Michael Eckenfels, 29 July 2021
Now, before you grognards go and get your Fruit-of-the-Looms in a wad, let me go ahead and get some things out of the way: first off, no, this is not a wargame. Second, yes, it is an attempt at a hybrid American/European mechanic-style boardgame. Lastly, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, so if you’re a closet social deviant that thrills at sticking it to ‘The Man’ while selling (then) illegal hooch that was as good in a gas tank as someone’s gullet and posing with a Tommy gun that holds a 50-round drum magazine whilst riding the rickety wooden boards of an “a-WOO-gah” kind of truck clanking down side roads to the accompaniment of clinking bottles of said hooch packed in crates in the back to make thousands in illicit dough while reading long rambling sentences, you’ll love this game as much as I did, so read on. (Breathe.)
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
My experience with Euro-style games has been limited to a few rounds of Mayfair’s Settlers Of Catan and some rousing observances of the Houston Gamers’ group playing Power Grid (ed note: at the time this was written; he’s broadened his horizons a bit since then). It has, however, garnered within me a healthy interest in the streamlined, fast gameplay that is as much determined by skillful gameplay as luck. (Some would argue the ‘luck’ part, but that’s another article entirely.) After having grown up on years of Third Reich, World in Flames, Squad Leader, and anything with a CRT that resembles the GNP chart of a major world power, “fast” and “streamlined” gameplay has become something of an alien concept, much like using 3W’s SS Amerika and “under six weeks” in the same sentence.
With that said, it is the penultimate interest of most 30-ish gamers (i.e., “20” to “80”) to have fun in a relatively short period of time, sort of the same mental stimulation as a roller coaster without the stomach-heaving 8-G turns or the jumping-off-the-tracks/stopping-upside-down parts. If it sets up fast, plays fast, and puts away fast, and most importantly makes it worth the effort of all three, it’s a keeper of a game. And these four points are all met with Bootleggers from Eagle Games.
For three to six players, Bootleggers puts them squarely in the wing-tips of a mob boss, looking to take advantage of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, specifically, “Prohibition.” In 1918, riding the moral high crest of a wave that had its epicenter smack in the middle of millions of World War I casualties, bible thumpers and people with good intentions but short-range vision had alcohol banned throughout the United States. While it seemed a good idea in the “take the dangerous toy from the child and they can’t hurt themselves” vein, people didn’t react to kindly. Taking spirits away from what amounted to a nation of blue-collar “Lunchbox Joe” types and stock-market scamming white collars was almost as much a disaster as that one Serbian pistol shot in 1914.
Demand was probably even higher for drink once Prohibition was ratified by all the states, which in the spirit of economics meant a supply had to be provided – there was money to be made, after all, when a crazed demand rises up. Also, being told that they can’t have something tends to bring out demand in people who didn’t even want it in the first place.
In Bootleggers, the player gets to play on that demand by distilling, delivering, and reaping the benefits of a crazy Amendment. In the process, the first ‘boss’ to reach 100 G’s (or, $100,000 to non-1920’s bad gangster movie English speakers) wins the game. Winning the race to reach the most dough means outplaying opponents through careful planning, making wise choices, and not hesitating to use filthy under-handed backstabbing to reach that goal.
Eagle Games’ components have always been of the high quality, ‘cool bits’ variety. Bootleggers is, however, not created and built up from the ground floor by Eagle Games. They’re publishing this title for SDR Games. Does that mean any less of a decent product?
