Sheriff of Nottingham is a game that was originally published as Hart an der Grenze by KOSMOS in 2006. This Sérgio Halaban/André Zatz design was recently republished by Arcane Wonders, with Bryan Pope developing it. The game is part of the Dice Tower Essentials line – actually, it currently IS the Dice Tower Essentials line. The game is for 3-5 players and lasts around an hour. In the game, players take turns as the Sheriff, attempting to catch smugglers trying to sneak illegal wares into Nottingham. However, you’re also very corrupt and susceptible to bribes.
The game comes with 216 cards, 110 coins, a sheriff marker, five merchant stands, and five bags. Each player begins each round with six cards. Each round, a different player will be the Sheriff and all others will be merchants. Merchants may first discard some cards and draw new ones (either from the discard piles or draw stack), then load their bags with 1-5 cards. You give your bag to the Sheriff and tell them what is inside – three chickens, four apples, etc. You must tell the Sheriff the correct number of cards, and you must tell the Sheriff one and only one type of good. So you may have three chickens and two apples in the bag, but you can say five chickens. Or five apples. Or five bread. Lying is encouraged in the game.
The Sheriff then has a decision. He can choose to send you on your way, meaning that you put all goods from the bag in your merchant stand. This means everyone will know if you lied – legal goods are placed face up, and contraband items are placed face down. The Sheriff can also challenge your bag, meaning that he doesn’t think you’re being honest. At this point, you can try to negotiate. Offer bribes, try to reason, call his bluff, whatever. On another player’s turn, you can still get in on the action to try to sway the Sheriff one way or another.
If the Sheriff takes a bribe from you, he must return your bag – he can’t take your money AND search your bag. He’s corrupt, but not THAT corrupt. However, if he chooses to search your bag, one of two things can happen. Either you were lying, which means you pay him the penalty for all goods you were dishonest about (they get discarded and you keep all goods you told the truth about); or you were telling the truth, which means HE pays YOU the penalty for all goods in your bag.
After each player has been the Sheriff twice (three times in a three-player game), tally up your points. Bonuses are awarded for the most and second most in each legal good type. The player with the most points wins.
COMPONENTS: There are a lot of cards in this game. 216 goods, including 144 legal goods, 60 contraband goods, and 12 royal goods (which are still contraband). A lot of these cards are duplicates, and this is by design. I have heard complaints that there are too many cards in the game, but I disagree – in the five-player game I played, we almost (but not quite) went through every card in the game.
The bags are made of a felt type material, and look like little envelopes. They are just big enough to fit all of your cards, and have little plastic clasps to snap them closes. When playing, I was in constant fear of ripping one of them off, but it didn’t happen. I don’t know how likely it is, just exercise caution.
The cardboard in the game is good quality – good coins, good Sheriff marker. The game also comes with a plastic insert to organize your discard piles. There are two discard piles, one kept on each side of the main draw pile. You can discard into either pile, and you can draw from any of the piles. The only caveat is that you must always draw the top card. If there’s an apple you want sitting under a silk you do not want, you have to take the silk first. While ultimately unnecessary, I would say that the insert really helps to keep everything organized in a game that might become a mess without care.
To sum up – no complaints at all from me about the quality of components. They’re all top notch.
THEME: Sheriff of Nottingham has a fairly weak connection to its theme. The Robin Hood mythos is very rich and highly prevalent in popular culture, but this game doesn’t really address it that much. Sure, the Sheriff is corrupt, that works. But it really could have been any corrupt official (in the original, you’re a border agent). The art on the cards keeps a connection with a marketplace, and that is all good thematically. It’s just that not much is done with the story of the Sheriff. Robin Hood isn’t even in the game (though one of the merchants could be Robin).
On the other hand, this is a game that definitely lends itself to roleplaying. You can adopt a character as the Sheriff. You can use your character as a merchant as you try to convince the Sheriff of what’s in your bag. So in that sense, the theme is good. I think Nottingham was chosen for its familiarity, it just implies more story than is present in the box.
