Beyond Poker: “Outs!” by RumbleMonkey
Beyond Poker is a column reviewing games which are not poker, but which scratch the same itch or exercise similar strategic muscles. In this series you’ll find games which involve hidden information and bluffing, probabilistic thinking, risk-reward estimation, or which simply apply poker concepts like the hand rankings in a novel context.
That’s an exclamation point on the name, rather than emphasis on my sentence, if you’re wondering, but in any case, I knew from the moment he posted a screenshot of his high score that I was in trouble, and indeed, a decent chunk of my day did disappear in the process of putting him in his place.
Outs! is a free app for iPhone and iPad and describes itself as a “poker puzzle game.” Like most insidious, time-sucking mobile apps, it combines the aspects of high score pursuit, easy-to-pick-up gameplay and a bite-size duration of perhaps a minute per round.
The concept of Outs! is extremely simple on the surface, although there are aspects of the scoring which are a bit confusing and explained nowhere in the app; I’ll save you the trouble and explain those to you in a bit.
You begin the game with a full deck of cards and a four-by-four grid in which you’ll end up laying out 16. These are drawn at random from the deck, one at a time. You can drag and drop or simply tap to place each card where you want it, but once a card is placed it cannot be moved.
Along the right and bottom edges of this grid are another eight spaces. Once you’ve filled the grid, cards from the deck are dealt face down into these spaces and then revealed one by one. Each card thus revealed thereby completes a five-card poker hand: four rows plus four columns.
You then score points for the eight hands you’ve produced, according to a system that the game doesn’t explain but expects you to figure out as you go. The hand scores are as follows:
I haven’t actually managed a Royal Flush yet, so I can’t promise that 10,000 points is accurate for that, but based on my game designer intuition, I’d bet this month’s paycheck that that’s what it is.
Where it gets complicated, though, is that you receive a bonus for “rivering” multiple hands of the same type. By “rivering,” they mean completing the hand with that final, randomly dealt card. Straights, Flushes, Straight Flushes, Royal Flushes and Full Houses all require five cards and are therefore rivered by definition, but the game distinguishes, for instance, between a Three-of-a-Kind you place for yourself, or one that you make by way of a pair which picks up a third matching card at the end.
The way that bonus works is that rivered hands beyond the first of a given type have their points multiplied by the number of times you’ve rivered that hand. For instance, the first time your one pair, four-card hand makes two pair on the fifth card, you get the usual 500, but the next time it happens, you get 1000, and if you manage it a third time you’ll get 1500.
There’s an exception for rivering one pair hands, which is that the multiplier only kicks in the third time you river a single pair. Thus, the first two rivered pairs score 200 each, then the third scores 400, the fourth scores 600 and so on.
Once you understand this somewhat obscure scoring system, however, that’s all there is to the game. You are dealt 16 cards one at a time, lay them out in a grid to make eight four-card combinations, each of which is then completed with a card from the deck. You score those hands and the total is your final score. If you manage to produce an impressive number, you’re invited to share it through your preferred social media channel and thereby induce your friends to give it a go as well.
Outs! happens to bear a very strong resemblance to a game I was working on myself a couple of years ago but never released, called Eight Line. My version of the concept didn’t use standard poker cards, had only a three-by-three grid, counted diagonals and didn’t have the random river card, but the basic idea was the same. I was inspired by Open-Face Chinese Poker (OFC), and I would guess Outs! was as well, at least in part.
Both Outs! and Eight Line have strategic resemblances to OFC, in that you have to estimate the odds of receiving the cards you’ll need to make a strong hand and decide whether it’s worth it to take the gamble on, say, a flush or straight, or take the more surefire approach of making a pair and hoping to improve it to Two Pair, Three-of-a-Kind, Full House or Four-of-a-Kind later on. In Outs! there’s a fairly strong incentive to take the sure points because you don’t actually have any control over the fifth card in the hand; even if you manage to lay out four to a flush or straight, you’re typically only going to be somewhere in the 20-25% range to complete your hand when the final card is dealt at random. (The exact probability depends on what other cards have been dealt, of course.)
