Boardgame Reviews

Sheriff of Nottingham Review – We’re Men. We’re Men In Tights!

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Designed by:  Sérgio Halaban, Bryan Pope, Benjamin Pope, and André Zatz
Players: 3-5
Publisher: Arcane Wonders
RRP: £39.99 

Review copy supplied free of charge for review.

(Bonus points if you got the reference in the title.)

Everybody knows the legendary tale of Robin Hood, the outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor with the aid of his band of merry men, who typically broke out into song and performed slapstick antics, if the awesome Men in Tights is to be believed. Against him was the vile Sheriff of Nottingham. However, much less know was the tale of the poor, completely and totally honest merchants attempting to bring their varied goods to market under the watchful eye of the Sheriff. Contained within their cargo was often contraband, some intended simply for some extra coin, and others to aid the outlaws in their mission. Thus we find ourselves playing The Sheriff of Nottingham.

Okay, okay, so technically the rulebook never actually mentions Robin Hood or merchants funding his activities deep within Sherwood forest. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a good yarn, shall we? It’s not hard to imagine a few of these honest traders sneaking crossbows through the checking area to supply Hood and his gang, or sending some coin into the forest to aid the outlaws who must surely have had some substantial operating costs. It’s these merchants you’ll be playing as, attempting to earn as much money as possible while dealing with the rotten Sheriff whose only goal is to line his own pockets. Every turn a player will step into the role of the Sheriff and shake down the other players as they bring goods to market, judging them as being either honest and law-abiding or scoundrels sneaking illegal goods into Nottingham. Of course, a donation to the Sheriff’s re-election campaign can go a long way to ensuring a bag gets through unchecked…*cough*

At the start of the game you pick out a character card. This has no bearing on the gameplay as no character has any special abilities or anything of the sort. Your playercard is your merchant stand where all the goods you’ve managed to get into Nottingham will be placed, ready for counting at the end of the game. You’ll also be given a small pile of coins that also count toward the final score, too. And that’s the aim of the game, to amass the most points by time each player has stepped into the Sheriff’s shoes three times, tallied by counting up the total listed on your various Goods and the amount of coins sitting before you.

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With all that out of the way the game can begin, with each player drawing six cards from the deck of Goods. Green borders indicate perfectly legal items; chicken, cheese, apples and bread, to be exact, with each having a different market value. Chickens are by far the most valuable of the legal Goods with a value of 4, while apples are cheapest at a meagre 2. Cards with a red border indicate contraband that is entirely illegal, no matter how much fast talking you might to do. Contraband includes things like mead, crossbows, pepper and silk, and is much more valuable than the normal green Goods, with a single crossbow being worth 9 points. Every card also has a penalty as well, indicating how much either you or the Sheriff will have to pay if caught out, with the penalty for contraband obviously being fairly high. But wait, why wouldn’t you just load up with illegal crap every time, then? Well, you see, whichever players have the most and second most of each legal type of good at the end of the game will score the King’s bonus and the Queen’s bonus, thus whomever has the most chickens can snag an extra twenty points, for example. In fact, there does seem to be a slight imbalance as we frequently found perfectly legal merchants more often than not came out on top, indicating that contraband maybe needs to be a bit more valuable. To compensate we made a house rule that the bonuses for legal goods at the end of the game were cut in half.

Once you’ve drawn your cards you can also opt to set up to five aside and draw that many from the deck. You then discard the cards set aside in one of the two discard piles. Yes, there are two piles because players can choose to draw from them as well, snagging something they really want but also letting everybody else know what they’re drawing. Unless it’s just a bluff.

So far so boring, then. All you’ve been thus far is plotting to become king of the chickens, but then comes the interesting part of the game. First you must decide exactly what you’re going to slip into the fabric satchel given to you and the start and try to get past the Sheriff. After that you have to openly declare the contents to whichever player is the Sheriff. There’s a few rules you have to follow; you can only declare legal goods, you have to declare the exact amount of cards no matter what, and you can only declare one type of Goods. Apart from that you’re perfectly at liberty to lie like a five year old that just got caught trying to steal his sister’s sweets. Sure, maybe you’re playing it perfectly legal and honestly tell the Sheriff that it’s just four cheeses in the sack, but maybe there’s an illegal crossbow in there, or some expensive silk that most definitely is sitting on the contraband list. Or maybe there’s just three cheeses plus a bread because you were unlucky when drawing cards and wanted to get as much through in one go as possible. It’s up to you whether to lie or be honest.

At this point the game’s most interesting phase begins, as the Sheriff has to choose whether to search bags or just let them through. Should the Sheriff opt to simply wave a satchel through them contraband might pass through to market, earning a player some serious points at the end of the game. If a bag is searched and the player was lying about its contents then all Goods that weren’t declared plus contraband are tossed aside and the player must pay the penalty prices listed on the card straight to the Sheriff. Yup, not only do you lose your stuff but you also have to pay another player directly, too.  However, if a Sheriff chooses to search a bag and the player was being honest, then not only does the player get to keep all the contents of the bag and thus score them at the end of the game, but the Sheriff must also pay the player a penalty, reducing their points at the end.

