You might think you've never played Uno, the brightly coloured card game that's been around for more than three decades now, but you probably have. That is to say, you've probably played it with a deck of regular playing cards rather than the proper ones, and you probably played it under an alternative name. We're most familiar with the alternative that ends in "head" and starts with a swearword beginning with S, but that's because we're foul mouthed ****s.
Whatever you call it, the game works like this: each player starts out with a hand of seven cards, and the objective is to get rid of yours first. Everyone takes turns to put down one card that's the same number or colour as the one on the top of the pile. So, for example, you can put a yellow 6 on any other yellow card, or you can put it on a blue, red or green 6.
Just to mix things up a bit, there's also a selection of special cards which you can use to foil your opponents. There's one to reverse the direction of play, one to change the colour that's in play, one to force the next player along to miss their go, and best of all, ones which force them to pick up extra cards.
Whenever you get down to your last card, you have to shout "Uno" - failure to do so means another player can challenge you, and force you to pick up another two cards.
Practice makes perfect
Now, on paper, all this might not sound very exciting. But in practice - well all right, exciting is perhaps the wrong word, but the point is, Uno is an awful lot of fun. There's a nice balance of skill and luck involved, there are plenty of chances to do over your opponents, there are moments where the whole match can be turned completely on its head - in other words, it's got all the right ingredients to be a great multiplayer game.
And that goes for the Xbox Live Arcade version as well as the real life card game, happily. True, you can't compete against other players in your living room, since you'd all be able to see each other's cards (although there is an option to play in a team with a partner).
But there's hours of fun to be had taking on opponents via Xbox Live, thanks to a very well designed online mode. You can join and leave games whenever you like, so it doesn't matter if some loser decides to duck out - an AI player will simply take over. You can jump straight in for a quick friendly, or opt to play opponents of a similar ranking. You can chat via headsets and, apparently, the game will work with the new Xbox Live Vision camera, although that isn't out until September. There are leaderboards so you can see how you compare, and downloadable content such as the free 35th Anniversary pack, which features music, background art, cards and rule options.
Which brings us to one of the highlights of Uno on the Xbox 360. The thing about the card game is that there are so many variations - not just in terms of what you choose to call it, but in terms of how the rules work. One player might argue that if you are faced with a penalty card, it's tough luck, while another might say that you can play another penalty card to pass the buck. Some players like to use rules which allow for a bit of bluffing, while others prefer it straight down the line. Diffr'nt Strokes, etc.
Play your cards right
The good news is that the team who have designed the 360 version have clearly kept this in mind, and thrown in plenty of customisation options. You can determine everything from which cards can be played when to how points are scored, and how the winner is ultimately decided. Admittedly, there's no option for Strip Uno or Winner Gets to Slam Losers' Fingers in a Drawer Uno, but there are some pleasures that videogames just cannot emulate.
It's all presented very nicely, too - the graphics do the job just fine, assuming you're not expecting any fancy drop shadowing on the cards or for them to fall on the table with the help of amazing rag doll physics. The music - or rather, muzak - is nothing special, but it's reasonably unobtrusive, and perhaps even comforting in a nice cup of tea and a jammy dodger kind of way.
But never mind all that, back to the main reason why you should at least download the trial version of Uno - the fact that it's so much fun to play. It's hard to describe exactly why this is; just as it's much easier to learn how to play a card game by playing than by someone explaining the rules to you, you'll just have to give it a go. In fact, you might as well forget the trial version all together and go for the full game - it's a bargain at just 400 Microsoft Points, which works out at less than £3.50, and is cheaper than buying a pack of Uno cards.
However, bargain price aside, some will ask why you'd want to play a 30 year old card game on a £280 console. (You could buy 56.1 packs of Uno cards for that money, incidentally.) Well, to that we say: do all next-gen games have to be big, flashy, fast-paced and full of guns? What's wrong with games that go back to basics - i.e., good gameplay, pure and simple?
Case in point: a week ago, someone who shall be known only as A Friend of Eurogamer liked precisely two games, despite having been going out with a games journalist for over two years - Super Mario Kart SNES, and Super Mario Kart N64.
Seven days, a few exciting packages through the post and an Xbox Live download later, he now likes a total of five games - which includes Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, Guitar Hero, and Uno. All of these have one thing in common; they take classic gameplay and give it a new twist. Let's face it, Table Tennis is basically Pong with better lighting effects, which is why it's so good. Guitar Hero is a rhythm action game with a controller that's cooler than a dance mat. And Uno is an ancient game that always was fun, and always will be fun, but is even more fun when you can compete against people online.
Maybe we really are reaching a point where a much wider audience can get into games, and not just because Nintendo is bringing out a Brain Training game and a controller that's simple enough even for doddery old folk and muddle-headed ladies to use. Maybe it's just because we're remembering that the best games aren't the best because they've got the biggest polygon counts, or the most multiple paths through levels, or the largest number of murderable prostitutes - they're the best because they're the most fun to play, and that's what counts.
Back to our Friend of Eurogamer: when, late the other night, it was pointed out to him that he could call himself a gamer now, he replied: "But I'm not a proper gamer, am I?"
And why not? "I mean, proper gamers wouldn't play this," he said, as he joined another Uno match, and the birds outside began to sing in the dawn. Well, maybe they should - or download the demo, at least.
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