Saturday 21 July 2012

Review - Smuggle aka Contraband

Smuggle aka Contraband

Smuggle (or Contraband)
Published by MB Games
Designed by goblins in the vault of secrecy
For 3-6 players, aged 7-70 years old (!)

As a collector of old and out of production board games, I spend a lot of time in charity shops. Normally, I spend a lot of time in charity shops being a bit disappointed, having rummaged through the games shelf to find nothing more than another bloody copy of Carol Vorderman's Sudoku (does anybody do Sudoku puzzles any more?) and, even worse, The Sex and the City Trivia Game. I mean, really? Trivia games weren't bad enough already?

Sometimes, I will find something truly awesome, like when I picked up a mint, sealed copy of Fantasy Flight Games living card game, A Game of Thrones, for £5; but generally speaking, I will leave a charity shop with nothing, or a bit of tat that I think might be interesting but generally isn't (seriously, take a look at my collection and you'll see what I mean).

I picked up Smuggle, which is MB Games' rebranding of the classic bluffing game Contraband, even though I don't really like bluffing games. Why did I do this? Because I hadn't found anything else interesting all day, and it was priced up at £1.75. If it was a clunker, I could sleep easy knowing I had done my bit for charity; if it turned out to be good... that's okay too.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the box
Smuggle - for young and old (between the ages of 7 and 70 apparently).

Contraband was originally published by Pepys back in the mid 1900s. Smuggle is what happened when MB Games got their mitts on it in 1981. It is a pure bluffing game, in which one player is a customs officer, trying to determine whether other players are lying about the items in their luggage. Sounds exciting, right?


Okay, the theme is not exactly gripping, and as I've already said, I'm not a big fan of bluffing games (although the two-player Dracula game from Kosmos is decent); so before I even opened the box, I wasn't feeling particularly happy about my purchase. But when I had enough people together to do the game justice, I got it to the table and gave it a whirl.

I am still not particularly happy about my purchase.

The quality of the game components are about what you would expect from a game made in the 1980s. The box art is the typical MB style, with little panels of images showing an overly enthusiastic family pointing at the cards and cheering. My group were not as enthusiastic when we played. I don't recall a single cheer (except for the one when I put the game away).

One unusual thing about the box design is the prominently displayed age restriction of 7-70 years. What happens once someone hits 70? Do they lose the ability to bluff? Or didn't they expect people to live any longer in the 1980s?

Inside the box there is a game board (which is nothing more than a place to put the stack of item cards, and a place for the discard pile), a deck of 56 cards depicting different types of items, and a wedge of (ugh) paper money. I know it was the 80s, but paper money sucks, no matter what decade a game is from.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the board
The game board - isn't it beautiful?

Paper money... I really hate paper money!

The components are fine, except for the rather ugly artwork on the cards; and I was lucky with the copy I found, because everything appeared to be in mint, unplayed condition. Of course, finding an old game in mint condition is usually a danger sign: why hasn't anybody played it?

Here's why... The game is boring. I know it's a classic, and it's been around in different forms for years; but that doesn't change the fact, it's boring.

One person gets to be the customs officer and divides up the money for everyone, and then the person on his left draws four cards. The cards show either a luggage symbol, or an item of contraband such as cigars or jewellery (or even the crown jewels). Each piece of contraband has two values: the value you pay if you decide to declare it to customs, and the value you are fined if you lie and try to sneak through customs without paying.

So, the player looks at his four cards, and declares what he has to the customs officer. If the customs officer believes him, the player pays the required amount and then hands all the cards to the player on his left. That player discards one card, draws a replacement; and then makes a declaration. This goes on until the customs officer doesn't believe someone, at which point the person with the cards reveals what they have. If that person was telling the truth, he gets a bonus payment from the customs officer; but if he was lying, he must pay all the fines for every item of contraband he has. After fines are paid, the next player draws a fresh hand of four cards.

There are a few other rules (a player can accuse someone of lying before accepting the cards being handed to him, and there is a diplomatic bag that allows you to get away with carrying contraband), but that's basically the game. The winner will be the person with the most money at the end (or the person whose brain is still safely ensconced in his noggin).

Smuggle aka Contraband - the rules
The rules - concise, and lavishly illustrated.

The biggest issue I have with Smuggle, is the amount of time it takes to play. It should be a light filler game, playable in half an hour; but it takes forever. A round ends when all the cards in the deck have been used, and there are 56 cards in the deck. Considering that no more than four cards are drawn in any given turn (and in many turns it will only be one card), you can see how it will take a long time to get through the deck, even when playing quickly. Worse still, everybody is supposed to have a go at being the customs officer. That means, if you are playing with six players, then you have to go through the 56-card deck six times.


I wonder if this is why there is an age limit of 70 on the box: there is a genuine concern that anyone over that age may not survive to see the end of the game.

I expect there will be many people who love this game, and will be quick to say that once you are into it you can play the whole thing very quickly; but even if I could get the game down to half an hour, that's still half an hour of doing something repetitive: Draw cards, lie or tell the truth, pay some money, pass cards, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, draw cards, lie or tell the truth, pay some money, pass cards, load gun, pull trigger.

And the theme... good grief. If, when playing, I felt in some way like I really was trying to smuggle something through customs - if there really was excitement and tension - then it might be okay. But this isn't really a thematic game, and there's no real tension. If you get caught, it's no big deal; you just pay a bit more money.

Smuggle aka Contraband - the card deck
The cards all depict things that are more interesting than this game.

The repetitive nature of the game, the dull theme, and a playing time that runs longer than it should, all add up to make this a game that I cannot see myself playing again. Unfortunately, I have promised myself that I will only keep games in my collection that I will play; so this one has to go.

I am sure there are people out there who won't find this game such a bore, but it fell flat with my group; and it just confirmed for me that I really don't enjoy bluffing games. Time playing this game is time I could be using to play something that involves slaying dragons.


  1. Well done; this just featured on 'Absolute Radio'! See my comment on BGG.

    1. Finally, the recognition I deserve!

      Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I really enjoyed playing smuggle with my friends and siblings when I was young and would love to get my hands on the game again. Have you got any information on where I can get one from? Please contact me on if you have any information. Thank you. Jill Taylor.

    1. Well, I got my copy in a charity shop; but this game regularly turns up on eBay and at car boot sales. Those are your best bets.

      If you have trouble finding Smuggle, search for Contraband instead.

    2. Just change the rules..player on your left is allowed to challenge so there is no need to appoint one. Cash is limited. When cards are exhausted or every player bar one is skint the game is declared over and the winning player has money left. Its quickfire and fun!
      Some people just cant improvise and adapt...

    3. I don't review house rules on this site, I'm afraid. My reviews cover the rules as they come out of the box, as those are the rules I assume most people are interested in.

      I'm pleased to hear you have managed to change the rules to suit your own tastes, though.

  3. just brought this from a charity sho for 50P. However when I got it home there were no instructions. Does any still have them?

    1. You can find a version of the rules here:


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