Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Vlaada's underappreciated gem - Sneaks & Snitches

If you know me (and by now I hope you're starting to), you know that I don't really like long complex games.  I prefer something short sweet and to the point.  It's not that I don't appreciate big complex game engines, it's more that I'd rather play a few short games and get a couple different experiences in when I game.  Give me 4 1-hour games over a 4-hour epic anytime.  For me, that's just much more fulfilling.  Vlaada Chvatil has made his mark with the epic Through the Ages and more recently Mage Knight which are clearly not my bag.  However, Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert prove that he can also master shorter, lighter fare as well.  On that side of his ludography lies Sneaks & Snitches which plays in 20-30 minutes and has a very simple ruleset.  This game has received very little press and I'm not sure why.  Based on his successes, you'd think any game he put out would get serious attention.  Let's see if Sneaks & Snitches will steal the limelight or get put away for hard time.

Rules

The concept is pretty simple.   There's a central row of locations with letters on them.  Under that is a row of treasures with one treasure assigned to a location.  These cards come from a deck that is made up of 2 parts: 1 for the first half of the game and 1 for the second.  Each player has a set of cards which are all of one color.  Each of these cards corresponds to the letters on the locations.  In each round, players choose 2 locations, one to steal from and one to protect.  They each do this and then all player's cards are revealed at the same time.  If a player goes to a location to steal and there are no other players stealing or protecting, they take the loot card and get the subsequent reward.  If more than one person steals and nobody protects, each player get's a Secret Stash card which is worth some gems at the end of the game.  If anyone protects a location, any player going there gets nothing.  After the round, all the cards are removed and new loot cards are laid out.  The game is over after the loot cards are all used up which is 7 rounds.

Most of the Loot cards show icons in a color.  When you take a Loot card showing those symbols, you cash it in and take the corresponding number of gems.  At the end of the game, points are awarded in each of the 4 colors of gems based on player count.  Those points are added to the points from Special Item cards with the highest total being the winner.

If you'd like to read the complete rules, you may do so at Czech Games website for the game.

This is a really nicely done ruleset with plenty of examples and illustrations.  It's all done very clearly and should leave you with no question after reading.

Final score - 5 points.

Components

Most of the components here are cards.  There's a set of regular sized cards comprised of 8 Location cards, 9 cards per player (45 total), 24 Secret Stash Cards and 4 Scoring cards.  There's also a set of smaller cards which contains 8 Location cards and 42 Loot cards (20 for Phase 1 and 22 for Phase 2). The stock on the cards is almost perfect.  The cards have a semi-gloss finish which is fine since you don't do a whole lot of shuffling or holding cards.  The artwork on the cards is good and does a nice job of conveying the theme.

In addition, you get 112 gems with 28 in each of 4 colors.  The gems are cubes that looks great and are easily distinguished in color.  They're big enough to easily count across the table which is very helpful.

There's really not much in the box, but there doesn't need to be.  What you've got is plenty for a good game.  There's also nothing special about it so I'll give it a final score of 4 points.  I'm not sure what they could have done, given the game, to add or improve, but its certainly not going to WOW anyone.

Gameplay

"Clearly, I cannot choose the wine in front of me." - Yup, it's one of those kinds of games.  The kind of game where you're trying to out-think everyone else at the table and usually just end up out-thinking yourself. Just when you've figured out which card to go for, you begin to think that everyone else must have reasoned the same thing so obviously you can't choose that option, or can you?  Every time I play, I waffle several times on each decisions.  It's so tough to try to out-think one person let alone several.  That's one of the beautiful things about this game.  It's so stunningly simple and yet so incredibly hard to make a decision you're actually happy with.

Special Loot cards - The game would still work just fine if you were only taking cards worth gems, but it would be a bit stale.  Instead, S&S spices it up with some special Loot cards.  For starters, you have the antiques which are worth 1 or 2 victory points each.  That may not seem like much until you realize the game is usually won with 10-12 points.  Getting a free victory point without fighting for gem majority is pretty huge.  The Blank Check lets you take any 3 gems you want which can either give you a lot of one color or spread you out to fight for them all.  The intrigues allow you to make the 1 for 1 trades with other players that they can't refuse so you can seriously tilt the majorities.  Lastly, you've got the Safe Cracker cards which leads me to my next point....

Safecracker Cards - Any time more than one person loots an unprotected location, they don't get the loot.  Instead, each player gets one Safecracker card.  Each of these cards is worth 1 gem of it's color at the end of the game, but the best part is that you keep them secret up to that point.  This is actually great because nobody knows what you've got in there so you may very sneakily have the majority in a color.  This creates a lot of unknown information which causes people to change their play styles.  And speaking of changing their play styles....

Compromising Documents - If you take this loot card, all players except you discard half of their gems of the color on the card, rounded up.  This obviously can create huge shifts in power during the game and I've found that these are almost always protected barring the odd setup where amazing cards come up.  You could suddenly have a majority with only 3 or 4 gems and be winning the game.  This puts even more emphasis on the Safecracker Cards as they're immune to this and can really give you the edge.  If you've got a lot of Safecracker cards of a particular color you may be less inclined to protect the Documents.  If other people are counting on you to do so and you don't then wild things can happen.

