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Game Review: Smiles, A Game of Cowries

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Sometimes new games are released with concepts so elegant, so straightforward, that it is easy to ask, did ancients play this? For the game Smiles from Back Alley Traders, the answer is, “No, but they should have.”

smilesgameSmiles: A Game of Cowries consists of 10 cowrie shells and 11 scoring tiles, and that is all players need for some great rounds of play. The cowries are very tightly grown shells that act as two-sided dice that may be shaken and rolled rather than flipped like coins. The closed side is wider and rounded, making for a bigger surface area. The “smiling” side with the opening is narrower but flatter. Together, the odds are virtually 50/50 on which will come up when rolled. Using that chance base, Smiles creates a fascinating game of luck and strategy.

Play begins with the 11 scoring tiles being lined up numerically from “0” to “10.” These count the number of “smiles” rolled in each round, and a player may pick one up if he or she rolls that proper number of smiles. Each player has three chances to roll any number of the shells each turn, adding an element of strategy. Statistically, the middle numbers are easier to grab, but the more extreme numbers are worth more points. Players must determine whether to press their luck to grab the greater values or end up rolling a number for a tile that has already been taken.

As the tiles disappear, strategy becomes more and more important. If a player ends up with a number of smiles for a tile that is already gone, he or she must sacrifice a tile by handing it over to an opponent. Those who gamble may have great rewards, but the penalty is harsh in not only losing potential points but also losing points one has already secured. The tables can quickly turn as no one but fate controls how the smiles will end up on that third roll.

The game continues with players taking turns until all of the tiles are gone. Then, the tiles are flipped to reveal the points on the back. Players add up these points, aiming for a set amount that will give them victory to the game. Bonus points are available for making “runs” with several tiles in a row, such as 3, 4, and 5. Choosing which tiles to aim for may end up with less points from the tiles but a victory overall from the sequence.

Smiles is a game for two to four players aged six and up. Rounds are quickly paced as each player makes at most three rolls, though there may be tenuous moments of pondering. The tension builds as the tiles disappear and rolls become more and more intense until the final tile is taken. With such simple and exciting play in a short game, players will return to Smiles again and again.

Four out of Five Stars

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About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.