Hocus is a small, compact, card game from Hyperbole games, that can best be described as Wizard Poker. In it, 2-5 players compete to build the best poker hands, whilst simultaneously betting other cards in order to gain points from the hands they win. Beyond the typical strategies of card-counting, bluff and luck, Hocus players can also draw on a variety of spells to alter the rules of the game, as they seek to gain advantage.
What’s in the box? Mostly Playing Cards
Hocus comes in a compact box, which holds the cards and the rules insert – there is mercifully little excess packaging or blank space, and the result is a very portable game that you can take anywhere. In terms of the cards themselves, there is the main deck, which consists of numbers 0-14 of 4 different suits of cards, some rules reference cards, score trackers, and 8 decks each of 3 advanced spells.
The card-stock in Hocus is good, the text is clear, and the spells are generally free of ambiguity. The score tracker is somewhat baffling, requiring players to turn and slide and spin, and it definitely feels like this could have been achieved in a much simpler way.
The cards for the main deck each contain full-art images. Personally I prefer art a bit cleaner (it’s not always 100% clear what the different suits are), but the styling is consistent across the game, and even if things are unclear, the visuals are never jarring.
Getting the Basics: Playing Poker
For such a little game, Hocus contains a remarkable amount of gameplay depth – you have the basic poker-hand building element, plus the ability to add layers of advanced spells, and Owls.
From a starting hand of 10 cards (9 in games with a high player-count), players build “Communities” “Pockets” and “Pots.” The Community is the central element of the Poker Hand and, as suggested by the name, the cards here are shared by all players. To win the Community, players must construct the best available poker hand from these and up to two of their own cards which they placed in a “Pocket” earlier in the round. Everyone commits their pockets, and reveals simultaneously, to see who has the best hand. The last place cards can go is the “Pot” and the winner of each Community gains points determined by the value of the cards in that Community’s Pot. A game of Hocus ends when a player reaches 25 points from the pots they have won.
It’s worth noting the major difference between Hocus and a game like Texas hold ‘em here. The fact that the Communities are constructed by the players rather than being churned out by a deck instantly adds an element that you don’t get in classic poker, and one that’s both interesting and different enough to be a play experience by itself
None of the group I played Hocus with are regular poker-players, and it took a couple of rounds for everyone to fully get the hang of the structure: it’s worth repeating that winning a given community only gets you as many points as the cards in the Pot (essentially the ‘bids’ made on that hand), and there was a definite tendency for people to rush to try to dominate a particular hand only to discover that virtually nothing had been bid on it. That said, the concepts are simple enough once you get the hang of the terminology, and there are reference cards to remind you of the rank of the various poker hands.
So far, so normal. Aside from the art and the terminology, this way of playing Hocus is basically just poker with a twist: It’s a good twist, players constructing the community of shared cards, rather than them being random, but it’s not earth-shattering. This is how they recommend you play your first game or two, and one of the designers has commented on BoardGameGeek, that he likes it just as much this way as with all the add-ons.
Want more? Try adding some Hocus
Up until now, with a few very slight tweaks, you could play this game using a standard deck of cards. It seems only reasonable then, to consider the variant aspects of this game, and how they alter the play experience. These are the Owls and the Advanced Spells.
The first big departure for Hocus from a non-themed poker-game comes with the Owls. One of the four Suits of cards, the red one, features art depicting Owl-Wizards. These cards also have ability text written at the bottom of the card. When you win a Community of cards at the end of the round, as well as earning the points associated with it, you can also gather up the owls, and place them in front of you. During the next round, as well as taking an action on your turn, you can play a single Owl, returning the card to the bottom of the draw deck in exchange for activating its power.
It’s worth noting that not all Owls are created equal: some provide very basic effects, such as taking another action, whereas others completely distort the basic structure of the game, such as allowing you to add a fifth card to a Community. Equally, the utility of individual Owls will vary significantly depending on player-count. In two-player you’ll often find yourself wanting to hold back on cards until your opponent has revealed some cards, whereas four-player can be a mad-dash to exert some influence over the Communities. These two scenarios put a very different gloss on cards like Owl 5, which reads “No cards can be placed in any Community until your next turn.”