For SDR’s part, they’ve created a game that fits into Eagle’s mold of having nice bits that are fun to manipulate. The gangster pieces, used to mark Influence in the various speakeasies and to indicate which trucks are owned by what boss, show a typical perspective of a goon from that era down to the fedora, Tommy gun, and violin case at his feet. The trucks the goons ‘guard’ are nice, but represent three different sizes and have a number imprinted on the top of them to indicate their maximum payload.
click images to enlarge
The board itself is remarkable as it is plain. There’s no vibrant bright colors to catch one’s eye. Instead, the mood of the board pools itself into a dark midnight blue that is indicative of the shadows just beyond the weak lamplights of the streets in the dead of night. Light pours from a small number of lamps and a lone truck. The whole thing is somber and perfectly indicative of the mood that a player should have…indulging in illegal activity all the while entertaining a vague notion that one should be glancing over their shoulder every few seconds, waiting for the cops or another gang to roar around the corner with guns blazing. That may not happen in Bootleggers per se, but setting that kind of mood is important.
The card art is decent, as are the tiny wooden blocks that represent the crates of illegal hooch that players are bottling in their distilleries (referred to as ‘stills’ from here on out) and carting to the thirsty crowds in the speakeasies. All in all, the components of this game are spectacular.
As mentioned, the objective of Bootleggers is to generate $100G’s. To do this, the player can sell hooch to the speakeasies or make deals amongst themselves. By “deals amongst themselves” I mean “thoroughly stab in the back,” so money changing hands in this case is relative to the amount of underhanded, sneaky, conniving players in the group. Anyone drawn to a mob game has to have some of these qualities under their belt, or the ability to learn them quickly, to survive for more than a few turns.
Most money is generated from selling hooch, and to do that, one needs a still (or many stills). Each player starts with one still and one die; each of their starting stills can have up to four dice. When the time comes to generate the drink, these dice are rolled to determine how many crates are created. Next, players have to have the trucks handy that can transport the crates to the thirsty speakeasies; they can buy one outright at the start of a turn (if they’re lucky), or play a card to borrow one. Also, players can rent out a surplus truck to a needy player if they feel nice, but of course there’s usually a price for such services.
Once the crates are loaded, the players transport them to the speakeasies where they have Influence. Players can sell it at any speakeasy, but there’s a little something called “demand” that plays a big role in the game. The larger the speakeasy, generally, the thirstier the crowd there. Players with more Influence at a speakeasy get dibs on selling (and if they have a large enough controlling influence, they can get a cut of the profit as well), while others get the scraps left over. As demand is fulfilled, players at the end of the line may not get to sell their hooch, which means it goes to waste.
Being a big producer may sound like the ticket to victory, but the Copper piece (very similar to Settlers of Catan‘s ‘robber’ piece) will, at a certain point in the game, start parking himself on top of stills that produce the most hooch. Making the most draws the attention of the fuzz and can shut an honest gangster’s living down for one full turn; if a player rolls a ‘5’ when producing booze at a still with a Copper, it produces no booze that round. That is, if they don’t have Remote Stills, which can be created through card play, have one die of production, and are immune to the Copper. So if Elliott Ness and his crew come ‘axing’ questions and wrecking booze boxes, the Remote Stills can still produce a small but reliable stream of product.
Each turn (or, ’round’) is divided into six Phases; I’ve pretty much described the sequence above, but a few more things are worth noting. First, each Phase players determine play order by playing Muscle Cards. Each player starts the game with as many Muscle Cards as there are turns in the game (12), dealt randomly. Each card has a number on it, and the highest numbers go first. However, the higher numbers cost more dough to employ. If ya wanna go foist, ya gotta pay.
Players also select a card from the board (Men of Action Cards), which are laid out face up; as many cards as there are players are displayed. (This is done before players select a Muscle Card to determine order, so they can see what Men of Action Cards are available before deciding how badly they want to go first.) The juiciest cards are usually the Influence ones, which give the player that grabs them either one or two Influence Markers. Then there are Still Improvements, which can add a die or dice to a player’s still production, and Thug Cards, which allow a player to influence the game.
By the way, a fleet of trucks is going to cost. Players must pay a bribe to keep the trucks running for them, and the larger trucks cost more. Even Teamsters need to feed their kids.
Then, players place Influence Markers in the various speakeasies. Influence Markers are a very precious commodity, and must be used wisely. Some speakeasies will only open for business after a certain number of Influence Markers are placed, so it’s important to plan ahead – especially for the bigger ones. The smaller ones can generally be opened quickly, but in some of my games it took several turns before the larger ones started opening for business.
