At Least Prohibition Gave Us This Game
Let’s play a game of make-believe, eh?
Picture this: it’s 1920 in the United States, the Volstead Act has just been passed, and you’re about to make a whole lot of money.
You’ve got a handful of cards. Some are a cheerful go-light green, legal goods that won’t get you into trouble with the law but won’t make you much dough either. Oriental umbrellas and the like. Others are stoplight red, representing good liquor that you can water down and sell at a premium to the thirsty working class, the average Joes who couldn’t afford to stockpile the good stuff in their basements like their bosses. These are where the real money’s at, but if you get caught trucking them across state lines… well, in theory you’ll go to prison. More likely the inspecting officer is dirty and he’ll swipe the whole shipment on behalf of a rival organization.
Which brings us to the last type of card: prohis, the agents of the Prohibition that you’ve got lining your pocket. There are a couple ways to put those shiny federal shield of theirs to work. You could send them out with your shipments. That way, when another prohi pulls over your line of trucks, out steps Mr. Goody Two-Shoes. “Hello Officer,” he’ll say, opening his coat to reveal that silver shield. “Everything’s good here, y’see?” On the other hand, you could put your prohis to work pulling over your competition’s shipments. Find anything that isn’t on the level and you can take the whole shebang for yourself.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because right now you’re sitting at your kitchen table, looking at your hand and debating which cards to put into your convoy. On your right is your sister, her gaze shifting between the backs of your cards and your face. She’s as conniving and as sharp as she was that day fifteen years ago when she told your parents that you’d pushed her down the stairs. The truth is that she just tripped — but she’s a snake, through and through. On your left sits your best friend. Nobody knows you better, but nobody’s as inclined to believe it when you look into his eyes and feed him a candy-coated lie. And across the table is your second-grade teacher, peering over her horn-rimmed glasses. She’s the wildcard.
Man, you throw some world-colliding parties.
So. The question. What do you load into that convoy? You could weigh it down with legal goods, on the level. That way, any prohi brazen enough to rummage through your things would have to join your gang. Or you could hide some whiskey in there. If someone threatened to search you, it’s possible you could bribe your way out of inspection with a couple cards. Or maybe, if you’re clever about it, you could squirrel a couple prohis into the shipment. You wouldn’t be able to use their services later on, but then any searches would end the instant their card was revealed.
Your eyes move between the people seated around you. Your family. Your friends. Your educators. Who among them smells blood in the water? And who’s holding the prohis to make good on their hunger?
If this shipment sounds suspiciously similar to last year’s hit bluff-’em-up Sheriff of Nottingham, it would be a good idea to inspect that convoy. In many ways, Prohis is exactly the same game. You’ve got a hand of cards, legal or otherwise, there are other players with reason to doubt the veracity of your shipping manifest, and it’s your job to make as much cash as possible by bluffing, swaggering, or bribing your way past the inspector.
For anyone who’s played Sheriff of Nottingham, the formula works because it’s the real deal. There’s something beautiful about lying to your loved ones and not having to feel guilty about it, and Prohis provides that experience as adroitly as Sheriff ever did. Sitting there with your heart hammering at your throat, unable to let your demeanor of calm slip for a single beat, is a terrific thrill. Studying your spouse’s face for any crack in his affected calm, any sign at all that there’s liquor hidden somewhere in those trucks, makes for one hell of a tense experience. In either case, this is bluffing at its finest.
In some ways, Prohis provides an even smoother ride than Sheriff of Nottingham did. This comes as a surprise because Prohis is the slimmer of the two, not to mention the later arrival. Where Sheriff showed up with player boards, fancy snapping baggies to hide your contraband in, multiple types of legal and illegal goods, and lets you become the Chicken King for extra cash, Prohis is just a fat deck of cards. Each turn is as simple as choosing to draw a couple cards or to load a convoy to your warehouse, where cards will remain until they’re scored at the end of the game. If you choose the latter option, anyone can opt to play a prohi to inspect your trucks, and every so often someone will reveal another prohi to outrank the first. This means that anyone can be the sheriff at any time, can jump in and call you on your bullshit. For anyone who’s ever sat through a round of Sheriff of Nottingham where the inspector couldn’t see through all those transparent lies, this is the one for you.
Not that I’m saying it’s better. Or not-as-good. Both opinions have been voiced at our table. Some preferred Prohis’s freewheeling attitude, while others liked the variety and structure that Sheriff of Nottingham provided. Personally, I’m hard-pressed to identify which I liked better. Mostly I just like lying to my mum.
And hey, maybe you haven’t heard of Sheriff of Nottingham in the first place, in which case I just wasted a bunch of your time.
In any case, I’m a huge fan of Prohis. This is a prime example of amazing things coming in tiny packages, and an even better example of how a very compact set of rules plus some good friends plus the free license to spin some harmless lies can be one of the most enjoyable ways to spend an hour. This is the perfect after-dinner game, doling out the tension and laughter in spades, then slipping easily back into the box as you go about your lives.
Hopefully you’ll be the richest person at the table, however. Because once you win at Prohis, everyone finally has proof that you’re the slimiest member of the family.