Year Published: 2015
Designer: Tim Fowers
Publisher: Self Published
Playtime: 60-90 minutes
One Sentence Synopsis: Queue the Mission Impossible music, because it’s time for a heist!
Between Mission Impossible, Entrapment, the Ocean’s series, Inside Man, and others, we’ve got a pretty wide selection of great edge-of-your-seat modern heist movies. Not to be left behind, the video game industry likewise offers some excellent titles for those seeking high-stakes robbery entertainment, including Monaco, Payday, and Counterspy which, while themed around Cold War spies, provides that guilty pleasure sneaky feeling. For modern board games…mmmm, not so much, in my opinion. That is, not until the end of last year.
Burgle Bros. is a tense cooperative board game from Tim Fowers where 1-4 people play as elite crooks intent on completing daring heists. Each floor of the target building is constructed using randomized tiles, and everyone must use their special abilities to help find the safe on each floor, reveal their combinations, and grab the contents before escaping through the top floor’s stairway to the roof and freedom. Standing in your way is a virtual minefield of hidden alarm triggers, cameras, and security doors, and all the while the building’s guards will dutifully patrol the halls looking for suspicious activity. Even master thieves can only evade detection for so long, and if you’re spotted four times your entire team fails its mission and you’ll go down in history as a team of villain wannabes. As it turns out, that’s a fate not easily avoided.
One of the best aspects about Burgle Bros. is its simplicity and ease of learning. The rules are easily taught to full understanding in five minutes, and you shouldn’t have a need to go back through the rulebook much after that except to check on the specifics of each room if it’s your first time seeing a certain tile. I’d actually recommend reading up on what each tile does anyway before you start playing because some of the tiles don’t quite function like you might expect, and the rulebook doesn’t direct you to that section very well. That’s one of only two quibbles I have about the book itself, the second being that the introductory mission is actually the second scenario presented, and the setup mission puts players into a longer 3-floor scenario. I’m not sure what the reasoning is behind that decision, but to me it would have made more sense to put the 2-floor scenario up front as both the intro and setup example.
Setting up the game will actually take you longer than reading the rules, though it should still only take you a little over five minutes to go from box to setup once you’ve got the hang of things. First, there are three decks of cards you’ll draw from at certain points throughout the game, and those are all shuffled and placed to one side of the play area:
Tool cards are one-time-use items that give players a leg up in certain situations, and are gained by walking on particular room tiles or by opening a safe.
Event cards are a completely mixed bag that can help or hinder your team depending on the situation, potentially changing the positions of guards, stopping players from traversing floors for a turn, or re-locking keypad tiles you had spent time unlocking during previous turns. These cards are normally drawn when you take half or less of your available actions during your turn.
The third deck, Loot, is what the game is all about. Cracking a safe allows you to draw one loot card from the deck, and once every safe is cracked all players must escape through the ceiling carrying their stolen items. Loot cards each have a persistent, negative effect on them, however, so you’ll want to carefully decide when the best time is to actually grab the goods.
Assembling the play area itself starts with separating out one stairs and one safe tile per floor, then randomizing all the other tiles and sorting them into piles of 14 for each floor you plan on playing. The setup scenario calls for three floors whereas the intro scenario calls for two, and a harder “expert” Fort Knox scenario changes things up to have two floors with multiple safes on each and different dimensions than normal. In general, though, you’re going to construct a tower of 2-3 stories each composed of 16 tiles total after adding in one stairs and safe per floor, all placed face down in the middle of the play area in 4×4 grids. I’ve found the game takes about 30 minutes per floor, so number of floors is a nice way to adjust the game length even when playing with a full four players. Be forewarned that if you don’t have the 3-D tower prop from the Kickstarter campaign, or the one now advertised on Etsy, that the game does take up a fair amount of table space with three floors.
