[UPDATE: I've revised this prototype since UnPub3. It's tentatively called Xenophobe. PDF is here.]
I've been playtesting Animal Rescuers with several different groups and come across two divergent but parallel prototypes. The first removes all suits and is much more appropriate for younger audiences with the cute animal theme. Cards either highest/lowest card in hand/play and there are three of each permutation. This feels way less cutthroat than the second prototype, which keeps the suits.
I played a few 2-, 3-, and 4-player games last night with Levi Middleton, Matt Fowler and Ryan Macklin over Google+ Hangout. Levi was generous enough to set up a Roll20 app with the cards so we could play long distance. You can watch our Hangout here, but unfortunately it didn't pick up the board we were playing on, so you just see our handsome mugs.
It was clear that despite the small card count, it was a tense and brain-throbbing game of brinksmanship, bluffing and a little bit of luck. This was compounded with more players because you had even fewer cards in hand with which to assess your position. Matt described it thusly: "It's like chess if every game started with the pieces in different places." This made my heart sing because I've always wanted to make a light card game that had the emergent complexity of a chess-like game.
The only point of contention was the theme. We had four players tensely examining a deck, guessing and second-guessing the other players' choices. All the while, we're looking at these goofy animal illustrations. As you can see towards the end of the Hangout, we're all building up the pressure and feeling a sense of "WHY YOU!!" as each card gets revealed. Now, there is some comedy in that juxtaposition, but Ryan had a good suggestion that would better marry the theme to the mood of play: Alien.
Specifically, the feeling of panic and mystery of the first movie when the alien was really this unknowable, unfamiliar force. We imagined each card representing a tool scattered around the Nostromo that might help you escape. I'm explicitly avoiding weapons because of my self-imposed #nocombat guideline. The alien cannot be defeated, only escape.
Here's a revised prototype with the rethemed cards.
0: Self-Destruct Code
Escape: Lowest sum of numbers in play.
1A/1B: Key Card
Escape: Highest card in play / Highest card in hand.
Escape: Highest A card in play / Highest A card in hand.
3A/3B: Flare (maybe welding torch?)
Escape: Highest B card in play / Highest B card in hand.
4A/4B: Motion Detector
Escape: Lowest B card in play / Lowest B card in hand.
5A/5B: Space Suit
Escape: Lowest A card in play / Lowest A card in hand.
6A/6B: Escape Pod
Escape: Lowest card in play / Lowest card in hand.
The dealer takes on the role of a kind of saboteur or traitor, which is so common in the Alien franchise. Someone who knows more than he lets on, putting everyone else at risk.
At the start of each round, the dealer the peeks at the hidden card. In the first round, no one may pass. Thus, the dealer is forced to reveal some information in exchange for the privilege. This also lets the other players get a slight advantage as they can guess at the dealer's motivation.
This is the prototype I'll bring to UnPub3 this weekend, unofficially. We'll see how it turns out!