The law is after you… again. What else is new? Others might be willing to live under the thumb of the law, clawing out a profit with what little goods the law allows them, cheese and apples, bread and roosters… But not you. The things you plan on selling may be illegal to bring in without paying the exorbitant taxes the Sheriff has put on them, but hey, business is risk, right? You’re sure you can smuggle in the best merchandise. And, even if the Sheriff does get suspicious, it’s nothing that a gold coin or two can’t fix.
Maybe you’re a criminal smuggler, trying to make a quick buck under the eye of corrupt law… Or maybe you’re playing Sheriff of Nottingham.
Sheriff of Nottingham– no, you know what, I’m going to just call it Sheriff from now on and save myself some typing. Sheriff is a bluffing and negotiation game with a solid sprinkling of card drafting and set collecting. Originally designed by Sergio Halaban and Andre Zatz, the game plays 3-5 players. In it, players are merchants trying to make the most money by secretly bringing in goods to the town. Players also take turns, however, taking on the role of the titular Sheriff, who can confiscate any illegal goods they catch other player’s bringing in under their watch. As no one can see what a player is bringing in until they are allowed to proceed, the game revolves around the Sheriff trying to guess when someone is bringing in something illegal and the merchants trying to bluff their way past the Sheriff. Of course, when bluffing doesn’t work, bribes and deal-making is allowed, too.
The rules are a bit complex to explain, but prove a bit simpler than they sound in play. On a turn, players:
- Go to market (exchanging a number of cards from their hands for fresh ones).
- Load their merchant bags (putting a number of cards they want to bring into town, or to score, into their bags).
- Declare their goods (tell the Sheriff what is in their bags; this may or may not be the truth).
- Inspect the bags (the Sheriff may, but does not have to, look for contraband in any of the merchant bags; finding contraband is good for the Sheriff, accusing someone of having contraband and being wrong is bad for the Sheriff. And of course, the Sheriff can be bribed or negotiated with, to affect his decision).
- Bring in goods (any legal goods and any contraband that the Sheriff did not find is placed in the player’s merchant stand; everyone draws back up to a full hand of goods, and the Sheriff position is passed).
Like I said, some of the finer points of what is and is not allowed can seem a bit intimidating in explanation. In what order are cards drawn from the discard pile or deck? How many cards can be drawn or loaded into the bag in a turn? How are penalties are if contraband is caught or if a false accusation is made? I think, in particular, the rules that govern the bluffing can be tricky for new players. You can lie, but only in very specific ways: you must declare an accurate number of goods, you must only declare one type of good, you must only declare legal goods. Once people become familiar with the rules, though, they’re easy enough to follow.
I’m a big fan of the physical parts of this game. The cards are all well made and good looking. The merchant bags add a nice touch to the act of bringing items in; realistically, it would be just as effective to play cards face down, but having the bags allows people to handle them without risk of peeking, and that’s somehow more fun.
Of course, the real fun of this game is in the social aspect of it. Merchants bringing in goods can bluff about what is in their sacks, or can try to negotiate a deal or a bribe with the Sheriff to make sure they don’t inspect the sacks. Of course, since it benefits the player for the Sheriff to inspect their sack when they don’t have contraband, sometimes players will try to double bluff their way into getting inspected. The whole situation can range anywhere from intense to downright silly.
Of course, having such loose rules about what is allowed and not allowed when it comes to negotiation can lead to a slowed down game. If your Sheriff has a bad case of analysis paralysis, the inspection phase can take a looooong time. If you are finding that’s the case, you may want to house-rule a time limit for this phase.
The other odd thing I found in this game is the fact that, for a game that seems to focus on bluffing and contraband, it is often seems a better plan not to use any contraband at all. Yes, the contraband is worth more points than legal goods at the end of the game. But, because there are large amounts of bonus points for bringing in the most of each legal good, you can often make up the difference by focusing on those. There is no end-game bonus for amount of contraband snuck in. Not to mention bringing in only legal goods avoids any risk of penalties on your part and gets you a bonus if the Sheriff inspects. All in all, in the games I have played, I tended to end up with a far better score at the end of it when I played legal as much as I could.
Of course, maybe I’m just a bad bluffer. Could that be it?
In any case, Sheriff of Nottingham is good, social fun. Just remember that the backbone of the game is lying, so maybe make sure you play it with people who aren’t likely to hold a grudge. They’ll get their turn as Sheriff, too, after all. And we all know that, in truth, there is no honor among thieves.