Board Game Review – Saboteur
Considering the fact that I’m reviewing board games at the moment, this will make two in a row without a board. Board next week, promise.
For now let’s take a look at a game of greed, betrayal, and (surprise) sabotage. In the same vein as The Resistance and Werewolf, Saboteur is about strategy and deception in equal measure.
How To Play
A band of dwarves dig to find gold. They know roughly were the gold is, and are going equipped to clear the tunnels to find it. Oooh but there’s a snake in this particular grass, as a handful of the dig team are traitors to the cause trying to grab what they can for themselves by leading the group down blind paths and breaking tools. If the earnest workers discover who the traitors are they can break their tools in turn.
A basic map is constructed, the Starting Point from which tunnels are dug, and the three Goals set seven card-widths from there and one card length from each other, two false goals and one nugget of gold. Each player receives a Loyalty card that marks them as either a normal digger or a saboteur, then everyone takes a hand of cards comprising of paths and actions. Path cards help dig to the goals; actions can break or fix tools, collapse tunnels, or peek at one of the Goals. A broken tool means players can’t dig paths but doesn’t stop them from playing actions.
If the players create an unbroken path from starting space to the gold, golden nugget cards are drawn equal to the number of players, the player who reached the goal chooses the first and passes around, and everyone but the saboteurs picks one for themselves. If saboteurs win they take cards that give them four nuggets, everyone else gets nothing.
Repeat all of the above three times, meaning new saboteurs each round, whoever has the most gold at the end wins.
Not many games balance strategy and deception to the same degree. Once blame starts flying it’s a matter of adjusting your play; do you try and shift the blame, start breaking tools, or just admit treachery and start messing things up for everyone before they can hamstring you.
Without question the most pivotal card in the game is the Map, that allows a player to peek at a goal. Now say you’re the saboteur and in your hand is the gold; do you tell the truth? Do you lie? What if someone else gets a map and double checks? After a few have been checked is there anyone you can shift the blame onto, “They lied, it’s nothing but coal, they’re screwing with us…”
Pretty soon though you may find that the game changes, when you realise that the first dwarf to the gold makes a fortune, and there’s no “team win”, and every turn the saboteur is someone else. Once that particular penny drops good and honest miners rapidly turn on one another, and start breaking tools to get a bigger cut of the gold. After round one things start getting interesting, everyone’s had chance to learn the rules and realise the larger subtleties, and the possibility of the deck running out (an instant win for the saboteurs) gets a little too real.
The biggest grievance I have with this game is how hard the saboteurs have it. Should you have the misfortune to be the saboteur repeatedly then you can very easily go for most of the game without picking up a point. If you’re in a game with only a few players then you’re the saboteur alone trying to thwart everyone else in the group; you’re woefully outnumbered trying to win without being noticed. It’s a small mercy that you’re not likely to be a saboteur round by round, but you’re almost bound to be in at least one.
Your best hope is to exhaust the deck and to shift blame onto another player through clever use of the map cards, not a dependable strategy but it’s one that should get people wasting their equipment-breaking cards and leaving you to run tunnels wherever you please, but even then you’ve still got to work towards the goal on some level or else reveal yourself.
It’s not impossible to win a saboteur round, just very difficult. It gets easier once the fight starts to reach the gold first, and everyone is screwing everyone else over in a cutthroat rush to the finish line and treachery is everyone’s game, not just the saboteurs. It’s not well balanced, especially as the game can pivot on a handful of cards, they can be game-changers in a good way or a bad way. This is very much a game that takes no time to learn and a lifetime to master… at least I hope so, certainly I haven’t mastered it so far.
It has been a long time since I played the expansion to Saboteur – inventively named Saboteur 2 – which adds roles, teams and variety and actually evens the playing field for each individual. I recommend having both, but playing the basic game a few times before stepping the game up to the next level as things can get a little overly complex if you’re thrown into it the hard way.
I’d absolutely suggest it to anyone who’s a fan of backstabbing and deceit in their games, and while there are better options on the market to scratch that itch, sometimes Saboteur is the most fun option.
Shameless promotion here, my friends at e-Collectica games will be celebrating the store’s 10th birthday on October the 15th with their longest ever Games Day. 10:00 – 19:30 at the Darwin Community Centre in Shrewsbury. If you’re in the midlands and want to join us for nine and a half hours of games come on over. We’ll be featuring a Ticket to Ride tournament, a couple of roleplays and your chance to learn some new games, or just play some favourites. More info at the event page on Facebook.