Anyone interested in reading or watching board game reviews is probably aware of Tom Vasel and the Dice Tower, and probably has an opinion on him one way or the other. I’ve watched enough of his videos to know where my tastes overlap with his, and can usually guess my own assessment based on his, for what it’s worth. Lately, Tom has gotten more involved in game creation, both with his own design Nothing Personal, and now with the “Dice Tower Essentials” line from Arcane Wanders, the first of which is Sheriff of Nottingham. This is a revamping of an older title, Robin Hood, which had already been a revamp of a prior game. Is the game now finally ready for primetime? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:
Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?
Components: These are somewhat of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the good stuff. The artwork for this game is just amazing, and really sucks you into the theme. The rulebook is good and clear, with a handy reference page on the back, and the insert was smartly designed to be useful during the game, although the coins will fly around if you store it sideways. The cardboard coins work pretty well, and the player boards are nice and large, with reminders of the phases, although they should have put way more information on the player boards, even if only on one side of them. I really love how clean and simple the components are as well, making setup and tear-down a breeze. But the most impressive thing is probably the extremely competitive MSRP of $34.99.
On the other hand, there are some issues with the components. While the bags are a great aspect to the game – snapping them open really does add a lot to the experience – of my five bags, one was completely missing and one is extremely hard to open, making it both anticlimactic and dangerous to the cards within. Speaking of the cards, they shuffle well but they’re somewhat flimsy, making me want to sleeve them – but there’s no way I’m pile/side shuffling 216 cards after every game. You really need the deck to be thoroughly shuffled for the game to work well, and it’s a bit of challenge because the deck is so big, and it’s almost completely sorted after every game. Now, regarding the bags, I should mention that Arcane Wonders sent me the missing bag right away (I didn’t tell them about the other one), and I think the game just began another, third, print run, so by the time you’re reading this I’m assuming these issues are being ironed out. Overall, I think the good (primarily the price and artwork) outweighs the bad here.
Accessibility: This game is in an awkward space where it has some Euro-like mechanics but is ultimately a party game. The principles of the game are not hard to teach at all, and it didn’t take us too long to get up and running. (Although I should quickly mention that our first five-player game, including explanation, was closer to two hours than one. That fifth person really adds a lot of time.) The Market phase is a little awkward to explain, and I haven’t found a good phrasing to explain the fact that you have to draw off the main deck last, after taking anything from the discards, and I kind of just wish the rule wasn’t there (I don’t think it’d break the game, though it might make really good sets more common). The most common difficulty during actual play for newbies is remembering what’s in each bag, but somebody’s been nice enough to make a file for that. Overall, though, it’s probably a little easier to explain, than, say, Coup, which is probably my closest comparison for this game.
Depth: Much like Coup, Skull, The Resistance and other bluffing games, this is a game where you are playing the players, rather than the game. It is a bit awkward since the game has a somewhat complex scoring system with majority scoring, some cards with special effects, and so on. It really didn’t take us long at all to calculate our scores, but I do think it took us a few times around to get a feeling of what the appropriate value is during negotiation. Sometimes we’d over- or under-pay during negotiation simply because we hadn’t thought through the valuations carefully enough – but once you’ve played the game several times, you’ll be able to do that in your gut, I think. What makes this game truly unique among other bluffing games I mentioned is having that large amount of room for negotiation. In fact, if you play with straight shooters who refuse to negotiate (or people who just aren’t into these kinds of games), not only will it be less fun, it’ll be much harder to strategize – there’s very little chance to strategize apart from lying and negotiating. So, keep in mind, this is a “party” game first and foremost, and you can only win by interacting with the players via the game system, rather than by interacting solely with the game system. And to be honest, it’s one of those games that’s probably more fun if you don’t even worry that much about who wins.
Theme: Man, oh man. I’m not sure what it is about this game – I think it’s probably the artwork, although the mechanics work well too – but the theme just comes right through. It inspires you to make silly accents, to create back stories, and just to riff on things. Coup feels like the easiest comparison among bluffing games because in both games you actually say your lies out loud and then get caught or don’t, but while Coup is a great game, I’ve never been sucked in to its theme like this. It’s also a great, underused setting, one that just works really well here.
Fun: The games I mentioned above – Coup, Skull, The Resistance – are three of my favorite games. Sheriff of Nottingham stacks up well against those games, and most importantly, gives a unique playing experience unlike those, primarily because of the negotiation aspect. I absolutely love The Resistance, but that game is tense, full of arguing, sweat, (bad) logic, and deduction. There are laughs, but they’re somewhat incidental. Sheriff of Nottingham is one that just results in constant laughter throughout the whole game – it feels more like a proper party game. I think Skull delivers just as many laughs as Sheriff in a way simpler package, but the negotiation aspect makes Sheriff a unique experience that’s just as fun to play as all those old favorites.
I should also mention that this game’s fun is increased tenfold if you’re playing with the right people – not everyone likes bluffing games. However, I teach at a Christian university and I did play this with some folk who are morally opposed to lying, even within games, and we still had a pretty good time (the guy who refused to lie ended up winning!). I also played again with some friends who really are into bluffing games and one who isn’t, and he said this was his favorite bluffing game he’d played (though that’s not saying much, maybe), due to the strong theme and negotiation element. Don’t take that to mean you can force this game on players it’s not meant for, but take it as a sign that you’re almost guaranteed a good time with the right crowd.
Sheriff of Nottingham ranks right up there with the best bluffing games of the past few years, and is a wonderful start to the Dice Tower Essentials Line. I’ll be interested to see what comes next!
4 out of 5