This is the one hundred thirty-first entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is effortlessly navigating a maze of canals. It’s Gondola, by Michael T. Lombardi, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A Cooperative Pentolan Card Game for 3-7 Players

No custom cards here. This is an original game that uses a standard deck of playing cards. Without the time to organize a 3-7 person group, however, I can only offer my impressions after reading the rules.

I did not realize at first how important that “Pentolan” descriptor is. Pentola is a fictional setting that Michael T. Lombardi created and uses for many of his games. Several of those games are in the bundle, although this is the first one to come up in this series. Pentola seems heavily inspired by Venice, but infused with magic and fantastical elements. It was hard, however, to find a great overview of it. Perhaps one must peruse all of Michael T. Lombardi’s offerings to get a complete picture? Regardless, this means that Gondola is an in-universe card game, a game that residents of Pentola would play with friends in public establishments. As such, it’s a game that people can play on its own, or use within another game (like a tabletop role-playing game) using the Pentolan setting.

Despite what the tagline says, Gondola is only semi-cooperative. Players take on the roles of Gondolieri, and play against the dealer, who assumes the role of the Wakemaker, representing dangers like the demons that swim in the canals. The first phase of the game is similar to blackjack, with the Gondolieri loading cards into their gondolas as cargo. On their turn, they decide whether to ask the Wakemaker for another card, or to cast off with what they have already. The goal is to get as close as possible to a total value of 13, without going over, which overloads their gondoola. Once all the Gondolieri have cast off, the Wakemaker must draw cards until they either exceed the value of at least one Gondolieri, or exceed 13 themselves.

Next is the delivery phase, where the Gondolieri score their cargo cards. Here, the value of each card matters, but also the ability to make sets of them: multiples of the same value (pairs, triples, etc.), runs, or flushes. But if the Wakemaker has cards of matching value in their hand, they can cancel out part of the delivery. This phase is where the cooperative and competitive elements really come to the fore, because there are two separate scoring systems. Cargo that’s turned in earns coin for each Gondolieri, but at the end of the game all the coin is added together for a group score. But, Gondolieri can choose to assist each other by adding their cards to another’s cargo delivery. Doing so grants the full coin value and also half the value in reputation for the helpful Gondolier. Reputation is scored separately for each Gondolier, acting as a way to compete within the group.

Gondola is wonderfully evocative of Pentolan culture. It uses the 40-card Italian deck, for example, created by removing the 8s, 9s and 10s from the standard 52-card deck (which certainly helps when trying to stay under 13). The face cards all have their own names: the Jack becomes the Thief, the King becomes the Captain, and the Queen is the Matron. I listed them in that order because in Gondola the Matron is the highest value card, in a nice inversion from the norm. Collectively, the face cards make up the Familia, and have special rules during the loading phase that can help the Gondolieri pack more points into the gondolas. An offhand comment mentions that groups will often post their collective coin scores in public establishments, as a way of competing against each other. That immediately summoned images of boisterous card players in a canal-side tavern, trying to best the other groups at other tables. This image was only strengthened when I learned that the Gondolier with the highest reputation at the end of a game is dubbed “the free drinker”, while the least reputable Gondolier is known as “the drake”, helpfully defined as “a belly dragging reptile”.

That said, the game itself has a few unclear rules and perhaps some problematic ones. I wasn’t sure whether the cards in the loading phase are face up or not; since the Wakemaker must exceed the value of at least one Gondolier, presumably they must be able to see the cards that everyone has loaded? But are the Wakemaker’s cards kept secret, so that delivery disruptions come as surprises? Speaking of delivery, when a Gondlier asissts another, can the card they add to the delivery create a set (like a pair or a straight) for extra coin? If so, how is the reputation scored, given that they only contributed a single card? The biggest issue, however, has to do with overloading gondolas, as pointed out by the single commenter (amidst an overall positive judgment of the game) on the page. Overloaded Gondolieri can still play in the delivery phase, but the Wakemaker must target them first with disruptions. But, if the Wakemaker exceeds 13 (becoming overfed) they completely skip the delivery phase. Since the Wakemaker must exceed the value of at least one Gondolieri, the Gondolieri can all intentionally overload their gondolas to try to force the Wakemaker to overfeed, and then score their cargo at will. As such, I think the penalty for overloading a gondola needs to be harsher, perhaps halving the points scored (the cargo was late!) or preventing the gondola from delivering altogether.

But these issues can be resolved by house rules, or simply by choosing to play without intentional overloading. And I love how much the rules of this card game reveal about the Pentolan setting. There’s very little description of Pentola inside, and yet I feel like I’ve been there, just from learning how this card game works. It’s packed with flavor, and would be a great thing to throw into a larger role-playing campaign. If you are intrigued by Gondola but missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $2, with some community copies provided for free to those who cannot afford the asking price.

That’s 131 down, and only 1610 to go!