Wrott & Swindlers

Published by Ludis
Designed by Steve Doherty
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

3-6 Players
about 60 minutes

Even for an insufferable clever dick like myself, there are occasional surprises in the games market. If I told you that Wrott & Swindlers is a new British game that is beautifully presented, actually has some promising design techniques and which really works, then you might understand my amazement. Steve Doherty of Ludis is quite up front about the design, claiming that he wants to make money on the thousand copies printed (which he probably will), that he'd like a major to pick it up and run with it, and that he knows nothing of the German games market. Doubly interesting then that he has subtly merged elements of Modern Art, Kuhhandel, Stamp and High Society in this new release. Intrigued? So was I.

Let's be clear about Wrott. It is a game that is definitely not going to embarrass itself in the company of gamers, but it is first and foremost a family game. It has both been designed and pitched at this market, but as with some of the best it has major crossover potential. As far as this genre goes, it hits the mark exactly and I can see this being a real hit at Christmas. It's easily understood, quick and punchy, and you are usually part of it right to the finish.

Anyone brought up on Minder or Lovejoy will love this game. That is because the theme is wheeler dealing and collecting antiques, of which there are 48 arranged in twelve sets of four. Each set, such as porcelain, silverware, toys or militaria, has a nominal face value ranging from 50 to 1000 per card. The aim of the game is to cheaply collect these complete sets of antiques which will multiply your total points value at game end. eg 1,400 points x 6 sets produces 8,400 points. Our games have so far been won by between 6,000 and 10,000. So while the points values are important, the real winner is usually the set multiplier. The highest points total wins, and your remaining cash has no bearing apart from splitting ties, which are unlikely but quite possible.

The game plays in two distinct phases. Following the usual free hand out of cash and four starter items, the entire deck of antique cards is auctioned off. Each player will try his best to secure complete sets in this phase, but that is easier said than done - more likely you will get two or three cards of the four, and the grinning chap across the table will have the all important missing piece. There are two clever twists here compared to the myriad duff auction games of yore. Firstly, as in High Society, your cash is strictly limited and in fixed denominations. And you can't make change. So if you've only got a 50 note left, and you want to bid a tenner for a Stieff teddy bear, tough. Put up or shut up. Further cash becomes available at two random points in the first phase, but no more is ever injected into the system. The end result, as we shall see, is a zero sum situation in which you are trying to desperately relieve the other players of their readies to bolster your own future spending power.

The other crucial aspect, reminiscent of Stamp, is that each player takes it in turn to be the auctioneer. He takes the top card and gets what he can for it. You won't be surprised at how keen players are to talk the price up when told that they are on the receiving end of the cash. Alternatively, while he can't actually bid, the auctioneer has the option to 'buy in' the piece at the end of the auction by paying his own cash to the player who 'bought' it. This is simple, but very clever. It means you must check the interest level for every piece (by checking that set's distribution around the table) and make sure that it doesn't go too cheaply to either another player or the auctioneer. There is also a real danger of bidding up only to find you have overpaid as your rival smugly passes. The parallels with Modern Art will be self evident.

The second phase starts when all the cards are sold. Those that are already in sets are excluded from play but the rest are fair game. However, the mechanism now changes completely from open bids to secret bids and counter bids between just two players. An example is probably the easiest way to explain it. Bob has three pieces of furniture and Cecil has the missing one. Bob clearly wants to obtain this, so he puts up one of his pieces as collateral together with a face down cash bid. Cecil responds with a counter offer and he too risks his card. Both bids are checked secretly and the higher of the two secures the other player's antique. Either way, both players keep the other chap's cash.

