All our lives, we're taught the value of telling the truth, that honesty is the best policy. But sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we can't seem to help but tell a little fib now and then. Other times, lying might even seem necessary. But one thing is certain: when you lie and get away with it, lying can even be considered fun.
Some board games take this concept and run with it, letting us freely indulge in the fantasy of behaving badly. Today, we're going to talk about two that are excellent entry points into the genre of deception-based tabletop games. If you're a board game novice, and/or simply a compulsive liar, these are definitely the games for you.
A spin-off of the hugely popular The Resistance series of card-based deception games, The Resistance: Avalon casts players as either the Loyal Knights of Arthur or the Minions of Mordred, fighting for the future of medieval, mythical Camelot.
Like in The Resistance, after being dealt a character card, players are instructed to close their eyes. Players who have been dealt a red-backgrounded "Spy" card (a Minion of Mordred card in Avalon) are 'the bad guys', and get to open their eyes and make eye contact with other red players.
There are always at least two spies in any game, and they always know who's on their team. The blue-background "Resistance Member" cards (the Loyal Knights of Arthur) are the good guys who, on the other hand, have no way of distinguishing friend from foe, and must rely on their wits, observational skills, memory and deduction to figure who can be trusted, and who can be trusted for nothing more than a backstabbing. This one simple mechanism makes every game of The Resistance instantly compelling. Right out of the gate, every player will either be attempting to pin the blame on another, deflect the blame from themselves, or be so completely and utterly paralyzed with doubt and indecision that they're reduced to a quivering stack of misery and self-loathing. That's always fun to see!
But Avalon is more than a mere reprint of the original The Resistance with fancy new thematically-appropriate artwork. One of the core gameplay differences between Avalon and The Resistance is the inclusion of special character cards, such as Merlin for the blue team and the Assassin for the red. Merlin and the Assassin are played no matter how small your gaming group and act as powerful game changers compared to a regular round of The Resistance.
At the beginning of the game, after the red players make eye contact, they must then close their eyes and hold out their hand in a thumbs-up gesture. The Merlin player then opens his or her eyes. This means wise Merlin knows exactly who the bad guys are, and it falls on him to counsel his loyal fellow knights on who to trust, and who to avoid. However, Merlin must use his powers with discretion; if the Assassin can guess which player is Merlin, Camelot is lost, and that's an instant win for the bad guys. The beauty of The Resistance: Avalon is its finesse. It is unbelievably easy to play, even for absolute beginners, and an entire game usually takes place in an intense and nerve-wracking 15-20 minutes. Just be sure you're playing with friends who will stay your friends after you put the cards away. Because in the high courts of Avalon, it pays to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
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In Sheriff of Nottingham, players are completely honest merchants trying to transport their perfectly legitimate wares into the bustling marketplace of Nottingham town. Nottingham has some pretty strict trade rules in place, however, and a long list of items that are considered contraband. Some are so benign that it's downright strange they'd be on the contraband list in the first place, like black pepper, green apples, and fancy imported silks. Other goods are less benign, such as rum and crossbows.
But we've mentioned before that our players are completely legitimate businessmen; surely no one would be so boorish as to try and smuggle contraband into fair Nottingham; never mind that contraband items are worth the most points. Certainly, our players have nothing to fear from the corpulent and corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham, who has a right to search each merchant's supply bags for illegal goods to confiscate. And clearly, as sure as the sun rises each morn, no player would heap such slander on themselves and their thoroughly-honest business practices as to offer a bribe to the Sheriff! Good heavens, no, such deeds will not be committed in this game; no, sir or madam.
Let it be known that the Sheriff of Nottingham does accept donations and gratuities, however. Perhaps a small fee to expedite the goods inspection process. A little something to grease the wheels and the Sheriff might just turn a blind eye to that cartload of apples of dubious color, or those strange, oddly crossbow-shaped lumps protruding from their shipment of bread and chickens.
A big part of the fun of Sheriff of Nottingham is that players get to take turns being the Sheriff, and any coins the Sheriff makes gets added to their own coffers, meaning more points, and more money to pay for future bribes for when they aren't Sheriff. And there's a heap of deception that goes on, too – players may well be transporting a bag full of perfectly legitimate cargo, and if the Sheriff goes to the bother of checking it but finding no contraband, then the Sheriff has to pay the merchant! The roleplaying and dialog that happens as players try to negotiate their cargo past the Sheriff, offer bribes, or otherwise sweet talk their way through the gates with a bag full of contraband is priceless. Too bad the same cannot be said of the fines extorted by the Sheriff should he, indeed, catch you smuggling contraband into the city. That's highway robbery.