In the board game industry Reiner Knizia is generally considered one of most well known designers of all time. This might have something to do with the fact that he has designed around 600 board games. It might also be because he has a long list of games that are considered some of the highest rated of all time. I wouldn’t say Reiner Knizia is my favorite board game designer but he is towards the top. In the past we have looked at thirteen games designed by him and while some are better than others, I can’t remember ever playing a game designed by Reiner Knizia that I didn’t enjoy at least a little. That is one of the reasons that I was intrigued to check out Black Sheep after acquiring it for really cheap from a clearance sale. When I looked at Black Sheep I thought the game could be almost anything. I have to say that I was genuinely surprised though to learn that the game is basically a Poker variant designed for children. Black Sheep is a really interesting twist on Poker that can be fun for the whole family even if it relies heavily on luck at times.
How to Play Black Sheep
- Place the three field mats in the center of the table so all of the barns of a color point towards the same player.
- Each player takes a corral mat and places it in front of themselves.
- Mix up the animal figures so no one knows what number is under each animal. Then sort the animals by their type and set them to the side where everyone can reach them.
- Shuffle the animal cards. For each field mat draw two animal cards and place a corresponding animal figure on the mat. All of the cards that are drawn will be added to the discard pile.
- Each player is dealt three animal cards to form their hand.
- Choose whether you are going to use the normal rules or the “task card” variant. If you are using the normal rules set the six point bonus cards to the side as they will be used at the end of the game. If you are using the “task card” variant see the following section below.
- All of the players will “moo” to determine who will start the game. The player with the loudest moo will start the game.
On a player’s turn they will play either one or two cards from their hand. When playing cards they will place them by one of the three fields on their side of the field. All cards are placed face up so other players can see what has been played by each player.
Each side of a field can only hold three cards. If the player has already played three cards to a field they cannot add any more cards to the field until it is scored. If a player has already played three cards to each field (unlikely) they will skip their turn.
When choosing how many and which cards they are going to play they need to first decide which field they are going to play cards to. A player can only play cards to one field each turn so if they play two cards both have to be played to the same field. The number of cards that a player can add to a field depends on the number of cards already played to that field:
- If there are zero cards in the field the player can play either one or two cards to the field.
- If the field currently has one card the player must play two cards to the field.
- If the field currently has two cards the player can only play one card to the field.
The objective of the game is to create the best combination in each field. Therefore you want to play cards of the same animal to a field that also match the animal figures placed on the field.
If a player only played one card on their turn they have the option to discard one card from their hand. At the end of the player’s turn they will then draw cards from the draw pile so they have a total of three cards in their hand. If the draw pile runs out of cards the discard pile will be reshuffled to form a new draw pile.
Before play moves to the next player clockwise, the players need to check if scoring needs to be conducted.
At the end of a player’s turn they need to check all three fields to see if they have to be scored. For a field to be scored all players have to have added three cards to their side of the field. If all of the players have not played three cards to the field it will not be scored yet. If two or more players have played three cards though you can compare their values and turn over the cards that are a lower value. This doesn’t have to be done, but it makes it easier for players to see what is happening in each field.
Once a field is ready to be scored the players will compare the combinations of animals that they created. Each combination includes the three cards that a player played along with the two animal figures added to the field. There are seven different combinations in the game which are as follows (starting with the most valuable combination):
- Five of the same animal.
- Four of the same animal.
- Three of one animal and two of another animal.
- Three of the same animal.
- Two of one animal and two of another animal.
- Two of one animal.
- Highest single animal.
To break ties all of the animals have different ranks. The animals are ranked as follows (highest to lowest):
- Black Sheep
The player who has the most valuable combination will win the field.
If two or more players are tied with the same combination, the players will compare the animal types that make up the combination. A combination featuring higher ranked animals will beat the same combination with lower ranked animals. There are a few special rules that apply in some tiebreaker situations.
- For the three of one animal and two of another animal combination the players will compare the rank of the three animal groups that were part of the combination. If there is still a tie they will compare the animals that make up the pair of two.
