Publisher: Blackrock Games
The first time I played The Boss at a friend’s place, I was pretty impressed. I really didn’t expect much from such a small, unimpressive looking game. But boy was I surprised. At that point in time, I was already a veteran gamer with plenty of games under my belt (and shelves). The bar is certainly much higher for me to feel impressed. While not a huge fan of this genre, I still occasionally enjoy a hidden partial information game which forces you to take some educated guesses given the information at hand or around the table. In general, there is a healthy dose of luck required to win games in this genre. Games such as Ys, or Ruse and Bruise fall into this category. I love Ys, but the game is slightly more strategic and complex. The Boss on the other hand, fits into this nice little meaty filler niche: it doesn’t really overstay its welcome and is a satisfying way to cap a short game night.
There are a few things I love about The Boss and we will get to those. First though, an overview of the game. In The Boss, players are trying to accumulate the most money by sending henchmen to different cities to grab loot. Everyone is given a fixed number of gangsters that can be deployed to different cities, each controlled by a colorful mob boss. In addition, players are given several temporary thugs-for-hire that can be deployed to aid the gangsters. These thugs represent one-time use only resources that will be gone end of the round after they are deployed. The assigned gangster will always come back to you. Critically, thugs can only be deployed together with a gangster. Since they thugs are temporary, timing their usage is critical to win the game. So, why send the henchmen to different cities? Well, each city has several different money bags that represents the potential loot up for grabs. However, some cities also have an icon in addition to money bags which represents a risk or danger that is present in the city (gun, prison, ambulance, etc.) Every icon and money bag in each of the city comes with a corresponding card. At the beginning of each round, a city card of that particular color is slid underneath the mob bosses for each city. This hidden card represents the loot (or danger) found in the city. Of course, players do not know what that risk/reward is until the end of each round. The remaining cards in the deck are then evenly distributed among all players.
During each player’s turn, players must play a card to the corresponding city, thus revealing partial information about the identity of the hidden loot. Of course, for every card that is revealed, players around the table will gain more knowledge about the nature of the hidden loot. Besides playing a card, players can also assign as many gangsters or thugs to any one of the cities to claim area majority. However, you can only assign henchmen to one city and you can even choose to pass and not assign anyone. The game continues until all the cards in players hands are laid out on the table and the final loot hidden under the mob bosses for each city is revealed. If it is a positive sum, then loot is rewarded to the player with the most henchmen in the city. If it is a risk or danger, then the winning player must suffer the consequences. There are no ties because when players deploy henchmen, they must exceed the previous high bidder in each city. As for the risk, there are several: first, there are money bags with zero loot; there is a card with a gun icon which removes one of your henchmen permanently from your pool; the ambulance is a little bit like Adel Verpflichtet’s prison where the player’s gangster is sent to the hospital, but then gets them back after a few cycles. Finally there is a banishment card where players are no longer allowed to put henchmen in the city should they earn the banishment card in earlier rounds. The game lasts for 3-5 rounds and player with the most money wins.
There is a lot to love about The Boss, starting with the small stuff. I have written elsewhere that I love how the game determines the number of rounds to play: between 3-5. There are 5 cards with two cards each showing either a single gold or silver badge. There is one card that shows both a gold and silver badge. One card is flipped over every round during game play and when three of the same colored badges show up, the game ends. I cannot think of many other games where the number of rounds are randomly determined by this simple mechanism. It is simple, yet so elegant. That the cards are drawn mid-way through each round is also a huge part of the game. If you know a game has a chance of ending, do you commit all your thugs for hire in one desperate attempt to win a loot you know has a positive value? Or do you hold back hoping for that one extra round? Yes, it’s still luck of the draw but boy, can it create some tension.
I also love how you know who has what partial information. Each city has a unique color associated with it. So you can tell from the card backs who has what cards. If you see a player holding a lot of cards from one city, he or she potentially knows what is the hidden loot. Can you figure out whether they are trying to bait you into taking a risky bet or are they just holding out to the end, all the while pretending it is a worthless city? Juicy juicy choices indeed.
Finally, the designers of The Boss threw in a variable city: Chicago. Here, the city actually slides from left to right in the card row each round. There is no hidden loot card for Chicago and you cannot play cards onto it, you can just place your henchmen. The value of its loot is essentially half the value of the combined loot from each of the cities on the left in the card row. So, as the rounds go by, Chicago slides further right, thus increasing its value. You know for a fact that Chicago fortunes are tied to other cities and they are rarely bad, but do you jump the gun and commit all your people to it?
No doubt, part of the fun in The Boss is seeing whether our gamble pays off. You can plan all you want, but eventually, you have to take a stab and place your bets on the right horses. In this case, losing a majority can sometimes be a delight especially if the loot turns out to be something bad. It is fun to hear the sequels and moans from this game as the cards are slowly revealed. For such a simple game, there is a lot of tension in deciding not only where to place the henchmen, but more importantly, when. Placing too early can tip off your opponents on what you know while placing too late may make it too costly for you to gain the majority.
A great game in a small package.
Final word: Great!