Critical Play: Okey — Nadin


Okey is a tile-based game that is incredibly popular in Turkey (where I’m from!). Okey is supposed to be played in person around a table, although I often play a mobile version developed by Ahoy Games when I am away from home. Okey is a family-friendly game, so I would say the intended audience is ages 8 and up — I think I first started playing when I was 6 or 7 years old but struggled to win until I was a bit older.

Formal Elements + Types of Fun

  • Players: Okey could technically be played by 2 or 3 players, but in practice, it is almost always played by exactly 4 players. The game is a multilateral competition where all players are competing against each other to win.
  • Objective: The goal of the game is to form valid combinations of tiles such that none are left over. A valid combination is a combination of at least 3 tiles that is either a run of tiles that have the same value but different colors, or a run of consecutive values in the same color (e.g. 2-3-4-5 in red), although there are more house rules that people may play with (e.g. forming doubles).
  • Outcome: The first player to correctly arrange the tiles on their board and announce this wins the round. Often, groups will play by counting down from a starting value (e.g. each player starts with 11 points) and deducting 2 points for each win. In this case, the first player to reach 0 points wins.
  • Resources: Each player starts with 14 shuffled tiles except for the person to the left of the dealer, who starts with 15 tiles since they are the first to discard. Players always stay at 14 tiles since they must always discard a tile after drawing a new one. Dice are used to determine the joker tile. There are also two “false joker” tiles that are used in place of the literal value of the joker.
  • Procedures: At the beginning of the game, an indicator tile is selected by the roll of dice. The person who has the indicator tile, if anyone, can announce this fact to get 1 point deducted from their balance. The tile one above the indicator tile (e.g. red 5 if the indicator tile is red 4) is selected as the joker tile (or “okey”) for this round, meaning it can be used in place of any other tile (that is, red 3, joker, red 5 would be a valid combination). Gameplay proceeds clockwise: The person to the left of the dealer starts by discarding a tile to their left. The next player can choose to either take this tile or draw a tile from the middle pile. Then, they discard a tile, and so forth.
  • Rules: Rules can vary significantly based on the group that you are playing with. A few house rules that my family plays with:
    • If somebody accidentally discards the joker and somebody else calls out this fact, that tile can no longer be used as a joker.
    • You can choose not to announce your win and keep playing to try and earn 4 points instead of 2 by discarding the joker as your last tile.
    • You can also earn 4 points instead of 2 by choosing to play doubles (i.e. have pairs of identical tiles as a combination) — this is a lot more difficult since there are 2 of each tile in the deck.

The primary type of fun evoked by Okey is Challenge since players are trying to figure out the proper way to arrange their tiles. However, another important aspect of Okey is the social one (Fellowship): Okey is a very popular game in cafes and is often used as an opportunity to chat with others/catch up. That is, the game serves as an excuse for social interaction.

Game Balance

Four Types of Game Balance

  • Single-player games: This type of game balance doesn’t apply to Okey since it’s a multiplayer game!
  • Asymmetry: I think Okey is actually a pretty symmetric game — the player who discards first starts with an additional tile so they are not at a disadvantage, and being the first to start doesn’t provide any significant advantage. In addition, the dealer (and thus starting player) rotate every round, so any potential imbalance is evened out over the course of a full game.
  • Multiple strategies: There are definitely several different and relatively balanced strategies in Okey that can be used to win — in addition, a significant factor in winning is also luck, which is part of the reason I enjoy Okey so much (games that rely too much on strategy tend to stress me out).
  • Game objects: Most tiles in Okey have the same cost/benefit ratio, except the joker tile, which is much more valuable than any other tile in the game.

Three Ways to Balance Game Objects

I thought about this for a while and ended up coming to the conclusion that none of the three ways of balancing game objects (transitive, intransitive, and fruity) really apply to Okey: the joker tile is just much more powerful than other tiles in the game. However, there are several factors that prevent the game from becoming too imbalanced: First, there are only two joker tiles in the game, which prevents somebody from constructing combinations from basically only joker tiles. In addition, this means that it’s still entirely possible for players to win without a joker tile just by getting lucky on the tiles they draw. Second, the joker changes every single game which makes using it more challenging: Occasionally, players will forget that a tile is the joker and just use it as a regular tile, or accidentally discard it.

My Impressions

What Works

  • Good balance of luck and strategy: This helps immensely with game balance since more inexperienced players can still win through luck, while more experienced players can rely on strategy in order to win.
  • Great for fellowship: Because only the player to your right gives you tiles, you essentially don’t really need to pay attention to what other players are doing. This means that waiting for others to play is a great opportunity to chat with your fellow players and have a good time.

What Could Be Improved

  • Dealing takes a LONG time: I honestly don’t really know how this would be fixed and is one of the reasons I enjoy the digital version of Okey a lot, but having to stack tiles at the beginning of each round to deal them out is the part I hate the most about Okey (whenever we’re playing, everyone in my family conveniently tries to get out of doing this part).

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