The Crimes They Are a-Changin’
My Grandpa owned the original Stop Thief, the one from way back in 1979 before exclamation marks were considered proper for board games. The ’80s overcompensated by adding the buggers to everything, but for that brief moment in time you could utter that phrase with a gruff flatness. Stop. Thief. No yelling. You’re hardly even speaking aloud at that point. Growling it, maybe.
Sadly, the chunky plastic “police scanner” that revealed the location of the fleeing thieves was hopelessly broken. We mostly just pushed the investigators around and pretended they were blasting each other in broad daylight and on public streets with their magnum revolvers. So, in a way, a big stretch of a way, Restoration Games giving Stop Thief! new life — with a shiny new exclamation mark — feels almost predestined, as though I was never meant to escape its gravitational pull.
If you weren’t hip to the original, Stop Thief was one of those titles that featured an app long before it was cool. How did it work? I have no idea. Like I said, my Grandpa’s copy was broken. But it looked rad. The prospect of running around the most crime-riddled town in the world, responding to dispatches as thieves looted the block clean, maybe collaring a culprit or two, and all while competing with the other investigators for cold hard cash… well. Nifty stuff.
So while I can’t speak to how much Stop Thief! cleans up the original, it does manage to feel rather fresh. If anything, I suspect it’s less a restoration and more a reimagining.
Here’s the deal. Every turn, an app on someone’s phone squawks out a clue. Maybe an alarm is triggered at the bank. Maybe your bounty is tap-dancing down a hallway, or cracking open an improbably creaky-hinged door, or breaking a window and heading out onto the streets. One clue isn’t much to go by. There are plenty of spots for setting off alarms or breaking glass. But after a few turns of clues, the possible locations start to dwindle. Maybe someone makes a poor guess, eliminating one of the options. Then the race is on, everyone blitzing to make the arrest and earn the culprit’s bounty. First one to squirrel away their nest egg is the winner.
It’s a straightforward experience. In a way, it resembles the “pursuit” half of stealth games like Specter Ops or even Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space, where half-glimpsed clues send you dashing down a particular alley and counting spaces to ensure you can hit the right one before the baddie slips from your grip. Or worse, before one of your competitors nabs the collar first.
There are a couple additional ingredients that bestow a bit more zest than it might have otherwise had. For one thing, while each criminal is a remote abstraction, existing purely in the dancing electrons of your smartphone, the fact that each one is represented by a card that gives it some minor perks or downsides goes a long way to dispelling the notion that you’re chasing an army of greedy clones. There’s the dude whose reward goes up if you haven’t spent all of your limited action cards, encouraging you to carefully ration your movement before the arrest. Another doubles the cash penalty for an incorrect guess of their location. My personal favorite forces those jerk investigators who have “private tip” cards to cough up some bucks for their info.
Speaking of which, the card system is simple but clever. It’s familiar enough that weathered board gamers will recognize it immediately: spend a card and it’s gone until you play your weakest one, at which point all your options are restored. Each investigator has their own personalized set of options, whether moving a little farther out on the street, pushing back their competitors, generating private tips, or just outright stealing cash while on the job.
Those aforementioned private tips often feel like the most powerful ability, pinpointing the exact location of the thief. It’s handy for when their passage has recently split and you’re left with one of two directions to go. If anything, it’s a tad too handy. I would have rather seen the tips delivered as abstractions. “The thief is in an even-numbered space.” “The thief is directly between two alarms.” Something like that.
(EDIT: Some of the higher difficulties on the app do this, to an extent, by either providing two spaces or only revealing the broad location. It isn’t precisely what I want, but it does mitigate the authority of the private tip somewhat!)
Then again, Stop Thief! isn’t meant as a brain-burning deduction game. It’s lighter fare, the sort of thing used to break newer or younger players into the scene. Where it succeeds is that it’s meaty enough to avoid turning off veterans entirely. It’s a perfectly pleasant way to spend forty minutes or so, with just enough variation in how you move, track down burglars, and space out your cards that you probably won’t be bored.
As a restoration of a game from a time when games were still usually pretty bad, Stop Thief! is a success. Even better, as a light reinvention of the same, it’s the sort of game that just might qualify as a gateway drug.