(2014 – Arcane Wonders)
Hart an der Grenze, or in English, Close to the Border, was released by Kosmos in 2006 (a Spiel des Jahres recommendation that year) and designed by Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz. In Close to the Border, players attempt to cross the country’s border with legal and/or illegal goods in their luggage. One player takes the role of the Sheriff each Round, and after hearing the declarations from the opposing players as to the contents in their bag, is allowed to choose and inspect one of the players luggage to see if they are lying. Of course, the player can bribe the Sheriff to let him through, and will be allowed to if the Sheriff accepts. In 2011, Portuguese publisher Galapagos Jogos would overhaul Close to the Border and re-themed it to Robin Hood. Robin Hood would include many of the original mechanics found in Close to the Border, but also added the ability for the Sheriff to use a deputy token to inspect a 2nd player’s bag, along with being able to send Robin Hood himself out to steal items for you.
Three years later, Arcane Wonders (Mage Wars) would come together with Tom Vasel’s Dice Tower and his new Dice Tower Essentials line, to retool Close to the Border/Robin Hood yet again, this time keeping the theme of the Robin Hood legend, but focusing more on the Sheriff of Nottingham himself, as well as streamlining rules such as allowing the Sheriff to check any player’s bag and dropping some of the flimsier mechanics found in the previous editions.
It’s that time of the month again. Market Week at Nottingham Castle, where the King opens the gates for merchants of the surrounding areas to come visit, sell goods, drink, and party like it’s….errmm, 1199? But as with any decent King of the 12th Century, corruption and greed run deep. The King has stationed his loyal brute, the Sheriff of Nottingham at the gates to make sure and confiscate any goods that he deems “contraband”. Also known as goods the King wishes to keep for himself. Villagers are only allowed to sell apples, cheese, chickens, and bread. With all merchants selling the same types of goods, these will barely make a profit. However, if the peasant merchant can sneak spices, mead, crossbows, and other contraband past the Sheriff, they will surely bring in a season’s worth of income. But beware the Sheriff at the gates! He will ask each villager as they enter what items they have in their bags to sell. If the Sheriff decides that the villager is untrustworthy, he can do an inspection, and if the player has lied, not only will the Sheriff confiscate his contraband goods, but he will also find the villager before allowing him to enter.
In Sheriff of Nottingham, each player takes the role of this vile, suspecting Sheriff while the other players attempt to enter the castle gates with their goods. As they attempt to enter, they will place their goods (represented on cards) into a sealed bag and present it to the Sheriff, informing him of what good is in the bag and the quantity. Of course they may be lying out of their teeth, but that is for the Sheriff to determine. And with such a large crowd at the gates, he only has a set time limit before he needs to let them move on. Inspecting a bag of an honest hard-working peasant may become a black eye to the King’s reputation, and thus the Sheriff will pay the peasant a bit of coin to help keep order amongst the crowds. However, catching a peasant in the act of smuggling contraband will not only keep these “illegal” goods out of the hands of those in the local market, but will also allow the Sheriff to fine the peasant, adding to his own personal pouch. The role of the Sheriff rotates from player to player each Round. At the end of the game, player’s total the values of their legal and contraband goods that they were able to get into the market stand along with any gold they have remaining. They may also receive a bonus depending on how may goods of a particular type they have in their stand compared to their competitors. The player with the highest value wins the game.
Finally, players will determine which among them will begin the game as the Sheriff. This player takes the Sheriff marker and places it in front of his play area. At the beginning of each Round, this Sheriff marker will pass to the player on the left, and each player will have a chance to take the Sheriff role twice (thrice in a 3-player game) before the game ends.
After setup, the play area should look something like this:
In Sheriff of Nottingham, a Round is made up of five distinct phases; the Market Phase, the Merchant Bag phase, the Declaration Phase, the Inspection Phase, and the Cleanup Phase. Let’s break down each phase and take a look at how they resolve:
1.) The Market Phase – During the first phase of each Round, players will be able to discard a selection of cards from their hand and draw new cards, essentially trading goods. This helps a player filter out any goods that are undesirable to them in an attempt to gain goods they wish to take into the castle. The player to the left of the current Sheriff takes his turn first, and discards up to 5 of his goods face down. He can then draw back up to his original hand size of 6, and can do so from either taking cards from the discard piles, cards from the middle draw deck, or a combination of both. However, if he chooses to take cards from the discards piles and the draw deck, he must draw all cards he wishes from the discard pile before taking any from the draw deck. Therefore, once a player begins to take cards from the middle draw deck, he must continue to draw from that deck until his hand limit has reached 6 cards.
2.) The Merchant Bag Phase – After all players have taken the Market action, it is now time for them to load goods into their bag. Players can place no more than 5 goods in their bag, however they can choose from any goods they have in their hand (I mean the Sheriff won’t know your lying if he doesn’t check your bag, right?). It is important to become familiar with the value of each good and what penalties and rewards they may resolve if the Sheriff inspects a bag that contains them. The value of each good at the end of the game (if it is at your market stand) is listed at the top right corner of the card. The penalty amount that must be paid for each good, whether to the Sheriff if the player has been caught lying, or to the peasant if the Sheriff has wrongfully accused him of lying about that good, is listed on the bottom right corner of each card. Let’s take a look at the three different groups of goods that players will have available to them during the game:
– Golden Apples have a value of 6, require a penalty of 4 coins if confiscated, and can be counted as 3 apples at the end of the game.
