Reivew: 40 Thieves

From Canadian company Jackbro (link is to the Google Translate English of the site, which is originally in French) and coming soon to Kickstarter, 40 Thieves (also called 40 Voleurs) is a memory and strategy game that looks a lot of fun. I was attracted by the lovely artwork and intriguing gameplay. The theme is based on the old story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, originally from the traditional Middle Eastern One Thousand and One Nights stories, but one of the few that became a staple amongst the European fairy tales told today. It would be hard to find someone who hasn’t heard the story, or at least of it – and as the inspiration behind this game, has certainly given it a unique style.

Box art, from Jackbro.com

I was kindly provided with a prototype by Jackbro to play through – it’s basically a finished version except for some of the pieces, so this should be a pretty accurate reflection on the game.

The Gameplay

‘Purpose of the game: In a medina on the borders of the kingdom, thrives a dishonest merchant with excessive wealth. Gold coins, fabrics and carpets pile up in its hidden and well-guarded landmark. In the middle of his treasure, nine bluish sapphires of great purity. Nine precious stones that make you dream. In the city, looters, thieves and other knaves are challenging themselves: whoever steals the most of these stones by night will be crowned king of thieves. Will you answer the call? Will you brave the forty thieves who keep the loot?

Mechanisms: Memory game, deduction, strategy and “push your luck”

It comes with 65 round cards, each with a jar on the back, sorted into five suites, nine plastic Sapphire gems, and ten Evil Eye tokens. Each suite of cards contains eight Thieves (two each of red, green, yellow, and blue) plus five special cards (lantern, sapphire, jar, dagger and evil eye), for a total of 40 Thieves and 25 special cards. The cards are shuffled together, then twelve of them placed into a 4 x 4 grid face down. The Sapphire gems are placed into the gaps between the cards, the rest of the cards placed aside as a draw pile, and the Evil Eye tokens put to one side.

Starting layout – keep in mind my game was a prototype, and the pieces are not final versions.

Each player turn has four phases; first, the ‘make a hand’ phase where the player ensures they have a hand of three cards drawn from the pile, either getting extras to build it up to three or not taking any if they still have three. Next, the ‘glimpse’ phase, when they can peek at a card on the grid without showing others what it is. Depending on what they find, different things can happen: for the thieves, a jar, or an evil eye, there is no action. For a lantern, they must flip it over for all to see, along with three adjoining cards, before turning them all back over again once all players have seen them. For a dagger, they must flip it over then discard the cards in their hand (until they can get fresh ones next round), before flipping it back over. And if they discover a sapphire, they can take it and put it in their ‘reserve’, then replace it with a new card from the draw pile.

Third is the ‘action’ phase, where the player can replace a card from the grid with one from their hand (face down), switch two adjoining cards on the grid, discard cards from their hand into a discard pile, use one of the special cards in their hand if appropriate, or choose not to do anything. Lastly is the ‘attempt a steal’ phase – this is what everyone’s been working towards! If the player is pretty sure they’ve managed to arrange a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal line of four cards made up of all one colour thief, all of one suite symbol, four different colour thieves, or four different suite symbols, they can announce an attempt and turn them over. They can also surround a gem by doing the same for a group of four around one of the sapphire gems. If they get it right, they manage to steal a sapphire gem from amongst the cards – the gem is put into the player’s reserve and the cards put into the discard pile, replacing them with fresh ones from the draw pile. If the attempt went wrong, then the cards get turned back face down, and the player takes an Evil Eye token.

Adapted from the 40 Thieves rulebook, from Jackbro.

The special cards in the player’s hand have different uses, and can only be used once before being discarded. During the ‘glimpse’ phase, the player can use a lantern card to peek at two adjacent cards rather than just one. During the ‘action’ phase an evil eye card can be used to force an opponent to take an Evil Eye token, while a sapphire card allows them to steal a Sapphire gem or card from an opponent; and at any time a dagger can be used to cancel a special card being played by an opponent. The jar cards are another beast altogether – in the hand, they can be used to discard an Evil Eye during the ‘action’ phase, but in the grid are essentially wild cards, where one can be used in place of the required card when building and revealing a line or group for a steal.

