Buzzworthiness: NOIR Black Box Edition

Today’s review is of a new edition for a game previously reviewed on this blog as part of the Level 99 Games Minigame Library:

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

NoirNOIR is a game that was originally published in 2012, one of six games included in the Minigame Library.  It was designed by D. Brad Talton, and published by Level 99 Games.  This was one of the best received games in the library, and was #3 on my list.  Pixel Tactics has been getting lots of support and re-releases, and now we’re getting a bigger edition of NOIR.  I can only hope that Master Plan is close behind.

NOIR is a deduction game that pits players against each other as they try to discover the identities of their opponents.  The original game was for 2 players, with a variant that took it up to 4.  This version contains six game modes, and has something for every number of players between 2 and 9.  In the box, you get 50 Suspect cards, 50 Innocent cards, 35 role cards, and 30 tokens.

The basic idea of the game is that players are trying to find each other on a grid of suspect cards.  This grid will be 5×5, 6×6, or 7×7, depending on the variant being used and the number of players.  Each player will have a secret identity, and the main goal is usually to discover opponent identities in order to eliminate them.  Generally, you can only accuse someone who is next to you, and you move the board around through a process called Shifting.  What this means is you can take a row or column and shift it one space in either direction, moving the card knocked out of the grid to the other side.  You don’t have to move the row or column you’re in, so this is a good method to get yourself out of danger.  You can also Collapse, which means to remove dead Suspects from each row or column, then collapse the board into a smaller form.

You only get one action per turn, and other actions are dependent on the current variant.  Let’s take a look at those.

#1: KILLER vs. INSPECTOR (2 players)

This is the original game, and lays the foundation for the other versions.  The game is set up with 25 Suspects laid out in a 5×5 grid.  The matching Innocent cards are shuffled into an Evidence deck.  One player is the Killer, the other is the Inspector.  Each gets a badge to identify them as such and to describe their possible actions on a turn.

The Killer takes the first turn, and draws an Evidence card from the deck.  This is her secret identity.  She must then kill one of the Suspects adjacent to her position on the board (flip it to its deceased side).  Adjacency includes orthogonally and diagonally touching the Killer’s Suspect card.  The Investigator then draws four cards and chooses one as his secret identity.  It is placed face down in front of him, and the other three remain in his hand.

For the rest of the game, the Killer and Inspector may choose one action available to them.  Either may Shift or Collapse.  The killer can also Kill, which means she flips an adjacent Suspect to its Deceased side.  If that Suspect had already been declared innocent, the Killer may Canvas for the Inspector, who must say if he is adjacent to the victim.  The Killer can also Disguise, which allows her to draw a card from the Evidence deck.  If not Deceased, it becomes her new identity.

The Inspector can Accuse, which allows him to point to an adjacent Suspect and ask if it’s the Killer.  If so, the Inspector wins.  The Inspector can also Exonerate, which allows him to draw a new card from the deck, then put a card from his hand onto the board, marking the Suspect as innocent.  This also allows the Inspector to Canvas for the Killer, who must say if she’s adjacent to the exonerated Suspect.

If the Inspector catches the Killer, he wins.  If the Killer kills the Inspector, or kills 14 people before being caught, she wins.

#2: HITMAN vs. SLEUTH (2 players)

This version plays out much like Killer vs. Inspector with a few twists.  Rather than just killing indiscriminately, the Hitman actually has a Hit List – four cards drawn from the Evidence deck and laid face down.  The first card is revealed so both players know who is on the Hit List.  Setup is otherwise almost the same – a 5×5 grid, the Hitman has a secret identity, and the Sleuth chooses a secret identity from a hand of three (instead of four).

Again, both can Shift or Collapse.  Additionally, the Hitman can Kill, which is a little different.  If you kill the face up suspect on your Hit List, discard it and turn up the next victim.  If they are dead, discard and draw the next one.  If you kill the Sleuth’s secret identity, they replace it with one from their hand.  If you kill one in the Sleuth’s hand, he discards it immediately.  Killing an exonerated suspect does not allow you to Canvas for the Sleuth.  Evade is another Hitman power that is just like the Disguise ability, but if successful, means you have to add a new victim to the end of your Hit List.

The Sleuth can Shift, Collapse, or Exonerate, all of which work just like Killer vs. Inspector.  The Sleuth can also Investigate, which is like Accuse, except that if you’re wrong, the Hitman discards the last card from the Hit List.

The Hitman wins by killing everyone on the Hit List or killing all cards in the Sleuth’s hand.  The Sleuth wins by catching the Hitman.

#3: SPY TAG (3-9 players, but not 7)

For this game, everyone is a spy trying to collect trophies (trophies are other spies).  You either play individually (3-5 players), or in teams of 3 (6 or 9 players) or 4 (8 players).  A 5×5, 6×6, or 7×7 grid is used.  Every spy gets a secret identity.  On your turn, you can Shift or Collapse as usual.  You can also Capture, pointing to a suspect that is adjacent to you and asking if it’s anyone.  If so, flip it to its deceased side and take their secret identity card as a trophy.  They immediately draw a new one.  You can’t capture a teammate, so if it’s one of them when you ask, they don’t answer.  You can also Canvas, which is pointing to an adjacent target.  Anyone adjacent to that Suspect raises their hand.

The goal is to get a certain number of trophies – 4 with 3 players, 3 with 4 or 5, 3 for the team with 6 or 8, and 4 for the team with 9.  The first player or team to accomplish this wins.

#4: MASTER THIEF vs. CHIEF OF POLICE (2 players)

Create a 5×5 grid, then place a treasure token on each Suspect.  The Master Thief draws three cards, selects one as her secret identity, and keeps the others in hand.  The Chief of Police draws three cards, keeps one as his secret identity, then places the others out on the board as uniformed guards.

Either player can Shift, but as there is no killing in this variant, there’s no Collapse action.  The Thief can Steal, taking a treasure token from any adjacent Suspect or her own identity.  The Thief can also perform a Quick Change, which is like Disguise.  She adds her identity to her hand, then puts one down as her new identity (it could even be the one she picked up).  The Chief doesn’t ever know what any of these are.

The Chief can Accuse, pointing to a Suspect adjacent to himself or one of the uniformed officers.  If it’s the current identity of the Thief, the Chief wins.  The Chief can’t catch the identities in your hand.  The Chief can also Deputize, drawing a new uniformed officer and discarding one of the current ones.  This allows the Thief to claim a treasure from anywhere on the board.

The Thief wins if she gets all 25 treasures.  The Chief wins if he arrests her first.

#5: FBI vs. MAFIA (6 or 8 players)

This is a team game, with half of the players on each side.  The board is 6×6 or 7×7, depending on the player count.  In addition to their secret identity, each player has a public role.  Players of the same team are all seated on the same side of the table so they may discuss strategy and show each other pertinent information, but all discussions must be public.  Turns alternate back and forth between the teams.

Each player has different things they can do depending on their role.  Everyone can Shift or Collapse as usual.

  • Bomber (Mafia): Bomb means that you place a Bomb marker on yourself or an adjacent Suspect.  You can also Detonate, killing the Suspect that holds the Bomb and you also kill an adjacent Suspect.  If they also hold a bomb, you can create a nice little chain.  Members of the FBI can disarm a Bomb as an action on their turn.
  • Detective (FBI): Far Accuse means you can accuse anyone within 3 spaces vertically or horizontally, but not adjacent.  Canvas here means that you can pick up the top two cards of the Evidence deck, reveal one, and put the other on the bottom of the deck.  The revealed Suspect is marked as innocent and all adjacent characters (FBI and Mafioso) must raise their hands.
  • Killer (Mafia): Fast Shift means you can move a row or column up to two spaces instead of just one.    You can Kill as in Killer vs. Inspector, but can’t canvas innocents.  Disguise is like Killer vs. Inspector, except a) you’re a good guy, and b) you can show your teammates your new identity.
  • Profiler (FBI): This is only used in 8-player games.  Accuse is the same as Killer vs. Inspector.  You can also Profile, meaning that place an evidence card face up on the corresponding Suspect.  You begin the game with four cards in hand, and this card comes from your hand.  After this, you discard any deceased Suspects in your hand and draw back up to four.  You can then Canvas the placed Suspect for Mafioso.
  • Psycho (Mafia): Swap means that you can switch any two adjacent Suspects on the board.  Your other power involves placing Threat markers, which is done at the end of your turn.  You must place 1-3 Threat markers on Suspects within 3 orthogonal spaces of you, and all Suspects with Threat markers that are adjacent to you at the start of your next turn are immediately killed.  Members of the FBI can remove a Threat marker as an action on their turn.
  • Sniper (Mafia): Fast Shift is the same as Killer.  To Snipe, kill a Suspect up to three spaces away from you diagonally.  Setup means you can move a Bomb, Protection, or Threat marker to an adjacent Suspect without a marker of that type.
  • Suit (FBI): You can Fast Shift, like the Killer.  You can also Accuse as in Killer vs. Inspector.  To Protect, you must have placed a Protection marker on a Suspect that is to be killed.  You can place or remove a Protection marker at the start of your turn, and cannot have more than six in play at a time.  If you are in the same row or column as a Suspect to be killed, you can save their life if they have a Protection marker.  You can’t protect yourself.
  • Undercover (FBI): You can Accuse as in Killer s. Inspector.  Disguise is just like the Killer.  Autopsy is similar to Canvas – you point to an adjacent deceased Suspect, and all adjacent Mafioso must raise their hands.

If the FBI successfully arrests a Mafioso, the corresponding Suspect card is covered up and can no longer be killed.  The Mafioso player removes all of their markers from the board, then draws a new secret identity.  The FBI wins if they capture 4-5 Mafioso.  The Mafioso keeps the identity of any FBI they kill, so it actually counts as a double kill.  If a Mafioso kills another Mafioso, it counts as an arrest for the FBI.  The Mafia wins if they success in killing 18 or 25 Suspects in the game.

#6: HEIST (5-7 players)

This is a one-vs-all scenario.  One player is the Chief of Security in a casino, while the others are a gang of teams trying to rob it.  The board is set up in a 7×7 grid, and everyone gets a secret identity as normal, which thieves can share with each other.  Each thief also gets a level 1 role card (there are two levels).  The Security Chief gets four Uniformed officers (drafted from seven choices) in addition to his secret identity.

Turn structure in this one is kind of odd.  All thieves take their turn, then the Chief of Security takes his.  However, the thieves have secret and exposed actions, and the Chief goes after any exposed action.  So the Chief either goes after all thieves have consecutively taken a secret action, or after a thief takes an exposed action.  The Chief can Shift (no Collapse because there’s no killing), Swap a Uniformed Officer with an adjacent Suspect, Accuse a Suspect adjacent to a Uniformed Officer or his secret identity, or perform Surveillance.  This is similar to Canvas – you choose a 4×4 section of the board, and all thieves in that area raise their hands.

Thieves always start their turn by removing their Steal marker if it’s out on the board.  Then they can Shift, which is an exposed action if they move a Uniformed Officer – otherwise, it’s secret.  They can also Steal, which means they add their steal marker to the quadrant where the vault they’re trying to rob is.  Each vault is in a 3×3 block in one of the corners of the board.  If the Steal marker is the third marker in that particular vault, the vault has successfully been robbed, and the marker is cleared from the table.  Stealing is an exposed action.

Each thief has a role that is secret at the start of the game.  When a thief does an exposed action, it is revealed.  When a thief is arrested, they get a new identity and a new role.  There are level 1 and level 2 roles, and thieves will go through the level 1 roles first.  Each role gives you a special action unique to you.  Here they are:

LEVEL 1:

  • Safecracker: Do not remove your Steal marker at the start of your turn.
  • Runner: Perform a Fast Shift.  This is exposed.
  • Cleaner: Disable an adjacent Uniformed Officers.  If there are any other disabled officers, they wake up.  Disabled officers cannot move or shift.  This is exposed.
  • Decoy: Vanish by shuffling your identity back into the deck and drawing a new one.  This is exposed.
  • Insider: Perform an Inside Job by swapping your position with that of any Uniformed Officer.  This is exposed.
  • Hacker: Hack by stealing from a safe you are standing next to rather than in.  If you’re in the center space, you can steal from any space.  This is exposed.

LEVEL 2:

  • Silencer: Silence an adjacent Uniformed Officer – kill them.  The officer is replaced by a new one from the deck.  This cannot be done more than three times in the game.  This is exposed.
  • Mimic: Duplicate by drawing three evidence cards, choosing one as your new secret identity, then shuffling the others (and your old identity) back into the deck.  This is exposed.
  • Infiltrator: Swap places with an adjacent target instead of shifting.  This is secret, so you could potentially lie about having this role.
  • Sneak: Perform a Stealthy Shift – move a row or column one space without becoming exposed, even if you move a Uniformed Officer.  This is secret.
  • Master Safecracker: Safebreaking here means that you do not remove your Steal marker, and can even add a second one if you are in range for the same vault.  This is exposed.

The thieves win if they rob all four vaults.  The Chief of Security wins if he captures thieves enough that they can no longer draw new roles.

image by BGG user asutbone
image by BGG user asutbone

So, now that I’ve talked about all the different variants, time for the actual review.

COMPONENTS: The original NOIR came with just 50 cards – 25 for the suspect grid, 25 for the evidence deck.  There were also some reference cards to help players keep track of what they could do.  However, the reference cards were double-sided, and there were only four, so you had one with the Killer/Hit Man, one for the Inspector/Sleuth, one for the Spies/Chief of Police, and one for the Setup/Master Thief.  In the Black Box, each possible role has its own reference card, which is a very nice touch.  There’s even one for all nine Spies, as opposed to just one for all in the original.

The cards themselves are pretty good.  There are twice as many as in the base game so you can get up to a 7×7 grid.  A 50th card is included so two 5×5 games can be played at once, which is very considerate.  Also, cards are marked with a 6, 7, or * so you know which ones to take out in order to make sorting easier.  There’s nothing to stop you from just creating your own setup, it’s just harder to find all the matching cards.  The same 25 characters from the original are in the Black Box and use the same art and back (art for the game was done by Level 99’s frequent collaborator Fábio Fontes).  The coloring of the cards is slightly different, and a consistent font is used on all cards, rather than changing the font for the names on every card, as was done in the original.  And that makes me happy – the different font was distracting.

The game also comes with 30 tokens for use in games 4, 5 and 6.  These tokens are all double-sided with money signs on the back (for game #4).  There’s no vault tokens for game #6, but you can just use money.  Tokens are pretty clearly distinguishable.  The box insert has four compartments, and I tried to use one for suspects, one for evidence, one for reference, and one for tokens, but the suspect and evidence decks are a little too tall.  So you have to split them up, and then there’s not really a place for the tokens.  But the insert is fairly tight and holds the cards in place well.

Overall, the components are really good.  My only real complaint is that the rulebook has some glaring errors.  For example, they will often reference that you need to build the grid for the number of players, but never really tell you what that means.  The big culprit here is game #3.  I checked with Level 99, and found out that you get a 5×5 grid with 3-4, 6×6 for 5-6, and 7×7 for 8-9 players.  There’s also some contradictions in the rules where old rules did not get removed in the final edit.  This happened especially in game #6 where you are told that thieves do not share identities, then two paragraphs later you are told that they do (the official ruling is that they do).  You are also told that the security officer gets three uniformed officers and a secret identity, then later are told that the security officer draws seven, chooses four to be uniformed officers, and gets a secret identity (the latter is the official rule).  These are some significant mistakes, and you should be aware that they are there – you may have to be checking the FAQs.  Other than that, the rules are well laid out and generally do a good job of explaining the game.

THEME: This is a deduction game, and has a kind of mystery theme slapped on it.  It works for the most part – there’s a certain amount of abstraction in the grid setup that you have to accept.  But it is kind of fun to play along with the film noir tropes as you play.  Maybe talk in that Humphrey Bogart/James Cagney style or make up some stories about what’s happening.  The theme gets a little stronger with the more complex games, partially because there are more character specific actions.  Killer vs. Inspector is the basic game, and doesn’t really have a terribly strong theme.  Hitman vs. Sleuth is a little more thematic with the hit list, but still not very strong.  Spy Tag is not really strong, but having a lot of people playing at once and trying to catch each other does lend itself well to the theme.  Master Thief vs. Chief of Police feels more thematic as the thief tries to slip past the notice of the cops, one of whom he doesn’t know.  FBI vs. Mafia is probably the strongest theme in the bunch, especially with the way all the different roles work.  Heist is also pretty thematic, but it feels weird that there are so many people moving through a vault throughout the game.  So, overall, the theme is present, but a lot of the story work is going to be done by you in this game.

MECHANICS: I’ve been able to play five of the six variants, only missing out on playing Heist.  But generally, I think they’re all pretty strong mechanically.  The Shift mechanism is the one thing that is present in all variants, and this is the main way to shuffle the board and hopefully confuse your opponent.  Other mechanisms pop up based on the variant.  Most things that affect others require you to be adjacent.  This makes thematic sense – you shouldn’t be able to kill or capture someone if you’re not next to them – but it also serves to give opponents information about your location.  And every little bit of information you can collect is very important in your deduction.  You especially have to be careful about what you say – no secret talk is allowed, so anything you say literally can and will be used against you.

Here are some brief thoughts about how each variant plays:

  1. Killer vs. Inspector: Pretty basic, good as an introduction to the larger game.  Uses Shift, adjacent kills and accusations.  Also has some ways to get some extra info (exonerating) and to get out of a jam (disguise).  Canvasing is also used to gain more information.
  2. Hitman vs. Sleuth: Takes #1 up a notch.  The hit list makes things a little more complicated for the bad guy, and there are penalties for being wrong about Investigations as well as Evading.
  3. Spy Tag: This is the most basic multiplayer version.  It’s just maneuvering, accusing, and canvasing.  More people means more chaos, and I always like that.
  4. Master Thief vs. Chief of Police: The most complex two-player game.  The thief has a hand of disguises that makes it tougher for the chief, but the chief has two extra officers to make things tougher for the thief.  The money tokens on the cards makes shifting a little clunkier as you have more to move.
  5. FBI vs. Mafia: The different roles really make this variant shine.  The Psycho in particular is a tough role since you always have to threaten, then kill.  You just have to control yourself enough not to give too much away.  But all the roles have their own stuff to offer.
  6. Heist: No thoughts, haven’t played it.  But there are a lot of different roles, and the secret vs exposed actions are bound to add much more to the strategy.

I don’t feel like any of the variants are overly clunky.  They’ve all got their own charm, and once you’ve got the hang of the idiosyncrasies of each version, you’re set.

STRATEGY LEVEL: A lot of the strategy in NOIR revolves around maneuvering yourself into position, but a lot of it is shifting stuff around to confuse your opponent(s). There’s a strong memory element to the game, and people who are bad at remembering board states may have a tougher time than others.  But in the team games, you can discuss strategy with your teammates (openly – no secret talk), and that can help with the memory issue.  There can be some luck – after a kill, you have at worst a 1 in 8 shot of guessing who the killer is.  But part of the game is narrowing down your choices, closing the net, trying to swoop in and catch them before they kill again.

ACCESSIBILITY: NOIR ranges in complexity from relatively light (#1 and #3) to medium (#2) to heavier fare (#4, #5, and #6).  So no matter the skill level, you should be able to introduce some variant to people and get them playing quickly.  The memory element is going to be the biggest barrier to accessibility.

REPLAYABILITY: There is a LOT of replayability in this box.  Six variants, different layouts of the board, and different playing styles of different players will all increase the replay value here.  Level 99 is GREAT at providing variety.

SCALABILITY: This is another place where the game really shines.  There are three two-player variants, and three multiplayer.  There’s a variant for every number, though sometimes it’s only one option (3-4 is Spy Tag, 7 is Heist, 8-9 is Spy Tag), but there’s always something you can play.

INTERACTION: This is a game with high interaction.  You have to be paying attention to everything, or you’re going to miss some critical detail your opponent let slip.  There’s nothing you can do to affect the game when it’s not your turn, but the game encourages you to talk to teammates and discuss strategy.  Every little thing tells your opponent something, so you have to be very careful.

FOOTPRINT: NOIR doesn’t take up a lot of space, but you do need room for whatever size grid you’re using, as well as all the players around the table.  So a nine-player game of Spy Tag is going to be a lot bigger than a three-player game of Spy Tag.  Still, even the largest game can probably still fit on a medium-sized table.

LEGACY: This was my third favorite game from the Minigame Library, and was overall one of the most critically lauded.  This new Black Box edition breathes new life into the system, and I think really makes it stand out in the crowd.  As far as deduction games go, this one plays unlike any other and I think is better than most.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  If you like deduction games, give NOIR a try.  It’s highly unique, and it’s a lot of fun.  On my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, I give it a

Yeah

Thanks for reading!

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