Hesitantly pushing a cart, trying to miss the crowd, glaring furiously at every stray cough — sounds like shopping for groceries in 2020. It’s also the topic of Travis Hancock’s Bristol 1350. With its titular city in collapse, up to nine players scramble to escape to the countryside. The hitch? Scrambling to escape might mean catching the bug. In true plague fashion, getting sick means you now want to get everybody else sick, too. Hey, it’s more logical than pooping your pants because somebody asked you to wear a mask.
Right, board games. In a weird shift of tone, Bristol 1350 is an unexpectedly chipper experience.
Although the past year has transformed many of us into amateur microbiologists, Bristol 1350 doesn’t have much to say about the Black Death. In game terms, the plague is here but not there, hence your character’s hustle to relocate. Your selected mode of transportation is a trio of apple carts, the surreptitious minivan of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, a handful of others have come up with the same idea. Cue lots of jostling, sneezing in each other’s faces, and touching buboes.
The basic gameplay is swift and filled with uncertainty. Each turn opens with a big roll of six dice that reveals which apple carts will trundle along Bristol’s winding path to the city gate. From there, each player takes a single action, whether rerolling a pair of the dice to hopefully secure a better outcome, drawing a remedy card, or wrasslin’ for space within the carts. This last option is the most dynamic, letting players sprint from one cart to the next, elbow their way to the front of their current cart, or boot one of their rivals out onto the cobblestones. The goal is to leave the city first, so ensuring that the dice are showing your cart’s color is usually your foremost concern. So foremost, in fact, that it can obscure a deadly detail. If any cart’s dice show two rats, its occupants mingle. Everybody in that cart tosses their symptoms into a pile, adds an extra from the deck, shuffles them together, and doles out new symptoms.
Gross. Also one of the most important events that can occur in Bristol 1350. These cards progress from low value symptoms like a cough or a headache all the way to the dreaded buboes themselves. If ever your pair of symptoms adds up to six or more, that means you have the plague, no matter what happens from that moment onward.
This may sound familiar. Similar ideas have been explored in other social deduction games. Here, instead of possibly outing somebody as a traitor, players run the risk of being transformed into baddies. As a carrier of the Black Death, your goal is no longer to escape the city. It’s to ensure that everybody dies with you.
This is the centerpiece of Bristol 1350. It’s a little shaky for a few reasons.
The obvious detail is that it’s entirely possible to cheat. Every character begins healthy, or at least healthy enough to survive. It’s only through mingling that deadlier cards are added to the pool, birthing homicidal maniacs where once stood fellow survivors. If you’re hoping for a cure, remember that those were in short supply in the 14th century. While the game’s special cards are called remedies, they’re titled in the palliative sense, used to futz with symptom draws or whip anybody trying to kick you out of a cart, not offer a cure for the chills. Appropriate! But over the course of the remaining game, there’s nothing preventing a future mingle or remedy from decreasing your symptom number below six — and then lying about having caught the plague earlier when the end-game reveal comes around.
Solution: don’t play with cheaters. Easy! Except I’m more concerned with why somebody would want to cheat in the first place. The rules generate an interesting tension by acknowledging that it’s easier to win with the plague but also requiring healthy players to avoid catching it. A precarious position, as anyone who’s sat down at a table with someone who games their games can attest. If victory is your sole concern, you should strive to catch the plague as early as possible, even though that means you’re soft-cheating by violating a wishy-washy social rule. If the quality of the victory matters, your goal should be the harder task of remaining free of the plague — but the attendant prestige of a healthy win could prove tempting to those desperate to look like social deduction geniuses.
