Cooperative Series – Saboteur, Bang! and Shadow Hunters

Following up on Forbidden Island, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at a couple more light cooperative games. Both are card-based hidden role style games that support a wide number of players. Originally I was going to hold off on comparisons between cooperative games until the end of the series but these three fill such a similar niche I thought it best to talk about them at the same time.

(image by samoan_jo)
Saboteur

Dwarves love mining for gold. It’s a pretty simple job unless there are traitors amongst them! Veins of coal and broken equipment are surely signs of dwarves gone bad. Will the loyal miners be able to out the saboteurs and find the gold in time?

Yes, Saboteur’s theme is a bit silly but it works well given the game’s mechanics. Three target cards are set out face down on the table: two show lumps of coal and the third is the gold mine. Eight spaces away from these target cards is the mine entrance. At the start of the game each player is dealt a loyalty card saying if they are a miner or saboteur. Players have a hand of cards showing various tunnel configurations, broken and repaired equipment. On your turn you play a card to either extend the tunnel system or break or repair someone’s equipment. The loyal miners win if they reach the gold mine before the deck runs out, otherwise the saboteurs walk away victorious!

That’s really all there is to to the game. It’s simple, fast and very fun. The goal cards are face down but there are some cards in the deck that let you peek at one or more of the goals to help you figure out where to go. Saboteurs want to slow progress to the gold mine while miners want to get there as fast as possible. The coal veins are dummy targets; reaching one does not end the game but it does result in wasted time and cards.

(image by spearjr)

If you start your turn with broken equipment in front of you your turn is skipped until you or someone else plays a matching repair card on you. Breaking equipment is great for both sides but also have risks. The benefit is obvious for the saboteurs but can easily give your identity away. Miners want to slow the saboteurs if they can but a wrong guess means they are stopping a fellow miner from taking a turn. It’s a very simple form of hidden loyalty and you’ll be accused as being a saboteur for only having a hand full of dead end tunnels as often as you will actually be a saboteur but that’s all part of the fun.

Should the saboteurs stop the miners, they each receive gold nugget cards based on how many saboteurs were in the game. If the miners reach the gold mine a number of random gold nuggets cards (showing one to three nuggets) are randomly dealt and picked in order from the miner that played the connecting tunnel. The winner is whoever has the most gold nuggets after three rounds.

Rarely do we play exactly three rounds. In fact we usually don’t even care about the score that much as the scoring is fairly random. Saboteur’s fun is in the sheer simplicity of the game and mechanics. A single round usually doesn’t take more than ten minutes making it the perfect filler game. Play as many rounds as you want until you are ready for something else!

(image by samoan_jo)
Bang!

I’m really surprised that the Wild West theme isn’t used more often in board games. Gun fights, duels, train and bank robberies, gambling, expansion of the Western frontier, cattle rustling… it seem like there’s no end of possibilities!

In Bang, players are dealt out secret identities placing them in one of three factions: the sheriff and his deputies, outlaws and the lone renegade. Only the sheriff is known from the start; everyone else will spend the game trying to figure out who their allies are while taking down their opponents. The sheriff and deputies win when all the outlaws are face down in the dirt, the outlaws win by taking down the sheriff and deputies and the renegade wins by being the last man standing. Your identity is only revealed when you are killed, though, so you need to try and figure out loyalties by where the lead is flying.

Unfortunately, for me Bang really only delivers on the theme. Here’s a rundown of what I think does and does not work:

+ Theme: Yep, the Wild West theme is great and overall it fits well mechanically. I can imagine a massive shootout in an old dusty western city where the lead is flying and you aren’t quite sure who is friend or foe. In an homage to spaghetti westerns all of the cards have both English and Italian text which is a lot of fun, too.

+ Range: One of the most clever mechanics is that your weapons have a limited range. Pistols have a range of one while rifles may have a range of three. Range is counted by player order to your left or right, so a weapon with a range of two lets you shoot at people seated up to two places away from you. I love the concept of range actually being how physically far away people are seated from you and have never really seen that used in a game before. Very fun.

