The Boss

Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Blackrock Editions, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, 20-60 minutes; about $20)


It’s the 1930s and crime is rampant, spreading from city to city like the plague. Players, as the heads of criminal organizations, seek to spread their influence in cities across the country in this Alain Ollier design: The Boss.

thebossboxThe Boss comes in a small package and within it, you’ll find a small mounted board, colored wooden pieces, Character cards, City cards, 5 Police cards and rules in both English and German.

As criminal leaders, all players begin with a gang. The gang is represented by cubes in their chosen color: six larger cubes (called “Experts” in the rules) and three smaller cubes (dubbed “Occasionals”). Eight cities are in play (New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Memphis and Philadelphia) and the eight Character cards representing these cities are placed, in a specified order, to form a line. The 27 City cards are color-coordinated (their backs matching the colors of the cities) and these cards are shuffled and, underneath each Character card (except for Chicago), a matching color City card is placed face down. All of the remaining City cards are dealt out to all the players to form their hands for this round of play.

The object of the game is to make money, lots of it, and that’s where those City cards come in. City cards are the only source for picking up cash. Some City cards depict bags of money (1 to 4 bags); those are the good ones. Unfortunately, for those unlucky players caught with them, many City cards mean trouble. Some can cause a gangster (a cube) to end up in prison (thereby missing the next two rounds of play) or in the hospital (missing one round while “recuperating”) or simply dead (with that gangster cube out of the game permanently). One card will banish a player (a fate only found in Cincinnati for some reason which prevents that unlucky player from ever returning there for the remainder of the game). Using your gangsters to claim these cards is the core of the game.

There are two parts to a turn. First, a player MAY place one or more gangster cubes onto a Character card indicating his influence in that particular city. Experts may be placed anywhere. Occasionals may only be placed with an Expert OR added to a city where an Expert already is. (They may NOT be played alone.) You may only place gangsters in one city per turn and, when placing them, must place them so, at that point, you have more influence there than any other player. No ties allowed! Second, a City card MUST be played underneath its color-matching city FACE UP. City cards may only be played at its matching city. (A New York card, for example, may not be played in Philadelphia.) The type and number of City cards associated with each city varies but the way they work remains the same.

Each Character card displays all the City cards associated with that location so everyone knows, potentially, what the face down card is. As players place cards at the different locations, the possibilities narrow as to which face down card lurks at each place. Turns go in clockwise order until the final turn of the round. When everyone is down to his final card, turn order shifts based on how many gangsters (cubes) a player has left to place. The player with the most will go first, followed by the player with the second most etc. The player with the fewest gangsters left will get final placement. Now we determine who wins the face down cards.

thebosspcsThe player with the most influence in a city (which means the most gangsters – Experts and Occasionals all valued the same) gets that face down card. If that card shows money, then that player advances his token on the scoring board that number of spaces. If the face down card is a penalty, that penalty goes into effect immediately. That is true for every city except Chicago.

Chicago is under the influence of Al Capone and, as such, Capone demands his take of the loot. The player with the most gangsters in Chicago has to share with Big Al and this is how it works.

The final FACE UP card(s) played under the Character card (or cards) to the left of Chicago are totalled. Capone gets half and the player with the most gangsters in Chicago gets half. An odd number? Capone is the Boss; your half is rounded DOWN! (So, if the New York final face up card shows 3 money bags, you get 3 divided by 2 rounded down which is 1. You will advance your marker one space on the scoring track.) With each round played, Chicago shifts position one slot to the right so, in the second hand, the total for Capone is the total for New York AND Boston, for the third hand, it’s New York, Boston and Detroit and so on.) Players get back their Experts ready for use the following round but the Occasionals are for one use only. Once used, they are returned to the game box. A game can last up to five rounds. (One police card is turned up each hand. These cards come in gold and silver. The appearance of three of the same color signals the final round.)

With the final hand completed and rewards (and penalties) awarded, the game is over. The player farthest along the scoring track has raked in the most money and he is crowned The Boss (and winner)!

Graphically, The Boss is above average for two distinct reasons. First, each Character card displays which City cards are available in each city. This serves as an easy reminder for everyone (a shared “play aid”) as to what cards are left to be played. Second, the colors used for the cards are clearly distinct. No worry here about mixing up reds and oranges or blues and greens.

The Boss is a game of “limited intelligence”: you know a little but not enough! You know what cards you hold, you know the City cards held by your opponents (players must always display the backs of the cards they hold), you know what cards will appear in a certain city. But WHEN those cards will appear and which specific cards your opponents hold is uncertain. It is this uncertainty that forces you to make hard decisions and gamble just a little bit. More often that not, you are torn between which card to reveal. More often than not, you will not want to reveal ANY! But you need to decide which play is the least damaging to your own best interests.

There is no honor among thieves so, of course, you can always try to mislead your rivals. Placing a gangster or two on a city where you’ve deduced a penalty card awaits may lure your opponents into committing their limited resources unwisely (a particularly viable ploy should you happen to hold multiple cards of a city giving you added insight as to what is hidden). The Chicago/Capone mechanism is a clever counterpoint to the regular card play, giving significant and meaningful value to the last card play of a round. In later rounds, when Capone will add last card money values for three or four or five cities, a huge infusion of cash for the player with the most muscle in Chicago is a real possibility and a potential game-changer. (For that reason, if you don’t have a winning presence in Chicago, you might want to hold back a penalty card for the last play to minimize the money Capone – and an opponent – will take.) Players only have a force of nine cubes to use and three of those are one time use only! This forces you to carefully consider cube placement to get the most “bang for the buck”. The shift in game turn order for the final play in each hand is a clever design touch that presents you with yet another tough decision regarding allocating your gangsters. It tempts you to hold back your forces for the final play but since you can only place gangsters in one city per turn, you do this at a cost of minimizing your influence across the board.

Essentially, The Boss is a card game (the small board is only used for charting money earned and as a placeholder for hospitalized and jailed gangsters). But the dynamics of play lift it to a higher level than you might expect. The game is loaded with multiple meaningful decisions and challenging choices each turn to keep players constantly engaged throughout making this small game one with a sizeable punch.


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