Sunday, 6 October 2019

Review - Caper

Designed by Unai Rubio
Published by Jumbo
For 2 to 4 players, aged 12 to adult


Caper, a card drafting game for thieves

As a father of two, I spend a lot of time playing with LEGO (and yes, I'm going to neatly sidestep the fact I'm using my children as an excuse for playing with LEGO as if I didn't play with it before I even had kids). Children have a very particular way of playing with any kind of construction toy. They like to build towers; but they aren't towers that just go up. They go up, and out, and around. Bits hang off, the sides, and extra bits get bolted wherever they fit, often in complete defiance of gravity. The result is something unique, experimental, incredibly fragile, and messy. If it stands up, it's a bit of a miracle.

Caper, which was kindly provided for review by Jumbo, reminds me very much of playing LEGO with the kids. It's a two-player card game (with tagged on rules for three and four players that significantly change how the game works) combining set collection, card drafting, resource management, gotcha mechanisms, and area control. And it's all smothered with a thick layer of incredibly obscure language-independent iconography that requires it's own supplemental rules book to explain.

It's a LEGO tower. It's a bit of everything. And the fact it still stands up is a testament to the designer.

The problem is, board games are like garden parties. A board game that does everything, trying to please everyone, never gets an opportunity to do one thing well. More often than not you end up with a game that works, but which also feels like work. You spend your time struggling with, and balancing, the many vying mechanisms, spinning plates and juggling and worrying so much about how you're going to keep the show going you never have an opportunity to stand back and enjoy the spectacle.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here, sneaking in my conclusions first. So, as this is a game all about globetrotting thieves attempting heists throughout famous cities, let's insert a record scratch and do a Guy Ritchie-inspired fast-talking flashback...

The box for Caper, featuring beautiful artwork from Emrich

Caper is a smooth criminal. It arrives with a glinting smile, a smart suit, and no small amount of swagger. You will immediately notice the stunning box artwork by Emrich, which perhaps leans a little too heavily on stereotypes but which nonetheless sets the right tone for an international crime caper. The cover features pictures of ne'er-do-wells hung on the wall of a museum (they'll all claim they were framed if they get caught, after all). The characters are beautifully realised, and look like they've stepped straight out of Les Triplettes des Belleville.

Of course, this artwork is continued through the decks of cards that comprise the core of the components.

But that's just the beginning. The box also includes some thick boards to help you organize the tableau of cards in play, wooden cubes, cardboard coin tokens, a rules book, and a special "catalogue" of devious devices for thieves to invest in (basically an explanation of the game's iconography, but presented as a mail-order brochure from an ACME-style company that caters to those people who don't normally buy what they want).

The reference manual for Caper's iconography.

And it would be a crime if I didn't mention the box insert, which is a real treat. The card wells have embossed safes at the bottom, and there are grooves in the top that secure the boards tightly in place to prevent the cards and tokens from falling out during transit. I'm not convinced the wells are big enough for sleeved cards, but as I don't sleeve cards anyway that's of little concern for me personally.

The box insert for Caper, showing the moulded card wells that look like safes.

But this bright, breezy, cheerful style is just a facade. It's a front for a rather devious, tricksy little game that has as many moving parts as the most convoluted Hollywood crime thriller. Behind the smile, the cogs are whirring.

The problem is, it's hard to figure out exactly how. Or even why.

This game, much like a cleverly plotted crime caper, seems incomprehensible from the outside. The rules are relatively straightforward, but they're presented in a 30-page book nestled among four different languages. The way the rules are written is seemingly designed to obfuscate, omitting such information as what constitutes a "set" of cards, never clearly defining why you have the option to choose between three international cities to run your heist, and liberally dropping icons into the middle of the paragraphs (of particular note is the coin icon, which shows a coin of value "1" but which actually denotes a coin of any value, except for when it really does denote a coin of value "1").

And then you have the language-independent game cards: Cards with iconography so dense it requires a completely separate catalogue to explain it all. While the presentation of the catalogue is cute, this is a terrible barrier to entry. There are pages of icons, many of which aren't very clear at all. Some cards have more than one icon. Some cards have icons in multiple areas of the card. Oh yeah, and some cards have icons on the icons.

Let's look at an example of one of the thieves cards.

This is The Driver.

The Driver, one of the thieves from Caper.

The clock and coloured card icons mean that after you discard your last gear cards in the final round, you can play a gear card from your discard pile into this location. The directional compass arrow icon confirms that the icon affects you and your side of the board, rather than your opponent (always pay careful attention to which way these arrows are pointing, as it makes a big difference). The  symbol in the lower left indicates you only use this thief card if you have selected to play in Rome. Finally, the coin symbol at the bottom means you receive one coin when you play this card.

Clear? How about we take a look at a gear card.

This is the Hollow Book.

The Hollow Book, one of the gear items from Caper.

The sneaky man icon means you receive a caper (a nebulous measure of influence to indicate which player controls a specific location). The locked card icon indicates green cards in the same location as this card cannot be flipped. The compass indicates that the card is only protecting your green cards, and not your opponent's. The tower icon in the lower left means you only use this card when you are playing in London. The coin in the top left means you have to pay one coin from your stash to play the card.

