Criminal Capers: Hot Lead

This elephant's backstory includes turning the tide on a band of poachers, a watering hole filled with Jack Daniels, and a precinct captain who's had it UP TO HERE with Detective Tusk's hardboiled antics.

Another day, another entry in Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers trilogy. After enjoying Soda Smugglers and Pumafiosi — both with caveats — it’s time to ask the big questions about 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?

A beautiful day on the highlands. Sun like an overripe fruit in the sky. Lazy flies beaten away by flapping ears. Mama is spraying water in an arc like some suburban garden hose. Baby Tusky frolics in the water, eyes closed against the light of the day. The spray stops. Tusky pauses. Mama has fallen. There are men coming. Tusky's tusks are but nubs, but already he knows how to use them. Instinct takes over.

Above all, Hot Lead is fast.

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.

By the end of the week, Tusk is no longer a calf. His hide is scarred and dusty. One of his ears is notched from an errant round. He has toppled the poachers' drinking wagon, and its liquid leaks into a depression in the ground, hot and stinking. Tusk slumps beside the pool. Too tired to find water. He drinks greedily. Today, he has acquired the taste — for Jack and blood alike.

Some of the hottest sets this side of, um, magma.

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.

"Detective? Detective!" Tusk drags himself from the memory. It's as endless and alluring as the savannah. He might get lost in there if he lets himself. He returns to the crime scene. An entire family of animalfolk slain. Only particular organs harvested. The organs used in the manufacture of illegal alternative medicines. He knows what that means. "Poachers," he says. Then adds, under his trunk so his junior partner won't hear, "Good."

The advanced rules are a must.

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.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A prototype copy was provided.

Posted on July 15, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Well, good job. You’ve convinced me to continue to expand my Reiner Knizia collection.

  2. Sounds like 6 Nimmt with set collection?

  3. I was thinking the same as marcnelsonjr as I read your review. Dan. If you haven’t played any of the nimmt series of games then please order 6 nimmt! straight away or try it on BGA to play with your group. It’s great fun!

  4. LOVED your noir mini-story. I feel Tusk is going to stampede those poachers with or without a warrant. Ha!

  5. Really looking forward to reading more about Tusk’s time at the Academy in Long Memories: A Collection of Ivory Noir coming this Fall from Air & Nothingness Press

  1. Pingback: 2022 Holiday Board Game Gift Guide - Bitewing Games

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