Thursday 9 May 2019

Review - How to Rob a Bank

Published by Jumbo
Designed by Prospero Hall
For 2-4 players, aged 10 to 99 years

How to Rob a Bank

I think most parents would like their young children to be interested in board games. After all, gaming promotes a range of important life skills, including mathematics, logical thinking, and social interactions. But I imagine the desire to have gamer kids is strongest among parents who are themselves gamers, with the ultimate goal being to play games with the whole family without having to endure the likes of Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly Junior.

In this regard, I am truly blessed. I never actively pushed my daughter to be a gamer, but from a very early age she started to show an interest in my hobby. Although, perhaps in my case, calling gaming a "hobby" is a gross understatement and it's not all that surprising she would want to know more about the stacks of colourful boxes all around my house. By the time she was four or five, we had already progressed to more serious games; and by the time she was seven she was playing Warhammer 40,000 with me (with some assistance). She has become quite the little gamer, and she does beat me far more often than I care to admit. Her enjoyment of games has even expanded my own experiences, encouraging me to try titles I might otherwise have passed by, such as the elegantly simple Timeline, which I reviewed a few months ago.

But having a young gamer daughter does come with its own challenges. Many games aimed at that age group are overly simplistic, working well for children yet being something of a chore for adults; while more sophisticated games are too complicated even for the most advanced young gamers, or have inappropriate themes. I really don't want my daughter facing the visceral horrors of Fireteam Zero or the brain-hungry zombie hordes in The Walking Dead: No Sanctuary.

Fortunately, we live in an age where savvy designers (and publishers) are making wonderful family games that are easily digestible for children and non-gamers, while still offering plenty of crunch for hardened gamers to get their teeth into. And yes, I'm still talking about games; not granola bars.

One such publisher is Jumbo, whose distinctive elephant logo has long been recognised in my home as a mark of quality for traditional forms of entertainment, such as jigsaws and board games. So, when Jumbo approached me and asked if I would like to review some of their family-friendly strategy games, I obviously jumped at the opportunity.

And now here I am, reviewing the family-friendly, not-at-all-controversial, totally wholesome strategy game How to Rob a Bank.


The box for How to Rob a Bank, showcasing the fun artwork.

Okay, okay. Bear with me.

It may be a slightly unusual theme for a family game (unless you're Mr. Creep from the Happy Families books), but the subject's handled in a comical, light-hearted fashion. Think Victor and Hugo more than The Usual Suspects.

Besides, it's not like the game's actually going to teach you how to rob a bank for real. I mean, it even says as much in the rules.

But then, the rules would say that, wouldn't they?

So the game in question is a fun romp from Prospero Hall (who, with a name like that, will surely become a criminal mastermind if the game designing gig doesn't pan out), for two to four players aged 10 to 99. I assume the upper age limit is because crime's a young person's game. Unless you're Gangsta Granny.

It's a classic "one against many" experience, with up to three players working together in the role of daring robbers preparing to go on a series of bank heists, facing off against one player who takes on the role of the bank security team (comprising either two or three guards, depending on the number of robbers in play).

And I have to admit, the game does a pretty good job of capturing the theme. (Ha! See what I did there?) It plays out over three rounds, each of which is divided into three distinct sections that mirror, in an abstracted way, the steps in performing a real-life heist.

First, the criminals "explore" the bank. This involves the security guard player creating a circuitous road board from four jigsaw pieces, placing the empty game box in the centre of the road board, and then dealing out nine tiles in a three-by-three grid inside the game box to form a pleasing three-dimensional bank. The artwork on the tiles, box, and road boards mimics the blue and white line art of building blueprints: The kind of thing you might be studying if you were figuring out how to enter a bank vault. Nice touch.

A game of How to Rob a Bank set up and ready to play.

The tiles representing the bank's interior feature a variety of symbols indicating the locations of bags of swag and an alarm, plus the start space for each security guard, the start space for the robbers, and a few walls that break up the open-plan design and pose an additional challenge for any ne'er-do-wells scurrying around after close of business.

It's worth noting at this point that in a two player game, one player controls two robbers while the other player is the security team and controls two guards, so it plays in exactly the same way as a three-player game. Only with the introduction of a fourth player (and a third robber) does the game change, removing one bag of loot from the board and replacing it with another security guard to counteract the increased level of criminal activity.