And just to clarify, I don't mean one or two cards are like this. They're all like it.

Your first few games are going to consist of looking at your hand of cards, and then flipping through the catalogue to find each card and figuring out what it does (and then waiting while your opponent flips through the catalogue to do the same).

It makes learning the game quite intimidating. It also pretty much ensures your first few games are slow slogs with lots of rules referencing, plenty of mistakes, and far too much analysis paralysis. And this is before you even start grappling with the actual strategies needed to win.

It makes the game feel like hard work. It makes the game unwelcoming. And in the fast-moving world of board games, where everyone is always looking for the next new thing to be excited about, I fear that many people may never get beyond those learning games to fully appreciate what's going on underneath.

But if you do manage to drill into the rules, like a criminal mastermind drilling into a bank vault, the rewards may be worth it.

The main idea of the game is that two players are vying to steal the most valuable items from three different locations, represented by a row of cards in the centre of the table. You achieve your objective by playing sets of cards at each location to generate capers, thereby asserting control. However, along the way there's also an opportunity to accrue money, earn additional treasure, or screw with your opponent's plans.

A selection of locations you can rob in the card game, Caper.

Without going into excessive detail, the game plays out in rounds, with players acquiring cards through a drafting mechanism. Players place a thief card from their hand at one of three locations, and then they swap hands. They repeat this process until they each have one card left at which point leftover cards are discarded and the game proceeds to the next round, where the same thing happens with gear cards. This continues through three thief rounds and three gear rounds.

You can only place thieves at locations that have less than three thieves on your side, and you can never put thieves on top of other thieves. You can only place a gear onto a thief, and only if that thief has less than three gear. If you don't want to place some gear (or can't) you can discard a card to gain one coin. This is important because some gear has a cost in coins to use it.

The sturdy coin tokens used to buy gear in Caper.

The idea is to put the right thieves on the right locations with the right gear to control the location while also generating the right resources and doing whatever you can to hamper your opponent. And in practice is sounds pretty straightforward. It's not though.

It's really not.

You see, cards you play may generate capers. If you have the most capers at a location, you gain control of that location and will get any rewards for that location at the end of the game. Some cards will just give you a caper, but others will give you capers based on specific requirements, such as having certain colours of gear cards at your location, or even certain combinations of colours of gear cards. There are seven different colours, and you will have five in play at any one time (four regular colours, and one colour based on the country you select to play in).

A selection of gear cards from Caper.

And yes, this is a game where card colour is important, yet they chose nice muted pastel shades. If you're colour blind, or just playing in poor light, that's something you need to be aware of.

So, just the capers and colour sets is quite a lot to think about; but that's not even half of it. Some cards generate coins, which you need for the better gear cards. Some cards generate victory points, which you need to win. Some cards generate one of three different types of stolen goods (or a fourth wild type that subs for any of the other three) that in turn generate victory points depending on how many sets of them you have at the end of the game.

And then there's the "gotcha" icons that let you flip your opponent's cards so those cards no longer generate their resources or apply their special effects.

Of course, once the game is over, you get a big points salad to enjoy. You know the drill: Ten minutes of working out and totting up the points you generated from half a dozen different sources. Each player gets points from location rewards, thief abilities, gear cards, and their sets of stolen items. If their's a tie, the player with the most coins wins.

And that's the two-player version.

With three players the rules change as one player becomes a snitch who aims to make the other two players score as equally as possible.

With four players, the game becomes a team experience, where one player on each team becomes a lookout and controls the drafting process.

It's impressive that the game has so many options, and caters for different player counts. And it's clever. But each new mode is yet more things to think about.

More stuff.

This is a kid's LEGO tower. It's impressive. Inventive. Unique. But it's just got a bit too much of everything in it, and it's just a bit too much to comprehend.

I think if you had a regular player - a nemesis, if you will - and you played all the time, this could become a challenging and engaging experience. A way to sharpen your minds and duel like Sherlock and Moriarty. But you really do need to play against someone with prior experience, who understands the iconography and already knows how to win. The learning curve is just too steep and frustrating for casual players.

Oh, and one more thing. If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because this game is a reimplementation of the earlier game, It's Mine. I've never played that version though, so I'm not in a position to compare them. Which means that's pretty much all I have to say.

A selection of thief cards from Caper.

For me, this one was a miss. I love the concept and the artwork, but I really wanted a more streamlined and accessible experience. I was looking for a game that did a few things really well rather than trying to spin a wicked web of deceit. But for people prepared to put in the groundwork, this might be something worth checking out.

So, it's conclusion time...

Caper is, perhaps fittingly, like a twisty-turny heist. It is, like all plans (and some killer queens), fastidious and precise. Playing requires a firm grasp of the big picture as you deftly control the minutiae. It necessities preparation and study, and familiarising yourself with patterns and symbols. It asks you for your utmost concentration. But even that might not be enough, because there's just so much going on. And ultimately, as clever as I think it all is, and as much as I can see glimpses of fun, the iconography, densely packed mechanisms, and points salad finale mean taking on the role of career criminals feels too much like work for me. Unfortunately, this isn't the big score I was hoping for.



Caper was provided for review by the publishers. It's available now from good games stores and online stockists.

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