Criminal Capers: Hot Lead
Question one: Why is this the best title in the whole trilogy?
Question two: Is it “hot lead” like bullets? Or “hot lead” like a tangent you pursue? Or both?
On a superficial level, Hot Lead begins much like Pumafiosi. There’s a shared deck of cards numbered 1 to 55. Everybody is dealt their own hand. These will soon be used to determine where everybody places in relation to one another.
…and that’s where the similarities end. What follows is fast-paced and chaotic, but defiantly player-driven according to Knizia’s distinctive style.
Here’s the gist. After everybody has a hand of numbered cards, you deal out a string of evidence cards equal to the number of players. These cards show various “leads” on local criminal activities, each with their own suit and number. There are five suits in total: money laundering, cyber crime, car theft, armed robbery, and fraud. Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll see them all during a single deal. Sometimes you’ll witness a rash of car thefts, or two crimes will feature heavily, or they’ll all be low-numbered crimes, ostensibly to indicate “light” armed robbery, whatever that means. Point is, the table is shown a jumble of crimes of various types and values.
Then, all at once, everybody plays a single card and earns evidence according to their ranking. The lowest card earns the first piece of evidence, the next one gets the second, and so forth. That’s it. It’s that simple.
Okay, it isn’t that simple. Your goal is to put together a compelling case against the city’s criminals. At the end of the game, every tidbit of evidence is worth its printed value. So an evidence card of 5 is better than one worth 0. Easy.
The tricky part is that you aren’t only chasing high-value cards. You’re assembling sets of evidence. Three cards of a single crime means you’ve put together a compelling case. Congratulations! That’ll be 10 bonus points. Except that’s risky, because going past three matching cards means you’ve spooked the criminals. Now you’re forced to throw away that entire set. Your aggressive detecting style means you’ve kissed a whole bunch of points goodbye.
Because everybody plays simultaneously, the effect isn’t unlike an adversarial version of Wolfgang Warsch’s The Mind. You know the range of cards. You know which numbers have already been played. Within two or three rounds, you know generally what everybody is hoping to acquire. It isn’t long before you assign a sort of numerical mental map to the cards on offer. 1-15 for the first couple, 16-25 for stuff in the middle, 26-55 for anything at the tail end, because people like hoarding high numbers.
Maybe your group won’t be quite as biased toward the high end of the spectrum as mine is. Either way, Hot Lead revels in that ambiguous space between how people should act and how they actually do in practice, whether thanks to the luck of the draw or because you’ve falsely interpreted their goals. It’s one long mind game, made better because everybody is trying to pull the same trick.
To repeat the theme we’ve seen develop across the entire Criminal Capers trilogy, this only gets better with the advanced rules. There are two additions. First, bonus tiles that award 5 points to whomever first collects a given pair of evidence types. These upset the most natural early strategy, which is to spread around your acquisitions to avoid the possibility of “going over” on any given set. Second, special cards that get shuffled into the deck with the rest of the evidence. These add informants, which double a card’s contribution to your evidence, and dead ends, which subtract points at the end of the game. These both add texture to the evidence row, creating landmines best avoided and desirable acquisitions that are far more tempting than a card’s raw value. Smartly, the informants are double-edged. They make it easier to reach three cards of that type, but also make it easier to bust and send the baddies scampering.
Hot Lead is exactly what I want from a small-box Knizia: fast-playing to the point of whimsy, frivolous at first glance, but smartly designed and generous with its sparkles of brilliance. Nabbing a desired card feels like a stroke of genius. Getting two in a row feels like you’re operating on the level of Sherlock Holmes. Because everybody earns something every round, the effect is akin to a fantasy slot machine. The only peril is receiving too much of a payout, which comes across as a misstep rather than an edict delivered by the gods of randomness.
In short, Hot Lead is exactly the sort of morsel I wanted from Criminal Capers.
Also, I believe it’s Hot Lead. Leed. Leeeeeeed.
A prototype copy was provided.