Once the board has been created, a money token is placed on each swag bag symbol, and the alarm token is placed on the alarm symbol. These chunky wooden tokens are double-sided, with a padlock symbol on the reverse. This is important for later. The robbers (cute little meeples with eye masks) and guards (even cuter little meeples with security badges) are placed on their starting spots. Finally, a getaway car (a carple?) is placed on the road that runs around the bank, positioned as far away from the robbers' entry point as possible. Clearly there's been a breakdown in communication with the driver.

With exploration concluded, the robbers know everything they need to know about the bank and the position of all the loot. This is the point where things get interesting, because now the robbers must plan the steps they need to go through to get the cash, while the security guards plan their defence. This is all done through movement and action programming, a mechanism that's the perfect fit for the theme.

Each player has his or her own card deck (if one person is controlling two robbers then that player gets two decks), and starting with the security player, each player selects one card from a hand of eight and places it face up so that everyone can see what it is.

The security team cards feature actions such as running, tackling a villain, or locking a bag of loot or an alarm (flipping the token to the locked side). Most cards have at least two actions on them, and you can perform them in any order, and split them up between the guards however you want.

A selection of the guard action cards from How to Rob a Bank.

The robber cards feature actions such as grabbing an unlocked bag of loot, crawling through an air duct, running, using pepper spray to incapacitate a guard, or unlocking a locked bag of loot or the alarm. As with the security team cards, some cards have more than one action, and you can perform those actions in any order.

A selection of robber action cards from the game How to Rob a Bank.

However, once everybody has placed one card, they don't actually carry out any of these actions. Instead, they go round again, with each player picking a second card and placing it on top of the first, and so on until each player has a stack of five action cards. With that done, the stacks are flipped over so the cards will be drawn from the stacks in the order they were played.

It's now time to "rob the bank."

Starting with the security guards, players in turn reveal the top cards of their decks and perform the actions. Some actions are mandatory, but most aren't.

This is the magical moment in the game where everybody's best-laid plans fall to pieces.

If you've ever played a programmed movement game before, such as the excellent Colt Express, you'll know the drill. Because you've selected all of your actions in advance, you've had to predict where everybody is going to be on each of your turns. And nine times out of ten, you've predicted incorrectly.

You selected a card to steal a loot token, but before you got there one of the security guards locked it.

You selected to pepper spray a security guard, but before you could move into his space, the guard tackled you and knocked you out.

And so it goes on.

A security guard tackles a robber in a game of How to Rob a Bank.

There's also a little rule that if your robber is unconscious on your turn, you have to burn your card to wake up, completely foregoing your actions for that round. There's a similar rule in place for the security team, except burning a card wakes up all of the unconscious guards, and is only a mandatory action once all of the guards are taking a nap.

As you can imagine, things can get a little crazy as plans unravel. But here's the thing... And this is what makes How to Rob a Bank an excellent family game... It's incredibly forgiving compared to some other games involving programmable movement. Once your plan has come into contact with the enemy and everything's gone wrong, you don't just have to sit there and watch the chaos. The game has built in a number of mechanisms to mitigate such disasters by allowing you to shift from playing strategically to playing tactically turn by turn.

The most important thing to keep in mind is, as already mentioned, most cards have more than one action, and you can play those actions in any order. Furthermore, the security team player has the option to split actions up across multiple guards, adding a greater level of flexibility for moving to counter the robbers' strategies.

Additionally, on each of their turns, robbers have the option to play one special action from a list of four that are always available. They can make a special action before or after playing a card, with the only exception being when they have to burn a card to wake up after being tackled. The actions are:

1. Move the getaway car one space along the road in either direction.
2. Throw a bag of money into the getaway car from an adjacent bank space.
3. Pass a bag of money to another robber.
4. Set off the alarm if the robber is standing on the alarm space (this immediately draws all guards in the building to that space).

All of these actions are essential to success, and by separating them out from the card play, it ensures the robbers almost always have something they can do to right a sinking ship, and they usually have enough options to make some interesting tactical plays.

With these failsafe mechanisms, the designer has made the game more forgiving, less frustrating, more accessible, and less chaotic than it otherwise might have been, and that makes it a fantastic option for children and non-gamers who may be struggling to plot their moves five turns in advance.

What also makes How to Rob a Bank a fun family experience is the way in which the two sides operate. The robbers have many more options available, which may be daunting for younger players; but because all the robbers work together they have the option to team up and seek assistance from older (possibly wiser) players. Meanwhile, the security team has less types of actions available, and much greater flexibility in how to use those actions on any given turn due to the presence of up to three guards; and that makes it easier to play effectively. My daughter always chooses to defend the bank, and she does a fantastic job most of the time.

