Friday, April 10, 2015

Sheriff of Nottingham, by Sérgio Halaban, André Zatz, and Bryan Pope

Some say that Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game, and while that's technically true, I tend to think of it as a bartering game. Bluffing is at the core of the experience, but the flavor of the game is the wheeling and dealing that's caused by it. It's the difference between Sheriff and Coup, or the Resistance, or any number of other bluffing games.

You see, if the Sheriff has a hunch that you're lying, that you're not just a simple farmer sending goods to market, you've got a chance to finagle your way out of a penalty. If you're a great liar, kudos to you. If you can't lie a bit, that's ok too, and there's a chance you could win. But if you're a great deal-maker, if you've got the blood of the merchant coursing through your veins... well then you're almost certain to claim victory in the famous town of Nottingham. 

In Sheriff of Nottingham, 3-6 players compete to amass wealth by moving Legal and Contraband goods into the markets of Nottingham, by controlling the flow of goods as the Sheriff, and by making deals. The game ends after each player has taken two turns as the Sheriff (or three turns in a three-player game), at which point players receive gold bonuses based on their goods. The player with the most gold is the winner!

Players begin the game with a playing board, a snap-locking bag of their color, six cards, and coins totaling 50 gold in value. At the start of each turn, players who are not the Sheriff take turns drawing back up to six cards (after discarding any unwanted cards), then select up to five of those cards to place in their bag.

There are two basic types of cards in Sheriff: Legal goods and Contraband. Legitimate goods come in four types (apples, chickens, bread, cheese) and are totally legal to sell in the markets of Nottingham. Contraband are things like mead, ale, crossbows, golden apples, and various other interesting items.

In no particular order, each player hands their snapped-shut bag to the player who is the active Sheriff. Players must look the Sheriff in the eyes and provide two pieces of information:

  1. Players must truthfully tell the Sheriff how many cards are in the bag
  2. Players must tell the Sheriff what one type of legitimate good is in the bag (apples, chickens, bread, cheese), but may lie or tell the truth about this.

The Sheriff then has a limited amount of time to decide which players are telling the truth, and which players are lying by choosing to either return unopened bags to their owners or open those bags and inspect their contents.

If the Sheriff catches a player lying about the contents of their bag, either because there are Contraband goods or because there are Legal goods of a different type than those claimed, the Sheriff is paid a penalty by the player and those cards are discarded. However, if the Sheriff inspects a bag and that player was telling the truth, the remorseful Sheriff must pay a penance to the player.

While the Sheriff is deciding what bags to inspect, all players have the opportunity to negotiate on their behalf in any way they'd like. All offers are completely legal - players may offer the Sheriff gold not to inspect their bag, or to inspect the bag of their neighbors. They may offer the Sheriff a card (or more!) from the un-inspected bag after it's returned. They can even offer to give the Sheriff cards that previously passed inspection! Any and all deals are on the table, but only those deals that can be completed in the same turn are binding. There's honor among thieves, but not much!

Once the Sheriff has decided which bags to inspect and which to return, players place the Legal goods they successfully passed into the market next to their game board in the appropriate slots. Contraband goods that evaded inspection remain face-down and are hidden until the end of the game. The role of Sheriff passes to the next player, and the next turn begins!

Play progresses in this way until all players have played the role of the Sheriff twice (or three times in a three player game), then players receive gold bonuses based on having the most (or second most) of the four Legal goods types. Once these bonuses have been distributed, players count the total of their gold coins and gold printed on their goods. The player with the most gold is the winner!

The decision to lie or be truthful about the contents of a bag is incredibly important in Sheriff of Nottingham, and creates wonderful tension each turn. I've seen some players win by only telling the truth, especially when players are new. I've seen many, many players win by almost always telling the truth, but sneaking through so much Contraband in the one or two turns they lied that they win handily. I've even seen players offer to bribe the Sheriff not to check their bag, only to have the Sheriff reject that bribe and find a bag full of Legal goods.

It's a wonderful game that allows many levels of bluffing and deal-making, especially for players willing to be creative. I often create casino-style games when I'm the Sheriff, offering players the chance to bet on whether other players are telling the truth, or even the total values of the cards in their bags. It's fun, and with a quick calculation of odds I can often "hedge" my inspection so that even if I have to pay money to an honest player, it's recouped from the other players in the form of my casino winnings.

Sheriff of Nottingham does two things very well, perhaps better than every other game in my collection:
  1. It provides a single do-or-die moment each turn for each player where the outcome of the round hinges on their ability to convincingly lie or bluff, but failing to convince the Sheriff in this moment isn't catastrophic. That means players who struggle to lie well can still do so and be productive if they make strong deals. 
  2. It creates an environment for "wheelin' and dealin'" that is incredibly free-flowing and fun, with as few restrictions as possible. This allows players much more space to profit from their deal-making ways, and generates a TON of compelling interaction between players. 

Many role-based bluffing games break down for players who aren't willing or able to lie effectively in a social setting, but Sheriff provides a legitimately possible route to victory through exclusive truth-telling. It also rewards players who lie exceptionally well, and those who can detect lying. But even for those who can't, victory is possible with just a little cajoling and an ear for the right moments to put pressure on other players. There are many paths to victory!

Though it pains me to give away my secrets, one of my favorite schemes when playing as the Sheriff is to offer each player the chance to put five cards through to the market without my inspecting their bags. I tell players they can pay me 18 gold for this privilege, or if all players participate, they can pay me 14 gold each (or something close to this number, depending on the number of players).

Typically most players jump on this opportunity because of the chance to get so many Contaband goods to market, many of which are worth 6-8 gold each. That's a large possible payout for a player, with no risk! Each player who takes the deal will increase their score, possibly even by a substantial margin. It's hard to pass up, especially for players who have the gold and are looking to take an advantage in one of the Legal goods.

It usually takes at least a time or two before players realize what's happening - I'm getting between 40 and 60 gold on a turn that I'm the Sheriff (when I would normally receive nothing unless I risked inspecting a bag or made a deal), which is a huge amount of gold that typically amounts for 25% or so of my final score. While each player earns a moderate advantage for themselves, my advantage is equal to the cumulative totals of theirs, so I'm pushed much farther ahead (or catch up much more quickly) than would otherwise be the case.

I dearly enjoy Sheriff and am happy to play it as often as my group will allow. It's fun, it's fast-paced with the optional time limit on deal-making (1 minute per non-Sheriff player per round), and creates the kind of social tension that leads to memes and memories in my playgroup without generating hurt feelings.

Sheriff of Nottingham will likely be on my "Top 20 games of all time" list for quite a while because of its ability to consistently deliver a specific gaming experience, and one that I deeply enjoy. I encourage you to give it a try, and if you happen to find yourself in the markets of Dallas/Fort Worth, swing your cart by for a round or two of this awesome game!

Sheriff of Nottingham on Watch it Played with Rodney Smith

Tom Vasel reviews Sheriff of Nottingham at Dice Tower

Board with Life plays Sheriff of Nottingham

Sheriff of Nottingham on TableTop with Wil Wheaton

Dan Thurot reviews Sheriff of Nottingham at Space Biff

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JR Honeycutt is a full-time husband and game-player, and co-host of The Nerd Nighters. You can find him on Twitter at @JayAhre or at a Friendly Local Game Store in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Some of his reviews are also published in Ravage Magazine or at Tabletop Gaming News