Raging out about Saboteur

Saboteur is a poorly designed game that is gaining exasperating popularity in my gaming group.

It is a card-based tunnel game where the goal is to lay down various tunnel tiles in a mine to reach a nugget of gold.  Sounds fun, right?  Wrong!  At least to me.

Why do I say that this is a poorly designed game?  Saboteur is nominally co-operative in nature; players are working together to reach the gold.  The problems are two-fold, but primarily concern scoring: no matter the contributions the player makes, whomever reaches the ore first gets first pick from a bunch of treasure cards (ranging from 1-3 points) drawn.  The player will obviously take the treasure with the most points, so after it’s passed on past the second player, the other non-saboteur players are left with next to nothing for their efforts.

The biggest problem is the Saboteurs.  It is almost impossible for the Saboteurs to win.  Their goal is to delay the game long enough that all players run out of cards before anyone reaches the gold; their reward is a 3 point card each.  If the non-Saboteurs win, the Saboteurs get nothing.  In a game with as many as six players, there may be only 1 saboteur, who will essentially be screwed because reaching the gold in this game is such a goddamn cakewalk.

I have NEVER seen the saboteurs win fairly.  At times I have played as a saboteur even when I was not one to test the game’s balance.  Once in an 8 player game I helped the saboteurs (essentially making it 4 saboteurs and 4 miners) and they still lost.  Recently in a 6 player game, I helped the saboteurs and they won; this is the ONLY time I have ever played this game in which the saboteurs won a round (and I’ve played 9 or 12 rounds of this over the course of 3 or 4 games now).

I have been given some shit for ‘playing it wrong’, being compared to one of our group who will often play hidden roll games wrong or strangely just to troll people, but I defend myself as someone who is interested in game design trying to test aspects of this game. If it really takes a person playing for the wrong side to give the saboteurs an even break, there is something seriously wrong with the game.

I can’t tell yet if scoring is entirely arbitrary or if there is a strategy that does not require a non-saboteur from screwing over other players in supposedly co-operative play to make the best of the treasure haul for the winning side.  So far when I have played, anyone who has been a saboteur has lost and badly (since being a saboteur means no points when everyone else wins) and the game is almost always won by the person who reaches the gold in the first round so long as they are not ever a saboteur in a subsequent rounds.

I think that the Saboteurs might have a better chance if the game ended when the draw deck was gone than when all playable cards in hand are exhausted, but that doesn’t fix the scoring problem.  I really thing that points, the treasure deck and scoring mechanism in general for this game is a huge mistake.  Better it be like Resistance or Avalon in which one side either wins or it doesn’t.

Frankly, there’s nothing worse than co-operative games that ALSO include scoring or win conditions for individual players.  It just breaks any enjoyment of the game for me because those two concepts are so antithetical to one another; it’s like that moment in Castle Panic when you realize that letting the monsters reach the castle and kill everyone inside will make you the winner so there’s no reason keep fighting monsters.  THERE SHOULD ALWAYS BE A REASON TO KEEP FIGHTING MONSTERS!

Saboteur is a broken f-ed up game, and I don’t think I can get anyone on-board enough to try to ‘fix’ it, even if the fix is to just throw out the treasure deck.  Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth fixing, so really I’m just going to hope that it stops being the popular go-to game for semi-large groups.

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