In case you didn’t know, there are a LOT of board games out there. Like, a whole ton. Too many, some could argue. Whether or not you agree with that is a debate for another time, BUT there’s no denying that in the deluge of board games coming out seemingly every hour that some games fall between the cracks.
Because of this, every board gamer has their underrated gem, a board game that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention or buzz. For me? That game is The Blood of an Englishman and like a door to door Mormon, I’m here to spread the word.
The Blood of an Englishman is a two-player asymmetric game designed by Dan Cassar, who is probably best known for Arboretum, a brilliant card game about the world’s most spiteful gardeners planting trees using the blood of their enemies and their enemies’ families (if you’re not familiar with Arboretum, please look it up to see what I’m talking about, it’s amazing). This game, however, is based on the classic fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk where one player takes on the role of Jack and the other as the Giant. As Jack, you’re trying to build beanstalks from numbered cards in ascending order until you top it off with a treasure, like it’s a cherry on the world’s tallest, greenest sundae. As the Giant, you’re trying to get your trademark “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” chant to appear in some form, because you’re all about your brand.
This asymmetry between the two roles is one of the things that drew me to the game and one of the things that caused me to fall in love with it. But before I start gushing, lemme talk about how the game actually plays so you can see just how said roles work. First thing you should know is that the game is literally just a deck of cards. I raved in my Port Royal review about how I love when a game does a lot with very little components, and that’s certainly the case with TBoaE. This deck of cards is mostly comprised of cards numbered 1-9, with some treasure cards and cards that have different parts of the Giant’s ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ slogan on them (told ya, he loves his brand) thrown in. These cards are shuffled and splayed out in five stacks of ten and the entire game revolves around manipulating those stacks to achieve your goal before the other player does.
Jack can spend three actions on their turn. Those actions can be spent doing the following things: moving cards from the back of a stack to the front, moving cards from the front of a stack to the front of another stack and/or moving a card from the front or back of a stack to their in progress beanstalk. On the other hand, the Giant gets only ONE action to use, but their options are powerful. The Giant can move four cards from the front of a stack to the front of another or even just straight up remove a numbered card from the game entirely. The final action in the Giant’s arsenal is that they can move two cards from the fronts of any stacks to the fronts of any other stacks. This seems head scratching considering that it doesn’t feel as powerful as the Giant’s ‘move four cards’ action and that it can essentially be undone by Jack on their turn BUT it can be a sneaky move to pull out a surprise win.
This difference in the number and type of actions that Jack and the Giant have access to brings me to my first huge positive about TBoaE. This is essentially an abstract strategy game BUT it feels immensely thematic based on how each side feels. With their three actions, Jack feels nimble and quick. Playing against Jack as the Giant, Jack is an over caffeinated gnat, always juuust out of reach as you try to swat it down.
But as swift as Jack may seem, their moves are small and only chip away at the game state, meaning the Giant is always looming large as a threat. Speaking of the Giant, their one move per turn makes them feel slow and lumbering, but the fact that their moves can so drastically alter the game state makes them feel powerful and dangerous.
Again, despite the abstract nature, this makes TBoaE a thematic treat. It also makes the game extremely replayable, as you’ll almost assuredly want to immediately replay the game as the other side so that you can see the differences. And you’ll be happy to find that even though both sides basically boil down to “move cards around stacks of other cards”, they truly do feel different from each other. The fact that this is accomplished through just a deck of cards is a wondrous feat.
That brings me to the actual puzzle that TBoaE brings to the table. Manipulating stacks of cards might not seem exciting, but it is delightfully crunchy. As Jack, you’re trying to weed out which numbers can be used to make your beanstalks most quickly without leaving too many big gaps. Because remember, you need to place numbers in ascending order, which means if you jump from 1 to 5, you’re leaving very little room for error. The Giant can prey on poor decisions in this regard by removing cards from the game. If you don’t plan ahead and leave yourself in a bind where you ABSOLUTELY need a 9 and the Giant is able to discard the last one, you’ve just lost.
Speaking of the Giant, the puzzle for them is a little more opaque but no less fun to try and solve. In fact, the more subtle nature of winning as the Giant leads me to preferring to play that side over Jack’s. It might seem simple enough. You just gotta get Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum next to each other, right? No problem. Well, except that Jack is constantly changing cards around and that it’s very easy for Jack to dig and get something they want while the Giant’s big, clumsy self has much less finesse. Sure, you might get three of the Giant cards next to each other, but getting that last one you need seems like picking up a contact lens with a boxing glove. So you need to be a little more clever in how you get the cards you need. Maybe you get rid of a certain number that Jack needs, knowing that for them to get another copy of said number they’ll need to dig to get it, perhaps unearthing a Giant card in the process. And as Jack takes more and more cards for their beanstalks, the playing field shrinks and shrinks, meaning the Giant’s already powerful moves gain more and more impact with each turn. Patience and guile is required as the Giant and sometimes you have to let Jack’s own brashness and haste undo him in the end (which, again, feels quite thematic!).
The constant back and forth between the two sides creates such an interesting and dynamic puzzle that ebbs and flows throughout the game. It’s like both players are trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle first, but in between turns your opponent elbows the side of the table, causing pieces to sprawl out of position. I hate when people say, “It’s like a chess match!” because it’s a lazy cliché to fall back on…but…uhh, yeah, it’s like a chess match. You need to think at least a couple moves ahead because everything you do leads to a reaction from your opponent which in turn leads to a response from you. As the Giant, for example, you might say, “Hmmm, my opponent is probably going to take that 7 up front so if I remove it, that means they’ll have to dig out the 7 from the back of the other stack which means my Fo card will be brought to the front, which allows me to threaten with my other Giant cards if I move those two cards off the Fe and Fi cards” and so on and so on and so on. It’s deliciously crunchy and packs a great strategic and tactical punch for a game that will probably take you just 20-30 minutes.
The final thing I’ll applaud this game is for its balance. I love 2 player assymetric games, but if one side feels easier to win as, it can be a major bummer. I love Mr. Jack (as seen in my here) but it’s pretty clear that the Investigator should win around 60-70% of the games played. Then there’s Raptor, which is a game I’ll almost certainly review at some point because it’s amazing and one of my favorite games ever BUT it is also a game where one side (in this case, the Scientists) feels easier and more powerful than the other. I’m ecstatic to say that this is NOT the case with TBoaE. I’ve played this game ten times and the record stands at five wins for Jack and five wins for the Giant. So quite literally 50/50. That’s about all you can ask for from one of these games. Now, if I had to make a decision and say which one is a bit easier to play/win as, I would probably say Jack. Jack’s somewhat simpler path to victory feels more streamlined and easier to grasp and the fact that you have more actions than the Giant feels like you have a bit more flexibility if you make a mistake. For this reason, I usually let new players play as Jack when I’m introducing the game to them, but the advantage is so miniscule it’s barely worth mentioning. The win percentages (at least in my plays) speak for themselves.
I struggle to come up with any negatives for TBoaE. The gameplay is superb and thinky, it’s portable and easy to teach, and the art, which I haven’t even mentioned yet, is quite striking. This makes the 6.8 it has on BGG even more perplexing. If you enjoy two player games, particularly those with a healthy dose of asymmetry, or games that infuse deep puzzle-y gameplay in a brief amount of time, I heartily recommend The Blood of an Englishman.