All of the basic actions in Hocus (Put a card in a Community, Put card(s) in Pockets, and Put a card in a Pot) are technically basic “spells” – available to all players at all times on their turns. There are also 8 sets of 3 Advanced Spells, and each player can take a set of these for use during the game. Unlike basic spells, advanced spells can only be used by the player with those cards in front of them. Different spell-sets will enable players to draw extra cards, return cards from their hand to the deck, or place cards in the three locations in different fashion to a normal (i.e. adding multiple cards to a community at once, or putting cards in two communities on the same turn).
The Advanced Spells definitely do change the way Hocus plays: being able to have 5 cards in a Community, 3 pockets, or simply to dig through the draw deck for the one card that changes an unremarkable hand into a winner is very powerful. However, as with Owls, not all Spells are created equal: some sets offer lots of additional draw, and others offer none. One set allows you to play a card face-down in a community, which is an almost game-breaking change to the amount of information available. In particular group-size and spell combinations you can find your special abilities completely nullified. For example, the Blue spells give you an opportunity to flood the community with cards more quickly than normal. This is great in a two-player game as it can provide a decisive shift in your control of the shared cards, but can be entirely useless if going last in a game with high-player counts, where the communities are already largely full. Obviously, if you play Hocus a lot, people will be able to get used to the subtleties of the different spell-sets, and learn how to maximise their benefits.
Is Hocus Magic? No, it’s Poker!
The box for Hocus describes it as an ancient game, reinvented for modern-day humans who may not have magic. If you look on any website description for the game, this is taken even further, with tales of how Merlin and Morgan Le Fay used to confront each other in games of Hocus. Don’t let that fool you: the theme in this game is thin, very thin. There is nothing owlish about the owls (aside from the art), and the other 3 suits are no more mechanically tied to their art than a Spade or a Diamond is to regular deck of cards. Calling the basic actions “Spells” is probably more confusing than anything, and whilst the advanced spells do tamper with the mechanics, it doesn’t really feel “Magical.” For a game group who will regularly break into mock-Arthurian speech when playing something like Shadows Over Camelot, there was far more call for hats, dimmed lighting, and jazz to reflect the poker theme, than there was any suspicion of people getting into the spirit of “spell-casting”
None of this makes Hocus a bad-game, but if you’re looking for a deep, immersive, thematic experience that evokes the world of wizarding, then it might give you pause for thought. The mechanics are the key aspect of this game: they are the main thing to think about during it, and they are the main thing to think about when buying it.
So should I bother with Hocus? Quite possibly
For a very compact, portable game, this has a lot to it and I was really impressed with how much design-wise they managed to get out of a little deck of cards: you’ve essentially got 4 different variants of the game (basic, basic + owls, basic + advanced spells, basic + owls + advanced spells), and touches like allowing the same card to function as the card you use to construct your poker hand OR as the bid you add to the pot reminded me of the design elegance which first drew me to games like San Juan. The advanced spells themselves differ a lot, and can change the gameplay experience in meaningful ways.
This game also plays in very different ways based on the player-count: In a two-player game, you have quite a bit of control over what ends up in the communities, whereas in a 4-player game, you’re rather swept along by events, doing your best to cobble together something from your hand that can glean some benefit out of what’s been placed before you. I think if you regularly play this head-to-head, you could find one player dominating, and a mis-matched experience overall.
As I’ve noted, this isn’t a thematic game at all: play can certainly be strategic, as you try to maximise your gain on a round where you have a good hand, mitigate bad luck, read your opponents’ plays and generally turn events to your advantage, but don’t expect to feel like a wizard whilst doing so. The overall quality of the product is good, and the components are all well-designed, aside from the elaborate score-tracker, which you may well want to consider ditching in favour of a pen and a scrap of paper. This is a good buy for groups who like neat mechanics over thematic fit, and would work as a good filler game for game groups / FLGS meet-ups and the like.
Overall, I found this one really interesting. For a group that feeds on theme, Hocus didn’t quite have the spark for us, but it’s definitely still a solid, clever little game that could provide many hours of enjoyable play for the right group.
The following two tabs change content below.
I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.