W. Eric Martin
Sweet Honey, Bee Mine! from designer Katsuya Kitano and publisher New Board Game Party plays out like an aggressive, in-your-face version of Thorsten Gimmler's classic card game No Thanks!
In most rounds of the game, you will be presented with a face-down card. You must either place 1-3 tokens on the card to pass it along to the next player, or you can take the card for yourself, collecting all the tokens in the process to enrich your honey stores — unless you made a horrible choice, in which you collect no honey, instead pay out honey to a collective honeypot, then die. One sting is all you get. Bzzzt!
The game features a "partridge" deck — one 1, two 2s, three 3s, up to ten 10s — with some of those cards featuring the word "LOW" or "HIGH" on the back of them. Cards numbered 6-10 are high, with 2-4 of the cards at each number bearing the word "HIGH", and the remaining 4-6 cards at each number having a blank back. As you might expect, cards numbered 1-5 are low, with only 1-2 of each number being marked as such.
At the start of a round, everyone receives a hand of five cards, then each person reveals a card simultaneously, with the highest number played going first. This player chooses a card from their hand, places it face down, places 1-3 tokens on it from their personal stash (with everyone having 15 tokens to start), draws a replacement card, then passes this card clockwise. Each player faces the choose-or-pay-out decision described earlier, with the initial player of the card being forced to take it — along with a now much larger pile of tokens — should everyone else pass.
Why would you not want to take a card? Because if you collect a second copy of a numbered card in your honeypot, then you die and are out of the round. Bzzt! As a penalty for being stung, you must place a number of tokens matching the number of the card that killed you in the center of the table. The sole player who wins the round collects this sweet, sweet pile built from the collective pain of other players.
And how does someone win? Collect three different types of "low" bees, collect 35 or more points of bees in your honeypot, or be the last bee beeing because everyone else has been stung. Bzzt!
Playing the day before Tokyo Game Market
Thus, Sweet Honey, Bee Mine! plays out with endless bluffing and taunts. Instead of the randomness of No Thanks!, in which players are presented with whatever card comes off the top of the deck, you are now confronted with a mystery card of the active player's choice, a card possibly made less mysterious — and more-or-less threatening — by the word "LOW" or "HIGH" written on its back. If the card reads "HIGH" and you have only low cards, then you can safely take the card and collect the tokens — but the active player probably placed only one token on the card since they knew you would take it, so maybe they're trying to target one of the other players with this particular card, or maybe they were trying to ditch a card that would kill them if it made it all the way around the table and you wouldn't mind seeing that happen. It will cost you only one token to pass the problem to someone else. So what do you do?
In the end, you have only a binary result: You die and exit the round, or else you claim the card and the tokens on it, then you're on the hook as to which card you want to circle the table. Sometimes you want that position since you're happy to be in control and have the option to play a card that will likely kill someone or get back to you, but at other points you're happy to leave the driving to someone else. Let them fight it out!
Even the inside of the box is golden — honey everywhere!
The ability to choose how many tokens you place on a card when you first send it out is a nice sweetener for being in that position, another lever to bend people in contortions as they try to figure out whether or not to take the card. If they pass, they have to place the same number of tokens on the card as you, so do you make the cost cheap to extort them slowly or make it high to take more of their tokens or convince someone late in the player order to take a card that would have killed you?
No right answer exists; as with many such bluffing games, the choices all depend on those at the table, what their personalities are like, how much you trash talk one another, and (yes, this is important) the face-up cards everyone has in their honeypots.
A few of the card have special powers to account for their minimal presence in the deck: If you catch a 2 or 3 bee, then you must discard a card, giving you only three cards in hand for the remainder of the round. If you catch the 1 and are later ejected from the round, you must pay double the normal penalty. The 1 is a safe catch, after all, and one-third of the way to a victory condition, so catching it must have consequences!
Beelines with funky indexing
I've played Sweet Honey, Bee Mine! twice on a review copy from New Board Game Party, once each with four and five players, and in many ways the spirit of the game mirrors that of the TimeBomb titles from the same publisher (most recently TimeBomb Evolution, for which I wrote an overview recently) — not because of similarities in the gameplay, but because of the feelings generated during play, namely who can you trust.
In TimeBomb and its sequel games, you want to find your partner(s) during play so that you can figure out whose information you can trust so that you know how you can use that information to your advantage. You don't have any partners in Sweet Honey, Bee Mine!, but you're still watching to see what players do, then how that relates to the hidden info they put into play. Admittedly the choices are binary (take a card or don't) and might boil down to a crapshoot (since a player can't choose to play a card they don't have in hand), and one mistake might put you out of a round, but being out isn't all bad. After paying a penalty, you score whatever tokens you hold at the end of the round, and whoever has the most points after a predetermined number of rounds wins. Thus, losing isn't the end for you because if you manage to stay in the round but keep making bad choices, you could be bled dry, then still die before the end.
The artwork falls somewhere on the line between cute and disturbing, with that line wrapping around to meet its own tail, so you might find yourself falling into both camps, as was the case with multiple players in my games. Most disturbing of all, though, is what awaits you if you make a fatal choice...
Flip the deck breakdown card in front of a player when they die — bzzt!