Influence determines which player has priority in selling booze at that particular speakeasy. Having a lot of Influence Markers present helps give players a change to get a piece of profits as well, even if the player is the one selling the hooch, which can skyrocket one’s income. In games with fewer players, there’s more of a spread on Influence as players look to carve their own niches without competing with others, at least early on. This means that demand really does not play much of a part in the game, since if only one is selling hooch at a speakeasy the demand usually is high enough to sell all the crates. Only the larger speakeasies will usually see players competing directly with each other, especially in the largest one.
Shipping the booze to the speakeasies is relatively simple; this is where players try to wheel deals with other players that have extra trucks. Players get to load the trucks with crates of booze – this may sound strange, but handling them is a lot of fun – and move them to the appropriate dock at a speakeasy they want to sell at. Once this is completed, demand is rolled up by the various speakeasies to determine how many crates can be sold there. This is where Influence comes in; those with more sell first, so sometimes those with less Influence will not get to sell any crates – or very few.
A new turn is then started once all sales are made. Since Influence is a valuable commodity, at the end of the fourth and eighth turns, each player gets a free Marker; the player in last place gets two free Markers. This is a nice mechanic that helps lagging players catch up a little bit – two markers can make a big difference in controlling Influence within a large speakeasy.
The manual is great, with lots of illustrations. It’s logically organized and laid out, which helps players breeze through it – which everyone wants to do anyway so they can jump right into the game. Most importantly, there are lots of examples laid out, which help tremendously when trying to visualize the concepts presented. While not complicated in their own right, the examples clear up any confusion that may linger.
While dice mean a huge luck factor in the game, the Mob Cards bear mentioning as they provide a tremendous amount of game balancing/unbalancing. These Cards can be used to steal trucks, destroy Influence Markers, make players give up cash to the bank, and lots of other dirty little tricks. However, I’ve seen players squirrel their way out of such tight spots by offering money to the player to not play such cards on them. This dovetails nicely into implied threats, such as showing someone a card and saying they’ll shut down their trucks if they don’t pay X amount of dough right now (“cough up the cash, sweetheart!”). Or, the card doesn’t necessarily have to be shown; implied threats work just as well, and trying to remember if that player actually did pick up such a card, especially in games with lots of players, becomes an exercise in risk. This also opens up tremendous amounts of revenge-seeking and collusion to ‘get back’ at those that dare pull stunts like this.
Players that find themselves at the top of the heap quickly with lots of cash will find other players banding together to take them down a notch or two; this happens often and sometimes makes games end without a player reaching the coveted $100G mark, as everyone’s busy trying to knock each other down a few pegs once the first overt move is made. Not making $100G’s doesn’t happen that often, as scoring several thousand dollars in one selling phase (upwards of $10G’s or more) is not impossible; games can change very quickly.
Some gamers despise luck factors, as they think skill does not enter into gameplay. Since luck equals preparation plus opportunity, this couldn’t be farther from the truth; players that are prepared will be ready when opportunity presents itself. If taken down a few notches, in a game like Bootleggers, there’s always ample opportunity to claw their way back to the top of the heap. That’s the beauty of luck factors: everyone can win, even someone in last place. It’s good to play a game like this where even if one’s posterior is getting kicked they’re still always in the game.
In essence, Bootleggers is a game that does not transcend any new boundaries, but for American gamers it introduces to mainstream gaming the Euro-style concepts that have proven so wildly popular across the pond. Games like this may not have direct conflict or elimination factors, which are hallmarks of wargaming, but the competition is still cut-throat and backstabbing is as fun as it was in the original Diplomacy. Bootleggers puts the enjoyment of competition into gaming without the worries of elimination or utter humiliation. Well…humiliation can still play a part in it. After all, what’s a little gangster action without a smackdown or two?
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