Dirty Rotten Scoundrel Society
Think of board games like a heist. You’ve got a target (winning the game), a plan both staffed with clever people (the other players) and enabled by innovative mechanical apparatuses (the rules), and any number of ways for things to go wrong. It’s the sort of analogy that feels so right because it can be applied to pretty much anything. A movie is a heist. A book is a heist. Stealing a bucketful of Fabergé eggs is a heist.
Scoundrel Society, which is about a gentlemen society of thieves seeking to fleece a mark of all their worldly possessions, single-handedly proves the point. Because when it comes to a heist, you can have all the right ideas, people, and tools, and still fall flat on your face right as you’re moseying out the door with a Rembrandt tucked under your coat.
Before we get into the more sobering stuff, let’s talk about what Scoundrel Society gets right.
First of all, the setting is not only pretty darn cool, it’s also fresh. You and your friends are thieves, but not just any thieves. You’re gentlemen (and gentlewomen) thieves, which of course makes all the difference. Every year, your society of do-badders assembles to rob someone blind. Perhaps a wealthy heiress, a reclusive artist, or even a retired burglar. You’ll enter their home under some social pretext, canvass the grounds, swipe as many shiny baubles as possible, then squirrel more goodies into your stash than anyone else.
The twist to this orgy of purloined goods is the fact that nearly everything in your mark’s home might raise suspicion once it’s deposited with your fence. A well-known expensive painting is indeed expensive, but it’s also well-known. An historical artifact might look great on your mantelpiece, but its rightful owners will have their eyes open for it. Swipe too many high-profile pieces and you’ll undoubtedly be the richest fella in the room, but when Constable Cramphorn shows up, drawn out of the deck at an uncertain moment, you’ll get to enjoy being the richest fella in prison.
There’s a balance to be struck between stealing everything and stealing smart. Is one of your rivals looking a little too clean? Slip some incriminating evidence into his pocket. Let another burglar steal that tapestry and make some noise in the process, then swipe it from them while the blame is still squarely leveled in their direction. Abscond with a forged birth certificate to cool off from all the heat. Or maybe just steal the fine china and the odd silver coin. Nobody’s bound to miss those. Swiping a yacht and sailing off into the sunset, or making off with all the gold you can carry, is particularly thrilling when you know there’s always a chance you’ll be caught before your polite society even begins tallying their score.
All this thievery comes down to a deft bit of chicanery, at least in theory. Each player gets a handful of actions, and plays one in secret every round. The trick here is that each action is a little different depending on whether any of the other thieves also played it at the same time. If you’re planning on tiptoeing into the mansion’s restricted wing to nab the diamond tiara and family heirloom that caught your eye earlier, your escapades might be interrupted by another gentleman thief with the same intentions, thus only permitting each of you to decamp with half the loot. Nicely, not every action is made less effective in company, in particular the scheme card, which lets everyone who played it work together (if only briefly) to bring home the bacon.
It’s a neat enough little system, though it ends up feeling more arbitrary than it ought to. There are only five possible actions, and the state of play is rarely varied enough to give any real clue what your fellow scoundrels might get up to that round. There are exceptions, of course. If someone is hauling around half the house in their trousers, they’ll likely be storing their loot soon, while someone with a particularly nice treasure might find it swapped out of their custody before long. But most of the time, Scoundrel Society is as capricious as its namesake, with cards mostly laid out and resolving in a way that feels peculiarly passive for a game about nicking a rich man’s most prized possessions.
Worse, the game has a terrible tendency of dragging on, a trait that might somehow benefit a gentleman thief in need of a few more minutes before the host waddles up the stairs to check on his private art gallery, but has very little place in a game that’s so light as to hardly contain any meaningful decisions. The estimated time on the box 45 minutes, and while it’s nice to see a box finally telling the truth about its age, that’s too long by double.
Like a crook who’s long past his prime, Scoundrel Society is technically competent on any number of levels. The setting is excellent, Constable Cramphorn showing up to drag off the most suspicious thief makes for some interesting decisions, and there’s nothing strictly broken about the action cards. Unfortunately, that very same crook has gotten a little slow in its golden years. He doesn’t like thinking too hard, and would rather sip a bitter beverage in the shade than run up and down the stairs with a candelabra sticking out of his back pocket.
In short, retirement is just around the corner.