With the holiday season quickly approaching, many people are probably looking for a Christmas themed game to play at family gatherings. Over the years there have been quite a few different Christmas themed games created. While there might be a lot of games that utilize the theme, unfortunately many of those games aren’t particularly good. Most Christmas themed games fit into one of three categories: Monopoly clones, simple roll and move games, or trivia games. It is hard to find a game that utilizes the Christmas theme and combines it with unique and enjoyable gameplay. Well today I am looking at 12 Days a card game based around the popular Christmas song. I first heard of 12 Days as it appeared on an episode of the web show Tabletop. 12 Days is a card game that relies on quite a bit of luck, but it is arguably one of the best Christmas themed board games ever created.
How to Play 12 Days
- Separate the Gift Deck from the Holiday Deck.
- Shuffle the Gift Deck and deal twelve cards to each player. The rest of the cards form a draw pile.
- Sort the Holiday Deck numerically placing the one card on top and the twelve card on the bottom.
Playing the Game
12 Days is played over 12 rounds which are referred to as “days”. Each day consists of the following three actions:
- Gift A Card
- Play A Card to Try and Win the Day
- Draw A Card
All of these actions are simultaneous as all of the players will conduct the actions at the same time.
Gifting A Card
Each day begins with each of the players gifting a card to the player on their left. These cards will be passed face down so other players can’t see which cards are passed.
Playing A Card to Try and Win the Day
After gifting a card each player will play one of the cards from their hand face down to the table.
Once every player has played their card, all of the cards will be revealed and discarded. The player that plays the lowest card will win the day and take the top card from the Holiday Deck. This card is kept for the rest of the game as it will score the number of points shown on the card at the end of the game.
Normally the lowest numbered card will win the day, except when there is a tie for the lowest numbered card. If there is a tie for the lowest card, all of the tied cards are discarded and the players then find the next lowest card which will win the day. If there is another tie those tied cards are also discarded until only one card is the lowest card remaining. If all of the played cards tie, no one will win the current day. The top card from the Holiday Deck will be given out along with the next card in the deck for the next day.
The game also has two unique cards that don’t work like the rest of the cards. The Santa and Mrs. Claus cards have a value of 0 so they will beat any other card to win a day. If both are played in the same day, they will be discarded and the next lowest card will win the day. If a player wins a day with one of these cards they don’t receive the Holiday Card themselves. Instead they choose another player to give the card to.
Drawing A Card
Each day ends with each player drawing a Gift Card. After drawing a card each player should have twelve cards in their hand. If the Gift Deck ever runs out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled to form another draw deck.
End of Game
The game ends after the twelfth day is played. After each player draws their twelfth card to end the twelfth day, the players will tally their scores to determine the winner of the game. Players will score points from two different sources.
First each player will count up the Holiday Cards they collected during the game. Each card is worth points equal to the number printed on it.
Players will also score points based on the cards left in their hands. Starting with one each player will count up how many cards they have of each number. The player that has the most cards of a particular number will score bonus points equal to the value of the card. If there is a tie for the most cards of a particular number, all of the tied players will score the corresponding points.
The player that scores the most points wins the game.
If you would like to play a shorter game you can decide to play only eight days/nights. For this shorter game you will remove the Santa, Mrs. Claus, and all cards ranked 9-12 from the Gift and Holiday decks before shuffling to start the game. Each player will only have eight cards in their hand throughout the game. After eight nights/rounds the game ends. Scoring is conducted in the same way as the normal game.
Double Deck Variant
If you want to play with 6-8 players you will need to use a second deck. You will use the Gift Decks from both games to create a larger deck. Otherwise the game plays in the same way.
My Thoughts on 12 Days
On the surface 12 Days shares a lot in common with your typical trick taking game. The game is played in rounds where each player plays a card hoping to win the round. In each round the players are competing to play the lowest valued card in order to win each day. The reason that it is lowest card instead of highest is that the deck of cards is based around the song. The deck features one 1, two 2’s, etc. Therefore lower cards are considerably harder to get than higher cards. Players are competing to win days because the winner of each day receives a card that is worth points at the end of the game. In many ways this doesn’t differ much from your typical trick taking game.
