Run Boy Run
Remember Burgle Bros.? It was a rather nifty stealth-heist game hampered ever so slightly by a gamey event system. Still, it was slick. And now it’s got a sequel. Sort of.
The culprit in question is Fugitive, and it’s one of those very rare games that doesn’t sound like much at all — not with its fifteen-minute playtime, a single deck of fewer than fifty cards, and rules that take maybe two minutes to explain — but once laid out upon the table reveals itself to be nearly perfect.
Right up front, the critical thing you need to know about Fugitive is that it’s also a stealth game, and comes loaded with all the stomach-rumbling tension that stealth games are so great at eliciting. Also, that’s where the comparisons to Burgle Bros. swiftly part ways.
Instead, the stealthy bits only make up fifty percent of the game. That’s the eponymous Fugitive’s job, to get out of town while the gettin’s good. His job revolves around drawing cards and laying them across the table in secret, each one representing a not-so-secure hideout or quick dodge of the authorities on his way to the fueled plane that’s currently warming the tarmac.
The trouble? That he’s being pursued by the country’s toughest Marshal. Which means that while the Fugitive is slapping down cards and racing from one hidey-hole to another, the Marshal is constantly nipping at his heels, each of her card draws bringing her one step closer to unraveling his evacuation plan.
Much of this game’s elegance has to do with the way that these roles are asymmetrical yet completely intertwined, employing the same basic facts as tools to either evade or ensnare their pursuer or prey. For one thing, both players draw from the same three pools of numbered cards, each representing a different range of steps on the Fugitive’s escape, which means that both are forced to work from their own cobbled-together picture of what their opponent knows. And for another, both are clever enough to take advantage of their opponent’s limitations.
Here’s an example. The Fugitive is all about measuring out his steps from the heart of the city to his plane. He starts with a few of those numbered cards and the knowledge that he can move three “steps” per hideout. Every card he plays must be only three steps removed, at most, from the card before it. And since he starts at 0 and must reach 42, there are going to be a whole lot of hideouts on the table before he’s clear.
Now, the Marshal also knows this. If the Fugitive was recently spotted at card 7, that means the only places he can be hiding on the next leg of his journey are cards 8, 9, or 10. Better yet, because the Marshal is also drawing a card from the same pools each turn, she might already know that the Fugitive can’t be hiding at one or more of those places. Easy!
Except that the Fugitive can optionally sprint, a trick undertaken by spending more of his cards. Since each card will let him sprint either one or two spaces, the Marshal can’t know precisely how much farther he’s traveling just because he spent, say, two cards. Even so, every spent card represents an opportunity for the Marshal. Those cards are spent and done with, for one thing. Even more significantly, if the Marshal can figure out where the Fugitive went during a sprint, she also gets a peek at all those discards, adding their digits to her growing knowledge of where the Fugitive cannot be.
But wait just a minute! Just because the Fugitive spent some cards to sprint doesn’t mean he actually has to. Instead, maybe he spent a card and then scooted an inch or two closer to his freedom. Now the Marshal is groping around in the dark thanks to the assumption that her quarry charged forward, when really he’s shuffling around right under her nose.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost, however. While the Fugitive is being tricksy, the Marshal is free to hatch plans of her own. For one thing, she might start drawing from the card pool that represents a future leg of the Fugitive’s journey, effectively blocking off easy passage once he starts needing those cards. It isn’t uncommon for the Fugitive to reach the plane, only for the Marshal to quickly guess a string of locations during her final manhunt, closing in while he grapples with the controls. And there’s nothing quite like watching as a string of hideouts all melt away, or playing as the Marshal and making a series of rapid deductions and praying they pay off.
The result is a prestissimo tempo of escalating guesses, tense misses and reveals, and successful bluffs or traps. It’s wonderfully gripping, packed with all the anxiety of playing hide-and-seek and feeling that prickle down your spine when your pursuer gets too close, or the antsy sensation of being one step closer to finally nabbing your prey.
Best of all, however, is the fact that Fugitive is a morsel that leaves you wanting more, if only because it’s so immediately digested. This is the sort of game that we might say is best played twice, allowing each player to try their hand at both flight and pursuit, except in practice it usually lends itself to even more rounds than that. In spite of its tiny frame — right down to its cute-as-a-bean miniature briefcase box — it’s that good, distilling the thrills and apprehensions of much longer stealth games into something truly potent.