Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saboteur and party games

Over the holidays I played Saboteur with my family.  It is a pretty random card game where players are secretly put on teams and then the players either try to succeed at a goal or stop the others from succeeding depending on which team they were secretly assigned to.  It feels like a silly party game but after playing it I think it would be much better suited to being played by hard nosed strategy gamers.  I will talk about the five player version of the game but it can be played with many different numbers of players.  The strange thing about the setup is that there are six role cards which are shuffled up and dealt out to the players - two cards for Saboteur and four which are Good Guys.  This means that there teams are either 2-3 or 1-4.  Given that there are many cards in the deck which take people out of the game for somewhere between one turn and the entire game it should be clear that both versions cannot be balanced.  If the 2-3 game is reasonably winnable by either side then the 1-4 game is going to be a blowout nearly every time since as soon as the solo player is identified everyone else is going to gank them out of the game and go on to win.

Of course party games being extremely random is fine.  They aren't supposed to be particularly skill based, but the trick here is that the way the one person loses is really not much fun.  If they do things that are good for them they end up unable to play and just sit there discarding cards for much of the time.  I think that player elimination is a generally bad mechanic but I also find that player elimination without letting the player get out of the game is even worse.  In Monopoly you get knocked out of the game but at least that lets you go get a drink, join another game or read.  If you are forced to continue to play a game but lack the ability to do anything then you have the worst of both worlds - you don't get the fun of playing nor the chance to do something else.  Mechanics that put a player pretty much out of contention are fine (level of randomness permitting) as long as the player can continue to play the game and do their thing.  There is plenty of fun to be had in trying to get the best possible score given one's circumstances even if victory is out of reach.

Given how much backstabbing, lying and general tomfoolery there is going on in this game I think that it is actually much better suited to hardcore game geeks than casual party gamers.  When everyone is trying to present themselves in a particular way to deliberately fool their opponents there is much more to be done even if you cannot play cards temporarily.  Hardcore gamers are also a lot more likely to backstab their partners to attempt to steal all the points for themselves which naturally balances out any team size imbalances.  I suspect with a bunch of people like my brother and myself who are happy to shout out strategy and accuse people of being saboteurs (while lying through our teeth, of course) this game would be incredibly loud and hilarious.


  1. In most versions of Saboteur/Resistance, outed 'spies' can still have a significant effect on the game.

  2. It is true, you can... if your cards are right. I watched a couple of people get taken right out of the game though, and spend 80% of the game just discarding turn after turn. That certainly isn't always the case, but it is the case often enough to make me really dislike the mechanic.

  3. Is it just a few overpowered cards that allow this to happen?

  4. No.

    The way it works is that there are a large number of cards in the deck that put a debuff on you that prevent you from taking many of your actions. There are 3 possible debuffs and there are other cards in the deck that cure a particular kind of debuff. Problem is that if I get a 'broken cart' debuff and have 'cure broken pick' card I can't cure myself so often I have to rely on others (who may not be on my team) to cure me.

    Sometimes you get a 'broken cart' debuff and you have a mittful of cards that can be cast regardless and it is fine but sometimes you are flat out prevented from doing anything because all your cards are stopped by 'broken cart'.

  5. Is this the dig for treasure in a player generated mine game? I played it once and found it really annoying that the teams could end up really unbalanced.

  6. Yeah, you are looking to dig a tunnel to the gold card and you dig the tunnel by placing tunnel cards on a grid. Probably it is the same game you played Zigggyny.