With just these mechanics 12 Days would have felt like pretty much every other trick taking game. The good news is that the game features a number of other mechanics that help distinguish the game from others in the genre. The first difference is that ties are not allowed in the game. If two players play the same number they cancel one another out. Therefore if two players tie for the lowest valued card, the next lowest card will then win the day. This can be frustrating, but it adds an interesting element to the game. You need to always be aware that another player could end up playing the exact same low value card that you played. Thus you need to try to read the other players to determine whether they are going to play a low valued card like you in the current day. Reading the other players is a key to having success in the game. As you will have a limited number of low cards throughout the game you don’t want to waste them on a day that another player beats you or plays the exact same card.
The next difference in the game somewhat comes from the overall theme. As this is a Christmas game you need to gift a card to your neighbor on each turn. Each player can only have twelve cards in their hands at all times so you can’t hoard all of the good cards that you draw throughout the game. At the beginning of the game it is usually pretty easy to figure out what card to gift as it likely will be a card that you don’t have much use for. Due to the mechanic that I will talk about next though, your hand is likely going to fill up as you progress through the game. In the later days you may be forced to give your neighbor a card that you otherwise would like to keep just because you have a bunch of other cards that you need to keep. On top of this you also need to make sure not to keep gifting cards of the same number to the next player as it might come back to bite you.
Easily the most unique and arguably the best mechanic in 12 Days is the end of game scoring. Throughout the game you will score points from winning days. These points can add up if you can win quite a few days. At the end of the game though the cards left in your hand can also earn you some bonus points. Once all of the days have been scored players will count up how many cards of each number they have in their hand. The player with the most of each number will score the corresponding number of points. Basically throughout the game in addition to trying to win days, players are trying to acquire majorities of certain numbers in their hands. The lower numbers are easier to control as there are less cards. The higher numbers require more cards and can actually take up quite a bit of your hand. These numbers are worth considerably more points though.
This creates an interesting dilemma in 12 Days. During the game low numbers are quite valuable as they help you win days. At the end of the game though these cards aren’t worth much. At the same time during the game the high numbers have little value as it is unlikely that you will win a day with them. These cards are really powerful at the end of the game though making them worth holding in your hand. Ultimately the least valuable cards in the game are likely those in the middle as they won’t help much in winning a day, and they aren’t worth as much at the end of the game.
Ultimately I enjoyed playing 12 Days. The game does share quite a bit in common with your typical trick taking game. For this reason I don’t see the game really appealing to people that have never cared for this genre. The additional mechanics that the game adds though do differentiate the game enough that it does stand out from quite a few of the other games from the genre. Passing cards and ties nullifying each other forces you to make some interesting decisions. The most interesting mechanic though is keeping cards for the end of the game. This gives you ways of scoring points outside of winning days. Choosing which numbers to pursue and how many cards to keep from each number are key decisions and can have a big impact on whether you ultimately win or lose. 12 Days has some issues which I am going to get to next, but I generally enjoyed playing the game.
One unique mechanic that I haven’t talked about yet are the Santa and Mrs. Claus cards. Basically these cards are the lowest cards in the game and thus guarantee whoever plays them to win a hand unless another player plays the other card. The catch is that if you win with one of these cards you have to give the Holiday Card you won to someone else. I personally can’t say that I was a big fan of these cards. They usually don’t make a big difference in the game as there isn’t much use in playing them most of the time. What is the point of winning a day if you have to give the prize to another player. Thus these two cards basically become an easy gift to your neighbor who then likely will gift them on their next turn. The only time they ever have any use is when you want to mess with another player. When you think it is likely that someone with a lot of points is about to use a low card to win another day you can use one of these cards to deny them that opportunity. You can then just give the Holiday Card to the player that appears to be in last. These opportunities are kind of rare though so the two cards don’t serve much of a purpose in the game.
