Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sheriff of Nottingham

Now listen. I'm an honest guy. I've never tried to sneak anything past an offical representative of the State in my life. So when I tell you this, you should believe me. I know what you just saw, I saw it too, so I'd never try to do anything funny. Honestly. I really do have four apples in this sack. NO! Don't shake it! You'll shoot someone's eye out... Well... Crap.

In Sheriff of Nottingham, you take turns playing the titular Sheriff, inspecting the other players bags of totally legal goods and judging their honesty as they pass through you gate. The merchant players are trying to move goods through to their stands, staying safe with legal, but low value, goods, or taking risks by trying to get contraband, illegal but higher value items, into town. At the end of the game, the player with the highest value of goods and coin in from of them wins! Easy.

Sheriff of Nottingham is a hilarious bluffing game about bribery and smuggling. The core gameplay comes in the Inspection Phase, after everyone has chosen their goods, loaded their bags, and passed them to the Sheriff. At this point, players can bribe, bluff and cajole the Sheriff to leave their bag alone or open someone else's. If the Sheriff opens a bag with undeclared goods in it, the player who owns that bag must pay a penalty. However, should the Sheriff open a bag containing exactly the declared goods, then the Sheriff pays the owner for the inconvenience. Risk/reward for all involved!

It's great when you have a bag full of apples and you bluff the Sheriff into open your bag by trying a bit too hard to shift attention to someone else. Equally, it's frustrating when you realise that the Sheriff is very likely to hand back your bag, loaded with an honest-to-goodness four bread, a missed opportunity to move those two silk you've been holding for two turns.

The rules in Sheriff of Nottingham are surprisingly light, making it a wonderful starter game for getting new people into the hobby. Set-up is fast, hindered only by the massive number of cards in the deck making it tough to shuffle. Turn sequence is printed on each of the player cards, so once each phase is explained, the turn is easy to follow.

The key to Sheriff is in player interaction. Players can try to convince the Sheriff to open another merchants bag, or bride the Sheriff to leave their bag alone. There are few hard rules to this phase. You use your poker face and wits to bluff and read other players, talking as fast as you can to convince the Sheriff to open a suspect bag, or questioning a shady merchant about the contents of their suspiciously quiet bag of three chickens.

A cunning player can try to get other players to gang up on a merchant, pooling small amounts of coin from each of their purses to pay the Sheriff to open another players bag, knowing that the coin those players spend weakens them more than the coin you sacrifice. A cunning Sheriff could take a bribe from everyone, knowing that the large sum of coins they got individually vastly outweighs any potential income from the meagre contraband any individual merchant got through the gate. Oh the fun you will have!

And that's what this game is, fun! If you're looking for a fast, light game that will have everyone laughing, then Sheriff of Nottingham is the game for you. If you have a group of players that are willing to role-play a bit during the Inspection Phase, then all the better! It's hilarious to watch someone get caught with two crossbows in their bag, and desperately try to explain it away in character! Or listening to characters grow over a few turns, from honest apple-pickers to nefarious mead runners. A highly recommended game that has been hitting my table an awful lot since I purchased it. It's just so easy to get in to and you can happily play two whole games of Sheriff before moving on to other games and not feel worn out.

A few things before I wrap up here. There is a free App available for Android and Apple devices, and it is well worth grabbing and using. It includes a timer for the Inspection Phase, which is helpful, but it is great for totalling the final score. As well as adding up the values of all the goods on each palyers stands, the player with the most and second most of a good gets bonus points, with ties getting divided up among those on matching scores. The App takes care of all that math, including working out the bonus from Royal Goods and any promo cards you might have. You can update players scores each round, or wait until the end and score everything at once, as I like to do. This keeps the game moving during the bulk of play, rather than interrupting each round to add in scores.

Finally, there is one rule that is worth highlighting. During the End of Round Phase, players should draw back up to six cards in hand. Although not explicitly mentioned in the rule book, players should only draw new cards from the face-down pile, not either of the two face-up discard piles. This keeps new cards cycling into play continuously, as well as stopping players from simply drawing a bunch of goods that were confiscated that round. This rule isn't even mentioned in the official FAQ, but is stated as a rule in the excellent Watch It Played How To Play video (Link is to the moment the rule is mentioned). It's arguable then that this isn't an official rule, but having played with and without it, I will always enforce this, as it enhances the gameplay significantly.

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