A Derk appears from the mists...
Marissa, Ken, Aldie, Drew
Well, I wasn't sure what to think of the game before we sat down to play it. Derk didn't like his experience playing it, but it was made by Eon and I have played Cosmic Encounter a couple hundred times. This game reminds me in many respects of the Eon version Cosmic Encounter, in that the flaws are overshadowed by the strengths of the game. In many ways, the game is more about the experience of playing the game than who won or lost. I am looking forward to playing the new German release of the game, since my examination of the news rules lead me to expect the new game is a bit cleaner.
The basic idea in Hoax is to pretend to be somebody you are not, while working towards the goal of figuring out who other people are. There are six different characters, and a person can pretend to be anybody the want to be anytime. The game involves the attempt (often unsuccessfully) to acquire 3 different types of goods, Gold, Wine and Grain. A person can pretend to be anybody they want to be until somebody tries to call them on it. If the majority of the other players think the person is lying, the person must either admit they are not that person (and can no longer use that power), or they reveal they are that person and win the game.
The various characters interact in various ways, but slowly and steadily people will accumulate the three goods, and each time they get a set, they can force another player to privately reveal one of the people they are not, until you slowly narrow it down. Eventually, you will know enough to make a private accusation. If you are right about who they are, they are out. If you are wrong, you are out. You can't keep notes, so if you can keep it all in your head, it is helpful. You can still pretend to be the person you revealed to other players, until the majority of the group agrees you are not that person. In my experience, some of the powers people will continue to use even when they have pretty much told everyone they are not that person. In particular, a few times I claimed to be the peasant despite the fact I had revealed that I was not the peasant to all the other players.
Our first game was proof that the game must be understood to play correctly. Working against us were a few misunderstandings about the rules, and our own general unfamiliarity with the various powers in the game. Though many accusations were made, few times would enough people agree that the person was lying, so it really just slowed the game down. I was at an advantage, since I was actually the Wizard and could therefore use the power without fear of accusation, and it is a strong power. It also made me more than a bit willing to accuse others of not being the wizard, and eliminating that useful power. People were hesitant to use the powers they were not, and it was sometimes pretty obvious to figure out who was lying. A few times people accumulate the needed three goods, and some progress was made. And then I got accused of not being the wizard, and the game came to a quick end.
The second game was much better, because everyone had learned much from the first game, and were more familiar with what to do. The experience of the first game told us not to accuse lightly, and it is my opinion this is part of the game balance. To a large degree, the fun in the game is telling a nearly obvious lie, when everyone is almost totally sure you are lying, and still getting away with it. It is particularly amusing to see everyone claim to be the wizard, when there can't possibly be more than two wizards in play. You have to use every power with confidence, and you have to leave people wondering if you are in fact who you claim to be, despite the fact that you have claimed to be everybody. In this game, everybody felt pretty willing to use any power they wanted whenever it suited them, and that made for a fun game.
The third game was probably the best by far. We had worked out a few more kinks in the rules, and for the first time, accusations became a rare part of the game. People claimed to be anybody whenever they wanted, and people began to learn not to use the King power all the time, something it take a few games to figure out. Though a nice power, the King gets nothing unless the Baron gives it to him, and the Vicar can take it away from both (if the player himself doesn't avoid the penalty by claiming to be the Wizard). The power was used almost entirely as an emergency measure, one you did to keep someone from getting too close to completing the deadly set of three goods, and you almost always helped somebody else when it happened.
Overall, the game is excellent. It has a couple of flaws. The first is that it takes a game or two to get used to the game dynamic. Some of the powers are best saved for another time and place, and you should try to sound confident playing anybody, which is hard to do as you are literally reading the card to tell you what the power does (and quite clearly giving away the fact you are either not that person, or are being very devious). Also, not all the powers are balanced, and having one of the better ones means you can't be accused of being that person without winning the game. The Wizard, who is immune to almost anything, is probably the best, while the King and Judge have a nice basic power, in that they can get two of the three goods without having someone else declare themselves immune to the effect. Honestly, the 'declare illegal' and 'punish' actions are not that useful, since they require coordination and can be blocked.
But, the strengths overwhelm the weaknesses once people adjust to the game. First, it is fun to bluff an entire game. By nature, I don't like to tell lies, and part of me has a hard time doing it. I also happen to be really good at it because it is unexpected (something I am all too aware of). Trying to figure out who is telling the truth and who is lying is quite enjoyable, and unless several people agree, you can be whoever you want as long as you want to be. Everybody is pretty sure you are lying (most of the time you are), but nobody is really comfortable calling you on it, lest they either be wrong, or give away too much information. Second, the psychology of the game play is fun in and of itself. Though I was never sure about much of anything, watching other people play provides all sorts of clues. Making accusations and seeing people hesitate and decide (while trying to figure out of they are also lying), or watching them use the powers is half the fun. People develop very subconscious patterns, and trying to figure them out becomes quite a task. When people tell you who they are not, trying to figure out who they are hiding is particularly enjoyable. In the last game, I found out afterwards I actually was dead on at who I thought both Aldie and Ken were (while in the second game, my wild guess was totally wrong). My logic in deducing this was a bit dicey, but that was also part of the fun. I found that trying to vary my own patterns so others wouldn't figure them out was also quite enjoyable.
Overall, all the players enjoyed the game considerably, enough that each time to game ended we started over again. That was an unexpected surprise, and now that I have my copy of the German version in hand, I look forward to giving it a try.