Loyal readers of my blog (hi Mom!) will probably know that I am a big fan of push your luck. In fact, I think I’m pretty comfortable saying it is my favorite mechanism in board games. No other game mechanism has created as many memorable moments as push your luck. Whether it’s the entire group cheering and standing up around the table when someone beats the odds or someone groaning and putting their heads in their hands when they realize they’ve gone too far, push your luck exemplifies the best of what board games can be as a shared, social experience. I fell in love with the genre when I first played Incan Gold, a game where you and your opponents try to snag the most treasure from a temple before they succumb to the dangers hidden within the game’s deck. Ever since then, I’ve kept an eye out for any popular or new games that heavily feature the mechanism, my ears perking up like a hunting dog when I hear of one. Which is why when I heard of That’s Not Lemonade! on Kickstarter, I knew I just had to back it.
That’s Not Lemonade! was on Kickstarter earlier in 2018 and I knew it was my type of game right away. Simple, elegant, pure push your luck, and it was a Kickstarter game that didn’t cost $150! This is probably because the game doesn’t include 50 sculpted minis and eight pounds worth of metal coins, but it’s still refreshing to see. I backed it almost instantly and I got my copy towards the end of last year. After playing it quite a few times over the past couple weeks, I’m happy to report that it is a heck of a lot of fun.
(Side note: From here on out, I am referring to the game as TNL because the exclamation point in That’s Not Lemonade! is causing Word to autocorrect and capitalize the next letter in the sentence and, hoo boy, it‘s annoying.)
As mentioned before, TNL is a push your luck game in the same vein of Incan Gold, which was powered by a “stay or go” mechanism. However, while Incan Gold was about plundering a temple of untold riches, this game is about trying to not drink pee.
The genre has come such a long way.
In TNL, players are enterprising individuals trying to run an honest business of selling lemonade. Problem is there’s only one street corner, so what are we to do? Battle to the death? Nah, this isn’t an area control game. Build our lemonade empire from the ground up, hoping to create an economic engine that outpaces the rest of the players? What is this, a Vital Lacerda game? Nope, we’re going to drink our faces off and see who can drink the most. I’m talking about lemonade, of course. Well, unless it’s pee. Because I forgot to mention, there’s a rascal going around the neighborhood just peeing in EVERYTHING and now some of us might end up accidentally taking a big swig of it. Hey, as long as it doesn’t have aspartame, right?
Already this game has more backstory and theme than most Reiner Knizia games, so that’s nice. But how does it play? Very simply. There is a deck of cards that goes around the table and everybody has a decision on their turn: Draw from the deck or pass it to the next player?. If you pass, you simply forgo drawing a card and give the deck to the next person, leaving the decision up to them.
Draw from the deck and you’re hoping for either lemon cards, which determine who wins the round, or ice cards, which help break ties. If you get one of these cards, you place it face down in front of you, without showing the others, and pass the deck on.
What you DON’T want is the “That’s Not Lemonade!” card, which very subtly dances around the subject of pee by having a sickly green lemon pictured on it. If you draw one of these, you reveal it and you have busted out of the round.
At the end of the round, everyone who hasn’t busted reveals the cards they have in front of them. Whoever has the most lemons wins the round and gains a point, taking one of their lemon cards and keeping it in front of them. This not only helps keeps track of everyone’s score, but alters the game going forward. Now the risk of busting has gotten slightly higher, making every pull of the card a dramatic, tense endeavor. By round 5 or 6? There’s so few lemons and so much pee in the deck that you’d think you were watching a video handed over by the Russians starring Donald Trump.
This all culminates in a devious little game that can be explained in two minutes and played over and over again for two hours, packing laughs, cheers and groans throughout. The design decision to keep lemon and ice cards facedown confused me at first. “How can we know the odds if we don’t know how many of the cards our opponents have are lemons or ice?” I thought stupidly, because I’m stupid. I thought of Blackjack, THE quintessential push your luck game, and in that game you can clearly see who has what and calculate the odds from there. In this game you simply see how many cards someone has face down in front of them and I wasn’t sure how satisfying that would be. This is, of course, why I don’t have any designed games published, because not revealing your hand helps making the simple decision of draw or pass devilishly tough.
You see someone with a whole pile of cards in front of them, but what if they’re mostly ice? There have been moments where I pushed too far because I felt threatened by the amount of cards my opponents have only to find out had I just passed, I would have won with the hand I had. Conversely, I’ve sat on a measly two lemons, hoping everyone else would bust or have a handful of ice and discovered I lost very badly. This element of mystery not only helps ratchet up the suspense but even adds a dash of bluffing to the proceedings. Stuck with three ice cubes? Start passing every turn and see the panic in the other players’ eyes, forcing them to take risks and hopefully bust. I’m not claiming there are Skull levels of deception in this game, but there is more strategy than meets the eye.
The only real criticism I can level at this game is less a criticism and more a concern. As you can tell this game is light. Like, Christian Bale in The Machinist light. Obviously, that’s not a flaw but it does create the concern of staying power. I don’t know how many plays this game will have before it starts to feel stale or same-y. I have plenty of light games that still get played on a regular basis, like the aforementioned Skull or Cockroach Poker or Stew (hey, I reviewed that game!). Will TNL hold up over the next year and enter the pantheon of those filler classics? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I’m going to keep on enjoying TNL. I always love to have a quick filler in the rotation, especially for nights that involve ‘adult’ beverages. And no, not talking about pee this time.