Escalation! is a really fun card game.  It’s quick, lively, has a bit of luck, and lots of opportunity to “stick it” to the other players.  Everyone has a great time whenever we play.

Escalation! is by noted designer Reiner Knizia.  It’s for 2 to 6 players, age 10 and up and takes about 15 to 30 minutes to play.  It costs around $10 and is published by Z-Man Games.

Game description by the publisher

It’s the classic suburban conflict of unreturned tools, loud neighbors, and prize-winning garden gnomes from Reiner Knizia. This simple gateway card game has players starting with low-value cards then escalating the values until someone goes too far and penalizes their neighbor with the stack of cards. When the deck runs out and a player’s hand is empty, the player with the least cards in his stack wins.


One player opens with a card or cards and calls out the value played. The next player must play cards to surpass that value, and so on, escalating the value until the point where a player does not wish to or cannot go above that value, thus taking the stack of cards and placing them in her penalty stack. A simple card game in the tradition of No Thanks!

What’s in the box?

The game comes with 56 cards plus 1 rules card.  The publisher’s web site says 55 cards plus rules, but that’s not correct.  As you can see, the cards are divided into 2 stacks in the box.  All the cards are the same green color on the back.  The front of the cards look like this:

The artwork of the cards present the game’s theme in a very fun way.  However, aside from occasionally examining the artwork, you really end up focusing on the numbers and symbols on the cards — just like any other typical card game.

There are numbered cards from 1 through 13.  There are also two special card types, having a “1-7” and a small triangle.  The “1-7” is a wildcard but may only be used as either a 1 through 7.  The card with the small triangle on it is called the “Neighborhood Watch” card.  More about how these work in just a bit.

The cards are not distributed evenly.  For example, there’s only 1 card with a “1” on it.  And there are only a few of the high numbered cards.  There are only 2 Neighborhood Watch cards in the deck.

Game Play

The object of the game is to NOT collect cards.  Everyone plays with 6 cards in their hand throughout the game, until the end of game conditions are in play.  Cards are played onto a pile in the middle as the rounds continue.  Eventually one player is forced to, or sometimes chooses to, take the whole pile and places it in front of them.  At the end of the game you count how many cards you have in your own pile and the person with the least wins.

Here’s how it works.  At the beginning of the game the deck is shuffled and each player is dealt 6 cards face down.  The player’s keep the content of their hands secret.

On your turn you must perform two actions.  The first action is to place a card from your hand, face-up in the center of the table.  The numeric value of that card must be higher than the current value of the last card played.  You can play more than one card at a time if they are all the same number.  In that case the total value of the cards you played must be exceeded by the next player.  After you play a card, or cards, you must draw from the face-down draw pile in the center and replenish your hand back up to 6 cards.

Here’s an example game in progress with 2 players.  I’ve turned both player’s hands face up so we can see what is happening.

The current top of the discard pile has a value of 8.  The player on the right needs to take a turn.  He has a couple of options.  He could play his 9 card on top of the 8.  Or, since he has a pair of 6 cards, he could play them together for a total value of 12.  He might choose to do this if he thinks the other player can beat a 9, but maybe not as 12.  If the player on the right plays both 6 cards, he announces the total aloud, “12”, and then draws 2 replacement cards from the deck for his hand.

The player on the left can beat 12 by playing two 7 cards.  She places them and announces the new total of “14”.  She also draws 2 new cards to replenish her hand.  This cycle continues to escalate between the players until someone either cannot or chooses not to play a higher total.  When that happens, the discard pile in the center is gathered up and placed face-down in front of that player.  You do not pick up cards from this discarded deck during play.  After picking up the pile, the player seeds a new escalation by playing 1 (or more if they match numerically) card face-up in the center.  Remember to draw to replenish your hand back up to 6 cards with each turn.

Eventually, the draw pile becomes depleted.  This does not end the game, but does signal to the player that game ending conditions are active.  From that point on, each player continues to add discards to the total pile in the center, each time increasing the value, until one player runs out of cards in his or her hand.  At that point the game is over.  All the other players must add the cards they are still holding in their hands onto the personal discard pile in front of them.

Each player counts how many cards they have.  The actual numeric values on the cards do not matter.  Just how many you have.  The winner has the least cards in their pile.

The “1-7” wildcard has already been mentioned.  It can be played alone, with the player announcing which number it is, or it can be paired with other numbered cards to increase the total count.  For example, if you have two number 3 cards and a “1-7” card, you can play them together for a total of 9.

There are two Neighborhood Watch cards.  This card is a free pass.  If the current total on the discard pile is too high for you to increase, you can get out of trouble by playing this card instead if you have one.  The Neighborhood Watch does not combine with any other cards.  When this card is played, the current discard pile total has not been increased however.  For example, if the current total is 24 and you don’t have any way to escalate above that you could play the Neighborhood Watch.  The total stays at 24.  You still draw a new card to replenish your hand back up to 6.

The game completes very quickly.  And there’s simply sometimes a bad set of cards you may get in a game.  To round off a little bit of this luck factor, the designer recommends that you play a number of game rounds and add up the total from all the rounds.  Choose as many rounds as there are players.  For 3 players, you would play 3 rounds and total up your scores on a piece of paper.  The player with the smallest total wins the game.


Here’s the single most important point about this game.  Every time I introduce this game to a new group of people, everyone has such a fun and memorable experience playing that they often go buy their own copy of the game.  That’s pretty high praise for how easy it is to learn and how much fun people have playing.

This is obviously a light “filler” card game.  We usually use the game to start off our game playing sessions.  It gets everyone in a fun mood and plays very quickly.

There is one complaint I have about the game.  It’s not a problem with the design.  It’s a problem with how it is produced.  The quality of the cards are not what they should be.  Now we play this game a lot.  However, I am now on my fourth copy of the game.  The cards wear down too easily.  And if you use the standard technique of shuffling the cards by flexing them and sliding them together, they get easily bent.  This last copy of the game we have has been strictly shuffled by side-to-side technique, without flexing the cards.  We’re thinking this will make it last longer.

But I also figure that a well worn deck of cards is a sign that the game is played often and loved.  Like I was saying, it’s so much fun and easy to learn.  I recommend you get a copy and try it out soon with family and friends.  When we travel to meet friends or family out of town we usually bring a gift copy of the game to leave with them.  It’s like bringing a bottle of wine over for dinner, except everyone, including children, appreciates this gift.  It’s always been a hit.

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