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Reviews - Den of Thieves/Rival Den of Thieves
by Demian Katz

Den of Thieves coverDen of Thieves
Rival Den of Thieves
Published by Rogue Publishing
Designed by Scott David Gray
Illustrated by Patrick Crusiau
26 cards plus rules and turn order card per deck (players must provide paper, pencil and counters)
$7.95 each

Rogue Publishing is an interesting company. After starting as a publisher of eBook editions of classic adventure drama and fiction, they branched out into gaming with the interesting one-off LARP Priceless. This was followed with several interesting FUDGE-based role-playing games. Now, with Den of Thieves and Rival Den of Thieves, the company has ventured into totally unfamiliar territory; not only are these games attractive, printed products rather than electronic downloads, but they're also card games rather than RPGs. Rogue Publishing's new release announcements are usually surprising, and once again, the surprise is a pleasant one.

Rival Den of Thieves coverOne of the things I love about card games is that they offer the opportunity for creating a complex game without a whole lot of rules to explain before starting -- you can always put the complicated bits on the cards themselves, which is called an exception-based rule system. Both Den of Thieves games are built on this premise. The basic rules explain little beyond the order of play; the excitement comes from the interaction of the cards, each of which contains a paragraph of rules and represents a different kind of thief. The difference between the two games is that Den of Thieves features mostly small-time thieves like the Urchin and the Woman of Easy Virtue, while Rival Den of Thieves has more intellectual fiends such as the Lawyer and the Gentleman Burglar. The cards in Rival are generally a bit more complex, making the latter game a better introduction to the system. However, it's worth eventually buying both games -- the two decks can be combined, doubling the maximum number of supported players from five to ten.

Regardless of which deck or decks you use, the essentials are the same. At the start of the game, each player is given three coins and a hand of three cards. Additionally, a bank is set up containing six coins plus three additional coins per player, and the top card of the draw pile is turned face-up to start a discard pile. All of the players hands are also turned face-up so that everybody always knows what everybody else has.

Each turn consists of five phases, repeated until somebody wins the game by collecting ten or more coins. First, players each draw a card from either the top of the discard pile or the top of the deck. Like the initially dealt cards, this is immediately shown to everyone else; at no point does anyone hold a card that no one else knows about. An element of secrecy does come into play during the second phase, however. At this point, players pick up all of their cards and decide which one to use on the current turn. This is designated the active card and set aside by itself face-down, while the remaining cards are set face-down in a pile known as the den. Once everyone has decided on a card to use, active cards are revealed one by one and their actions are resolved.

Some cards allow one player to rob another or the bank. The Bunko Artist, one of the simpler cards, simply allows three coins to be grabbed from the bank; the Cutpurse, on the other hand, requires a whole little guessing game to be played in order to figure out who has been robbed. Other cards target thieves in other players' dens (like the Assassin, who can kill a card for a small fee) or cooperate with cards in the den (the Shadow, for example, allows a player to wait until everyone else has made a move and then pick a different active card). There are also some defensive cards which can act from within the den; the Fall Guy, for example, can protect an active card from being killed or captured.

After all actions for the current turn have been resolved and assuming that no one has won, players who failed to steal enough money to keep their personal stashes over three coins are forced to do honest work, thus earning a single coin from the bank. Players then discard back down to three cards, reveal their current holdings, and prepare to begin the process anew. Once the first turn has passed, there are generally interesting cards peeking temptingly from the discard pile and numerous scores to settle, and things just get more interesting as time goes by. The wide variety of cards and the balance between open knowledge of other players cards and the secrecy of which will be used in the current turn makes for an appropriate-feeling game of roguery, filled with back-stabbing, bluffing and surprises.

Den of Thieves doesn't feature any gameplay mechanisms so overwhelmingly original that they're worth talking about, and it lacks the wacky sense of humor that makes so many inexpensive card games entertaining in spite of unoriginality. Still, both decks stand above average in terms of quality with their nice color boxes and decent-quality, glossy (though strangely sticky) cards, and they offer a fun and fast-playing (if modest) game that potentially supports a large number of people. I don't expect this to win any awards, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthy addition to your collection. If you enjoy a quick game of cards with a healthy dose of backstabbing, you'll probably have fun with this; the fact that the game is potentially quite expandable is a nice bonus. Perhaps some more dens will open up one of these days.


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