Probably my biggest problem with 12 Days is just the fact that the game relies on quite a bit of luck. Simply put if luck is not on your side it is unlikely that you will win the game. The problem is that luck comes from several areas. The most obvious is the cards that you are dealt to start the game and those that you draw throughout the game. If you don’t get good cards you don’t have much chance of winning the game. As I mentioned earlier you mostly want low cards and high cards of the same number as these are the most helpful in the game. The cards in the middle aren’t particularly helpful in either case. Forcing players to gift cards to one another helps a little as players can’t just hoard all of the good cards. This isn’t enough to overcome how much card draw luck impacts the game though.
In addition to the card draw luck there is also two other areas that add luck to the game. Both of these revolve around what the other players decide to do. First when choosing which cards to play you need to hope that none of the other players have the same idea as you. Especially if you play one of your few remaining low cards, it can be killer if another player plays the same number neutralizing your card. Unless you are dealt only low cards you need to be picky about what days you go after. Losing a day when you play a low card will really hurt your chances of winning the game. At the same time you need to hope that other players aren’t keeping the same number cards as you for the end of the game. If you hold over half the cards of a number you guarantee the majority of that number. This will take up a lot of your hand though so you are better off keeping a few less cards so you can better manage your hand. The drawback is you could lose a number by just one card. In this case you wasted a large section of your hand for no benefit. Being able to read the other players will likely really help in this area. Outside of cheating though you will never know exactly what the other players are going to do. Therefore you need to be kind of lucky that the other players don’t do the same thing as you in the game.
I really wish 12 Days wouldn’t have relied on quite so much luck as it does hurt the game some. There will be times in the game where you feel like you have no impact on your fate. The reason that this doesn’t kill the game is the fact that 12 Days was never meant to be taken that serious. Instead the game is meant to be a quick and easy game to pick up that the whole family can enjoy. The game is meant to be brought out during family gatherings as it is really easy to teach to new players, and everyone outside of young children shouldn’t have too much trouble playing it. 12 Days also plays really quickly where you can finish a game in around 15 minutes. This makes it a perfect filler game to play at a holiday party.
Speaking of holiday parties, I actually think 12 Days works great as a Christmas game. The Christmas theme doesn’t have much of an impact on the gameplay outside of the distribution of the cards. I still think the game works well for the season though. The cards are based off the song 12 Days of Christmas as the one is a partridge in a pear tree and so on. The cards definitely feed off the Christmas theme as the artwork utilizes a Christmasy style. I think the artwork looks nice even if the cards are a little busy sometimes making it hard to see what you need to on the cards. With the game relying so much on the Christmas theme though it does kind of rely on you playing it in the Christmas season in order to get the most out of it. I don’t know how well the game is going to play in the middle of the summer for example.
Should You Buy 12 Days?
The Christmas theme generally doesn’t work all that well for board games. 12 Days does a good job with the theme though as it likely is one of the best Christmas games ever made. On the surface 12 Days is your typical trick taking game as players try to win days by playing the lowest card. The game does differentiate itself in some ways though by forcing players to pass cards to one another, having ties for the lowest number canceling each other out, adding the Santa and Mrs. Claus cards, and the biggest addition of scoring points for the cards left in your hand at the end of the game. These additions add some interesting decisions to the game and create a fun game. The game’s biggest asset is just the fact that it plays quickly and is easy to play. The Santa and Mrs. Claus cards feel kind of pointless though and the game doesn’t have much replay value outside of the Christmas season. The game’s biggest problem is just that it relies on a lot of luck.
My recommendation for 12 Days comes down to whether you are looking for a Christmas game and like trick taking games. If you aren’t in the market for a Christmas game or don’t care for trick taking games, 12 Days is likely not going to be for you. If you are looking for a good Christmas game though or you like trick taking games with a twist, I think you should consider picking up 12 Days.