Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the game, I need to contextualise my experience with NMBR 9, a game from AbacusSpiele. You see, I got given this game for my birthday maybe two years ago from my sister-in-law. With the accompanying audible message when I was excitedly unwrapping it that it ‘had really good reviews online’. This one had not even been written yet so I’m not sure where she was looking for her reviews!
I flipped the colourful box around in my hands, noting the designer Peter Wichmann and the tagline ‘Take it to the next level’. Staring in awe and wonderment at the back I noticed a considerable amount of German text and absolutely no English. I joked, "I hope the instructions aren’t all in German too!" I continued my enthusiastic unwrapping of the cellophane and with gusto lifted the lid off the box. It made that satisfying farty box noise that a snug lid often makes. However, the kids weren’t around so I didn’t bother with the usual ‘pardon me’ afterwards (Dad Joke 101).
The lid revealed some instructions, but first I wanted to see the pieces. These curious little tile oddities were all snug in the perfectly compartmentalised interior. Now for the instructions - my heart sank and I got the giggles… they were indeed all in German, causing my outburst ‘Das Ist Numbervang’. Those that are not familiar with ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ may not understand my exclamation, but henceforth in my household this game has been, and always will be, referred to as ‘Numberwang’!
After the great unboxing the game languished in the cupboard and on occasion, when my sister-in-law came round, we would joke that perhaps we should play Numberwang. We never did.
I did, however, discover some months later that the instructions could easily be found online and printed off. All of a sudden we could actually play NMBR 9.
NMBR 9 is a one to four player game, which the box says is for eight plus years. It also says it takes about 20 minutes, more about that in a bit.
Firstly, the play time is there or thereabouts and you could use this as a filler game or an after dinner quickie. The eight plus age limit for me is a bit low. I think my son of that age could play it but is unlikely to ever win. My 11-year-old, on the other hand, could be competitive, so it’s not a million miles out.
The game is simple, and yet ever so tricky at the same time. There is a deck of cards that need to be shuffled. These are turned over one at a time and all players take the corresponding number tile that is shaped like the number cross-bred with a Tetris piece. This tile must be played on the table in front of you. You then turn over another card and all players get the number tile. This is how play continues until you have gone through all the deck and you have placed two each of the numbers 0-9. Every time you lay a tile it must touch another tile or be placed on top of previous tiles.
Building a good base but venturing up levels is where this game moves up a gear. You can only place a tile on the next level up if it crosses at least two numbers below it. The upper tier number can also not cover any gaps in the levels below it.
The final kicker is you only score tiles that are on level one or higher. That is to say your base layer is worth zero, that’s right diddly squat. The next tier up is worth the face value of the tile, the tier above this, level two, is worth two times the tile number, level three is worth three times and so on. Frankly if you get to level four you are doing incredibly well – but it can be done.
The winner is the player with the most points. That is unless you are playing it as a solo game. That’s right, you glossed over it above, but this can be played as a one-player game. Intrigued? Read on…
How it Plays
Single Player Mode
So, NMBR 9 is a board game that can actually be played as a one-player game. Now there are a few one-player board games out there I know. Gloomhaven, Scythe and Terraforming Mars all have solo play but are obviously RPG heavy. For me, sitting at home in an evening playing these on my own would not be appealing.
Outside of the RPG genre Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective gives a good single player option. After that, however, I start running out of names. I know there are others really - they are just escaping me right now and it would spoil my point which is this: There are not very many truly one-player games on the market.
To play NMBR 9 solo you play the game as per the gameplay above. However, you keep a piece of paper in the box and try and beat your own personal best. You could also just bin off the cards and try and build the best board you can, obviously trying to get the nine, eight and seven tiles as high as possible. Using the latter method I have seen scores in the 200s online with people reaching tier 7. This is not achievable for me, I’ve tried. I did enjoy trying but I struggle getting past level five. It does dwindle some time though and actually does hold up as an enjoyable one-player game.
The multiplayer game is still quite introverted. You will glance up at other player's boards and after the fifth go you will all be careering down a different path of inter-fitting haphazardness. The occasional cursory glances will follow. You can only plan so far as the random order generated by the card drawing hinders forward thinking more often than not.
NMBR 9 is usually played at a fast pace. This is if your gaming group acknowledges that it's quite a light filler puzzle game. Whilst it nice to win it is far from Russian Roulette. Your life is not at stake. The trouble is, if you play this game with that friend that likes to win above all else, including their own enjoyment of the game, there can be a bit of waiting around. You know the type of player I’m referring to, they are the sort of player that aren’t sure where to place the second tile in a game of Carcassonne! All you really want to do is scream at them ‘it really doesn’t matter’. To them though it does and so it would fall on deaf ears.
If you apply too much thought, you probably will win. However, trying to prepare for all eventualities will be to the detriment of the playing circle. The flip side of this is the player who doesn’t care enough about winning and has much more ‘that’ll do’ attitude, that player won’t find much enjoyment in this game either.
The tiles are nice colours and awkward shapes, I think if I played it more, they might start to look a bit shabby in places, but you could say the same about a lot of board game components. Oh, and the box is colourful for sure, but it won’t be earning its place on the mantel piece or display cabinet. Internally, the components fit into their compartmentalised sections in a sublimely good way. It’s not a big box either so it will fit in the cupboard.
Final Thoughts on NMBR 9
In short, NMBR 9 is a bit like playing a stacking version of Tetris blindfolded without the Russian music, whereby you get considerably less points for far more mental effort.
I still to this day can find no reasoning for the lack of vowels in the name NMBR 9. I can only presume that they thought it was cool, or a clever marketing gimmick to help them get to the top of search engines. What they failed to realise is that you would remember it as number 9 and struggle to find any trace of it online thereafter. I’m sorry to keep harping on about this, but it really should’ve been called Numberwang!
Other than the incorrect naming I do like this game, but I have to be in the mood for it. It feels like a puzzle I can never quite solve perfectly. It is a good little filler game but the zero interaction sort of splits everyone off into their own little cubicles only to be freed from them in the final scoring.
On a more positive note, it is a ridiculously easy game to teach someone how to play. Even non-gamers will get the concept. I must confess that it rarely gets the outings to the table ahead of other options. However, when it does, we generally enjoy it. For me it has a good mix of planning, strategy and puzzle solving, but that won’t be everyone’s experience of it, depends on you as a player.
The single player option gives it a bit more viability. I can imagine it being a great gift for an only child around the age of 10 or 12. Particularly those who like puzzles, maths or science. I know that sounds a bit stereotypical or perhaps a bit too niche but hopefully it paints a picture of what I mean.
The thinkers and puzzlers will certainly prefer this one, not many will actually fall in love with it though.