- For the two of one animal and two of another animal combination the players will compare their higher ranked animal pairs. The player with the higher ranked pair will win the field. If both players have the same higher valued pair they will compare the other pair to determine the winner.
- If the tied players have the exact same scoring combination the players will look at the animal cards that weren’t part of the combination. The player with the highest ranked animal card will break the tie. If both players have the same higher ranked animal card they will then look at their next highest ranked animal and so on to determine the winner.
- If two players played the exact same cards, the first player to play the three cards wins.
The player who won the field will take the animal figures from the field and add them to their corral mat. This player can look at the value of the figures but shouldn’t show them to the other players. All cards played to the field are added to the discard pile.
Two animal cards are drawn from the draw pile and the corresponding figures are added to the field that was just scored. If one of the two cards that were drawn correspond to an animal that has no figures remaining the players will draw another card and place that animal on the field. The players will keep drawing cards until they can add the second animal figure.
If both of the animal cards that are drawn correspond to animals that no longer have figures, the field will be closed. No more animal figures will be added and players cannot play any more cards to the field. This will also trigger the end game.
Once the field has been filled with two figures or the field is closed, the animal cards that were drawn to fill the field are discarded. The player that won the field will then take the next turn.
End of Game
Once the end game is triggered by one of the fields being closed, each remaining field will be scored once before it is closed. Once all three fields are closed the game ends.
Players will then tally up their score. Players will turn over all of the animal figures they collected during the game. On the bottom of each animal is a number between one and three which is how many points that animal is worth. These numbers are positive points for all of the animals besides the black sheep which are worth negative points.
Players will then award the bonus cards. Bonus cards are awarded in two ways.
- First the players will compare the number of animal figures each player has collected for each type of animal. The player that has collected the most animals of each type will receive a bonus card. If there is a tie for the most of a type of animal, no one will receive the bonus card.
- Each player will earn a bonus card for each set of animal figures (one animal of each type including the black sheep) that they have collected. Players can receive multiple bonus cards for sets.
Players tally their score from the figures they collected as well as the bonus cards. The player who scored the most points wins the game. If there is a tie the player that collected the most animal figures wins. If there is still a tie the tied players share the victory.
Task Card Variant
If players choose to use this variant they will remove the bonus cards before the game begins as the task cards replace them. During setup each player is dealt a task card that only they can look at throughout the game. These task cards will still apply to all of the players though. In the two player game each player will be dealt two task cards. Additional task cards will be dealt face up to the table so a total of six task cards are in play. The remaining task cards are returned to the box without players looking at them.
Players will score points for the task cards at the end of the game based on which tasks that they are able to complete. There are three different types of task cards in the game.
The first set of task cards feature scales. The player that has the most of the animal featured on the card will be awarded this card which will score the number of points listed inside the sunflower. Any player can win this card even if it was dealt to another player. If players tie for the lead all tied players will all receive the reward.
The second set of task cards feature animals in a corral. Each player that has the combination of animals featured on the card will score the points featured inside the sunflower. If the player can meet the combination with two different groups of animals they will score the bonus twice and so on.
The final task card features a set of black sheep. If only one player collects black sheep in the game they will automatically win the game no matter who scored the most points.
At the end of the game all of the task cards are revealed. The players can score from any of the task cards even those dealt to other players. The points they score from these cards are added to the points they received from their animal figures. The player who scores the most points from their figures and task cards wins the game.
My Thoughts on Black Sheep
Poker is arguably one of the most popular card games of all time. I personally don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about the game. As I am not a gambler that part of the game never appealed to me. Without the gambling Poker is a decent card game even though it relies on quite a bit of luck. I bring this up because Black Sheep is Reiner Knizia’s twist on typical poker mechanics that he designed more for families than adults. In the game there are three different fields which animal figures will be placed on. These animal figures basically represent cards of the same animal that all of the players will use to form Poker hands. Players take turns playing one or two cards to their sides of the fields. When everyone has played their three cards to a field the animal figures are awarded to the player that formed the most valuable combination. At the end of the game each of these figures are worth points and are also used to score bonus points. Players ultimately want to try to score more points than the other players.