Walls are then added to each floor to make movement a little more interesting. The scenarios included in the rulebook have specific spots for the eight walls, but you can easily randomize the eight or come up with your own unique setups to keep things dynamic and further adjust the difficulty. Line of sight does not play a part in Burgle Bros., but with few exceptions players can’t move or peek through walls, and the walls also disrupt the gaurds’ patrols which can make for some interesting pathing. Dead ends can be especially troublesome, and I’ve run into a few pretty rough tile combinations as well when arranged with certain wall setups.
Every floor of the tower also has a guard that patrols after each player’s turn, and they get progressively harder as floor level increases and as the game progresses. To start, each group of guard AI cards is shuffled according to their floor number and placed next to each floor. An orange dice is placed next to each stack, with the first floor starting at two and the other dice increasing in value by one per floor below them; these dice indicate how many tiles the guard on that floor moves after each player’s turn. One card is then drawn for the first floor and the guard is placed on the indicated spot. You choose which tile your gang of thieves will enter the building from next, and then a second card is drawn for the first floor guard and his orange dice is placed on that tile. You now know where the first floor guard starts and where he’s patrolling to, but the others aren’t revealed until you reach those floors.
Players also each receive or choose a character card and take their respective meeple. Characters have different abilities, all of which you’ll find useful in some way, ranging from being able to peek at tiles through walls, raising alarms to distract guards, or even allowing everyone to draw additional cards in some situations. The cards are double-sided as well and include “advanced” variants for each character for players who want a little more complexity to their functionality. You definitely don’t need to play with the advanced versions to feel like you’re getting the most out of the game, and Burgle Bros. doesn’t feel dumbed-down at all using the normal characters, but their inclusion is just another great way to add replayability to a game I already think has a huge amount of staying power. Each person also gets three stealth tokens (health), and a handy reference card.
After meeples are placed on the chosen entrance tile it’s time to start the game, with each player taking their turns in sequence clockwise. On your turn you have four action points to spend towards any one of five actions. Moving allows you to move your character to one adjacent tile, flipping it if it’s not already revealed. This is by far the quickest way to get through a level, and sometimes it’s even necessary if a guard is hot on your tail and you don’t have time to pause and play things safe. The back of the player reference card comes with a handy depiction of how many of each tile is in the game, allowing mathematically proficient groups to potentially play the odds.
Peeking lets you flip a tile without moving onto it, and although it’s a slower way to progress it’s also the best way to ensure you don’t trip any alarms you’re not going to be able to get out of. If you’re on a tile with a computer you can also spend an action token to Hack the terminal and add a token on it which can be discarded at a later time to stop that particular type of alarm from activating.
The final two actions have to do with cracking safes once you’ve found them. Each safe has a 6-digit combination that matches the numbers in the lower right-hand corner of the tiles in-line with the safe on that floor. To unlock the safe you must add dice to the safe by spending two actions, and then roll those dice by spending one action. If any numbers come up that match those in the combination sequences then you place tokens on the spaces to indicate you’ve cracked that part of the safe’s combination. The dice are persistent so adding more dice helps crack the safe with fewer total rolls, though I’ve never really seen the point of expending actions to get above three dice on any safe. Cracking a safe allows the player who finished the combo to draw a loot card and an item card, but it also triggers a silent alarm that permanently increases the movement speed of the guard on that safe’s floor and on floors below it.
Once you’ve finished your turn it’s time for the guard on your floor to move; guards will take the shortest clockwise route to their target patrol tile, and once there you’ll draw another patrol card, move the dice to the new tile, and the guard will proceed along his path at whatever speed is indicated on his orange dice. You’re able to look at the discarded patrol cards whenever you’d like to try and determine which tiles the guard still has to visit before his deck is depleted, and one very useful character even has an ability that lets you see the next card coming up. If players have triggered an alarm the guard will ignore his current objective tile and move towards the alarm, adding one to his movement for every active alarm on the floor. That can be used to your advantage to help save a teammate from discovery, but given the small size of the floors a guard who’s blitzing across rooms at 4-5 spaces per turn can get very dangerous very quickly. Since guards move at the end of each person’s turn you also need to take into account that the guard is going to get to move 1-3 times before you get to move again depending on the number of players. If a floor’s patrol deck is depleted it gets re-shuffled, and the guard’s dice value is increased by one permanently. It’s a clever little AI system that doesn’t require a lot of complex upkeep, but keeps players on their toes and fits well with the other probability-based game elements.
