1920- mid-america, you've just had a long day in the mill and could use something to warm you up, an' cocoa ain't gonna cut it. The law an' yer preacher say you gotta go home to yer wife an' think happy thoughts until morning. You've got a better idea... Bootleggers: where all yer dreams will hit you the back of yer throat just as quick as you tip your head.
Okay, so coming from a person who is used to pulling out a broken set of renaissance chess pieces or monochrome of a game of GO, openining up Bootleggers was a little like christmas on hallucinogens. I haven't bought a board game since Risk (in the 7th grade) and let me tell you these pieces have style. I've heard a few complaints about the trucks not being labelled sos you can see them from across the street or the Copper being the same blue as the player, but the labelling is raised so a quick touch or good lighting (not to mention a marker) will fix that, and the Copper is this dude with an axe on a chopping block. That's just cool, no matter what color it is. The gun toting influence counters and the crates of whiskey were appropriate weaponry for the play acting that occured late in the game and the cards were as much fun to look at as they were to destroy someone's profits.
Let's talk gameplay for a minute: The rules are relatively simple and come in three basic parts (though each turn is split up into 6 sections): Making whiskey, transporting the whiskey, and selling the whiskey.
The first phase is a bidding phase where you use your muscle cards to determine play order. Muscle cards are partially luck and partially paid for and you'll use them to grab first dibs on influence, improvements and thug cards, as well as the right to sell your whiskey first...sort of.
Once turn order is decided, players grab up the action cards which consist of influence (the mob guys which you'll use to control the speak-easies) improvements (some of which will help whiskey production and some which will go to increase whiskey demand at the speak-easies) and thugs (these wild cards may help you, or hurt others) Or trucks which are relatively limited in capacity and amount.
The cool part about this phase is that no matter what, everyone only gets one play in that turn (barring a few dirty special circumstances) so you may not get the prized still improvements but you still may end up being able to buy enough trucks to force all those big producers your way for shipping.
After cards have been grabbed and improvements have been made, the influence markers come into play. This is really the meat of the game, where players will wheel and deal and threaten the hell out of each other to get speak-easies open, gain controlling interest, or just snag a little piece of the pie. Open speak-easies correlate to how much profit can be made on the board that turn, but demand is only one side of the economic coin.
Phase three is production and this is relatively action free. Folks roll the dice they have and hope for decent production. Of course, if they can't move the whiskey they've made, they'll have to rent from other players, sell their whiskey, or call in a favor. And there’re always the cops to look out for; they can pooch the whole deal.
Shipping is the next best phase of this game, everybody goes back to pleading or threatening to get the best picks of the speak-easies and unload their excess crates, or, usually better yet, get some sucker to loan you their truck.
After all the trucks are lined up and ready to sell, mobsters roll for demand at the speak-easies, if the demand is good everybody goes home happy, but if people aren't buying, the last guy in line ends up taking a bath in his stuff 'cause it ain't gettin' sold.
That's the basics on the gameplay, there's a lot more ins and outs which throw all kinds of wrenches in the works and make a consistent strategy impossible to come up with. Basically you end up with the ability to control one of the three main points of the game, production, sale, or distribution. You may have to share, but if you play the game right, you'll be the big player in one of these. Then it’s on to using any means necessary to maximize your profit with what you have. That means using the cards, making deals, double crossing others, and otherwise playing dirty without making too many enemies.
The best part about this game is the near constant deal-making going on. Because every player, no matter how high in the muscle standing, gets a single play per round, there's bound to be compromises made. That means while one player may be making all kinds of improvements to his still, you'll be quietly buying up controlling influence in the pubs, making certain that you make a profit no matter who sells. The major choices in this game really concern when and how much to specialize in one of the three parts. Controlling influence is always tempting, but sometimes, gouging everybody for trucks will turn a better profit, or even calling in the feds and making everybody miserable will give you the edge to break the 100g mark to win.
There’s a lot of luck in this game, but if you’re afraid of the dice going against you, never fear, there’s always a way to turn at least a little profit with what you have. The game goes pretty quickly, especially once people get into the swing of things, then players focus less on what the cards are saying and more on making and breaking their dirty deals. 2.5 hours for a long game, I haven’t had a game that’s gone shorter than ten turns yet so I figure that this is about normal. Be especially prepared to get full into character for this one. The theme of the game is mobster so lying, cheating and a certain amount of stealing is in full spirit of the game. Make certain to calm any hyperactive people in the group down before they freak too far out about being ripped off.
Having played a great deal of strategy games (mostly in the war-game department) I can say that this is probably the most unique and chaotic game I’ve played in a long-ass time and has the potential to be the most complex party game ever. It’s easy enough to learn so that first-timers don’t feel stupid, and variable enough that seasoned pros will still have to work to keep hold their mastery titles. I really like the mix of cards and dice. It leads to a really balanced feel to the game-play. I look forward to playing more of this type of game, especially if they come out with an expansion of this one.