So if Cecil wanted to gamble, he could go high and try to steal one of Bob's Chippendales with an eye to eventually gaining the set, or he could succumb, put in a pathetic bid and grab any cash coming his way. At the same time, Bob could guess that Cecil will duck and he can therefore bid lower than normal (but not too low or he could lose). The result is a clever little sub-game of bluff and doublethink where you are not only trying to value items, but also trying to work out your opponents tactics and needs, and the likely net cash movement between the two of you. Each player thus takes it in turn to nominate an antique category to bid for (you must have at least one card of the set to do this, so it's important to obtain a spread of antique types in phase one), and step by step this completes all the sets. Needless to say, this phase can produce groans, grins and some rather impressive bids late in the day when money is of relatively little use.

The first game, played between four reasonably cutthroat gamers, produced some interesting developments. Firstly, it kept all of us engrossed for the hour it takes to play, and all were keen to play again. This would imply, to me at least, that the strategy is not at all simplistic. Secondly, it came close as anything else I've played to simulating some of the more unfathomable elements of collecting. This manifests itself as one lot going for well under 'estimate' while the next, perhaps the third in a set, going for silly money - great if you are the auctioneer. Again, as with much of Reiner Knizia's work, the emphasis is on consistently establishing the correct value for the cards. This is good stuff. And lastly, what could be a little hitch when playing with maths competent gamers. In a similar vein to Manhattan, the final to and froing of set completion can leave matters open to somewhat extended cost/benefit analysis, but this doesn't always happen and is hardly a problem anyway. Just say, "Get on with it", in a very loud voice.

That was the first game. Games two through five have been just as much fun, were certainly better from the play depth aspect, and have greatly increased my regard for this design. We haven't yet found any loopholes in terms of strategy and it does seem to be a straightforward head to head tussle, with no perfect plans or stuffing tactics rearing their ugly heads. In fact, the third game, with three players, went right down to the wire with some amazingly close bids and a lot of bluff, nasty tactics and hard thinking. Mike Clifford, my nemesis that day, rates the game as one of the most exciting finds of 1995 and on this initial evidence I'd have to agree.

Probably the only caveat for family play, and more so for gamers, is the asking price. I have no doubt that 25, or more, is the going rate for Pictionary and Co, but like those minimal heft factor games, 25 is an awful lot to pay for a card based game (but then that was also true of Modern Art). At 20 you'd feel a bit guilty, at 15 you'd be queuing for copies, but that extra tenner is pushing it. That said, this is one of the most attractive games I've seen in years. It comes in a cloth textured small box, containing the rules, two packs of cards and an attractive, if somewhat superfluous, wooden gavel. The production standards are universally high, and the graphic design of the cards is quite superb. Atmospheric, uniquely styled and conscientiously executed (but sometimes a little dark) - among the very best I've seen. The Art and Toy sets represent works of gaming art, and I always try to collect them. Oops. The overall impact is of top quality and any collector will be pleased to have this one on his shelf. And it could not have been cheap to produce. All I can say is the game is a good one, so it is up to you and your conscience to pay the price.

If we assume, quite reasonably, that the designer had no exposure to any of the aforementioned German games, then the originality and playability of Wrott & Swindlers represents something of a revelation. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that this game, ostensibly aimed at the mass market, can easily stand with the better hobby games of this year. At this point, I'm not entirely sure this one will offer much in the long term for hardcore gamers, but that is not to detract from its outstanding short term or family merits. As a guide, we have played five times in two weeks with no problems apart from, in one game, the second phase dragged slightly, but this has not happened before or since.

Indeed, it is an ideal 'proper' game that would not look out of place in a German department store, which is praise indeed, and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to try it. It deserves, and should realistically get, a successful run on the shelves. Looking wider, when decent games like this appear, it seems incredible that the best the BBC could do with its lucrative Antiques Roadshow game was yet another trivia clone. Wrott & Swindlers is an excellent little game: innovative, well tested, fun, playable, even quite interesting to master and I look forward keenly to future designs from Ludis. Highly Recommended.

You can purchase Wrott & Swindlers from Just Games or as a Sumo special offer direct for £24 inc p&p from:

93 Greenbank Road
Co Durham DL3 6EN

Copyright 1995, Mike Siggins

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell