Bootleggers: Board Game Review

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It’s January 1921. Prohibition has been in effect for a year and it looks like the 18th Amendment is here to stay. The problem, however, is that outlawing the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” hasn’t done anything to reduce the demand for booze. As a result, illegal stills dot the countryside and secret (or not-so-secret) speakeasies are popping up all over in cities, large and small. Local law enforcement may look the other way (especially if they’re properly motivated) but Elliot Ness’ G-Men are harder to convince. With this much money at stake, organized crime is sure to take an interest.

In Bootleggers, 3-6 players take on the role of enterprising bosses seeking to make their fortune in the illegal alcohol trade at the height of the 1920’s prohibition era. Deceit, lies, and alliances of convenience are the norm as players attempt to control distribution through money and corruption by muscling in on the competition, paying off the local law authorities, building underground speakeasies, and shipping trucks of hooch.

All players (referred to as mobsters in the game) start with one still, a truck and some cash, trying to get a bootlegging operation going and selling contraband to the speakeasies in the nearest town. To do so they must send in influence to control the speakeasy and persuade the owner to give them the best price. The highest price is paid to the mobster who has the most influence markers there (represented by a guy in a trench coat, holding a tommy gun), and then remaining inventory can be filled by the mobster who has the second most and so on. Once you’ve created the demand, you need supply. To do this, you have to spend hard-earned cash, buying more stills and hiring more trucks to haul the booze and sell at the speakeasies. The main mechanic is area control with some card drafting for initiative, but there is some chance as well, with dice rolls determining how much booze each still makes each turn. On top of that, the cops can show up and destroy the liquor if a mobster produced the most whiskey on the previous turn.

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Turn order is determined by muscle cards, most requiring that you pay money to play them. The more expensive cards have a higher initiative value and let you select from the available cards first. This is a powerful gambit because these cards allow you to grow your organization by adding stills, trucks or influence, or arm you with a special card to upset your opponent’s plans. Getting first pick can be key.

The game is balanced but has strategies that are stronger than others and with repeated plays, players may finding themselves doing the same things game after game.

Negotiation revolves around renting unused trucks or selling crates of ‘shine to other players each turn, and this can be a double-edged sword. For instance, you might offer to NOT sell at a specific speakeasy if they’ll loan you a truck for the turn, only to stab them in the back and sell at the speakeasy anyway. The players need to be ok with this sort of play. In my opinion, the game plays best with 5 or 6 players.

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The game components are quite good and rule book is well-written. The influence markers are little plastic mobster-looking guys in each player’s color. The plastic trucks are cool and hold the little wooden crates nicely. The dice are small but are reasonable quality. The board is well-done and each player has a home still\backroom card that is thick cardboard and has the turn order printed on it (very helpful). The one complaint I have is that the game has paper money, but in this case dealing with dollar bills feels thematically correct for the era. If it bothers you, use poker chips instead.

Pros:

  • Quality components (mostly)
  • Pretty good rulebook
  • Quick play with little downtime
  • Mid-level complexity
  • Strong theme
  • Has one expansion – The Casino, which looks good but I have not played yet.

Cons:

  • Paper money
  • 2-player option leaves a lot to be desired. Game plays best with 5-6 players.
  • Sometimes, the dice don’t roll your way and your still(s) may under-produce.
  • The Cop is more of a nuisance than an important part of the game.
  • Strong strategies emerge with repeated plays, making the games feel identical after a while.

Considerations:

  • The game can get mean. Players have to be ok with the direct player interaction and potential back-stabbing.
  • Negotiation is a key part of playing this game well and players may gang-up. Some players do not like this loose aspect of the game.

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With great components, fast play and mid-level complexity, there is a lot to enjoy about this game. If you like Sons of Anarchy, Deadwood or Illuminati, you will probably like Bootleggers.

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