Criminal Capers: Soda Smugglers
Sometimes, a little Reiner Knizia is exactly what we need. Emphasis on the “little.” That’s the goal of Criminal Capers, a trilogy of digestible titles designed by the good doctor, illustrated by Paul Halkyon, and published by Bitewing Games via Kickstarter sometime next month.
First up, Soda Smugglers.
Exactly the way conservative radio has promised would happen since my early childhood, the government went and banned soda pop. Not all soda pop. Only excess soda pop. Anybody caught traveling with more than one bottle will have their extras confiscated and their type-two diabetes temporarily delayed. Dang federals. Bought by Big Aspartame, all of them.
Naturally, this draconian measure has caused a spike in soda smuggling. Everybody’s getting in on it. Hence the game.
It works like this. Every round, one player becomes a customs officer while everybody else is dealt a hand of suitcases. Each suitcase contains one, two, three, or no sodas. From this hand, everybody chooses three suitcases. Two for them, which they place face-down on the table, and a third that acts as a bribe for the customs officer.
Cue the suspenseful tubas. While everybody puts on their best “I’m not a smuggler” face, the customs officer is permitted to spend a small number of tokens. First, they can accept a bribe. They take the sodas from the bribing player, then that player is waved through the checkpoint, where they reveal and earn the contents of their suitcases. Next, the officer can search a limited number of suitcases. There are two limitations: the number of search tokens held by the officer, and privacy laws that prevent any individual from being forced to reveal the contents of both suitcases — only one case can be opened per player. Finally, the officer can arrest somebody. If they find a bunch of sodas, they get to keep them all. If they find none — or only one — they’re forced to pay an indemnity to the wronged traveler. Everybody else earns the sodas they smuggled.
If this sounds familiar, you’d be right. Soda Smugglers is a remake of Knizia’s Heisse Ware: Krimi-Kartenspiel. For those whose German has gone rusty, that translates to “Hot Love and Crime in a Time of Dearth: The Card Game.” It’s also similar to André Zatz and Sérgio Halaban’s Sheriff of Nottingham, whose roots trace back through their older Robin Hood and Hart an der Grenze to an uncredited smuggling game called Contraband from 1950. Which, if you think about it, means that the entire genre is the victim of misplaced identity.
Thanks to its sordid heritage, Soda Smugglers features a few well-known conventions. Like offering a big bribe to the customs officer in order to lug a pair of sloshing suitcases across the border. Or, better yet, offering a bribe to spur the officer into arresting you so that you can claim the indemnity when it turns out that you’ve been shaken down for nothing.
What really sets it apart, though, is just how free-form it is. Rather than proceeding in turn order, the customs officer is only required to play their tokens in sequence. This squeezes the air out of the room and generates some truly tense moments, especially when you think you’ve evaded scrutiny only to get arrested at the last second.
Further, Soda Smugglers also develops a microcosmic meta-game across multiple rounds. Since bribes and indemnities are paid straight from players’ pool of bottle caps, decisions in the game’s back half can deliver unexpected swings as one player steals points directly from someone else. Leading players must be extra careful. Thanks to the additional scrutiny they face, they stand a greater chance of having their score swung back toward the table’s average.
Of the three titles in Knizia’s Criminal Capers trilogy, Soda Smugglers is the most familiar. By extension, it’s also the least interesting, although it replicates the formula in such a way that puts the focus on everybody’s standing rather than one special cards. Like many of Knizia’s games, the more you play, the deeper it becomes. What initially seem frivolous becomes tighter and more gripping as new possibilities reveal themselves.
Then again, unlike some of his titles, it bottoms out at around seven feet. There are only so many plays to make. Especially since you’re picking each round’s bluff from such a compact hand. The result is charming and even unexpected, weaving a careful entrapment between everyone at the table. But it’s a thin gossamer, not a sturdy harness.
But the week is young. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at the trilogy’s second title, and talking about why it’s a step above today’s offering.
A prototype copy was provided.