Once all the players have played their cards, the round ends and a new round begins, repeating all of the "explore," "plan," and"rob the bank" phases. The robbers win the game if, at the end of a raid, they have accumulated a prescribed amount of loot: Four bags of loot in a two- or three-player game, and five bags of loot in a four-player game. The security team wins if, by the end of the third raid, the robbers have failed to meet their quota of filthy lucre.

Two robbers escape with all the money in a game of How to Rob a Bank.

It's definitely a great little game; but of course, it's not without its faults. After all, no plan ever goes off without a hitch.

I've mentioned that the use of programmed movement is a great way to thematically represent a bank raid, but do keep in mind that while the theme of the game is strong, it's only strong in that Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. This isn't a gritty recreation of your favourite Mission Impossible episodes, this is more like the greatest hits of Scooby-Doo. Everybody is running around, bungling into scrapes or cheesing it from the security team; loot is left lying on the floor in bags conveniently labelled with large dollar signs; and getting the loot out of the building involves throwing it out of the window and hoping the getaway car has the sunroof open.

The car playing piece from How to Rob a Bank.

Of greater concern is the lack of variability, which I assume is intentional in the design to keep the game bright and breezy for younger players. How to Rob a Bank comes with 10 single-sided tiles to create the bank's floor plan, of which you will always use nine. The one you leave out isn't random; it's based on how many players are in the game. The remaining nine tiles don't offer quite as much variety in level design as you might hope for. Even though they are placed randomly in a three-by-three grid, and may have any orientation, many of the tiles are completely open on all four sides, so it really doesn't matter in which orientation they go, and tiles with walls must be arranged so that they don't cut off any areas of the map. On top of that, you raid up to three banks per game. It's true that in each raid you're only picking five action cards from a randomly pulled eight cards, so there is variability built into what you can do as well as where you can do it; but once you've played a few times, you start to feel like you've seen everything the game has to offer, and you start to formulate certain strategies to cope with particular bank layouts.

One of the game's greatest blessings - the more forgiving design that makes it a great family option - is also one of the game's greatest curses. At times it just seems a bit too forgiving. You don't often get those agonising groans and moments of hilarity as your whole plan comes crashing down. The stakes don't always seem quite as high as they could be.

A section of the rules sheet for the board game How to Rob a Bank.

But the biggest black mark against the game is that sometimes you just don't get to do anything. If you're a robber and you get knocked down, your entire turn involves burning your next action card. There's no decision point in which card to burn, or when you burn it. You just give up your turn to stand up your playing piece. Turns move quickly, and the security team doesn't have the same problem as it's only necessary to burn a card when all of the guards are unconscious, but it's still never an enjoyable experience to spend your turn completely inactive. You don't even get to use one of the bonus robber actions.

Overall, these small niggles aside, this is a fun game with just the right mix of planning, bluffing, and chaos for the whole family to enjoy. Plus, it's easy to set up, and it plays quickly enough to fit perfectly in that twilight time between when the kids get home from school and when they have dinner. So, I guess How to Rob a Bank does exactly what it sets out to do. Unless, of course, it really is trying to teach you how to rob a bank, in which case it's a total failure.

Unless I'm just saying that to throw you off the scent.

Now if you'll excuse me, my daughter's studying some blueprints and I need to bring the car around.

Thank you to Jumbo for providing my copy of How to Rob a Bank for review. If you want to get your own copy, you should be able to find it from online retailers and in all good game stores.


  1. Interesting; this has an almost identical theme to Burgle Bros, looks quite similar, but plays very differently. I could say something profound about the endless potential of board games, even when emulating the same source material, but I'm not up to the task today.

    1. I hadn't heard of Burgle Bros before. It's interesting they both have 3D boards, but it looks like Burgle Bros makes more use of that concept. The elevated board doesn't really add anything to How to Rob a Bank other than some table presence.

    2. That makes sense, given it's a simpler iteration of the concept. I will say though that Burgle Bros doesn't really have a 3D board, or at least my copy doesn't; it's sort of simulated 3D in that you can move up and down floors, but the board itself is laid flat.

      I see someone on the site I linked has built a tower for it, but that's not how the game comes as standard!

    3. Ah. I only took a quick look and thought the 3D tower came with the game! BGG should make a better effort to ensure the images on the front page for a game are representative of the contents.


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