Poker is probably one of the most popular card games in the world. With its straightforward play, simple betting, and standardized – and very inexpensive – decks of playing cards, it’s a solid option for people who want to have a game without table-size boards and racks of miniatures. There are also quite a number of poker variants that have evolved over the years, though almost all of them are ultimately variations on five-card draw. That’s simple to explain too: You’re dealt five playing cards, discard some that aren’t helpful, the dealer gives you new cards to get you back up to five, then you compare your results with everyone else at the table.
Go back far enough, however, and our modern playing cards are actually based on the fortune-telling Tarot decks, with the major and minor arcana. In fact, some fortune tellers can use a regular deck of cards as if they were a Tarot deck! The combination of poker and fortune telling is a great matchup, and that’s exactly the premise behind the interesting one-player Lock & Spell: A Game of Fortunes card game by designer Sam Kennedy and Jupiter Valley Studios.
It’s not very exciting to play five-card poker solo so the game offers you up to four draws to build up a specific hand. You can’t just go for a low pair, however, because there are only specific combinations that will count in a given turn. Let’s start with an overview so you’ll understand the Lock (and key) portion of the game…
LOCK & SPELL: BASIC SETUP
Tucked into a neat little box, Lock & Spell consists of five 5 Chest Cards, 5 Treasure Cards, 20 Key Cards, 5 Fate tokens, and 41 Spell Cards. Set up and ready for play, it looks like this:
Along the top are the five treasure chests, with one of the five Treasure cards randomly chosen and tucked underneath. Notice each has a numeric (point) value on the top, and a series of symbols along the middle: “unlock” a chest with the matching “keys” and you obtain the treasure underneath. The second row is the keys and you can see each has a different 3, 4, or 5 card combination “Spell” to achieve, ranging from the simple (“a pair”) to difficult (“four of a kind”). I’ve dealt out my initial hand of five cards: 2♦️, 4♦️, 7♦️, 9♦️, 10♥️.
Getting a full house or a run of five won’t benefit me, however, because you can only match the displayed key card combinations on your quest to attain a matching “Spell”. This first hand is lucky, however, because four of my cards are diamonds and, as the instruction booklet explains, a “Large Flush” is just that. In fact, it’s a critical reference:
You will find that you refer to these two pages endlessly during the game: they probably should be a pair of quick reference cards for simplicity, but I’ll talk about possible tweaks for the 2nd printing in a little bit. For now, I’ve managed to attain the cards needed to achieve my first Spell: Large Flush.
Each Chest card has a point value, as mentioned earlier, and a set of three required Spells (keys), as shown:
The keys are color-coded and have a number of small marks on the Key cards to help denote which is which too (possibly for people with color vision deficiency). Purple is the easiest, and Red is the hardest, which is also denoted in the ordering of the Spells in the booklet.
PLAYING THE GAME OF LOCK & SPELL
The real challenge is when the five cards you’re dealt don’t match any of the combinations. As with real Poker, you’ll have to decide what you’re going to try to attain with your card replacements. Here I am starting another round with five new cards and the Large Flush placed on a Chest and replaced by Large Odd Straight:
Checking the booklet, a Large Odd Straight is 1,3,5,7,9 (the 41-card deck has no face cards, but it does have a single Wild card). I have 3 of those 5 cards, so it’s possible to attain it, but seeking two specific cards is a bit tricky. Then again, card playing is all statistics, so 4 of the 4o cards is a ‘1’ and 4 of the 40 cards is a ‘3’, and one of the cards is a wild, meaning that there are 9 out of (41-5) 36 chances (25%) of drawing at least one of those cards.
To discard and replace cards in your hand, however, you have to use a Fate token. These are placed on a Key card that you are not trying to attain; use up all your chances and you can end up with zero options, possibly having to lose one of the Fate tokens entirely to start the next round. The fewer Fate tokens you have, the harder it is to attain any combination because you subsequently also have fewer chances for discard/replace.