Look, this isn’t a serious issue. Bristol 1350 lasts about fifteen minutes. It’s a silly game with lots of dice-rolling and cart-booting and bubo-touching. I can’t fathom electing to play with a cheater, let alone somebody who would cheat at a low-stakes social deduction game. Even if I did find myself sharing a table with somebody who suffered from such a crippling lack of self-esteem that they needed to pretend to thump everybody at Bristol 1350, then by all means, claim the V. May your life witness a dramatic reversal. Still, when a game asks its players to act counter to their interests, it’s hard not to take note. That says something. Usually that the game in question doesn’t properly incentivize the behavior it wants its players to embrace. Perhaps worse, that the game doesn’t incentivize any behavior at all.
I suspect that’s what’s happening in Bristol 1350.
Good social deduction games all have one thing in common: signaling.
Signaling is when a player hints at their identity by taking an action that pushes the game-state toward their desired outcome. To give an example from The Resistance, spy players must make missions end in failure. They accomplish this by adding failure cards to a mission deck. This tips their hand, so good play requires deception and teamwork. Perhaps a spy should help a mission succeed before they add a failure card. Perhaps two spies can spread their failures across multiple missions, in which case the difficulty lies in communicating such a plan when everybody at the table is privy to every word.
Similar concerns, and therefore similar signals, are found in every successful social deduction game. The best titles not only recognize their importance, but also deploy ways to deflect them. In Secret Hitler, an innocent liberal might have no choice but to pass fascist legislation. In Battlestar Galactica, Dead of Winter, and Dark Moon, a crisis check might fail through no fault of the players. Dead of Winter adds personal goals that might appear like betrayal, when in fact the player is a junkie who doesn’t want to share their medicine. Scape Goat sees everyone ganging up on a single player. Except that player might be you, so every play begins to look like malice rather than, say, the luck of the draw.
In Bristol 1350, I’m not sure there are signals. At all. This isn’t because players are devoid of goals. It’s because they have the same goals. Or at least they take the same steps to accomplish them.
Think of it this way. A healthy player wants to escape the city. This encourages particular behaviors. They want their cart to move forward, because only the first cart is likely to survive. They want to encourage mingling in other carts to sow distrust and slow their progress, while avoiding mingling in their own cart because they’ve been ordered to stay healthy by the game’s wishy-washy social rule. They want to draw remedy cards as defenses against getting kicked out of their cart or so they can get lots of rerolls.
Those are the exact same behaviors a plague-carrier will pursue. They want to be in the first cart because their presence will kill everybody in that cart when it leaves the city. They want to encourage mingling in other carts because it might make new plague players, while avoiding mingling in their own cart because it could tip their hand. They want to draw remedy cards so they can weasel their way into vulnerable carts or get timely rerolls. In effect, both sides take the same actions while chasing different ends. As a result, there’s no signaling. There’s no sudden realization that you’re sharing a cart with an enemy. Things just happen. You jockey for position, avoid mingling, and hope for the best.
Which is why it’s so surprising that Bristol 1350 works so well in spite of itself.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a deeply flawed game. It’s also a real hoot. The whole thing is lightning fast, filled with snappy turns and actions that appear consequential. Mingles are tense even when their outcome probably won’t change much about the game going forward. Every roll impacts everybody at the table. Its efforts at grimness may have been more poignant before our pandemic year. Now they’re reminders that at least we have germ theory instead of blaming everything on God. Even my seven-year-old calls it “the virus game.”
The appeal is similar to gambling. There’s no social deduction here for the same reason a slot machine doesn’t have social deduction. It would distract from the flashing lights and immediate gratification. Everything in Bristol 1350 feeds into an illusion of choice and consequence. You can kick somebody out of your cart! You can draw cool cards and play them all at once! You can force a rival to lick somebody’s buboes! One one level, these actions are only as important as the goals they help you pursue, and without pertinent information revealed by player signals, there’s no telling whether you’re sharing a cart with friends or Black Death zombies. On another level… who cares? The gratification may be hollow, but who’s ever fretted over hollow gratification when they’re receiving it?
To put it another way, Bristol 1350 is a terrible social deduction game — and a real zinger of a party game. It’s silly and simple and gets everybody invested. Please don’t contract the plague playing it.