[this article originally appeared in Onder Magazine Issue #3]
After years of pushing games that I love upon family and friends I learned that for non-gamers, a positive or negative experience will determine whether they are willing to play a second game or not. All it takes is one slow, confusing, long, heavy game, where an experienced player inevitably wins after taking an early and insurmountable lead, to discourage someone from ever playing again. Gateway games, on the other hand, are engaging. Gateway games have several qualities in common, such as an easy learning curve, competitive gameplay, interesting themes, and attractive components. Sheriff of Nottingham is a glowing example of all of these qualities.
To begin, here’s a version of how I like to explain the game to those who have never played it before.
The Story of Sheriff of Nottingham
You are a merchant of Nottingham, competing against other merchants to become the wealthiest person in town. You leave your market stand to fill your bag with goods, but on your return, you find the sheriff is guarding the town’s entrance and is performing random spot-checks on people’s bags. The sheriff is responsible for making sure that merchants are following the rules for importing goods. He is sheriff, after all, and it is his job to enforce the laws. Things haven’t been very good for him lately, what with Robin Hood and his Merry Men redistributing wealth and inciting the people to rebellion. So you explain to him that you are returning with legal goods for your market stand.
When you say this you may be an honest and loyal merchant, only stocking your stand with the allowed legal goods: chickens, apples, cheeses, or bread. There is merit in this, as successful merchants are awarded the King’s or Queen’s bonus gold. If the sheriff inspects your bag, he could damage your goods and delays you from getting your goods to market. Thankfully there’s a penalty he must pay when this happens. It is good to be a legitimate merchant in Nottingham.
OR you may be a smuggler. You carry in your bag contraband goods, like silks or pepper, which fetch far higher amounts of gold than a wheel of cheese ever could. There’s risk involved and if the sheriff opens your bag and finds contraband, he discards it and hits you with a hefty fine. You may have to grease the sheriff’s palm or offer up a token of appreciation for all his hard work hunting the brigands in Sherwood Forest to have him overlook the “strangely quiet chickens” you claim are in your bag.
BUT for a short time you are also the Sheriff of Nottingham himself. Sure, all the merchants say they only bring in legal goods, but illegal crossbows and barrels of mead are getting into Nottingham under your nose. It is up to you to find the lawbreakers and punish them by discarding their contraband goods and collecting fines. But you can’t just go ripping through all the bags in the hopes of catching a smuggler. For the inconvenience of disturbing their bags and delaying the goods from getting to market, you must pay honest merchants a penalty out of your own pocket. The honest merchants want to trick you into inspecting their bags. Why not entertain offers then, since they are guaranteed income without the risk? Be a savvy negotiator, make the most of the deal, and catch the smugglers to be the best Sheriff of Nottingham.
The Critical Details of Sheriff of Nottingham
Sheriff of Nottingham is a social game of negotiating and bluffing for three to five players where the highest score at the end of two rounds (three rounds if there are only three players) wins. One player is designated sheriff on each turn, while the others are merchants. Merchants begin each turn with six cards, may discard and draw cards, and pack between one and five of those cards into a bag. Each player presents their bag to the sheriff while making a single claim about the bag’s contents. The sheriff guesses which merchants are being honest and which are lying. The sheriff decides which bags to inspect based on three minutes of bluffing, interrogating, and negotiating of bribes. Cards that make it through are added to the merchants’ stalls to be scored at the end of the game. Cards that do not make it through are discarded.
The Appeal of Sheriff of Nottingham
Sheriff of Nottingham exemplifies the qualities of a first-rate gateway game. First and foremost, Sheriff of Nottingham is a social game. Players must interact with each other as they negotiate with, interrogate, or flat out accuse each other. Social games are excellent gateway games because that interactivity is so engaging. Players cannot sit back and watch the game. They need to participate right from the outset. A corollary of this is that there is very little down time in Sheriff of Nottingham. The time between a player’s turn is important for gathering information on the other players. One at a time, each merchant discards and picks up cards, but since cards are discarded face up all players gain information during the process. Which cards were discarded if any? Bits of information like can be valuable to other merchants and the sheriff as they offer a glimpse at the player’s strategy.
After this, all players pack their bags at the same time. The sheriff has to wait, but watching the merchants pack their bags offers up clues too. There are too few options for a player to spend a lot of time thinking about what move will earn the most gold. Each player only has six cards to choose from, making the packing of bags take a little time. Sheriff of Nottingham has a high replay value because, as a social game, different players act differently. No two play-throughs are the same.
Gateway games have an easy learning curve, which is so appealing to non-gamers because there is less chance of making a mistake. In my experience, first-time gamers are frustrated or even embarrassed when they try to do something but I have to tell them they can’t because some rules only apply at specific times or under particular circumstances. It is a great quality in games to have depth in complexity, but not when someone is just starting out. It is fairly easy to play Sheriff of Nottingham. The rules of the game are easy to learn and to teach. A non-gamer won’t be overwhelmed by a multitude of choices like those offered in heavier board games. Players really only have to decide how much of a risk they are willing to take. Depth comes from the players’ ability to bluff, bribe, mislead, or otherwise deceive the current sheriff. The only issues I have had occur when a player wants to claim two types of legal goods but the rules state only one type may be claimed at a time.
Often, non-gamers are concerned about playing against experienced players because they believe the experienced players will win the game as a result of their experience. An experienced player does not have a significant advantage over new players in Sheriff of Nottingham, however, which makes it fun for everyone. While practice makes perfect, an unconvincing veteran will lose to a convincing non-gamer. Most scores stay close together unless one player decides to always take contraband and is called out every time. The game is fairly forgiving of mistakes too. Gold coins get passed from player to player as merchants are caught or the sheriff is penalized, balancing quickly turn after turn.
Sheriff of Nottingham is not just a game about importing and smuggling goods for personal gain: The theme is immediately recognizable and it is this recognisability that draws in non-gamers. They know Robin Hood, his Merry Men, Maid Marian, and the Sheriff of Nottingham from a slew of movies, novels, and children’s illustrated books. There is a familiarity that makes it easy to engage in Sheriff of Nottingham. Some board games aren’t as engaging for non-gamers because their theme is either too esoteric or too niche.
One of Sheriff’s greatest strengths, regardless of whether you are a non-gamer or a veteran, is the production value. The artwork on the market stands, coins, and goods cards is beautiful, the merchants’ bags are buttoned pouches to hold each merchant’s goods, and the handy dandy sheriff standee lets all players know who’s the boss in Nottingham on any given turn. The publisher could have easily left out components and created rules to serve the same purpose. The merchants’ bags are a particularly nice touch: They have a satisfying ‘snap’ when they close and ‘pop’ when they open. The tactile nature of the bag adds to engagement with the game.
There is also an optional time- and scorekeeping app available as a free download. The timer includes sound effects and voices of merchants waiting in line: They become increasingly annoyed as the clock ticks down to zero.
Thanks for coming aboard! Now it’s time to disembark and go play Sheriff of Nottingham!