For the most part Black Sheep is very similar to Poker. Therefore your opinion of Poker is very likely going to come into play with regards to Black Sheep. Black Sheep is in many ways a simplified version of Poker with a few twists thrown in. Like Poker the whole goal of the game is to form a card combination more valuable than those formed by the other players. As your traditional cards have been replaced with animals the only combinations in the game involve collecting animals of the same type.
The simplification of the number of scoring combinations was most likely done in order to simplify the game enough that children can play it without too much trouble. While adults can enjoy the game as well, it is pretty obvious that the game was designed with children in mind. The game entirely eliminated the betting mechanic which might have been a turn off for some adults. That along with replacing playing cards with animals means the game works well as a family game. The game has a recommended age of 8+ but can probably be played by children a little younger. Anyone familiar with Poker could probably be taught the game in just a couple minutes while it may take other players five or so minutes to get the basics of how to play Black Sheep. Helping with this is the fact that the game plays relatively quickly as most games will likely take between 30-45 minutes.
While Black Sheep shares a lot in common with Poker it does differ in a couple of different ways. The first area comes from the fact that the players are playing three hands of Poker at the same time. This actually plays a pretty big role in the game. Instead of having to use all of the cards from their hand to try and create the best combination, players build their three hands over a number of rounds. Therefore players can focus on their hands that they currently have good cards for. As hands are scored fields are opened up giving players even more options. As players have choices over which hands to play cards to, this adds some decision making to the game as players try to form their best possible hands.
Another twist from most versions of Poker is that the entire game is played face up. While you can keep your hand secret, all of the players will know what you play to each field. This allows all of the players to know their standing in each field. A player can easily figure out if they are still in the running for a field or whether they have no chance at winning it. Knowing what cards the other players have played to a field really impacts the game’s strategy as you know what cards you need to add to a field to win it. If you have no chance of winning a hand you can also ditch cards you aren’t really using to delay playing to another field that you could possibly win. A lot of the strategy in Black Sheep comes from choosing which fields to go after and which to abandon. Unless you get really lucky you need to try and prioritize the fields that you can actually win instead of trying to be competitive in all fields.
Heading into playing the game I was curious about how good of combinations that the players would be able to form in each field. Compared to traditional Poker it is considerably easier to get a good combination in Black Sheep. Outside of some rare instances most hands are won with at least a full house if not an even higher combination. I attribute this to a couple factors. First all of the players are given the first two cards which all of the players share. This allows players to focus on those two animals when building the rest of their hand. As you have three different hands that you can build on this means that you can usually stall for a couple of turns if you don’t currently have the cards that you need for a higher valued combination. Even though the game forces you to finish each hand in two turns (play one card in one turn and two cards in the other turn) it is still surprisingly easy to get a good combination. This might lead to a little confusion at first but it is a good rule as it prevents players from only adding one card to a hand at a time. As you can always see what the other players are building you know what you need to strive for so you can stall for a couple turns hoping you get the cards you need.
As players will regularly form strong hands tiebreakers play a pretty big role in the game. The tiebreaking in the game is quite straightforward as all of the animals are ranked which breaks most ties. When two or more players are competing for the same combination you want to play as many animals of the higher ranked animal as you can as it will help break ties in your favor. There will be many times that players basically form the same hand though. The tiebreaker in this situation is who formed the hand first so players may sometimes decide to pursue a less valuable hand in a field just so they get this tiebreaker over the other players.
The final way that Black Sheep differs from traditional Poker comes from how the game is scored. As I already mentioned the game eliminates the betting element. Instead players compete to score the most points from the animals they collect during the game. Each animal is individually worth points which is kind of random as you don’t know what number is under each animal. The thing you can control more though is the bonus scoring. The basic game rewards bonus points for the player who collects the most of each type of animal as well as for each set of all of the types of animals that a player can collect. For this reason winning more hands is usually beneficial, but what hands you win can be almost as important. The cards that you are dealt are going to somewhat determine which hands you go after. What hands you ultimately decide to target though can have a pretty big impact on how well you do in the game.
