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BOOTLEGGERS

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Eagle Games/SDR Games, 3-6 players, ages 12 to adult, 30-60 minutes; $39.99)

 

The Roaring 20s didn’t get its name by accident. It truly was a wild time in the United States, partly attributable to Prohibition. With liquor banned, the demand for the illegal elixir rose rapidly. As is so often the case, when the law-abiding part of society cannot or will not fill a demand, the unlawful part will. So a new industry began as bootleggers transported liquor to speakeasies for big profits. That is precisely what Bootleggers, the new release from Eagle Games and the design team of SDR Games (Don Beyer, Ray Eifler, Steve Gross) is all about.

As with other games in the Eagle line, Bootleggers boasts an abundance of beautifully molded plastic pieces (representing trucks, a “copper” and gangsters in six colors), wooden cubes (symbolizing crates of whiskey), 25 dice and mini-boards for each layer, an 80 card “Men of Action” deck, a 14 card “Truck” deck and a 72 card “Muscle deck”, mounted gameboard, money and a variety of play aids.bootleggersbox

Each player/mobster is given a $10,000 bankroll, a free small truck and a free gangster (gangster’s serve as “influence markers”). They also receive a “Family Still” mini-board (where influence markers and whiskey crates to be sold are temporarily stored in its “back room”) and a die to be placed on the still. Muscle cards range in value from 1 to 72 and are divided into four color-coded groups, 1-18, 19-36, 37-54, 55-72. Each group is shuffled individually and every player is dealt three cards from each group for a starting hand of 12 cards, one for each of the possible 12 rounds of the game.

The board depicts a row of speakeasies with loading docks as well as spaces to display the current Men of Action cards in the round. There is also a track used to chart rounds as they are played. Five phases comprise a round: Muscle, Influence Placement, Production, Shipping and Selling. During the Muscle phase, the board is seeded by turning over the top Truck card and one Men of Action card for each player in the game. Each player plays a Muscle card from his hand with all revealed simultaneously. Turn order is determined in the order of strength (the higher the number, the greater the strength) of the played Muscle cards. Then, in order, players pay graft (maintenance) on all trucks owned and then choose ONE of the face up cards.

Some Men of Action cards increase your influence (giving you one or two free gangster markers to use) or grant improvements to your still (so you can produce more booze). These and the truck cards (which increase your ability to transport crates) are played immediately. Others ( the “Thug” cards) generally cause problems for other players (e.g. hits on speakeasies to remove influence, hijacking a loaded truck etc.) and may be saved for later use. If, after all players have gone, a truck card remains, it stays available in the next (and later) rounds until chosen. Men of Action cards not chosen are discarded. Now, influence is placed.

Each player commands a mob of plastic gangsters in their own color. In muscle card order, each player may place any or all of his available gang in various speakeasies. Placement determines which speakeasies are open for business and what kinds of profits you can expect to generate at the different locations.Bootleggerscomp

Six speakeasies are in the game (the sixth only used with 6 players). Each speakeasy shares several characteristics, showing room for 1 or more improvements, the number of dice used to determine liquor consumption, the wholesale purchase price of the establishment and a profit margin. With the exception of O’Malley’s (the place with the smallest payoff), all places have a section of “influence circles”, some of which are shaded. When influence markers (of one player or in combination) occupy all of a speakeasy’s shaded circles, that place is open for business and crates of whiskey may be sold there. How much “pull” you have at a particular place depends on how much influence you have there.

Minority influence means you have at least one marker at the place and may sell whiskey there if demand has not already been met. Majority influence is earned if you have more markers there than any other single player. This allows you to have your crates bought first. Controlling influence goes one step better for not only do you reap the benefits of majority influence, you also get the profit margin (noted on the speakeasy itself) for ALL crates sold by ALL players in that establishment. A player without influence may still sell there but only if the player with controlling or majority influence allows it (and if there is still demand for whiskey after all other players have sold).

Players produce whiskey by rolling the dice from each still under their control. The number of crates equal to the die roll are placed in the “back room”. As the game progresses, the player producing the most whiskey will be saddled with “The Copper”. This is a balancing mechanism for if the player with the copper rolls a 5 on any of his family stills, those stills produce NOTHING that turn!

With whiskey ready for market, players fill their trucks with crates in order to bring them to the speakeasies. Deals may be made among players to use competitors’ trucks to transport the booze or to sell booze to players who have more truck space than cargo. Crates unable to be loaded are lost and get returned to supply. Filled trucks now load at the appropriate loading dock of the speakeasy (based on majority, minority or no influence there) and the thirst for liquor is determined.

Each speakeasy has a specified number of dice used to determine the demand for whiskey that round. The number rolled is the number of crates that may be purchased. Majority holder crates get sold first, followed by minority holders and then, if allowed, crates of those with no influence. If supply exceeds demand, excess crates are not sold and are discarded! If demand exceeds supply, that’s too bad. That demand is simply not met.

At the ends of rounds 4 and 8, each player gets a free influence marker with the player with the least money getting 2 markers. After each round, all played muscle cards are discarded and we do it all over again.

The rounds continue until one player has amassed at least $100,000. Failing that, at the end of the 12th round, all players count their money and the player with the most wins the game!

Bootleggers is a beauty, a plastic paradise as shown in the gangster influence markers and trucks. The use of the muscle cards to determine player order adds some decision-making. Going first is generally a very good thing although, when placing influence, going last is advantageous as you can see where other players have exerted pressure and adjust your plans accordingly. Influence is a clever concept in theory but its implementation seems flawed. Influence growth is often too slow and ponderous, a result of players beginning with only 1 influence marker. We’ve toyed with the idea of beginning with 2 gangsters (or even 3) to speed up the action as well as bringing more influence markers into play at the end of rounds.

Men of Action cards are aptly named as they provide a good deal of the action here as shrewd use of them can significantly derail the plans of the opposition. Dice rolls are a significant factor since they affect the amount of liquor able to be produced and sold. Keep rolling “bad numbers” and you can feel yourself spiral out of control. Fortunately, some bad roll effects can be offset by Men of Action cards. The flip side though is these cards can be very powerful and cause unforeseen – and indefensible – shifts in the balance of power. This certainly simulates the uncertainly of running bootleg booze and having to fend off rival gangs and deal with other unexpected circumstances. But these elements make for a chaotic game as long range planning becomes virtually impossible.

Bootleggers is Eagle Games’ attempt to meld the American style and European style of gaming into one and you can see elements of both wrapped in this attractive package. Bootleggers is a free wheeling game of strategy with lots of player interaction. Add to that a hefty dose of luck and unforeseen challenges for would-be mobsters to rise above and you’ve got the lowdown on the game. If that’s you cup of tea (or “rotgut” as the case may be), then Bootleggers may just be an offer you can’t refuse. – – – – – – Herb Levy


 

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