UNLV Innovates

            Last November, I had the privilege of attending a table game focus group, of sorts, at the Red Rock Casino and Resort.  This wasn't a big gaming company showing their latest innovations, but rather UNLV college students in the university's Center for Gaming Innovation.  The center is supported through a grant from the state's Knowledge Fund and helps students develop gaming concepts into commercially viable gaming products and builds an entrepreneurial spirit within the student community.  The Center is run by Dr. Mark Yoseloff, formerly the CEO of Shuffle Master.


            Through the years, I've written many column about game design.  For those who have read these columns, you know that I've frequently stated that it is impossible to determine which game will succeed.  The only thing that can usually be done is tell which ones will almost certainly fail.  There were give games on display on Sunday and I don't think any of them fell into this latter category.  None of the games contained any concept that would almost certainly doom it.


            I found the games to be a good mix of game ideas.  Some were more innovative than others.  One game was completely fresh, while others were twists on existing game.  To be very clear, I don't consider this latter category to be problematic.  While I don't respect copying someone else's game and making one minor change (if that much), I DO believe in taking an existing game and twisting it a bit.  Some people might think that Four Card Poker is merely a 'cheap' copy of Three Card Poker with little innovation.  To that I would say that first of all, it is a highly successful game and second, that there was a several year gap between Three Card Poker and Four Card Poker.  If it was so obvious, how come no one thought of it before it actually happened.  The goal in the industry is to make money, and not necessarily to invent something so new and different.


            Even the Odds was by far the most unique and innovative of the games.  My first take was that I didn't really like it much.  But, as I watched the game play, I warmed up to it.  It is a bit quirky and at first seems overly simplistic.  But then you realize there is a bit more strategy to it than meets the eye.  Game Play is rather straight forward.  Player makes a wager and is dealt 2 cards face up with a third card face down.  The Dealer's first two cards are dealt face up as well.  The twist in the game is that the hand point total (using a BJ type ranking, but a hand can go over 21) must be EVEN.  If you have an ODD point total, it counts as a busted hand.  After reviewing your first 2 cards, the Player may Stick on that point total or ask for the Third Card to be turned over.   If the Player's point total is Odd, he busts and loses his wager.  If it is even, it stays in play to the Dealer's three card hand.  The Dealer's third card will be dealt regardless.  So, the Player has to decide whether to stick on a lower Even hand hoping that the Dealer will Bust or to risk hitting and winding up with an Odd Hand.  There is also an optional sidebet based on the 4-cards initially exposed (Player 2 + Dealer 2).


            The next game Super Three Card is a Three Card Poker variant, but dealt from a multi-deck shoe.  The Player makes an initial Ante and Odds wager.  Each Player is dealt two cards face up and the Dealer is dealt one card face up.  The Player must now decide whether to Fold - which forfeits the ANTE Wager only as the Odds wager is returned to the Player or to Play by making an additional wager equal to the Ante wager.  The Player is given his third card, the Dealer completes his 3-card hand and the hand comparison takes place.  The Dealer does NOT need to qualify in this game.  The optional Big Hand Bonus is essentially Pair Plus but is based on the Player's initial 2-cards and the Dealer's initial card.  The one critique I had about this game is that it was a bit slow.  The Dealer deals the initial 2-card hands and has to first stop to resolvethe Big Hand Bonus.  Then he has to go around again and find out who is Playing.  Then he deals another card and has to resolve the base wager.  The number of hands per hour might hurt the game a little.


            Casino Battle is a Casino War variant, which I'm guessing won't surprise you based on the name.  To be honest, I found this game to be the least innovative.  As stated earlier, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  The Player makes an initial Battle wager and is dealt two cards.  The Dealer rearranges the cards into High and Low.  The Dealer does the same with his own cards.  Now a simple War type comparison takes place.  The High Card is compared to the High card.  Whoever has the Higher card wins.  If the two cards tie, then the Low Cards are compared.  If a Double Tie ensues, the Dealer wins.  This presumably does not create enough house edge (as unlike Casino War, there is no additional wager), so a Player hand of 5-high or Lower (both High and Low Cards are 2 through 5) is an automatic loss for the Player.  There are two optional sidebets - one based on the Player's 2-card hand and one based on a 4-card hand consisting of the Player and Dealer cards.


            Next up was Super Blackjack.  It's not easy to innovate in the blackjack space.  Geoff Hall has cornered this market somewhat by patenting the push-22 concept.  I give kudos to the inventor of this game for coming up with something new and different.  But, of all the games I saw, this one might be the only one with a significant flaw (or two).  The first and smaller problem is that in turns blackjack a little too far on its side.  The second and bigger problem is that it takes a low volatility and relatively low bankroll game and supercharges both.  In my opinion, perhaps just a bit too much.  At first blush, the game looks similar to regular blackjack.  The Player makes a wager and equal ANTE wager and gets two cards, while the Dealer gets two cards, one face up.  Your choices from here, however, are quite different thank blackjack.  You may stick, split or double.  There is no hitting.  You may split ANY two first cards.  You may double up to 4x your initial wager (even after a split).  You may split Pairs unlimitedly.   Blackjacks even pay 2 to 1.  The catch is there is no standard hitting.  The result is that the amount you wager per hand goes WAY up relative to standard blackjack.  You will split many of your starting hands.  Many of these will turn into double down situation.   Some, where you should double for 4x, which is a good thing for the Player, but it does mean you need a bigger bankroll than normal blackjack.  The house gets its advantage from the hands that you neither split or double that are just caught in between (and from some of those split hand which are still bad situations but not as bad as sticking).  It also comes from the Ante wager which is really a mandatory sidebet that pays when the Dealer busts based on the Dealer's hand value.  It takes a little while to get used to the concept of no hitting and the amount of wagers you wind up playing per hand.  I like the effort on this one, but I have doubts as to whether Players will accept the impact.


            Lastly, we had Show Pai.  If I had to pick my favorite of the five, this one would have been it.  Pai Gow games are very popular.  this one is simple to understand and moderately fast paced.   To begin play, the Player makes a Play wager and is given 4 cards.  He must split the cards into a 3-card hand a 1-card hand, using BACCARAT style scoring.  This means that face cards and 10's count as 0 and any point total over 9 counts only as its single-digit score (so, a 15 is a 5 and a 22 is a 2).   As in regular Pai Gow, the high hand (3-card hand) MUST outrank the 1-card hand.  There are situations where a hand cannot be set this way and this is called No Pai.  If the Player has a No Pai, he loses.  If the Dealer has one and the Player doesn't, the hand pushes.  There is an optional sidebet which pays for a No Pai (amongst other things).  I liked this game because it is playing in the 'right pond' - meaning that Pai Gow style game are very popular right now.  With only 4-cards, the game should be fast and relatively easy.  Some Players might have to learn Baccarat style scoring, but this isn't exactly the hardest thing to learn.


            Overall, I was very impressed by the games I saw.  This would be the case under almost any condition.  When one realizes that it was college kids (many of whom may barely be old enough to go into a casino!) invented these games, it becomes all the more impressive.  These games may or may not succeed, but in either case, the valuable lessons the students are learning will help them whether they choose stay in the field or to move on to other endeavors.  A big round of applause to the Center for Gaming Innovation.