Sheriff of Nottingham sees 3 – 5 players take up the role of merchants, looking to make a quick profit at the markets of Nottingham. A mixture of legal goods and contraband are ready to be sold but only after the Sheriff has a chance to inspected players goods. Insert bluffing, negotiation, hand management and card drafting mechanics and the game is built perfectly for a party game. It sounds interesting but does it entertain? Let’s find out!
Sheriff of Nottingham sees players getting swiftly get into the game after a short setup time. A selection of cards are removed if the player count is only three, otherwise the goods cards are shuffled and six are dealt to each player. Unusually, two separate discard piles are created by turning over 5 cards into each from the draw deck. Players choose a colour, claim their respective market stand and merchant bag, and receive 50 starting gold from the bag. After choosing someone to start as the sheriff, they get the sheriff marker, and the game begins.
The game is played over numerous rounds, made up of five phases: Market, Load Merchant Bag, Declaration, Inspection and End of Round. The sheriff doesn’t participate in the first two rounds but should keep an eye on the merchants. At the market, starting with the player to the left of the sheriff, players can draw up to five cards from the top of either, or a mixture, of the two discard piles. Afterwards discarding the same number of cards from their original hand into one of the piles. This allows you to get sets of goods, though be warned everyone can see what you are picking up.
Next it is time to select 1 – 5 cards from your hand to load into your merchant bag. Importantly, no one should see what you put into the bag, especially the dastardly sheriff. The declaration phase will influence what merchants put into their bags. Players must reveal the number of cards in their merchant bag and declare one kind of legal good. While the number must be truthful the contents don’t have to match what is said, thus the bluffing element of the game is established. Are those really “3 Apples”?!
Inspection is when the sheriff gets to wield the power over the merchant bags from all players. The sheriff can be paid off to not inspect your bag or inspect another merchant’s bag, so get ready with some negotiation tactics for the potentially corrupt sheriff. Deals can be made with gold, goods of any kind already at your market stand, potential goods from what is in your merchant bag or promises. Any deals made involving immediate outcomes must be honoured. However, if a deal includes a promise for events in future round they are not binding. After this any bags the sheriff chooses not to inspect are passed back to their respective owners, while the remainder’s contents are examined.
If you get through unchallenged by the sheriff, via bribery or not, any legal goods are placed face up on your market so the amount of each is clearly visible. Contraband or Royal goods are placed face down within the contraband section of a player’s market. This indicates they were lying about the contents of their merchant bag but not what they smuggled through. Having facedown cards adds an element of mystery to the final scoring, so no one truly knows whom is in the lead.
If your bag gets inspected by the sheriff things go one of two ways. If telling the truth, the set of legal goods are handed back to you by the sheriff. On top of this the sheriff pays a penalty of gold to you, equal to the amount shown on the cards. If you were lying about what you declared you still get any goods which match the legal good you claimed to be transporting. Alas, it is you that must pay a gold penalty this time. Any card which doesn’t match the declared legal good must be discarded and the associated penalty paid to the sheriff. Lying isn’t always beneficial.
Say a player has declared “4 Chickens” and has actually placed 3 chickens and 1 Mead into his/her merchant bag. If the Sheriff of Nottingham chooses to inspect the bag the player would still gain the 3 chickens and place them in their market stand. Unfortunately, their ruse was discovered so the mead card would be discarded into either discard pile by the sheriff. Then, as the mead card suggest the lying merchant would have to pay the sheriff 4 gold.
Once this is over the end of the round sees the sheriff marker move to the next player. Everyone draws up to six cards from the draw pile and play starts again from the top of the phase order. Once everyone has been the sheriff twice the game ends and points are tallied. Bonus points are awarded to the King and Queen of each good type, a title determined by whom has the most and second most of a type of good. After bonus points whomever has the most points wins!
