One Sentence Synopsis: You don’t need a giant wooden badger to sneak your cargo past these gates- just a good poker face, a little luck, and a well-placed coin or two.
Most of you are familiar with the fable of Robin Hood. Good King Richard rides off to fight in the Crusades, leaving England in the incapable and corrupt hands of Prince John and his minions. The good people of the realm are slowly crushed under higher taxes and levies that are enforced at the tip of a sword, and aimed at ensuring an opulent lifestyle for John and his pals. From out of the misery and chaos rises Robin Hood, whose renown as a bowman helps him and his merry band of miscreants steal from the rich and give to the poor.
Sheriff of Nottingham is a light bluffing game that puts 3-5 people in the middle of this story in the roles we’ve all always wanted to play. Hell no, not Robin Hood and his men; the Sheriff of Nottingham and the savvy merchants who are looking to make a buck off of the down-turned economy during a visit from the Prince. Duh!
Players compete over 60 minutes to amass the biggest fortune importing legitimate goods or, for the truly enterprising, sneaking contraband past the sheriff. Each player gets two opportunities to play a round as the sheriff inspecting incoming carts of goods, and deciding whether the merchants are trying to bring in anything illicit like weapons, silk, or mead. If the sheriff catches a merchant in the act the merchant must pay the sheriff a hefty fine, but if the sheriff demands to see their goods only to find it’s the exact foodstuffs the merchant declared then the sheriff must make monetary amends for the merchant’s trouble. Just remember that bribes help grease the wheels of commerce, and should a few pennies or goods happen to accidentally fall off the wagon and into the sheriff’s stores he might be too busy to check the remainder of the shipment.
Setup is straightforward and simple. Players each take a board depicting one of the various seedy-looking characters, including what looks to be Mr. Hood’s evil cousin, and receive 50 coins from the bank along with their sack which is used to ferry goods into the city. Most if the setup time is spent shuffling cards; there are a LOT, and if they aren’t shuffled well the game will feel lopsided. After that’s done a couple of cards are flipped over into the 2 separate discard piles, and players each draw up to their maximum hand size of 6 cards.
Sheriff of Nottingham operates on a set collection mechanic both here and for final scoring bonuses, and although merchants can include up to a full six cards in their sack for potential inspection they must declare them all as the same thing to the sheriff even if there are different goods. The first round of each turn gives players the opportunity to gain, or perhaps appear to gain, cards they are going to declare. In turn order each player chooses any cards they wish to discard and sets them aside. They then get to decide whether to take cards from the discard piles, or to draw from the main deck; they have the option to do both to get back up to their max hand size before putting the cards they set aside into either discard pile.
The cards players draw are divided into two main groups: legal goods composed of apples, bread, cheese, and chickens, and contraband which ranges from crossbows to spices. Each card has a gold value in the top left denoting its worth at the end of the game if the player successfully imports the good into Nottingham, and another value in the lower right corner indicating how much they’ll have to pay the sheriff if they’re caught lying about their card, or how much the sheriff will have to pay them for a false accusation.
The meat of the game happens during the declaration and inspection stages of each round. Each merchant places cards into their bag, and passes it to the sheriff along with any cash “incentive” not to check it. Bags are resolved one at a time, with each merchant looking at the sheriff and declaring the exact number of cards in their bag, and declaring them as one, and only one, of the legal goods. Negotiations take place, and if the sheriff does not check the bag the merchant can take their legal goods and place them face-up next to their board, or face-down at the top of their board if they were sneaky gits. If the sheriff checked the bag and found discrepancies then any contraband is discarded after the merchant pays their fine, but any legal goods declared correctly are still imported and set next to their board. In the case of the sheriff incorrectly accusing a merchant, the merchant gets a payoff from the sheriff in addition to keeping their goods.
The round goes on until the sheriff has inspected each sack, at which point the sheriff standee passes to the next player and everyone draws back up to 6 cards from the main deck. Play continues this way until each player has performed their duty as sheriff twice. Once that happens, the game ends and everyone tallies their points. In addition to the coins and value of goods imported, players may receive bonus points for being the King of a certain legal good by having the most of that good, or the Queen by having the second most. In the end, the merchant who supplied the highest total value of items to the good citizens of Nottingham is the winner.
Sheriff of Nottingham is easy to set up, quick to learn, and offers a very fun, light gameplay experience that easily plays in its advertised time of 1 hour. After you’ve got the rules down, there are extra royal cards to shuffle in as well to add some illicit versions of legal goods to the game for added strategy. Like most bluffing games, determining whether someone is telling you the truth or not is sometimes going to come down to total luck, but the inclusion of bribery and having to declare sets of only one item makes for some great strategizing and good potential for luring people into false accusations.
Extending that set collection to the end-game bonuses also gives players some direction throughout the game rather than just throwing them into a situation of acquiring random cards with high values. The bonus for having the most of low-value cards is higher than the bonus for goods of better individual values, so striking a good balance between going for tasty bonuses or amassing other cards is essential. The bonuses are nothing to scoff at, either. Although contraband have the highest values of any single cards, it’s completely possible to win the game with only legal goods and smart play. In our last game, in fact, I was able to get King of 3 of the 4 legal goods, and able to trick people multiple times into incorrectly calling me out when I imported a large number of a single good at the same time. I went on to win by over 60 points(248 total), which just goes to show crime doesn’t always pay.
Although the game is surprisingly strategic as players try to out-maneuver each other for bonuses and negotiate deals, Sheriff of Nottingham still plays very light. Elements that you’d normally see implemented in a game like this to add complexity, like asymmetric abilities, are absent, but even so I never felt like I was missing anything. The game just works well with what is here, and even though I can see features that could get included in an expansion it’s not a game I feel needs an expansion period, let alone one to improve.
The components are mostly excellent. The box is solid, the player boards and money chits are thick, and the cards all have excellent snap. The cards go through a lot of shuffling which means i’d normally want to sleeve them, but there are so many it would cost a pretty penny and, although they’d still fit into the nifty 3-stack insert given the right sleeves, once stacked as a single deck for the purposes of starting play the deck would stand way too tall. The insert is functionally very useful, so in this case I’ve determined my cards will just have to deal with some wear and tear. I’ve also heard of instances where player pouches with their snap start to wear, but mine have held up well so far.
I’m very impressed with the art here. I like exaggerated art styles that are cartoony but still have a great deal of detail, and that style is presented very well here on the sheriff standee, box art, and character boards. The card art shares the same style and is likewise very colorful and vivid, and the layouts are very clean.
I usually look for potential ways to upgrade components in my games, and money changes hands so often in this game that I’m actively trying to track down a set of metal coins that will fit the bill. Just as a brief word of caution if you do the same, be prepared to run into 2 issues: finding the number of coins you need, because there are a lot, and finding a set with 4 denominations. Most metal coin sets have 3 different sizes/colors, but SoN requires 4 different coin types for 1, 5, 20, and 50.
COG Takeaway: Sheriff of Nottingham is a great, light bluffing game with set collection that plays in an hour or less and is easy to learn. The multiple ways to generate coins, and the competition between players for collections makes the game surprisingly strategic while staying light and true to the roots of the genre. Quality is good, price is cheap, and the multitude of laughs this game will generate around your table is priceless. If you enjoy bluffing games or think your group of 3-5 might want to try one, this would be one of my first recommendations.