Review: NMBR 9

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Length

Release Date
Designers: Peter Wichmann
Publisher: Z-Man Games / Asmodee
Category: Tile-Laying, Puzzle Game
Player Count: 1-4
Price: $29.99
If you asked me my favorite board game genre a year ago, I would have rambled about my love for engine-building card games with lots of rules-breaking text, like Magic, Dominion, 7 Wonders, Star Realms, and so on. However, in the past few years—and 2017 especially—tile-laying games have really been on a roll, and I have to say that I’m not complaining about it. NMBR 9 continues the love for polyominoes popularized by Patchwork, Ubongo, and Blokus, and continued by Cottage Garden and Bärenpark. Can NMBR 9 make a splash in what’s becoming a very crowded genre?

Content Guide

The only contents in this game are 20 cards with pictures of the 80 corresponding number tiles on them, and the 80 tiles themselves. Unless you really, really hate numbers or puzzles, nothing offensive here.

Review

I’ve been shockingly impressed to see a few games lately that have a rules sheet instead of a rule book, and NMBR 9 is one of those games. The game is pure multi-player solitaire—one player flips cards one at a time, and each player grabs the corresponding piece and fits it into his own little play area, all while trying to stack number tiles on top of each other for more points. The scoring might put some math anxiety in you—each tile is worth its number times the level it’s on. I’ve seen several posts about people trying to explain how the scoring works without having to (gasp!) multiply, but to be honest, I’m so terrible at this game that my scores aren’t high enough to give me issues. Although it’s worth mentioning that even though we knew the table was level 0 and that those didn’t count for anything, our first 3-player game had all of us scoring our 2nd level as x2 (even though it’s actually level 1), and our 3rd level as x3. We quickly fixed it for future games, but I wish that one little tiny part of the game was more intuitive.
What’s interesting about tile-games is that they often make themselves more interesting by imposing arbitrary restrictions on players—a concept that really ticks me off in other genres (e.g. in larger card games or dungeon crawlers that add “theme rules” that just make the game harder to play). Here, the restrictions basically are the game. Pieces on higher levels have to be completely supported (they can’t cover holes), and that they must be supported by at least two lower pieces, so you can’t just put an 8 on top of an 8, for example. They also have to actually touch tiles of the same level, which is pretty intuitive for the bottom level, but I just realized as I typed this that I played a solo game last night where I illegally created separate piles of tiles on the second level.
Those rules are relatively intuitive, and the rule sheet also has a great set of images showing what’s legal and what isn’t. Those rules are also designed to make the game hard. If the decisions were too obvious, the “bingo” style simultaneous play means that players would end up tied with the exact same final product pretty often. However, one last rule just drives me crazy: you can’t flip the tiles over to make them fit. It’s fairly intuitive, since the tile are completely black on the back, making you suspicious as to whether you should be flipping them over. I can’t decide if I love or absolutely hate this rule. So many times I have the perfect spot if I could just flip the tile over! And unlike the others, even though it’s very clear that I can’t do it, it kind of feels like you should be able to, since you can in most other similar polyomino-based games. But, again, the challenge is what makes the game interesting.
And this game is a serious challenge. I’ve played five times, and I’m absolutely terrible at it. I think a key to success will be memorizing the shapes of the polyominoes, so you can anticipate what’s coming and make a space that will fit for those upcoming pieces, but I’m not there yet—and you don’t need to be there at all to whip this out and start playing. The rules are very simple (I’ve detailed all of them here already), and in the best way, the complexity is hidden in the game itself, not the rulebook. Here, it’s literally hidden in the completely ridiculous shapes of the pieces. For example, based on the “don’t-cover-holes rule” I described, you should already hate the 0 like I do (and it’s never even worth points!). There’s also this wonderful tension where the higher pieces like 8 and 9 are worth tons of points, but their flat, blocky nature make them great supporting pieces for lower levels, while the lower-numbered pieces are terrible at providing support. This game is somewhat designed to aggravate you, in the best way.
I’ve mentioned many other polyomino games, but given the “bingo” gameplay, this game’s biggest competitor is actually probably KarubaKaruba is a tile-laying game that has far more theme—adventurers moving on a map of a jungle towards temples full of victory points—but shares that same mechanism where all players use the same pieces in the same order, with the same starting setup. Karuba also has a touch of interaction, where players want to arrive at the temples before everyone else. Given the actual theme and interaction present, I’d be tempted to think NMBR 9 doesn’t stack up, but that isn’t the case. NMBR 9 does things a bit differently, and really well. I don’t find a single rule (except maybe the scoring) fiddly in NMBR 9, and Karuba has a few annoying rules that people forget, and a few more rules overall. NMBR 9 is one of the easiest games to just get up and get going I’ve ever seen. You don’t have to even shuffle the tiles, and you can even just leave them in the amazing box insert during the game! There is literally zero setup time for this game, and that’s an immensely valuable property for a short filler game to have. The true multi-player solitaire also means you can play NMBR 9 solo, which I’ve already enjoyed doing a few times.  However, if I had one, minor, nitpicky complaint about NMBR 9, it’s that I would have gladly paid $35 (not $40) for pieces that allowed for up to six players. I also think these multi-player solitaire games actually make for great makeshift party games (we once played Rolling America with ten people).
In many of my reviews, I really hammer on how my favorite games have simple rules but hide the complexity and strategy in the game, whether that be in cards with special powers, or unexpected interactions, or whatever else. NMBR 9 does it as simply and cleanly as possible by making the game interesting by virtue of its ridiculous shapes and their organization. This is an excellent gateway game, an excellent filler, and an excellent game for people who just like puzzley pieces. For its intended purposes, I really cannot find a legitimate flaw in this design, and it looks great on the table too. What more can I say?
Thank you to Z-Man Games for providing a review copy of NMBR 9.

The Bottom Line

 

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Author: Derek Thompson


I’ve been a board game reviewer on Geeks Under Grace since 2011. I love card-driven games and party games. I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics and teach the subject at Taylor University in Upland, IN. My wife and kids are my favorite gaming partners.