This turn works out, but for my next turn you can see that while I match the three-of-a-kind Spell, I don’t need a green key. I’m trying for a Large Odd Straight (1,3,5,7,9). I already have three cards (again!) and I’m going to burn one Fate token on the Full Flush card to replace those two 5’s:
If you attain the Spell (key combination) before you run out of Fate tokens, they all come back into your hand, which is typically what happens unless you’re trying for a very challenging combination and have a run of mediocre luck. Had to lose one or more? It’s not permanent: If you attain a Spell (key combination) on the very first deal, even a simple purple key, you will have one lost Fate token restored to your hand.
FURTHER ALONG IN THE GAME
A bit further along and I’ve managed to attain one key for each of the three rightmost Chests:
The Large Odd Straight, Full Odds, Small Straight and Full Flush would be useful but note that the Small Even Straight would not: I don’t need more green keys on the three Chests I’m aiming to unlock. In this instance, I have a Small Straight with 2♥️,3♦️,4♠️, so I’ll just take it and place the key.
Between each round you do need to thoroughly shuffle the 41 Spell Cards, which means that you’re going to be doing a lot of shuffling while playing Lock & Spell. It’s a good chance to practice some trick shuffles if you want, but be prepared, it’s not “shuffle and then play the entire game” by any means.
Sometimes getting the right combination can be a bit anxiety-provoking too, as you can see in the below where I’ve already sacrificed three possible spells with my Fate tokens to keep replacing cards in my hand:
I’m trying to attain the Large Odd Straight and yellow spells are some of the most difficult. I replace the 1♠️ and 3♠️, getting a 7♣️, then the very last turn before I crash and burn the final card, a 5♦️, appears. Spell cast, all Fate tokens come back into my hand!
Once you have achieved the necessary spells (placed all three keys) on a given Chest, you can reveal the Treasure card hiding underneath. In this case, it’s The Skull:
Keep track of the order in which you reveal these Treasure cards, it’s important for the final step when you learn your fortune!
A bit later, I’ve almost wrapped up this game: I need two more Spells and have attained – with the help of the blessed Wild card – four of a kind, my first Red Spell Key:
It’s easy for me to get a purple key for the #3 Chest in the subsequent round, revealing my three Treasure cards. I stack them in the order they were revealed and can then easily look in the booklet for my fortune:
Skull, Book,Sword, my fortune is “We All Must Taste the Bitterness of Defeat”. A bit odd since I won, but it’s no more or less accurate than a more complicated Tarot reading, right? 😄
You can add up points and compare your result against a chart if you want: Sum value of all unlocked Chests and +5 for each Fate token you still have, and -1 for each discarded Key card (which you could end up discarding if you have placed a Fate token on it and things still don’t go your way). My scores are pretty low so far, in the low 20s, but with some practice, I’ll get better and knowing how far to push my luck to attain the more difficult Spell combinations and unlock the higher-value Chests to gain a better score.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LOCK & SPELL
It took me a while to understand the nuances of the Fate tokens, particularly when you’ve come to the end of the road with discards and still haven’t attained a Spell. You can lose the game if you completely run out, but discarding a Fate token (or Fate token + key) advances you to the next round, so you’ll get another chance unless you have a terrible run of luck. Tip: If you’re low on Fate tokens, match a few easy Key combinations on your first reveal so you can recover the tokens, then try the more difficult Spell combinations again.
The biggest challenge with the game, however, is understanding the non-standard combination names. I would like to see the Key cards redesigned to have explanations on the cards so you don’t need to constantly reference the booklet to know how to build a Full Even Straight or Large Odd Straight. Even without that tweak, this is a fun and surprisingly challenging solo Poker variant that is perfect for playing during a short break or in small spaces. The fortune aspect is perhaps a bit uninspired, and the developer could have taken a bit more liberty with the design of the actual playing cards (why not use Tarot suits, for example?) but overall, Lock & Spell is a solid addition to your solo game library. Recommended.
Lock & Spell: A Game of Fortunes, designed by Sam Kennedy and published by Jupiter Valley Studio. $24.99 at jupitervalleystudios.com
Disclosure: Jupiter Valley Studio sent me a copy of this game in return for this candid review. Thanks!