Jason M. Brown
Witch Trial is an amusingly subversive game of unscrupulous lawyers and the 'witches' that they are appointed to defend or prosecute on the thinnest of charges. The humour is very witty, very clever and typically Cheapass, with lots of comic mileage gleaned from the subject matter and the roles that the players place themselves in.
In the standard Cheapass box that Witch Trial comes in, you get a large deck of cards and a Court Room board (with spaces for Suspect, Charge and the Jury). The instructions are clear and easy to understand (again a typically Cheapass trait!). All that needs to be provided by players is money and a master pawn to represent the Jury Value. The object of the game is to be the lawyer with the most money at the end of the game - the game ends when no more cases can be made from the remaining cards.
Players each have a hand of cards and a cash reserve in order to purchase more cards. During a turn, a player can perform just one of the following actions: buy a card, create a case, defend a case or find a court appointed defender.
A lineup is created in front of the courtroom at the start of the game - this consists of the deck at the left, then 5 cards in a line going right. From left to right, the cards are worth $20, $15, $10, $5 and the last one is free. When one is purchased, a new $20 is added as the cards slide across. To buy a card, players choose which one they want and then pay the appropriate fee into the Legal Fees section of the court room. This can continue until the deck is exhausted.
Creating a case involes matching a suspect card with a charge, and then the player places the two cards in front of them. This player is the prosecution. If the player has both cards in their hand, they just place them down - if they only have one but another is in the lineup, the card required can be taken from the lineup for free with the cards sliding across as normal.
Defending a case means announcing to the prosecuting player that you intend to defend the case that is currently in front of them - this case then goes to trial, as described below. The Defence always get a fee for defending a suspect, which varies depending on the person being defended - the fee is shown on the card, and is paid from the bank, not the legal fees pile.
Finding a court appointed defender means the prosecution can ask the other players to roll two dice each - the lowest roll has to defend the prosecutor's case.
Going to trial is easy, fun and provides the main crux of the game. Going to trial (and winning) is the only way to make money. The suspect and charge are placed in the court room, with the jury value starting at a value equal to the Guilt level of the Suspect, added to the Severity of the Charge. The prosecution then plays Evidence, Motions, Witnesses etc. in order to try and increase the jury value. Once the prosecution has finished playing cards (and the jury value altered accordingly) he can then make a plea bargain with the opposing lawyer in order to try and split the legal fees before proceeding (and the case ends...no mention is made of what happens to the suspect at this point...). If this is not needed or agreed to, the defence then puts his/her case forward by playing cards as the prosecution did. They then get the chance for a plea bargain - and finally, the prosecution can play one Final Argument (one more card) before the case ends. Then two dice are rolled and the resulting value added to the Jury Value. If this total equals or exceeds 13 points, the prosecution wins all of the money that is currently in the Legal Fees section of the Court Room. Otherwise, the cash goes to the Defence and the Suspect is found Not Guilty!
Play is fast and entertaining, and even though only two players are involved in a trial, even watching the events unfold is an exciting and amusing experience. The game moves surprisingly quickly to its conclusion and certainly doesn't outstay its welcome. There are several strategies that can be employed, and the game is always unpredictable.
Witch Trial is up there with the best of the Cheapass Games, and for those of you who might consider that a bit of a backhand compliment, you should bear in mind that the Cheapass value for money ethos, ease of play and witty sense of humour are all things that make them one of my favourite games publishers - so there is no sarcasm intended! Witch Trial should appeal even to those players who don't appreciate the usual Cheapass fare, given the better than average production values, strong theme and excellent mechanics. A superb game.
Great review, but I'm the first thumbs up? After 4 years? Wow, sorry that this one got passed by. I'll definitely be picking up a copy of this based on your appreciation of it.