– Pumpernickel Bread has a value of 9, requires a penalty of 5 coins if confiscated, and can be counted as 3 loaves of bread at the end of the game.
– Bleu Cheese has a value of 9, requires a penalty of 5 coins if confiscated, and can be counted as 3 blocks of cheese at the end of the game.
After a player has secretly placed his goods into his merchant bag (remember, max of 5 cards allowed), he must snap it closed. Once the “snap” is heard, the bag can no longer be opened by the merchant player. Once all players have closed their bags, it is time to declare to the Sheriff at the front gate what you are bringing in to the castle.
3.) The Declaration Phase – As the peasant merchants enter the gates, the brooding, oily Sheriff will stop each one requiring that they declare the contents of their bags. During this phase, each player must give their merchant bag to the Sheriff and make a statement as to the contents in the bag. While players are allowed to flat out lie about the contents, they are held to a few rules when declaring:
– The player must always tell the truth when stating the quantity of contents. Therefore, if there are 4 cards in the bag, the player must tell the Sheriff there are 4.
– The player can only declare one legal good type. If there are 4 cards in the bag, he is allowed to state that there are 4 loaves of Bread in the bag, but can not state that there are 2 loaves of Bread and 2 Chickens. No matter how many different goods are in the merchant bag, he can only declare that there is one type, and that type must be a legal one.
4.) The Inspection Phase – Once all merchants have declared their bags, it is now time for the Sheriff to make some decisions. Inspecting everyone’s bag could get a bit pricey if more than one peasant is telling the truth. If the Sheriff wrongfully accuses someone of lying to him, he must pay a penalty for each card in the bag. During the Inspection Phase, the Sheriff has a number of minutes equal to the number of merchant players in the game to decide whose bag he will inspect and whose he will return and let through. Any bags that he can not decide on in time are automatically returned to the player and he is sent through. It’s a busy Saturday! The King, while trusting that the Sheriff will oust contraband at the gates, demands efficiency. Nothing would be worse than a having a riot of eager merchants, backlogged at the gates on his hands.
Now, if the Sheriff loves anything, it’s a fair and decent bribe. Before deciding to inspect a particular bag, the merchant player can attempt to bribe the Sheriff if he is worried about an inspection. Opposing players filled with past grudges against their merchant competition may even bribe the Sheriff to open the merchant’s bag. These bribes can come in many forms but may never include cards from a player’s hand. Pretty much anything else is on the table. Specific goods in the merchant bag, coins, goods from the merchant’s market stand, even future promises such as not inspecting the Sheriff player’s bag on his turn are all forms of under the table dealings. As with declarations, there are a few rules when resolving a bribe. For the most part, all deals made must be delivered. You are not allowed to tell the Sheriff that you will give him 4 gold for not opening your bag and then not pay up once he has returned the bag. There are a few ways to bend this however:
– If a player has made a deal with the Sheriff of giving him a particular card or cards in his bag if the Sheriff does not inspect his bag, he must fulfill that promise. Therefore, if the player has promised to give the Sheriff the Chickens from his bag, and it turns out there are no Chickens in his bag, he is technically still fulfilling that promise. Sneaky!
– Also, any future promises are allowed to be broken. Who wants to keep a pencil and paper and list all the future promises made throughout the game? I sure don’t. Plus, the game doesn’t come with a pad of paper or pencil, therefore future promises can’t be recorded and thus do not have to be fulfilled. Sound merchant salesman reasoning to be sure.
The Sheriff keeps all merchant bags and can decide in any order what decision to make for each one. The bags themselves are pretty unique in that they make a nice “snap” sounds once they are opened. Once the Sheriff has either giving the bag back to the player or has snapped it open, no more deals can be made and the Sheriff’s decision is final. If the Sheriff gives the bag back and allows the merchant to pass, the player will take back his bag, open the contents and place all legal goods beside their corresponding places at his market stand. Any Contraband goods, including Royal goods are placed face down above the market stand. By not revealing these Contraband goods to the Sheriff and other players, you have made known that you are a filthy liar, but won’t need to reveal the values of contraband you’ve stashed.
If however, the Sheriff decides to inspect the bag by snapping the bag open, one of two things happen depending on whether the merchant was telling the truth. If the Sheriff looks at the goods in the bag and sees that the merchant has in fact told the truth, he must pay the listed penalty for each of the goods in the bag. These goods are then returned to the player where he will add them to his market stand as normal. If the player has lied to the Sheriff, the Sheriff will confiscate all goods that were not part of the merchant’s declaration (cards that were part of his declaration are returned to the merchant to go in his stand). That player will then have to pay the penalty listed on each of the goods confiscated by the Sheriff. The Sheriff then discards these cards to the discard piles.
