I keep reminding myself that each of the games in the Minigame Library from Level 99 Games were designed by the same dude, D. Brad Talton, Jr. It’s surprising because each of these games is a tight, self-contained experience, totally distinct from the others in the collection despite their shared designer and tiny size. Unfortunately, they also share the same downside: that they could have been even better if only they’d had more to them. In a way, the “mini” in “Minigame Library” is its biggest weakness. Master Plan would have been even more cerebral if only it contained a few more traps; Infinity Dungeon’s random wackiness stops being quite so random and wacky after you encounter all of its items, rooms, and characters after only a few plays; and Pixel Tactics demands “More!” so resoundingly that it’s getting exactly that later this summer.
Then along comes Noir, the glowing exception to this rule. Noir has exactly as many cards as it needs to be a great mystery game, and it’s easily the tightest out of a set of very tight games. “More?” you ask.
No. Noir isn’t interested in more.
Even so, that didn’t stop Mr. Talton from trying to pack more into this tiny box, bless his heart. See, you can play Noir in four different ways. You can be an assassin racing to complete a hit-list before you’re arrested, or a master thief trying to rob everyone blind — including the police chief and his deputies. You can even turn it into a 3-4 player game of spy tag, if that’s your thing. None of these extra modes are bad, or unwarranted. They’re pleasant enough diversions, solid concepts. It’s just that they’re mildly superfluous, because the best way to play is in vanilla mode, Killer vs. Inspector. This is the one that transforms Noir’s two decks of 25 forensic-sketch suspects into a tense game of wits and deduction between two ideological opposites. It’s fast, brutal, and filled to the brim with that “One more game!” vengeance appeal.
Here’s how it works.
Once you’ve laid out a 5 by 5 grid of suspects, the killer draws the top card from the Evidence Deck, which contains the same 25 people that are now face-up on the table. This is his secret identity. Then he has to kill someone.
You can kill anyone adjacent to you, so you’ll probably pick someone near the middle — certainly not anyone along the edge, since the inspector is watching you closely, making mental notes about which cards are seated adjacent to the victim, and glancing up at your eyes for clues about where you’re looking. So you sit as still as a stone, gaze fixed, and reach out to flip one of the suspects to its DECEASED side. As cold as any movie killer.
Now the inspector draws four cards from the Evidence Deck and puts one of them face-down. That’s her identity, and the other three are clues — alibis, lack of motive, that sort of thing. She looks down at the suspects and begins putting together the puzzle of your identity. You killed Barrin, so you could be Udstad, Deidre, Linus, Alyss — not Clive or Neil, she knows (not that you know she knows), because she’s holding those cards in her hand — or maybe Vladmir or Marion.
Now you’ve got a stew on.
If you’re thinking your only options are to move around and kill people, you’re a sub-par serial killer. Yes, you can move, which you do by “shifting” a column or row, and yes, you can continue killing adjacent suspects — in fact, you must, because the only two ways to win are to either create a hefty pile of sixteen victims or by offing the inspector herself. But those aren’t the only tools at your disposal. See, in addition to being a criminal psychopath, you’re also a master of disguise, and you can draw another card from the Evidence Deck and take that person’s identity, revealing your past disguise as deceased (because you killed them to take their place, of course).
What’s to keep you from hopping from identity to identity? Well, not much, and it’s one of the game’s weaker points. I personally use a house rule that the killer can only change identities every second or third round, depending on the difficulty we’re after. The regular rules already have some safeguards against that sort of behavior, even if they sometimes still allow for very bouncy killers: you can’t change identities if you draw a deceased person, which means you just wasted a turn; and you can’t disguise once the entire Evidence Deck has run dry — which actually happens, considering the inspector has a special action in addition to moving and arresting a suspect, which lets them draw another card to exonerate a suspect. The downside is that once they exonerate someone, they need to then reveal one of the cards from their hand — so while they’re narrowing down the list of people who could be the killer, they’re also narrowing down the list of people who they might be, giving you more opportunities to knock them off before they get a chance to accuse and arrest you.
Even with some problems (most notably the rampant disguises of the killer), this is one of my most-loved games from the Minigame Library. It’s tense, fun, and — best of all — really, really fast. Which is a tremendous upside considering the fact that it’s incredibly tough to play as the inspector (I’ve only seen the inspector win once, and that was partially dumb luck), so the optimal move is to do two back-to-back matches with swapped roles to see who’s the more efficient killer.
And as I said above, it’s the first game from the Minigame Library that feels absolutely complete. I can’t imagine any extra component that would add to the contents of its little box, and it hasn’t worn out its appeal with multiple plays. It’s simply a smart, meaty, quick deduction game that leaves both players feeling alternately Hannibal-brilliant and Clouseau-stupid.