As for the two different ways of handling the bonus points I personally would say that the task cards are better. The normal scoring is fine as it allows players to target specific animals to score additional points. I think the task cards are better though for two reasons. First there is a little more variety to the ways you can score points. In addition to scoring points for having the most of an animal you can also score points for having different combinations of animals. This gives you more flexibility which is always a positive in my opinion. The second reason is that while some of the task cards are placed face up, each player has their own task card that is kept secret. All of the players can score from this card but each player will get some secret information that they can use to craft their strategy. For these two reasons I think the task cards add some strategy to the game.
There are a lot of things that I liked about Black Sheep. I genuinely think it is a pretty clever twist on Poker. If you want a simpler Poker game that works well for families with younger children I think you could really enjoy the game. The game has one pretty big problem though that mitigates a lot of the positives that I had for the game.
Basically the biggest problem with the game is the fact that it relies on a lot of luck. The game has some strategy. If you make bad decisions you are unlikely to win the game. Good decisions aren’t as helpful though as it is usually pretty obvious what you should do in any given situation. There are only a few times where it can be a tossup for what you should do on your turn. The additions to Poker I mentioned earlier add some strategy to the game. The problem is that the elimination of betting eliminates quite a bit of strategy from the game as well. In the end the game has about the same amount of strategy as Poker.
Due to this the game relies on a lot of luck. You can lose due to bad decisions, but you can’t win with good decisions if you aren’t dealt the right cards. There are ways to stall giving yourself more opportunities to draw the cards that you need. Players that get lucky are still going to have a huge advantage in the game. If you don’t draw the right cards you will have no chance of winning the game. In one game that we played one player kept drawing the cards they needed and thus they probably won close to half of the fields despite it being a four player game. Therefore it was pretty obvious early on that this player would ultimately win the game.
In addition to getting dealt the right cards you also need to win the hands with the most valuable animals. The animal values range from 1-3 with black sheep being worth negative the value of the animal. A difference of one or two points per animal might not seem like much but it can add up. Players can score a lot from the bonus points, but a player that gets more valuable animals is going to have a big advantage in the game. Outside of cheating there is no way to know if you are getting a valuable animal so you need to just get lucky that you win the right rounds.
Ultimately to enjoy Black Sheep you need to accept that luck is likely going to play a pretty big role in who ultimately wins. If you don’t mind that the game relies on a lot of luck this shouldn’t be that big of issue. You can have fun with the game, but you can’t take the end result too seriously as there is a limit on how much you can impact who ultimately wins. Those that don’t like games that rely on a lot of luck though are likely to be frustrated by this fact and might not like Black Sheep all that much.
As for the game’s components I would say that they are kind of hit or miss. I thought the animal figures were pretty detailed even though it is hard to sometimes tell the cows and horses apart. The problem with the figures are that they are really small which makes the numbers on the bottom of them quite hard to read at times. The cards use a smaller card size typical of games like Ticket to Ride. The artwork is pretty good but otherwise the cards are pretty basic. I personally thought the game’s mats could have been a little better as they feel a little thin. Otherwise the game’s box is much larger than it needed to be. The box is not particularly large as it is about the size of your typical bookshelf game. The components could have easily been put in a box half the size though.
Should You Buy Black Sheep?
In the end there are a lot of things that I liked about Black Sheep, but it has one big issue as well. Black Sheep is basically a twist on Poker that was designed more with children in mind. The game simplifies Poker where the game is easy enough that the whole family can enjoy it. While most of the mechanics are the same as Poker a couple twists to the formula add some interesting decisions to the game. As you build three hands at the same time that all of the players can see you are given some decisions to make as you don’t have to rely solely on being dealt a good hand. The various ways of scoring points at the end of the game are also interesting. The problem is that the game relies on a lot of luck. Making good decisions doesn’t hurt, but you are going to have a hard time winning if you aren’t dealt the right cards.
My recommendation for Black Sheep comes down to a couple of factors. First are you interested in a Poker variant that was designed with families in mind? Also do you mind that the game relies on a lot of luck? If the concept or the reliance on luck turns you off, Black Sheep probably won’t be for you. If you are looking for an interesting twist on Poker though there are things to like about Black Sheep. Those that think the game sounds interesting should consider picking it up if they can get a good deal on it.