(image by Nodens77)

– Iconography: Cards use icons to depict what ability that card confers. Unfortunately I find the symbols confusing at best. Some can be easily explained and intuited while others have long descriptions in the rules that are not on the card. I know this has been addressed in the new version of Bang but I still think they could have come up with better symbology.

– Loyalties, Randomness and Length: Unfortunately I don’t think the secret factions really do much for the game. Only the sheriff is known from the start so you sort of figure out who’s on your team by who fires at the sheriff and who fires at the people firing at the sheriff. Unfortunately your ability to attack and defend are entirely up to the luck of the draw. This not only makes it difficult to properly play your role but can also result in wildly varying game lengths. Sometimes the game will be over in fifteen to twenty minutes, other times it can take over an hour for people to finally draw the right cards to kill their enemies. This is especially painful since the game features player elimination and the game mechanics simply aren’t meaty enough to support a game of that length.

In the end I’ve been very disappointed with Bang. It seems like a really cool game but I’ve never had fun playing it. The confusing icons and heavy luck factor combined with potentially drawn-out game play and player elimination has not resulted in an enjoyable experience.

(image by drakecoldwinter)
Shadow Hunters

Take the Western theme off of Bang and replace it with monsters, monster hunters and humans. Welcome to Shadow Hunters. There are a few differences but overall I found the experience to be extremely similar to Bang. Keep in mind my impressions are based on a single play:

+ Loyalty Guessing: Many hidden loyalty games have you guessing a player’s loyalties based on their actions over the course of the game. Shadow Hunters uses a pretty clever mechanic where you can play a card on them that will force them to reveal some information to you. Only you and your target get to see the card and their result is usually a yes/no style response or choosing between two actions based on what faction they belong to. It’s a nice mechanical way to help you narrow down friend and foe.

– Lack of Strategy: Every turn you roll dice to determine which action to take. Usually you’ll end up resolving a card which is either some sort of event, item to use or one of those loyalty guessing cards. The actions are broken up into regions on the board and after resolving your action you may attack someone else in the game region as you.

(image by Grimwold)

There are two problems. First, you don’t get to make many decisions as your action is determined by a die roll at the start of your turn. You also immediately resolve cards you draw so there’s no hand management. Your only real decision is who to attack and generally you’ll wait until you know who’s on your side, which is pretty easy thanks to the loyalty guessing cards. Second, the game length can be variable as your position on the board (and who you may attack) is random. If you keep missing your targets you’ll never get to smack them around.

I do think Shadow Hunters has some clever mechanics but the game really was not at all satisfying. The loyalty guessing cards are fun but you can often know someone’s loyalty after a single card play and figure out the rest by who attacks whom.

In Conclusion

I think some groups will find a lot of fun in both Bang and Shadow Hunters. They are certainly not bad games and bring some cool mechanics to the table. Unfortunately I find both to be very unsatisfying experiences. Saboteur’s strengths are its simplicity and fast playing time. If Bang and Shadow Hunters could be played in a shorter fixed amount of time I think they’d be much better; they just don’t sustain themselves when the variable game length pushes on the long side.

Not only is Saboteur the cheapest of the three, it’s also the most enjoyable. There’s a lot of fun to be had in that little deck of cards!

Quick Hits: Alien Frontiers and Britannia

Alien Frontiers

(image by CleverMojo @ BGG)
I enjoy a dose of luck in my games and especially love clever dice mechanics. Alien Frontiers had a lot of buzz leading up to its release, in part due to it being funded through Kickstarter and also due to the high component quality. The game saw a fairly limited release but a friend of mine got his hand on a copy and we were able to table it up the other night.

First off it is a beautiful game, especially for a small publisher. The artwork is a little goofy but nice (sort of retro sci-fi-esque) and doesn’t distract or muddle up the cards or playing area. I thought the game board was very clean, easy to understand and overall rivaled productions from larger publishers on the market.