But there’s a catch; players are free to bribe the Sheriff as well. Gold can be offered in exchange for a free pass, or you can even present Goods and contraband from your market stall as a “gift”. Even promises of aid down the line can be suggested, although you’re under no obligation to uphold them, resulting in plenty of doublecrosses and betrayals. The thing is the player might just be trying to bluff the Sheriff into searching their bag of perfectly legal Goods by bribing him or her with a few coins, or maybe it really is just a bit of gold for the Sheriff’s reelection campaign if the bag is allowed to pass unhindered. Nothing wrong with aiding re-election, right? Before you know it negotiations are erupting around the table. The Sheriff becomes  nervous, fingering the bag in a hesitant way, trying to elicit a bribe from an unflinching player who is adamant that it’s just some apples. Threats start to get flung as the Sheriff attempts to bully some extra cash from players that are starting to look a touch nervous. Bribes are offered, clever ploys are enacted by people with poker faces to rival brick walls, hoping to lure an unsuspecting Sheriff into conducting a search. If there’s a flaw it’s that some potential players will find the lack of concrete information to base their bribes, guesses and plotting on annoying.

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But I played it primarily with close friends, people I’ve known for a long, long time, and so my concrete evidence was knowledge of their psychology. Attempting to bluff your close friends is a pleasure. By far, though, the best experience for me came from playing the game against my best friend of 14-years, one on one. Sure, three players is listed as the minimum, but it can work with two people. I wouldn’t normally recommend it, but in this case it was nothing short of hilarious attempting to outhink and outbluff someone who knows exactly how I think. It’s one of my fondest gaming memories.

Eventually my group even began offering bribes for the Sheriff to search other people’s bags. The more we played the more daring we became, offering up huge bribes that instantly made a Sheriff unsure as to whether we had a bag full of contraband and were thus offering hefty money for being ignored, or if it was a lure to open the bag and have to pay a penalty. Absurd stories about de-clucked chickens that had their clucks reinstalled were spun, eyes were stared into, threats were made and deals negotiated. The moment when a player opened their bag after getting through the checking phase without being searched became a highlight as everybody waited to see if they had indeed snuck contraband through to the market.

What I quickly discovered is that Sheriff of Nottingham is the perfect pub game. It’s fast to setup and doesn’t take up much space, perfect for plonking it down on a relatively small table and then crowding some friends around with a few beers. The social bluffing nature of the game makes it absolutely brilliant for just such a setting, and once a few drinks are flowing it lets everybody relax a little and start having some fun with the role. Eventually somebody will utter something along the lines of, “as an honest merchant” and that’ll be it, everybody will start making speeches and doing negotiations in character. It didn’t take very long for the table to become surrounded by laughter as we all accused each other of lying, came up with wilder and wilder stories to tell the Sheriff and enjoyed bullying other players for better bribes.

I can’t find much of anything to fault with the quality of the components, with the exception of the Goods  cards which aren’t made of particularly great stock. Everything else, though, is superb; the coins are fairly large and made of thick card that gives them a touch of heft, which makes handing them over all the sadder and receiving them all the better. Each player card features lovely artwork, and again the card they’re made from is nice and thick. But the real star of the game are the fabric pouches that you hand over to the Sheriff to be searched or ignored. Not only are they pretty well made and reasonably durable, but they have the most absurdly satisfying clasps on them. Serious, the lovely click they make when opened are what makes this entire game works. Everybody I played with quickly began working that loud noise into their negotiations, using it as an audible “oh, shit” moment to punctuate a threat.

I’ve also got to give some extra credit for the storage because it’s designed to be pulled out of the box and used with the game. The card tray contains three large sections to store the deck of goods and the discard piles with cutouts so you can easily draw new cards. There’s also a separate plastic mould that can be pulled out for storing all the coins, each denomination getting its own silo. This was a blessing for setting up the game as it just made storing and using the components so much easier, not that it was ever difficult anyway because there isn’t much to it.

If there is a flaw within the components it’s that attempting to shuffle just over 200 cards is a bloody nightmare. Seriously. And they really do need to be well shuffled, otherwise players can end up with handfuls of nothing but contraband.

The theme is an interesting point to talk about, because while there isn’t much to the game the theme shines through anyway. I came to the conclusion that it comes down the sublime artwork, the card coins and those fabric bags. These things are somehow more than enough to encourage players to put on stupid accents and play the part of honest, or entirely dishonest, merchants just trying to make a living. Well done, Arcane Games.

Once everybody has had the chance to be the Sheriff three times the game draws to a close and points must be tallied. For each type of legal Goods the player with the most earns the King’s Bonus, while the player with the second most earns the Queen’s Bonus. As noted before a player focusing on legal Goods can actually earn a lot of points, arguably to an unbalanced degree, although nothing serious. A house rule that provides an Outlaw bonus to contraband smugglers who get the most through could always be implemented.

It’s simply a lot of fun. You’re playing the players rather than the game itself, so gathering the right group of people is absolutely key, but once you’ve lured in the right victims it’s incredibly fun. You can explain the rules and idea of the game quickly, and the bluffing and double crosses and clever ploys will leave everybody smiling at the end. It’s a fine choice for introducing people into the magnificent world of board games, too.  Absolutely recommended, and might just be one of those few games I can say you really should own.

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