Bootleggers and theme in board games

I’m always fascinated by the use of theme in board games. I think games tend to fall into one of the following five groups:

* No theme – Usually found in abstract strategy games like Go, these games have no theme. They are simply a set of rules to play but the components are not meant to represent anything specific. It is the purest form of gaming.

* Abstract theme – There is a theme but it does not really relate to the mechanics at all. Any number of themes could easily be placed on top of the mechanics and it would work equally well. Many games fall into this category, especially designer Euro-style games like Ra and Puerto Rico. The theme is generally irrelevant and does not impact one’s thoughts on the game.

* Applied theme – Here the theme makes sense in terms of mechanics and probably helps contribute towards your thoughts of the game. Ticket to Ride is a great example; building a network of links works perfectly with a railroad theme and people may very well have their feelings about the game influenced by the rail theme. At the same time it could easily be themed differently and work just as well.

* Integrated theme – This is all about the theme; the game really would not function without it. Most war games probably fall into this category as the game is about that specific war. The theme often contributes equally with mechanics – if not more – when it comes to your enjoyment of the game.

* Pure theme – You play this for the theme and experience, not the mechanics or depth of play. I think many classic children’s games fall into this grouping as well as something like Tales of the Arabian Nights or comedy-heavy games like Munchkin. Even thought there may not be much in the way of mechanics, the theme can often be enough to make these games highly enjoyable.

(image by Fawkes) @ BGG)
Bootleggers is one of the best examples of integrated theme I’ve played. It is prohibition in the 1920s and each player is a mob boss producing hooch and running it to the speakeasies across town while trying to take out the competition. Whoever has the most cash at the end of twelve rounds wins.

The game play is fairly simple. Each player has a hand of numbered “muscle” cards and at the start of the round each player picks one in secret and reveals simultaneously to determine turn order. Then, in turn order, each player gets to pick up one “Men of Action” card which usually involve all sorts of rule breakers. After picking cards, players roll dice to determine how many crates of alcohol they’ve produced, load them into their trucks and send them to the speakeasies to sell for profit.

First, the components do a great job of evoking the theme. The main game board shows all the different speakeasies around town with era-appropriate store fronts and the track for Men of Action cards has different entertainers and other characters all dressed straight from the 20s. Each player has a set of plastic Tommy gun toting mobsters and trucks that the wooden cubes (representing crates of booze) actually fit into. One look at the game and you can immediately figure out what the overall concept is, even without knowing a thing about the rules.

(image by angelotti @ BGG)

What impresses me most is how well the mechanics tie into the theme. The most brilliant part are the Men of Action cards. Many allow you to upgrade your stills to roll more dice for production or get more mobsters to influence the back rooms of the speakeasies, making it more likely for you to turn a profit there. The rest are rule breakers, though, and these are the key to the game. Most can be held in your hand until you wish to play them. In true mobster form, though, deals may be made at any time for anything you can imagine and nothing is binding. More often than not the Men of Action cards are used to extort money from another player. The threat of playing a card on someone can be more powerful than actually playing it on them!

Many other games have “take that” mechanics where you may play cards and take actions that directly (and usually negatively) impact other players. The mobster theme in Bootleggers fits perfectly with that style of play. Combine that with freestyle non-binding negotiations and you have a game that perfectly nails the mob theme. For example, I may have a card that allows me to hijack someone’s truck once it arrives at a speakeasy and steal the profit from its sales. Instead of outright playing that on someone I can threaten to play it on them unless they split the profits. After all, receiving something is better than receiving nothing, right? Better yet, they may counteroffer to give me an even larger split to play it on someone else at the table. Many games with deal making often have fairly strict rules around what can and cannot be negotiated; Bootleggers has no such restrictions and these threats and negotiations really become the heart of the game.

(image by basilmichael @ BGG)
The other thing all this negotiation does is help reduce some of the luck in the game. You roll one or more six-sided dice to determine how many crates you produce and how many crates the different speakeasies will purchase. You can mitigate luck in production by buying and selling crates or buying/renting trucks from other players; at the speakeasies you play influence which may give you preference when it comes to selling, or you may be able to strong arm your way into others’ profits by using Men of Action cards. There is most certainly luck but I feel it is very manageable.

My only real complaints are with some of the components. The artwork is great but the there’s a lot of extremely small text on the cards and many of them are unique. This means each round you spend time reading the cards out loud – often multiple times – to make sure everyone knows what is available. As much as I enjoy the artwork I think they could have made it a little smaller in favor of larger text. Also, the little plastic trucks are extremely cool but they come in three sizes: small (4 crates), medium (6 crates) and large (9) crates. The problem is that the trucks are all the same physical size and are only differentiated by the number 4, 6 or 9 on the roof. There’s no line to help to know which way is up for the numbers so it is very easy to get confused between the 6 and 9. Finally, the game comes with paper money which I think we all know by now I’m not a fan of. Use poker chips; not only is it easier to handle but it fits perfectly with the theme!

Thankfully none of that takes away from the fun to be had. This isn’t a game for everyone; you need to accept that you’ll get screwed over and blackmailed by other players. Once you accept that and start having fun with the theme, Bootleggers shines. Few games marry theme and mechanics together this well. You can find it for cheap online ($20 or less), which is sadly the only reason I even became aware of it. If a mafia-rich theme and a little dice rolling sound good to you then I strongly suggest you get Bootleggers into your collection.

2 thoughts on “Bootleggers and theme in board games”

  1. I love your definitions of the different grades of theme (even if I might split a few hairs about some of the examples you used)!

    I wish that I’d played Bootleggers to be able to discuss that with you as well, but I appreciate your in-depth analysis. You definitely make me want to give it a try!

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