Scoring the colors - At the end of the game, each color of gem is evaluated and points are awarded depending upon the player count.  Sometimes it's just first place, sometimes more.  This forces you to really think about what loot cards you're going for and when to stop others.  Are you positive you can't win yellow?  Fine, let someone else take it and put your resources elsewhere.  At some point you'll also need to focus on one or two colors to make sure you can get enough which then changes the dynamics yet again.

Changing dynamics - S&S is a game in a constant state of flux.  There are so many factors to take into account that you can see huge changes right in the middle of a game.  Just look at the Compromising Documents cards.  Those throw the whole game into a state of panic.  If there's more than one on the table then forget it.  ANYTHING can happen and usually does in those situations.  Even the Intrigue cards can have that effect as the player holding a majority suddenly shifts and everyone is left trying to scramble, reevaluating their positions and thinking about what they should do next.

Strategy vs. Tactics - You'd think that this game might be 100% tactical.  There's clearly a lot of tactics each round as you have a whole set of new Loot cards.  However, there's also a lot of strategy and most of this comes from the gems.  The color majorities are typically where you score most of your points.  This forces you to try and plan long-term while trying to make short-term plays as well.  I like how the two are nicely integrated and work together to give a greater feel to the game.  If you just went round by round without thinking about the long-term, you'd get bored very quickly.  S&S does a nice job of mixing the two styles into something more.

The epitome of simple -This is truly a simple game.  You play one person to steal loot and the other to protect it.  It really couldn't be much easier than that.  You can teach anyone to play and have them be competitive right away.  This is definitely a great gateway game, but it's fun enough that I still enjoy playing it.  To say it's simple is not to belittle the depth of choice the game has in anyway.  While the rules are clean and straight-forward, the decision making very rarely is and that's the kind of game I truly love.

Player count - I've played plenty of games with 3, 4, or 5 players and all those numbers work really well.  With 3 you have more control, but with 5 it's more fun because random things can happen which will change your fortunes.  It's easier to play with 3 because you're only reading 2 other people as opposed to 3 or 4 others.  The game works perfect at any number mentioned above and is one I will readily reach for with those player counts.  I've never played it with 2 because it didn't sound nearly as fun as the multiplayer, but it may actually work just fine.  If I ever play with 2 I'll update this section.

Game length - This game should take you 20-30 minutes, tops.  Any game taking longer than that is caused by someone with serious AP issues.  I encourage players to think about their moves, but don't try to solve every scenario because it's just not possible.  This game is best when played quickly and without too much analysis.  Play from your gut and move along.  Like all lighter games this one could be killed very quickly by a very slow player.

I'll give this game a score of 8 points on the Gameplay scale. It works incredibly well for being such a light game.  I'm going to subtract a point for the player numbers.  Five is pretty chaotic and I'm not sure it's good for 2.  I'll also take 1 point of for the fact that I think the game goes too quickly.  Seven rounds doesn't always feel like enough time to formulate a coherent plan.  I'd love to have a chance later on to get some of the Loot that got discarded.  In fact, we've come up with a variant to solve that problem which makes this game go up to 9 points.

Overall

Sneaks and Snitches scores a 17 out of 20.  As stated above, I took off a couple points for Gameplay and 1 point for the perfectly functional yet not very inspiring components.  Those negative points are a stretch, but it does matter a bit, especially in terms of the game length and the player count.  I hate to nitpick on a game I like so much but I have to be tough and call them as I see them.

On the BGG scale, S&S scores 7.5 out of 10.  I like to play it and will suggest it sometimes.  I'll likely not turn down a game as this one is pretty good for most situations.  I take this game with me a lot because I know I can teach it easily and everyone will have a good time.  This is a game even my mom can play and that's worth having in the bag.

Conclusion

I really don't understand why such a fun game got glossed over so quickly.  This game had almost no buzz when it came out and it's still not rated very highly.  I find that to be a total shame because S&S is great.  It's simple yet very challenging.  The game is short enough that you can play a couple in a row.  It's best with 4, but really good with 3 and still lots of chaotic fun with 5 so it's versatile in player count.  The cards look great on the table along with the gems.  Overall, this is a fine game at a pretty good price point. You can get it for under $20 at most online game stores.

I really think that people had false expectations based on Vlaada's name and that's a shame.  This is a superb filler game that offers a ton of fun choices and angst in a compact playing time.  If you like games with double-think or blind bidding then you really need to look at this woefully underrated design.  It's not going to blow you away with some mind-bending new mechanic but it will drive you mad as you guess yourself in circles.  There's a lot of fun to be had in this box and I think it deserves a home on most shelves.

Bonus - A variant that makes the game more strategic

The first time we played, we played wrong.  We missed the rule about clearing out any uncollected Loot cards at the end of the turn.  We played that only cards that got stolen were removed.  This added a great new twist because some cards would stay out there for a while until they became less desirable for whatever reason.  This created a nice tension as well because you then had to constantly reevaluate cards and decide when to go for them.  This adds about 15-20 minutes to the game, but I honestly believe it creates a much more fulfilling experience while still maintaining all the fun of the rules as written.  If you pick the game up by all means play the rules as written, but give our variant a chance if you want to try something a bit more strategic.

1 comment :

Vitek said...

Nice review!
I just want to point out that the first time you played it you played it right - only the cards that were stolen or that nobody cared about are removed. Cards that were protected or two or more players tried to steal stay in game.

Cheers for this great game.

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