When all the safes are cracked every play must escape through the stairs on the top floor carrying their hard-won loot. Having done so they’ve completed the heist!
I’m really impressed at the amount of strategy and cooperation necessary in Burgle Bros. given its simplicity; it’s hands down one the best games I’ve seen for generating player discussion as everyone tries to plan their turns in conjunction with others, and to speculate and/or calculate where the guards will path by the time it comes back around to their turn. I stress calculate here because at its core Burgle Bros. is a game about calculating and discussing the numerous odds at play, and figuring out how to use cooperation to minimize the risks and barriers that arise from how different elements on the board interact. Things can really get hairy when you’ve got guards zipping through tight hallways and you’ve only got small windows of opportunity to duck into adjoining dead ends, only to find out a guard is headed your way before you’re going to have a chance to move again. Should your friends set off an alarm to distract the guard? Move up or down floors so the guard won’t move at all on their turn? Sacrifice one of your stealth so your teammates can make more progress towards exploration or cracking a safe? Lots of really great decisions to make, and as long as you don’t have an alpha-gamer in the group the cooperation is extremely satisfying.
I’ve found the game’s difficulty increases with more players due to the potential for more guard movement, and with it an increase in tenseness and the fun-factor. Don’t get me wrong, the game still works exceedingly well with two people, but maximum enjoyment happens with the full four criminal masterminds. Burgle Bros. is also one of the most customizable cooperative experiences I’ve seen in a board game, both in terms of randomized elements that give the game dynamism and replayability, and in terms of adjusting difficulty and game length. Want a shorter experience? Play with less floors. Want a harder experience? Increase the number of walls, adjust the starting value of guard dice, play with less stealth tokens…the list goes on. You even have the option of designing your own specific tower setups with adjusted safe and stair numbers, guards per floor, and even floor dimensions. All that adds up to legitimately endless possibilities for new experiences.
The components for the game are all very well done- the cards are square which is odd to shuffle, but they’re big enough to not really pose a problem, and the tiles are all solid and have text that’s big enough to read even if you’re sitting a couple of feet away, and color coding for easy distinction. I didn’t think I’d like the small box after I first unpacked the game, assuming it was going to be a total PITA to get everything back in just right, but as it turns out the spacer in the slightly larger top leaves plenty of room to fit everything without it turning into a 5 minute puzzle. The only real complaint I have about the components are the stickers that you’re meant to put on either side of the character meeples. The game comes with two sets, one depicting the normal clothing of each character, and one depicting each’s advanced variant. The problem is there’s only one meeple per character, so you either have to put one type of sticker on one side, and the other type on the opposite side, or determine which meeple stickers you want to use and just leave the others unused. I really wish they’d make extra sets of meeples available so you can sticker both; it’s not a huge deal, but I find it irksome.
COG Takeaway: Burgle Bros. is probably one of the lightest games I’ve played in terms of rules complexity, but it’s easily one of the best cooperative games I’ve got on my shelf. It does a great job of generating discussion and cooperation, and of building tension throughout the game as it gets progressively more difficult as the heist wears on. Replayability is extremely high thanks to nearly endless ways of customizing the game experience through specialized tile setups, wall setups, or manipulating guard, safe, or stair mechanics in new ways, and the game’s versatility is capped off with completely adjustable length and difficulty. I also really dig the spy vs. spy/Counterspy retro feeling of the entire theme, and the clever little box makes it easily portable as long as you’ve got a decently sized table available at your destination. If you’re looking for a 60-90 minute cooperative game that’s exceedingly easy to learn and teach, scales well from 1-4 players, and presents a tense challenge while keeping the mood light and fun, click the link below and order yourself a copy while you still can!