MECHANICS: The major mechanism in play during Sheriff of Nottingham is negotiation. It is almost pure negotiation – you have to use whatever means necessary to convince the Sheriff to let your bag go pass. Of course, there are times you do not want the Sheriff to pass you over – i.e., your bag is full of legal goods you were honest about. In this case, you may want to try to convince the Sheriff indirectly to open your bag – get some extra cash on the side. This push and pull makes the game very interesting – if it was just a case of the Sheriff opening or not opening your bag, the game would be kind of dull. But since the Sheriff also has something to lose, the game becomes much more tense.
Once you get your goods into the market, the game is a set collection game as player try to have the most (or second most) of a type. And so the discard and draw at the beginning of each round becomes extra important as you are trying to seed your hand with those cards that will help you get the best sets. But that is really secondary to trying to see just how much you can sneak past the Sheriff. The contraband offers more risk, but much higher rewards. Also, a number of the contraband goods give you special abilities – for example, there is one that allows you to force someone else to discard goods from their market. There’s another that you WANT the Sheriff to find because he will have to pay you anyway.
Mechanically speaking, this is a fairly simple game to understand how to play. It’s the nuances of gameplay that make it interesting.
STRATEGY LEVEL: The big strategy point in this game is how you handle the negotiation aspects. Are you going to lie through your teeth? If so, how much? Are you going to waste time bringing in apples when an opponent looks like they are going to run away with it? How much contraband do you dare put in your bag? How much will you use to bribe the Sheriff? Are you going to try to convince him to open your own bag by trying to convince him to pass it over?
There is luck in the game as you get random cards at the start of each round. However, this is mitigated by being able to discard and draw from face up or face down piles. It’s also mitigated by the ability to lie. Still, you will have to cope with the fact that you aren’t getting enough chickens to get even second place, or you’ve only got contraband in your hand. That’s when you have to decide where to go next. This makes the game quite strategic.
ACCESSIBILITY: As I’ve mentioned, this is a very easy game to learn. The biggest barrier to entry, I think, is just the nature of the game. It’s a game about lying. You have to lie. You will not do well if you JUST tell the truth during the game. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun to tell the truth. Telling the truth may get you some extra cash from the Sheriff, especially if you can convince him that you’re lying. Which, I suppose, is lying about lying. So if that bothers you, you should probably stay away. If not, this game is a blast.
REPLAYABILITY: This is a game that has inherent replayability built into it. The cards never change, but there is infinite opportunities for negotiation. Because of different styles, every game plays out differently. I’ve played twice now, and the first one featured a guy who seemed to get nothing but bread. And he kept giving bread to the Sheriff. And when he did, it would invariably be the truth – a lot of Sheriffs lost a lot of money that day. In my second game, everyone was playing relatively honestly – not a whole lot of contraband came out. However, one guy was very suspicious of everyone, and we had one round where he thought everyone else was lying. We were all telling the truth, and he lost a lot of money. These kinds of stories are going to come out of every game session, so there’s a lot of replayability.
SCALABILITY: This game plays from 3-5 players, but I tend to think that the more you have, the better. I bet up to six would also be fun, though there aren’t pieces for it in the game. Beyond that, the game might get a little long – it’s 8-10 rounds now as it is. I haven’t played with three, but I hear that it’s more fun when you have more people. Which makes sense to me.
FOOTPRINT: Sheriff of Nottingham doesn’t take up a whole lot of space. You need room for your market stand, and to lay out the goods you have collected next to it. The discard pile and draw pile are compact with the insert included. But that’s all the table space you need.
LEGACY: Negotiation offers a gaming experience unlike any other – it’s a form of human interaction that you just can’t get from computers. And this is one of the best negotiation games I have played. The genre makes me nervous since I don’t see myself as a good negotiator. But I usually have fun with them.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. If you don’t have a problem with the lying aspect, give it a try. It’s a lot of fun, and I look forward to getting to play again. Thanks for reading!