Robin Hood

Robin Hood (Avalon Hill, £10) is most definitely not the earlier ex-OSG game revamped. If anyone was not buying it for that reason, get thee down to the olde gameshoppe and have a look. Yup, we are in the realm of Sherwood Forest, wicked sherriffs, silly songs, green tights and slightly suspect sexuality. Despite all that, I honestly can't tell if the game was in development or if it popped out to coincide with Mr Costner's latest. Whatever, it is a game that falls between a few stools and I doubt if it will outsell Bryan Adams.

Production wise, Robin Hood is a little thin on components and the quality is definitely only £10's worth: five stand up counters (Messrs Hood, Tuck, A'Dale, Scarlett and John Jr.), six bases (or have I lost a merry man?), a pack of cards, some counters and a mounted board but no dice, a clue that this is a Courtney Allen game and that is why I bought it in the first place.

The most unusual part of the game is the ethos for the way the game works. Basically, Robin and the boys have had a tiff and they've all gone their separate ways. Presumably this is to avoid someone having to play the sherriff (after the film, surely not a bad option), but the sight of Robin slapping a nasty card on Friar Tuck just doesn't ring true. Despite the dodgy rationale, the heart of the game is predictably gaining gold and followers in the shape of merry men. The merry men usually make grabbing gold easier and the player with most gold, presumably to invest on behalf of the poor, is the winner. The pursuit of wealth involves running around the board mugging tax collectors and merchants and winning archery contests, all the while recruiting more men to your cause. With a large force in tow, substantial sums can be gained with the right card which is a good enough link into the game system.

Courtney Allen likes card games and the entire Robin Hood system runs from them. Each player is given a hand of cards that will contain up to four suits which enable him to move, recruit and rob, ambush other players and perform special tasks respectively. The cards are colour coded and a player is allowed to play one of each type of card each turn - this I like as an easily remembered and clever rule. In addition, he may discard one card each turn or alternatively play none at all and discard any number. Players of Up Front and Attack Sub will find most of this familiar and the consequence is much the same as in those excellent games; you never seem to have the card you need. Many turns can be spent stuck in a village with a handful of cards that require you to be on the other side of the board while waiting for a movement card.

Once the system is mastered, everything else is straightforward. Movement is conducted on an offset-square grid (which we know would be hexes except this is a family game) with varying types of terrain. Roads improve movement speed, forest roads are dodgy because of ambushes and being stuck in the open is a really daft move. Combat, recruiting and robbing, rather than rolling dice, are decided by turning cards and checking for bows or swords and most of the other rules are explained on the relevant card thus precluding frequent rule reference. Indeed, it pretty much plays intuitively.

The decisions on which cards to hold are pretty obvious once you have a plan. To get across the board to a village (usually for recruitment or a blag) you'll need a number of movement cards or a horse, when you get there the robbery card can be played and any bonus cards claimed at the same time. The mixture of cards is therefore fairly consistent as much of the game will involve this sort of thing, but be prepared to hold onto some special cards and disguise cards because the other players will be out to hinder you from the start through their ambush cards.

The ambush cards are the only real interaction in the game, apart from a pickpocket card, yet they fall short of any real impact. They take the form of ambushes by the Sherriff's and Sir Guy's men and come in a variety of attack strengths. Once in your hand, you play these on other players in an effort to reduce their merry men counters (which are essentially hit point markers). Once all of a player's merry men have been killed, which is not an easy task, the player's character is carted off to a dungeon but he retains virtually all his wealth. At best, an ambushed player will be delayed while you try and grab some loot so it soon becomes obvious that ambushes aren't a workable way of catching up in game terms, you simply have to grab gold faster than the rest of the players.

Consequently, by the end of the first game, I had given up playing all but the strongest the ambush cards as they seem to do less and less as the game wears on (because players have large piles of money and followers) and each combat just serves to take up time. The feel is again one of compromise. The ambush cards are not that nasty but they aren't completely useless either. Personally, I would leave them in but make the penalty for capture much more severe if improving play balance is the intention, even if this is not too realistic.

The game has plenty of flavour for the period but ultimately, because you play through each pack a couple of times, the events become samey and the game dragged a bit. The requirement to work through a number of packs means the game will last at least an hour and I suggest cutting this in half or by a quarter at least. By that time, most of the unusual cards will have been seen and the attention span won't be overly stretched. Also, as it stands, once a leader is established it is hard to pull them back because of the capture rules.

What puzzled me throughout was who is Robin Hood designed for? The price, theme, complexity and rules indicate a family audience while the card system and the slight 'chaos gaming' overtones point away from the mass market. Courtney Allen's game devices are superb at simulating the vagaries of battle ('Why the hell isn't that unit moving?!') but if you are granny playing Friar Tuck and you haven't moved from the castle for six turns, you have a right to be fed up. I would think rolling a dice and moving every turn is ingrained in those enlightened enough to play even family games and I doubt Robin Hood is the right vehicle to change this tradition. Conversely, a hardened gamer is going to find the challenges offered way too light for all but the late night sessions. Again, I am perplexed as to where it is targetted and if it is at the adult/family level, I question whether Courtney Allen, for all his talent, is the right man for the job.

Overall then, Robin Hood isn't great but it isn't bad either. Adjectivally, it is playable. I doubt you'd want to play it much, but it certainly has something there. We played our first game to a finish, which I didn't think we would bother with after the first ten minutes. It has a degree of charm and appeal and some strategy, but the luck factor is heavy and I doubt this sort of game warrants the 'Fog of War' treatment. Gripes amount to it being a bit long for what it is, the box claims you can do something that I don't think you can (involving Maid Marian) and, worst of all, there are nothing like enough gold pieces to go round which is a bad oversight. Those you do get are double sided (1gp/2gp), so when you sneeze you can double your wealth (or halve it). Otherwise, a pleasant surprise for a family game and I do like that card system. A small feather in the jaunty green cap of Courtney Allen.

On to the review of Xanth or back to the review of Days of Decision.

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