The two-dimensional aspect of the game is what makes things less straightforward, however. There are only four of each card in the deck, so if you start making pairs and triplets along a column, you’re not going to have much chance of also pairing the card in question along the rows. This is where Outs! most strongly reminds me of my own work on Eight Line, in that you’re more or less forced to pursue “pair-type” hands (Pair, Two Pair, Three-of-a-Kind, Full House, Four-of-a-Kind) along one axis and “sequence-type” hands (Straight, Flush, Straight Flush, Royal Flush) along the other.
Conveniently, Outs! has four rows to go with the standard four suits in poker (as Eight Line had three colors for three rows), so when you start, you’ll want to be planning on one row per suit and then try to make pairs in the columns. You’re extremely unlikely to get exactly four of every suit, however, and eventually you’ll be forced to place non-pairing cards in the columns, so the ideal plan quickly goes out the window and you have to learn to make the best of suboptimal cards.
Straights (or rather, straight draws) have the nice property that they don’t conflict with either pair-type hands or flushes, so you’ll often end up deciding to go for a straight in both a row and in a column. You’re also extremely unlikely to ever be dealt the cards to make a perfect grid with strong hands or draws in every row or column, so most of the time, you’ll want to designate a “dump” row and a “dump” column fairly early (perhaps halfway through) where you’re going to throw cards that don’t work with your other plans and simply hope they end up making a pair or at least rivering one.
Like almost any high score driven game, Outs! is all about taking the long-shot gambles. My best score to date is 13,500 but three rivered Flushes will, for instance, get you 2000 + 4000 + 6000 = 12,000, so you won’t need much along the columns if you hit those three along the rows. Make two Straight Flushes and you’ll have 22,500. On the other hand, Three-of-a-Kind is a very good hand to make, as it’s worth 1000 on its own and has decent chances to improving to a very high score, and if you have multiple such columns (or rows) you have that outside chance of hitting that 2x or even 3x multiplier on a huge hand, which is what you need to achieve a really huge score.
Unlike most such games, the maximum achievable score in Outs! is pretty easy to calculate: four rivered Straight Flushes along rows for a total 100,000 and four pat Four-of-a-Kind in the columns for 20,000, giving a total 120,000. Good luck managing that, though.
Outs! is a good exercise in probability and a fun way to kill a few hours, but it doesn’t have a huge amount of depth. As a free game, it’s definitely worth grabbing when you have an afternoon to kill, but it’s not likely to become a months- or years-long obsession, and that’s probably a good thing.
The two-dimensional aspect of laying out the cards seems like it should give the game additional depth beyond something like OFC, but it actually doesn’t. This is, in fact, why I abandoned work on Eight Line: I was looking to create something more challenging than OFC, but it turns out that there’s such a strong incentive to make flushes along one axis and all other hands along the other that it actually simplifies rather than complicates decisions.
Of course, the biggest barrier to increased popularity for OFC is that it’s too hard, so for the casual mobile audience this reduced depth is a good thing. The huge (and it really is huge) luck component in Outs! is a double-edged sword in that regard as well. It’s not hard at all to end up with three flush draws in any given layout, and whether or not they hit tends to dwarf most other factors. That’s not great for those of us who take games very seriously, but it’s great for low-pressure killing of time; play enough rounds and you’ll eventually hit enough miracle rivers in a row to produce a crazy score.
To me, the most interesting aspect of Outs! is trying to guess at my odds of achieving an impressive score when I’m perhaps halfway done filling my grid. Unfortunately, that’s not a question that helps much with one’s performance, except to save time by bailing out and restarting when the situation is hopeless. I could imagine, however, an interesting competitive variant, with players competing to make the best score on a single round, and placing bets mid-round on how likely they think they are to do so.
As the name suggests, the primary value of Outs! to a poker player is as a fun way of familiarizing oneself with the probabilities involved in completing a hand and particularly with reassessing those probabilities as cards come out of the deck. In that way, it may be more educational for would-be Stud players than those sticking to Hold’em, as it’s in the former game that you tend to get into situations where a large portion of the deck has been seen. It could also, of course, be of some help to those looking to get into OFC. Overall, though, it’s exactly what it appears to be: a fun way to kill a few hours without taxing one’s brain too much.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.