Players are trying to colonize a new planet, using their spaceships to gather the resources needed to build new colonies. The game ends when someone builds a target number of colonies (based on the number of players), earning points for each colony built and for regions on the planet where they have the most colonies. Dice represent your ships and on the start of your turn you roll to determine which actions you can take. Each space station on the board requires different sets of dice to activate; some areas need pairs, triplets, or a straight while others will accept whatever you have available. Stations generally gain you energy and ore which are needed to build colonies on the planet.

(image by soosy @ BGG)

In a typical worker placement game, players go around the table placing workers out one at a time and resolving them once everyone has placed. Alien Frontiers plays with that formula a bit. When a player places their ships (dice) they immediately take the corresponding action. The catch is that you don’t pick your dice up until the start of their next turn, meaning those spaces are tied up for everyone else. It’s a pretty clever system and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it used more in future worker placement games.

While the dice mechanic is fun I found the area control portion of the game lackluster at best. The four player game ends when someone builds their sixth colony. There are eight regions on the planet so you will likely end up focusing on only a couple of regions. Usually area control games have some interesting back-and-forth for domination of an area but not so in Alien Frontiers. Player colonies are too limited for there to be any interesting jockeying of position.

Unfortunately this led to an underwhelming gaming experience. The dice action mechanic is clever but there didn’t lead to interesting enough decisions, both in ship and colony placement. Granted my rolls were fairly poor overall which may have impacted my feelings toward the game but I think more competition in the colony placement portion of the game would help a lot.

Alien Frontiers does play quickly, though (under and hour) so a little lack of depth is forgivable for faster play time. There are options to use more colonies in the game which would help address my issues with limited area control but I’m afraid the game might outstay its welcome with increased play time. It certainly doesn’t feel like a bad game but there are other diced-based games (Yspahan, Kingsburg) that offer up more interesting decisions for the players. Maybe future plays will result in a better understanding of the mechanics and better competition for resources as well. I’m interested to see how the game holds up under repeat plays.

(image by Toad @ BGG)
Britannia

It’s been quite awhile but we finally managed to get in another game of Britannia. Players control different nations as they invade the island of Britannia over the course of one thousand years or so. It’s long, epic and seriously fun.

I’m most impressed by the game’s balance. I’ve played several games now and never does one nation seem too powerful or the game too predictable. Every player is strong at different points in time, giving them a chance to shine (where shining results in destroying lots of opposing armies). Some nations are destined to be very populous on the map while others are generally minor players serving as an annoyance. Even with such asymmetry and lots of dice rolls it always feel like every player has a chance to win and it’s all about the choices they make.

By no means am I a history buff but I enjoy the balance Britannia has found between historical accuracy and replayability. Nations come into play and receive reinforcements at specific points during the course of the game, leaders rise and fall and players earn points for holding specific territories during scoring rounds. Everything matches up nicely with the small bit of history I do know but the game gives you plenty of room to play. Nations get most of their points for holding territories that were historically significant to them but there are plenty of extra points to be earned by bending history to your will. I’ve seen games where a starting nation only lasts a handful of turns, others where they survive until the very end of the game. There are always certain nations that act as major forces in the game but the decisions players make and the outcomes of battles result in a highly dynamic game.

(image by filwi @ BGG)

I do have a couple of small complaints,. First, the first edition by Fantasy Flight has some print errors on the board. They are easily accounted for but are still irritating. Thankfully if you are picking up a new copy it should be corrected. Next, there can be a fair amount of down time for some players. Everyone has high and low points during the game and the low points may see you doing little for a turn or two. Some nations – like the Caledonians – are going to do little over the course of the entire game and may cause some frustration for their player. Finally, the game does take awhile. Our games often clock in near six hours, relegating it to weekend play. An experienced group of players could likely play in four hours but I doubt we’ll ever get to that point.

Britannia isn’t a game you’ll see hit the table every week but if you enjoy epic, well-balanced games and marching armies around to smash your opponents you will find a lot to love. I would encourage everyone to play it at least once for the experience. It’s one of those games you will think about for days and weeks after you finish!