Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Who Made You Sheriff?

Since its release two years ago, the game Sheriff of Nottingham has shot up into the top 150 at BoardGameGeek. I recently got a chance to experience what all the fuss is about... and while I did think it was decent, I feel like maybe I'm missing something.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game. Players take turns being the sheriff, standing guard at the city gates. Every other player is a merchant trying to bring their goods inside to sell. The goods (represented on cards) come in several varieties, both legal and illegal. When you play the merchant role, you take any number of cards from your hand and "declare" them to the sheriff as a set of one type of good (apples, cheese, bread, and so forth). If the sheriff lets you through, you set aside your haul for end game scoring. If the sheriff chooses to inspect you, then what happens next depends on your honesty. If you were 100% truthful, you keep your goods and the sheriff must pay you gold equal to their total value. If you lied at all, the goods you lied about are confiscated, and you pay the sheriff gold for them instead.

Besides the bluffing, the game has a big lobbying and bribery component as well. When the sheriff is deciding whether or not to inspect an opponent's goods, players may make offers to tip the scales. There are essentially no limits on this; you can pay the sheriff to escape inspection, or pay the sheriff to inspect a rival. You can offer the sheriff a good from your cart if he lets you through (which you only then owe him if the good type you promised is actually there). You can trade a free pass now for the promise not to inspect when you are the sheriff on a later turn  (though promises on future turns aren't binding).

I liked the idea of this game quite a bit. I think bluffing games are great fun, and I love toying with an opponent's image of you. But I didn't feel like there was much room to play within the system set up in this game. The game enables a wide variety of ways you can bluff, which is great. But the specifics ultimately don't matter, since you're never actually asked to guess how an opponent has bluffed you. The only question, which you're repeatedly made to answer, is whether an opponent is bluffing: yes or no. So what seemed at first like a game of many possibilities wound up feeling nearly binary to me as it unfolded.

The game supports 3 to 5 players, and I will at least say that "more is better" here. When I played with three, I felt like you didn't get enough turns not being the sheriff. (After all, bluffing is the fun part here, and you want as many opportunities to do that as possible.) When I played with five players, I still wished for more nuance to the sheriff's role, but there were at least more interactions between players, encouraging the sheriff's watchful eye to drift elsewhere. More players also allowed for more competition over end game scoring (which rewards having the most goods of each different type).

I would probably try Sheriff of Nottingham again with a full complement of five. Short of that, though, I probably won't seek to play it again. I'd give the game a B-. Maybe a B if you're playing with the sort of friends who lean into the story, role play it a bit, and make it more fun.

No comments: