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.

The Challenge

Circumstances have prevented the Dungeon Crawl Classics group I’m in from having enough folks to run anything, so we’ve been playing various other games during our regularly scheduled nights.  Last time we got together, I decided to bring over “The Challenge”, an obscure card game whose perforated cardstock I’d not even gotten around to separating yet.

the challenge

Hey… hey, wait… spells don’t use the numbered cards, there are no 6s and even Axes only go up to 7!

“The Challenge” is a game of quasi-D&D-like PVP action.  Players take turns having their party members fight it out with weapons and magic until one party is eliminated and the player with the most remaining HP + Magic item value + HP of enemy characters killed is the winner.  Instead of the BS backstabbing and indirect conflict of Munchkin, The Challenge is all about straight head to head combat.  As its name implies, a challenge is issued and characters slug it out until one is killed or both players have exhausted their actions.

Each player starts with 5 characters that can be sorted into one or two ranks.  The races of the character (Orc, Human, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling) aren’t particularly relevant unless you choose to let players pick parties by race rather than randomly to get a more balanced party.  More important are the classes and their abilities.  Each character card has three abilities, meaning those are the cards that can be played when they are in combat: Fighters will have three of the four weapon types, Clerics and Wizards will generally have one weapon and two spells or no weapons & three spells, and Thieves will have two weapons + Backstab.

So, you draw a fist full of cards from the Melee and Mystic Action decks.  The Melee Action deck is mostly full of weapon cards, Daggers, Staffs, Axes, Bows, and Swords, but also has a few “Parry” and “Dodge” cards.  The Mystic Actions deck has spells, equipable magic items, some special thief actions (Spy and Hide in Shadow), and some general defensive items/actions.  These cards can be played based on what abilities are listed on the character card.  If you have a fist-full of Axes, chances are, you don’t want to attack with a wizard that turn, but if you’ve got that shiny human paladin, you’re good to go.

One of the neat aspects is the “ranks”; most characters can only attack one rank away (i.e. a fighter on the first rank can only challenge a fighter on another player’s first rank), but characters with bows can attack two ranks away, wizards can attack any rank(or two ranks, I forget), and if you play a “hide in shadows” card on a thief, they exist in special thiefspace and cannot be attacked but can attack either rank (though doing so will cause them to leave thiefspace).  Once we actually figured out how the thief worked, we realized they were pretty badass.  Since hide in shadows can be played as a response, it meant that they could attack with impunity so long as you had an extra hide in shadows card.

We had a lot of fun with it, but we will definitely need to create our own set of explicit rules and clarifications.  For one thing, the rules pertaining to cards were neither entirely on the card nor in the rules’ description of the card, so you had to read both the card and the rules to figure out how something worked, and even then it could be vague.  Dispel Magic was a point of contention because it was so varied in what it did: on a defensive turn, Dispel Magic could be played to neutralize a negative effect, such as Hold Person, on your own party, but on an attack turn, it could be used to destroy an enemy’s magic item (initiating a challenge against that character), remove a Charm Person (initiating and then instantly ending the challenge if the dispel resolves and you regain control of your character), or counter a spell targeting your caster.  The jury is still out as to whether it can negate an Orb of Protection (because Orb of Protection is party-wide and normally targeting an enchantment/equipment initiates a challenge against whomever is enchanted/equipped), but we agreed that it could not negate the Shield Wall action.  And here is where things are confusing: there are things which are actions which common sense tells you is an item.  Healing Potion is not an item; it’s an action that can be played in response to taking damage or to remove accumulated damage.  Similarly, an Orb of Protection is a “Special Defensive Action” which can only be played during a defensive turn.  Note that the categorization of Mystic Action Cards is listed not on the cards themselves, but in the manual’s description of each card.

This is a game that if you have the patience to figure it out and don’t mind having to piece together your own errata will make a great addition to your gaming parties.  It would feel right at home among something like Bang! or King of Tokyo for folks who like their party games a bit more cut-throat but don’t like the more passive aggressive styles of play.  Though the box’s disclaimer “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Your Friends” is silly and childish, it could just as well read “Warning: Don’t Play This Game With Eurogamers.”  The only way you’re going to win at this is to be unafraid to throw an axe in someone’s face.  Just make sure you’ve feigned with a Sword-3 or something to draw out that Parry before you drop the Axe-7 on them.

I found this game cheap several years ago and regret waiting so long to play it.  Old as it is, this one is still going for under $20 in a lot of places, and I highly recommend it.


From Boardgame Geeks; not my copy.

#Gamergate Cardgame update:

Just so I wouldn’t be talking out of my ass about it, I went ahead and bought the PDF of James Desborough’s Gamergate: The Card Game from Gumroad.  Having looked at all of the cards, this is some of the most innocuous shit I’ve ever seen in comparison with the levels of outrage against it.  Maybe not quite Catcher in the Rye levels of disproportionate outrage here, and the words “fuck” and “shit” come up a lot, but the only thing really ‘problematic’ with this game would be finding someone to play it with that you didn’t have to explain all of the jokes to.

At some point, I might buy a physical copy just to have, but given that the last time I bought a card game (Gloom) I never ended up playing except at times when other people or places had copies floating around, it might be a bit before I get one.

Still, the most awesome thing would be a physical set where every card that is an homage to a specific individual was autographed by that person.  I’d love to have a Christina Hoff Sommers autographed Based Mum or a “Cicero Everybodypeeps” signed by Milo Yiannopoulos.  Hell, even the Antis, though that would probably be next to impossible.

It would make one hell of a collectors item, though.