How to Pepper Spray a Mall Cop
I don’t often talk about how much a game costs. There’s a reason for that. Essentially, a game’s cost is so subjective — and variable — that nearly anything I could say wouldn’t actually be about the game, it would be about my economic circumstances. Which, sure, might tip you off to the fact that Kingdom Death: Monster is a scooch beyond my price range.
I picked up How to Rob a Bank at Target for ten dollars. It’s silly, quick, and colorful. For ten dollars. And you can bet your butt that’s going to impact how I think about it.
Before we get into the particulars of how much this game is worth, let’s take a look at what the mysterious collective at Prospero Hall has put together this time.
Yes, there’s a bank, and yes, some of you are going to rob it. That’s right, some. One person is required to play as the guard. Not that you should worry about drawing the short straw. Although “How to Protect a Bank” sounds less exciting — most of the time they seem to protect themselves just fine — the guard player will get up to plenty of shenanigans of their own.
It goes like this. First you build a bank, tile by randomized tile. The robbers start in one spot, with the getaway car at the opposite end. Guards are scattered throughout — money bags, too, because what’s the point of storing all that pretty gold in a vault when you can have it on display? Sometimes there are walls dividing the bank into sections, other times the walls are exterior and the bank floor is basically a sprawling open cathedral.
And then, you program. I mean, plan.
First the guard plays a card, face-up for the entire table to see. Then the thieves, each in turn, do the same. Another card is played, and another, until everybody has selected the five moves their character(s) will take once the heist begins. Then that little deck of moves gets flipped over, preserving the order of your cards, and it’s time to go.
If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because How to Rob a Bank’s approach to programmed movement is both reliable and not particularly inventive. Instead, the good stuff comes afterward. As soon as you start revealing moves, things go sideways. No, not like in Space Alert, where the intentional rigidity of your moves results in horrible missteps. Not even quite like Colt Express, although that’s a mite closer. Rather, your options in How to Rob a Bank are surprisingly open-ended. Sure, there are those that don’t result in much, like standing in place and spraying your pepper spray in a wild arc. But most of the cards are refreshingly permissive. Go here, or there, or backward, or toward the car. Don’t forget your free action to scoot the car closer to where you hope to escape with those ill-gotten bags of cash. Now play an air vent card to move anywhere. That’s right. This bank has its air conditioning set to Alaska.
This open-endedness only works because it cuts both ways. During the planning phase, you’re staring at your opponent’s array of cards. Okay, so she’s moving guards. Now she’s locking a money bag. Therefore, you should move and use a lockpick to free up that money bag so you can access it next turn. But if her guard is still standing in that space, you won’t be able to tinker with locks, so maybe you should use some pepper spray first. Or will that just be a waste of a card? Meanwhile, your opponent is doing the same thing, evaluating your moves, watching as they branch off and become incalculable even on that compact nine-by-nine grid that’s so popular with banks these days.
Little subtleties like that add a lot to what would otherwise cross the threshold into the simplistic. Locking and unlocking bags, positioning the getaway car, squatting a guard on top of cash because you know the robbers won’t be able to pick it up. You can even pull the alarm to send every guard on the map scurrying to that tile. As a guard, maybe lock that down ASAP.
If there’s any weakness to this process, it’s that the card choices can be a little too obvious. The problem isn’t with the ones that offer wide-open possibilities. It’s the limited ones that break the mold, and not always in interesting ways. These occasionally offer a single movement, or a stationary attack, or whatever. But each turn sees you drawing enough cards that it isn’t often necessary to use them. Worse, when you do deploy one, you’re generally the odd man out. At best, you’re burning the card to stand up your KO’d character. At worst, you’re poking around to no real effect. Ho hum.
Good thing, then, that it isn’t long before you’re back into the action. How to Rob a Bank is really about multiple banks, with your robbers determined to swipe a certain amount of loot across three separate heists. Between the changeable floor plan and each round’s new hand of cards, there’s enough variety that it doesn’t drag. And if the box is spinning a yarn about the playtime weighing in at thirty minutes, that’s because it’s on the long end. If everyone knows what’s happening, you can knock this one out in twenty, tops.
Which is ultimately why I’m minorly smitten with How to Rob a Bank. Between its price, its rules, and its swift playtime, it’s just so darn easy to table. I’m all for big meaty games that are day-long experiences, with hefty rules and important underlying messages. But sometimes it’s nice to play a game where people can suss out its iconography without the need for the board game equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.
In one play, Geoff turned to his thieving cohorts and asked, “Should we plan our moves?” Across the table, the guard player leaned forward with a grin and said, “Please do.” Because that’s the thing about How to Rob a Bank: the more you plan, the more you shed your freedom to use your cards in a way that will surprise and undermine the other side. It certainly doesn’t help that “the other side” is always listening in.
Immediate. That’s the word for it. Fast to set up, fast to teach, fast to play. None of those are digs. There’s no waiting around for the next big thing, because the next big thing is what’s happening right now. And now. And now. A sequence of big moves, many of them silly or self-defeating or crucial or game-winning, all in a tidy little row.
And, yeah, it helps that it’s super cheap.