Bali is an island. It’s a province of Indonesia, and is known as a popular tourist destination. I have absolutely no idea how that island related to the card game Bali. Early editions of the game did have island themed box art, but the game itself seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the island. That being said, it’s still an interesting game, with one glaring issue.
Bali seems to have an interesting history. The game has been around since 1954, but it has gone through several variations and publishers over the years. Boardgamegeek.com shows 11 different versions made by nine companies (3 of those being various foreign arms of Milton Bradley). I’ve read that there are at least three different rules variations in those versions. The copy I have is the French 1978 edition. The last time it was printed was in 1980 by Avalon Hill. It’s an intriguing story, for sure. The game had to be popular to warrant so many reprints in just a 26 year period, but then why has it been 35 years since it was last made?
Bali is playable by 1 to 4 players. You’ll note that there are two different colored card backs. This is because in the solo game, you only use one deck. With more than one player, you simply shuffle them all together. Both decks have identical contents. I suppose an overly analytical player can sit there and try to card count things to figure out the likelihood of certain cards coming up…and if you do that, I don’t want to play games with you. The only thing that actually changes is the number of cards each player is dealt at the beginning of the game. Bali is a word building game. At the start of the game, players are dealt between 5-7 cards (depending again on the number of players). Those cards are laid out in columns, much like solitaire. On a turn, a player has a choice of two actions. Build words, or score words.
On a turn. you choose one of your columns of cards to build on. You may take cards from anywhere on the table. The only real rules are that you always must build down the column, no sliding cards underneath to add prefixes. Also, if you pull cards from a column that has multiple letters, you must take ALL the cards, and are not allowed to change the order. This doesn’t happen too often, however, you do need to be careful about building words that commonly have prefixes, because those are prime candidates for theft. You do not actually have to make a finished word when you’re done, so long as the column you have left unfinished can eventually make a real word (Sorry, QWIJIBO fans). Once you’ve finished working on your column, you fill any blank spaces in all player areas with new cards from the deck. Bali is interesting in that it really rewards building longer words.
If you choose not to build a word, you can free up one space in your area by scoring a word you finished in a previous turn. To score a word, you simply count up the points listed on the cards and multiply by the number of letters in the word. Vowels are worth nothing at all. Consonants are worth between 1-4 points each, and then there’s the 5 point Bali wild card. In my example pictured above -HAZARDOUSLY (Using a Bali card as an S) would score 176 points (16 points x 11 letter word).
The game ends once the deck runs out, and all players agree that they can make no more words with the piles they have left. At this point, any complete words players have left score as normal. HOWEVER, if all of a player’s columns make complete words at the end of the game, then they have “Balied” and may double (or triple, depending on the rules you read) their score FOR THE ENTIRE GAME! I can tell you from experience, it’s really hard to do. It’s very easy to leave this rule out if you don’t like it. What’s harder to leave out are the Bali wild cards, as they are a key part of the game, and the key source of the complaints players have with the game.
The Bali Card
It looks unassuming, but this card is the cause of most of the problems people seem to have with the game. There are two of them in a multi-player game. As printed, they are worth 5 points. In the games I’ve played – a player that did not get a Bali card lost 100% of the time. The ability to be ANY letter, and be worth more than any other card in the game is very powerful. Interestingly, the rules don’t actually say anything about this card save for one line that it can be used as any letter, but it can’t change during the game. That’s it. Most online discussions about this game suggest just making them worth 0 points, if not removing them altogether, but I’m not a big fan of that. In my HAZARDOUSLY example above, making the Bali card a 0 brings my 176 point word down to 121. My idea is that each person be dealt a Bali card at the beginning of the game and let them play it at any time, and allow it be the big bad powerful card it has always been (I want my 176 points, dang it!). I actually haven’t played the game since I came up with idea, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. I also don’t design games, so what do I know?
Bali has become one of my favorite word games. I like the ability to steal cards from opponents. I like the fact that the game rewards long words. I love the fact that it scales extremely well all the way through it’s suggested number of players. I just wish it were easier for players to find.
I want to end this post with a quick salute. I’ve been going to Beyond the Board in Dublin, Ohio as my go to game store now for a bit over a year. One of my favorite people to play games with there has been Christopher Richter. He, much like myself, has an appreciation for the old and obscure games. We probably played a dozen games of Bali just between the two of us in a 2 week period, and once we’d finish, we’d pull other people in to play again. Recently, Chris moved down to Florida. While I’m slightly envious about his current location, I do miss having him as an adversary at the gaming table.
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