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SPEAKEASY BLUES

Reviewed by Herb Levy

SPEAKEASY BLUES (Artana Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-60 minutes; $60)

 

The “Roaring Twenties” wasn’t called that for nothing! In the 1920s when Prohibition was the law and folks were prevented from easily getting their favorite alcoholic beverages, many rebelled against this restriction (and other “accepted” behavior). Groups began to gather in out of the way places that operated in the shadows, just on the border between legal and illegal.  Very often, to get into these clubs filled with jazz, drink and all sorts of characters, you had to know a password and, when knocking at the front door, speak it softly so no one else would hear. These places were called “speakeasies” and in this new game designed by Daryl Andrews and Adrien Adamescu, each player is the owner of one of these clubs, attempting to make theirs the most popular with the best reputation among those “in the know” to avoid singing the Speakeasy Blues

In Speakeasy Blues, various decks of cards are shuffled and placed on their marked board spaces. These include Collection cards (upscale items to be bought to enhance a player’s reputation), Society cards (celebrated figures visiting your speakeasy) and Crime cards (connections to both the underworld and the police). In addition, the main board has room for the events of the game, jazz tokens and a space to hold a “soirée” in the quest to raise both your reputation and some cash. The Event card deck is prepared with 6 random events as well as 3 “contests” (additional ways to score points that vary from game to game) with the “Grand Opening” card on top. One Event card is in play each round so there are a total of 10 rounds to the game. Money chits and “hooch” (bottles of the illegal liquor) are placed near the board. Each player is dealt two “Speakeasy” cards and chooses one. These cards give each player a different set of starting resources. 

“Dice drafting” is the core mechanism of the game. There are five sets of 2 six-sided dice, each identical die showing the icons of six board areas. Three of these sets are rolled and placed on matching board spaces. On a turn, a player must remove one colored SET from the board and roll them. These are then added to the remaining dice so there are always three sets of two dice in the “pool”. The active player then chooses ONE of these sets and places them in matching, available, spots to do the specified actions. 

Seven possible action areas are available: 

Hooch – Going here will get you 1 bottle (or 2 bottles if you don’t mind losing 1 reputation) of hooch. Hooch can be very useful in activating enhanced spaces. 

Society – Four Society cards are always revealed and available. (If a a player doesn’t like the four, he/she can spend $1 and discard them all and reveal four new ones.) Two spaces here, one costing you nothing, the other requiring a loss of 1 reputation. These cards represent celebrities of the day enticed into your speakeasy. All of these carry a martini glass symbol as well as another symbol that indicates the source of their fame (a baseball. a saxophone [for a musician] etc.). They may also grant a one time advantage triggered immediately, be used for endgame scoring or provide an enhanced version of a space that may be used (instead a standard space) when playing the appropriate die AND a bottle of hooch!

Collection – As with the Society cards, there are always four on display (and you also have the option to discard them all and draw four new ones for $1). These represent “conspicuous consumption” designed to impress and increase your (and your speakeasy’s) reputation.  All show a “butterfly” symbol as well as a type of item (sailboat, car etc.). They also have a number value which indicates their cost (in money). Two spaces here with the first being “free” and the second giving a $1 discount on a purchase at the cost of 1 reputation. They may also be worth a bunch of points at the end of the game. 

Crime – At the cost of 1 reputation, players draw three cards and keep one. These represent gangsters AND cops. These cards are placed face down on your board and may be played on any subsequent turn by being flipped face up. Gangsters, when played, generally do some damage to opposing players; Cops, on the other hand, if flipped over in response to a Gangster attack, will stop it! Some of these cards also provide benefits when revealed. 

Favor – Three factions appear in the game – two criminal factions (shown with wreath and bullet icons) and Cops (shield) – and spaces for each of them. Going here will allow you to get 1 symbol token matching the chosen space (at a cost of 1 reputation if you are associating with either of the crime factions) as well as cash. Having symbol tokens will earn you points at the end of the game. 