It’s a tempting offer for someone trying to sneak in contraband, but Player A decides that the Sheriff will know that he has contraband if he accepts the offer and feels the Sheriff is merely bluffing about opening his merchant bag. With continued confidence, he states “Sheriff, with all due respect. There’s no need for that, as I have nothing to hide. By all means, open my bag and take a look. You will see nothing but 4 bundles of apples and by making a scene will be the one that owes me 8 gold, 2 gold per apple for causing such trouble. By all means, go ahead and open it.”
5.) The Cleanup Phase – After the Sheriff has made his decision on all of the merchant’s bags, whether returning them or inspecting them, and all results of these decisions have been resolved, players will move on to the Cleanup Phase before starting a new Round. Beginning with the player to the left of the Sheriff and moving clock-wise, each player will draw cards from the middle draw deck to fill their hand size back to 6 cards. Note that during this phase, players are not allowed to draw from the discard piles, but strictly from the middle draw deck. Once all players have a full hand size, the player to the left of the current Sheriff receives the Sheriff marker and will take on the role of the Sheriff for the upcoming Round.
After all players have taken the role of the Sheriff twice (or three times in a 3-player game), the game ends. Players will add the total value of their coins to the values listed on all Legal, Contraband, and Royal Good cards (top right corner) at the player’s market stand. Then player’s will receive bonus coins depending on how many of a particular Legal Good they have in their market stand. The two merchants that have filtered in the most of a particular legal good will be awarded these bonuses, as follows:
– The player with the most Apples receives a bonus of 20 gold, while the player with the 2nd most receives 10 gold.
– The player with the most Bread receives a bonus of 15 gold, while the player with the 2nd most receives 10 gold.
– The player with the most Cheese receives a bonus of 15 gold, while the player with the 2nd most receives 10 gold.
– The player with the most Chickens receives a bonus of 10 gold, while the player with the 2nd most receives 5 gold.
Remember to include any Royal goods and the quantity listed on the card when totaling the cards for these bonuses. If the top two players in a particular good category are tied, then they are rewarded half of the 1st place bonus rounded down. So for instance, if Player B and Player D both had the most Apples with a quantity of 11, each player would be rewarded 15 gold (1/2 of the normal 1st place 20 gold bonus). In the case of a 1st place tie, no 2nd place bonus is awarded. However, if there is a clear 1st place winner, and two players are tied for the 2nd place bonus, then the 2nd place bonus is split in half between those two players, rounded down.
After all bonuses have been awarded, and all gold has been calculated, the merchant with the most gold has won the game.
Sheriff of Nottingham’s base appeal stems from its ability to stuff a bulk amount of social interaction into a box. The game’s simplicity allows players a bit a of freedom in how they decide to approach the game and the strategies they wish to use. Basically, the game can be summed up with, “who do you believe?” and “how much do you feel someone will believe you?”. After numerous plays, I can attest to the fact that the game is well balanced, for both those that risk trying to sneak a load of contraband through, and those that always stick to the truth. In the first game I played, the player that always told the truth ended up winning, in large part to the fact that he played his Sheriff turns well and everyone was convinced that he would eventually start to lie. In another game the riskier player won, scoring a large amount on contraband cards, and scoring some end-game bonuses with the help of a couple royal good cards.
The balance between the Sheriff role and the Merchant role is quite intriguing. To win the game, you really need to be able to succeed during both roles. It can be very tempting to check everyone’s bags when playing as the Sheriff, but doing so can lose you a lot of money, all at one time. So it’s important to pick and choose, and you may find that sometimes not checking any bags is the best option. At the same time, figuring out who is lying and/or being able to negotiate bribes effectively will make your turn as the Sheriff well worth it. The game would still function without this ability to take and dish out bribes, but the bribery element really heightens the interaction amongst players. Attempting to bribe the Sheriff may tip your hand that you have contraband in your bag. But what if you are bluffing a bribe to trick the Sheriff into opening your bag, thus forcing him to pay you when he sees you haven’t lied? Of course as the Sheriff, how much will it take for a player to get his bag back? Do you toy with him to see how much he’s willing to pay? All while remembering that there is a time limit and you have 3-4 other merchant bags to deal with.
The theme merely enriches the whole experience. Poorly delivered british accents, bold face lying shenanigans, a slew of Monty Python references, it all blends together to make Sheriff of Nottingham a fun and hilarious affair. The right choice was made by Arcane Wonders when re-theming the original Robin Hood, to instead focus more on the Sheriff. Thematically it make more sense and I like the idea of attempting to sneak items past the Sheriff to sell in my merchant stand. And while I don’t normally spend a lot of time discussing the craftsmanship of components in a game, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the amount of quality and thickness of the cardboard tokens, players boards, insert layout, and cloth bags included in the game. Some of the highest production I’ve seen in a game thus far this year, and one that is a refreshing touch.
Overall, Sheriff of Nottingham is an excellent game and one worthy of the “essential” Dice Tower line. After three renditions, it has finally touched on its best use of theme, and is a game streamlined for families, gamers, non-gamers, strangers, foreign exchange students, “that guy” that’s always over at your place but your not sure which of your roommates he’s friends with; basically anyone can and will most likely enjoy this game. If anything for the way it socially brings people together. And for me, that’s really what board gaming is all about.