There is something extremely satisfying about lying to friends and family alike about what you are taking to the market. The sense of cheeky pride when you place a selection of contraband facedown at your market stand, after passing it off as 4 apples, is immense. Doing dodgy deals or paying the Sheriff off to check someone else’s bag is oddly exhilarating: let alone when you’re the sheriff. With all the power at your fingertips will you let people through or face potential losses for falsely calling a merchant out? There is a grand illusion to what is otherwise a simple bluffing game, where you feel in control, as if you have power, even if it is only for two rounds a game.
There are over 200 cards in the box ready to be transported to the markets. The draw deck seems well balanced so that players get a mixture of legal goods and contraband throughout the game. This gives players the chance to smuggle items past a sheriff that no-one knows about. The exact breakdown of good types is: 144 legal goods (made up of apples, cheese, bread and chickens), 60 contraband goods (made up of pepper, mead, silk and crossbows) and 12 Royal Goods (which fit into the Venn diagram of both previous categories).
The way that players receive bonus points for delivering the most of a card type to the market is a superb addition. Not only does it see players often passing off goods as one type, using that as a veil for smuggling in some contraband it encourages players to get into the theme. All of a sudden, players will start saying things like “Well, as you can see Mr. Nottingham I always bring fine apples to the market. Being a noble apple farmer, I do not need to mix with the smuggling lot of bread bakers over there.” Things like this are unnecessary but show how the theme can drive entertainment during the interaction of players.
There is a limited amount of artwork in the game and it is oddly split into two distinct styles. The card art is much more renaissance-esque in style, depicting the goods closer to realistic paintings, while the characters and overlays fit a more vivid cartoony style. Despite not marrying up, chalk and cheese in design, it is hard to envisage the game fully utilizing either to greater effect. It is more an oddity that is acceptable as it doesn’t draw from the experience and both styles are pleasing to the eye.
Felt pouches are a very nice touch at making the production value feel that bit higher. My only concern is the poppers for these pouches and if they will last long being constantly popped and un-popped during inspections by the sheriff. For a game that will only infrequently get played this wouldn’t be an issue. On the contrary, with the laughs Sheriff of Nottingham has already brought to my gaming groups it is hard to see it being only occasionally played. An easy way around this would be to not properly pop the popper. I’m not sure if this will be an issue just it has the potential to be.
As you can see I am nit-picking for problems here. The benefit of these pouches extends far beyond just being nice to passed back and forth, they perfectly hide the contents. In a game all about bluffing cards a distinctive scratch, or bent corner, could give away the truth and ruining the experience. By passing these pouches back and forth with the cards inside the state of the cards, let alone what they represent, is left completely unknown: drawing on the theme of transporting stored goods into a marketplace.
Alas, the potential is there to win by solely telling the truth (shock horror). Yet, I do believe there is something about the choice that entices players to throw in a lie or two. If you are finding this a constant issue with your group then perhaps bluffing games aren’t for your group. Otherwise there is an expansion for Sheriff of Nottingham called Merry Men that increases the lure of lying by incentivising it even more. Having not played with the expansion I cannot say how much it effects the game. From my experience it is not a necessary purchase, the base game provides enough entertainment.
With a group of friends Sheriff of Nottingham cuts instantly through the taboo of lying. Player choice is there, you can be honest for the entire game, but it will encourage you to smuggle some contraband from time to time. This is increased when royal goods are added into the mix and I’d always have them shuffled in to give the edge to lying as it is what elevates the game. The emotion of joy peaks when deceiving or negotiating your way out of a predicament with the Sheriff. With the player controlling the Sheriff changing from one round to the next, the game is a great spin on classic bluffing mechanics with surprisingly solid scoring. As with any game that revolves around bluffing after more than a few games in a row it can become a bit of a meta game (where player choices are influenced by things outside of the current game). If this occurs it is time for a change but Sheriff of Nottingham will surely be back, hitting the table time and time again!
[Editor’s Note: Sheriff of Nottingham was provided to us by Esdevium Games for review purposes. The game is currently available on 365 Games for £24.99. It is also available from local UK board game stores, find your local store here]