Jazz – Two musical note spaces allow you to choose 1 of 2 possible chits: one will allow you to change the face of any die you rolled AND get $2; the other to do your chosen action twice! Each space, however, will cost you 1 reputation.

Soirée – Any die face is accepted in this single space. This is a good way to generate cash and/or reputation points. Cards display, on their bottom right, a reputation symbol (plus OR minus) or a $. Here, players collect the reputation and money shown on each revealed card in each top slot on his/her playmat. 

Everyone starts the game with a playmat. The top of a player’s mat has a reputation track which chart’s the ups and downs of a speakeasy’s reputation. The bottom has four spaces for cards. The first two slots are free; opening up the third slot for placement is a one time cost of $1 while the fourth and final slot requires $2. When cards are acquired, they must be placed in a slot – and placement is important because WHERE they are placed can be as important as what is placed.

Every time a card is acquired, it must be added to that player’s board at once; if necessary, placed on top of any card already occupying that space. Crime cards are placed face down. The key thing to remember is that only cards on top are “active” and able to use their special power! Some cards have once per turn abilities, some have an immediate effect, others enhance actions a die may do in a specific space and some are for endgame scoring.

At the end of each round, the current event is discarded (unless it is a “contest”; those are placed aside for endgame scoring). The other events move down a slot and a new one drawn. When the final, 10th, event is resolved, the last round is done and, at the end of that, we score!

Points come from many directions. Players check for favors they have accumulated, adding up the favors of the two crime families and the cops individually plus any matching icons found on Crime cards they have. High in each of the 3 groups is worth 10 points, second place 6, third place 2. (Tie? Then points are added and divided down.) Contests are checked with the winner of each scoring 4 points with ties split evenly. Position on each player’s Reputation track can result in a gain of as much as 15 points! Every 2 bottles of hooch and every $3 converts into 1 point. The final big influx of points comes from your Collections and their bonus scoring.

Every Collection card on a players’ board scores 1 point but that’s not all. If the TOP, exposed, card in each Speakeasy slot has an endgame scoring bonus (some Society cards and all Collection cards do), they score now! For example, if you have a Collection card showing a car on top of a slot, EVERY Collection car card in your speakeasy, whether in that slot or not, will score its value! So, if you have car cards valued at 5, 4, 1 and 2, you score a bonus 12 points! The speakeasy owner with the most points has the jazz joint with the best reputation and wins! Tie? Then left over money breaks the tie and decides the winner!

The major sources of Reputation points come from the Reputation track, collections accrued and “relationships” forged among the two criminal families and the police. Making it all work requires mining the other facets of the game to maximum potential including Crime cards that may sabotage another player’s progress as well as Cops which may be able to thwart such plans. Crime cards offer some “take that” but to what degree depends on the nature and preferences of the group. Flipping over Crime cards can inflict some pain all right but dormant (face down) Crime cards generate positive reputation during a Soirée so there is some value in keeping them that way. Since current and future events are visible to all, players can do a little planning to prepare for what is coming and choose their dice accordingly. 

Of course, any game using dice is subject to bad rolls that can dampen the excitement. Fortunately, dealing with dice is well within the comfort zone of these designers having Sagrada (Summer 2017 GA Report) on their resume. To avoid that bad roll pitfall, multiple ways to modify poor dice rolls are available including those valuable jazz chips, having three sets of dice for selection always available, the option to reroll ALL the dice in the dice pool (for $1) and the Soirée space that will accept ANY die face. 

The evocative box art by Don Whitson of that sultry singer at the microphone captures the atmosphere of the smoke-filled 1920s speakeasies wonderfully as does the Art Deco style art of the board and cards (although it would have been nice to have the names of the areas written in black so they don’t tend to fade into the background). 

Although the 1920s theme might attract the casual gamer, with so much going on in Speakeasy Blues, the game really doesn’t fit into the category of “gateway game”; the game has more weight than that. What it is is a carefully crafted design which earns this excellent Andrews and Adamescue effort an A!- – – – – – Herb Levy


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