I holding an Event Marker?” When the active player and opponent agree on both the bulb and the question, they make the trade.
- Draw your hand back up to 5 from the draw deck.
There are a few cards in the game that provide special abilities or prompt special actions.
Broken Bulbs: When a Broken bulb is played into your tableau, it temporarily holds the spot of the necessary bulb (say, a blue bulb) and allows the active player to move on to the next bulb in their pattern. This would be advantageous if the player hasn’t been able to locate a blue bulb but knows they do have the following bulb in their Pattern. However, the Pattern cannot be completed until any Broken Bulbs are “fixed” by laying the necessary bulb on top of it, which can be done on any subsequent turn. The Broken Bulb cannot take the place of a Plug, and in the event of a tie breaker may count against the player who used it.
Event Markers: When an Event Marker is played during either the Play or Sale phases, the active player must draw an Event Card from the Event Deck and follow the instructions. There are two kinds of cards in the Event Deck:
- Bubble Lights can be used as wild cards in place of any color bulb in the Pattern. They cannot replace a plug, though, and can count against you in the event of a tie.
- Event Cards prompt actions that might be advantageous or disadvantageous to the active player only, or certain actions that benefit or harm every player. For instance, the Lump of Coal forces the active player to reveal one of their pattern cards to the other players, who are then aware of which bulbs that player would need next. A Power Outage forces all players to discard their hands, a frustrating event for players who had learned they had cards in-hand that they’d need. In contrast, the Christmas Eve card allows all players to look at one card in their hand.
It’s important to note that Event Markers aren’t activated until they’re played, so you may see that an opponent has one in-hand, or you may unknowingly have one in-hand. This is something to take into consideration for game strategy—for instance, you could purposely play one in a gamble to see if you draw a Bubble Light, or to try to disrupt the game for other players. Needless to say, this can end up working against you as well.
Once a player completes their two full strings of lights, players finish out the round so every player gets to take the same number of turns. Then the game is over, and the player who finished their strings first wins. If there’s a tie, the player who used the fewest broken bulbs wins. If players used the same number, the player who used the fewest bubble bulbs wins. If there’s still a tie, players must share the win.
Why You Should Play Christmas Lights
Players familiar with Hanabi will have a good grasp on the mechanism of hidden information where you can see your opponents’ cards but not your own. But while that game is cooperative, Christmas Lights brings a fun competitive twist on this style of game. Even with no prior experience, though, the game is simple to learn and to teach, and friendly to a wide range of age and experience.
The road to victory involves benefiting yourself and hindering others with only limited information—players know what bulbs they need but not what they have in their hands, and they know what other players have in-hand but not what they need. Each action, therefore, has a possible upside and downside. A Swap can give the active player a necessary card, but might do the same for an opponent… or it could give the opponent a card that’s useless to them. A Sale can also benefit another player, but it could be a worthwhile trade if the active player gets valuable intel.
As the game progresses, there are also more opportunities to guess what other players might need, and to mess with their strategy. Because each Pattern Card has five distinct bulbs, the possibilities of what your opponent needs next narrow as they progress down the line. For example, if they’ve already laid out Yellow, Red, Pink, and Blue, only a Purple or Green could complete the string, so you could try to prevent them from having or playing one of those two bulbs (either by Swapping it with a card in your hand, or by not offering a trade in the Sale phase at a crucial juncture). In another instance, I could see that my husband was ready to play a Plug he knew he had in his hand, so I Swapped it with a card from my hand and Played it, and then it was moved to the discard pile because it wasn’t the next card I needed. Bwahahahaha! Hate Swapping is definitely a viable strategy, especially if your group finds humor in the cutthroat.
The gameplay has a bit of a different feel as you move into the higher player counts. For one thing, when there are more players at the table, the active player has a higher probability of seeing the next card they need and being able to trade for it, because so many more cards are on display. On the other hand, getting certain cards becomes more competitive with greater demand and not as much supply, as there are only 7 of each colored bulb in the deck. At higher player counts, I found players were more willing to take a gamble and purposely play an Event Marker to see if they could get a Bubble Bulb from the Event Deck. Given that there are only 4 disadvantageous Event Cards in the Event Deck of 12 (6 Event Cards and 6 Bubble Bulbs), it can be worthwhile to push your luck.
The game’s holiday theme may be a possible downside for some—while certainly you could play the game at any time of year, it might feel out of place in July. Its use is more limited than that of the average game. For me, though, this limitation is actually part of the appeal. I love the exclusivity of holiday traditions: the anticipation of enjoying a rare pleasure, the glee of pulling dusty treasured things out of storage, and the joy of bringing family and friends together with a special activity.
Altogether, I found Christmas Lights to be a fun, charming, family friendly, lightweight game that I can imagine teaching to a variety of players—young and old, gamers and non-gamers—for some holiday fun. The heavy interaction and brisk play time make it perfect for festive gatherings, to bring people together in an activity that won’t overstay its welcome. The nine additional game modes also add value and versatility to the deck, so look out for more information on those as the campaign continues. At the price point $15, there’s no question I will be backing to add Christmas Lights to my annual roundup of holiday rituals.
If you’d like to stay up-to-date with all of our tabletop gaming coverage, please copy this link and add it to your RSS reader.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of ‘Christmas Lights’ for review purposes.