One of the breakout hits of last year was Sheriff of Nottingham, the first of the Dice Tower Essentials line and one that I think finally put the names of long-time design team of Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz into the minds of American gamers. They’ve since teamed up with Bruno Faidutti for the small-box auction game Warehouse 51 from Funforge and Passport Game Studios, which was just released at Gen Con 2015. With a design team known for bluffing games and chaos, can we expect the same from Warehouse 51? 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: Let’s start with the art. As explained in detail here, Brazilian artist Rafael Zanchetin had very little time to do this project, yet this is some of the absolute best artwork I have ever seen in any game. This was his first board game, and I sincerely hope it isn’t his last. The game is just breathtaking to look at, and I love the big, detailed player boards. I also feel like the game has everything just right: standard card size (we sleevers salute you!), clear iconography and text, nice cardboard bits, a box with a small and standard size (Jaipur, Citadels, etc.), and an aggressive price tag in this day and age ($25 MSRP). The insert was take-it-or-leave-it, but I pitched it when I sleeved the cards (everything still fits just fine). A++ here for the artwork alone.
Accessibility: This is one of the simpler auction games I’ve played. It’s maybe not quite as easy as For Sale, but it’s quite close. For the most part, it’s just a standard auction game, with three great twists, that are all easy to explain. The first is that every player knows about two cards (and shares that information with different players) that are counterfeit and won’t score at the end of the game, which is one of those rules that accomplishes far more than what it says, but is plenty simple to understand. The second is every card has a special ability, and the nice thing here is that because you auction one card at a time, you don’t have to know all the cards right away. While I’m on this one, a brilliant move components-wise was to not have the abilities on the Counterfeit deck, so even if you know a card is counterfeit, you won’t give it away by forgetting to look down at the card when it comes up (you might have screwed this up if you already knew what it did). The third twist is that you pay the player to your left, which might not be a thematic rule, but it does a great job providing a fluid dynamic for the game and keeping players invested since there is always money at the table. We had no problems playing our first game, as the rules are otherwise quite simple, but what to emphasize here, I think, is how they managed to make such cool twists to the auction genre without making the game complex.
Depth: Those three twists I mention make this game very interesting to play. What do you do when a counterfeit card comes up and you know it? How far do you outbid other players to convince them that it’s worthwhile, without getting stuck with it? What if the other player who knows it’s counterfeit gives it away? And you’ve always got the conundrum that your winning bid is going to one of your opponents, while if you let the player to your right get away with having the card, you’re about to rake in some cash. And once you’ve played a bunch, you can begin to anticipate which special abilities are going to come up, as there really aren’t that many different cards. This game is just the right level of tense – exciting without giving you the full-on jitters. And for people who dislike lying games, this is one of those great hidden information games where the bluffing doesn’t involve any “lies said out loud”, so it’s a bit easier to swallow than something like The Resistance.
Theme: I absolutely love the theme of this game, as it’s quite original and very interesting. The idea is that the U.S. Government is finally completely bankrupt, and out of desperation they uncover all the amazing magical items they’ve been hiding in a secret facility called Warehouse 51, and they’re auctioning them off to super-rich foreign moguls. And of course, some of the items are counterfeit! This is such a great theme, and it paves the way for the mechanics (especially the crazy item abilities) very well. And when you’re done, you have a bunch of amazing items in front of you as your own personal collection. How cool is that?
Fun: I initially thought the game was just “very good”, but as I finished up this review I realize just how excellent this game is. It plays quick (30-40 minutes), it’s got cool card effects and combos, a great theme, tense gameplay, and gorgeous artwork. I’m digging deep for a complaint about this game and I can’t find one. Highly recommended unless you absolutely hate games with hidden information or bluffing (or auction games). Even then, this is the only auction game I own, and I still love it. I will say that I like it the best with three players, since you have far more information (there are two counterfeit cards between each set of players instead of one) and the flow of passing the money around is a bit more direct – you’re either getting money from one opponent, or giving it to the other one.
Warehouse 51 is gorgeous, fun, tense, and a whole long list of wonderful adjectives. With a short playtime and an aggressive price point, I can’t think of a reason you shouldn’t hop on this one.
5 out of 5