Once all the Sapphire gems from the grid have been taken, the game ends, and each player must count the Sapphires (cards and gems) in their reserve, minus the number of Evil Eye tokens they have, and whoever still has the most Sapphires remaining is the winner. Is there a tie? The one with the most Sapphire gems (as opposed to cards) wins. Still a tie? The one with the least Evil Eye tokens wins.

For 2 – 4 players, age 10+, takes 20 – 30 minutes.

The Opinion

I was pleasantly surprised at how quick this game was to pick up. There was the usual stop-and-start of playing a game for the first time and regular checks of the rule booklet, but it didn’t last for too long outside of the occasional double check of the symbol meanings during the first play-through. I played it twice; once as a two player game and again as a three player, and I must admit I preferred two player. The strategy part of the game – attempting to build up lines of matching cards in secret – was much easier with only one other person doing the same rather than with two others messing up my carefully planned sequences. But then that’s part of the challenge; my single opponent in the first game was also a slightly more aggressive player and put more into getting cards lined up and declaring steals as quickly as possible, and it paid off in gems early on – I won only through great luck in turning up sapphire cards. I didn’t go as well the second time around, and I shudder to think how I’d go with three opponents; but that’s only because of my slower and more considered play style.

We had a hiccup with using the suite symbols for building lines/groups as mentioned in the gameplay guide, because as you can see from the photos, the suite symbols are featured on the back of cards as well as the front – no glimpses are needed, and I observed that they quickly become the fallback rather than actually using memory and strategy to build a line unseen using the colourful thieves. For our games, we adjusted the rule to refer to the special cards rather than suite symbols, keeping it all strategy unseen.

Part way through the two-player game – keep in mind my game was a prototype, and the pieces are not final versions.

Outside of that, a lot of testing and consideration has gone into the design and development from the looks of it, because what at first glance seemed like slightly complicated gameplay turned out to flow smoothly, with the cards turning up in the right quantities for a mix of challenge without too much frustration. We used the jar as wild card often, and the lantern cards turned up often enough to take the sting out of trying to plan around only glimpsing one card a turn. While our games were easy on the more aggressive playing aspects of forcing Evil Eyes on or stealing sapphires from each other, it could certainly make for a much more energetic (and vindictive) game for those who’d like to.

Handy illustrations and charts were easy to reference in the gameplay guide, making it very easy to check what certain special cards meant in what situation, which is a great relief over flipping back and forth through pages that I’ve had to go through before with otherwise simple games. I really appreciated how much thought had gone into that as well. It sounds like a simple thing, but makes a big difference to the enjoyment of the game. My copy is still a prototype, and had the occasional odd phrasing that marked it as written by someone good but not perfect at English, and I’m still not certain I didn’t have a touch of confusion between referring to the card suites symbols and special cards (considering the big difference in gameplay between using the two) despite it seeming clear which it was referring to, but the developer will likely be getting more suggestions on improvement of the guide and proofreading before final printing.

From the 40 Thieves rulebook, from Jackbro

What I’ve been itching to talk about though is the card art by Etienne Rioux. I love the mix of traditionally inspired art, not just on the simple silhouettes of the special card illustrations and the patterned edging and background art, but on the Thieves too – each emerging from their jar with blades and menacing look, reminding me very much of the face cards on a standard deck of cards too, poses and features individual but on the theme. I appreciated the inclusion of a female thief amongst the four designs, where the default visual would likely have been all men; most don’t remember, but the hero of the Ali Baba story who vanquished the thieves and their leader was a slave woman – the title character only discovered their treasure. The rich colours bring the thieves wonderfully to life, while by contrast the greys and blacks of the special cards make them easy to spot and identify at a glance.

The four different thieves.

Apart from what I mentioned earlier about the problem with using suite symbols, my only complaint (and it’s a hesitant one) is the size and shape of the cards – the round cards are 9.5cm across, and pretty clunky to shuffle, though I admit I don’t have very large hands. I greatly dislike the whole ‘chuck them all down and move them all around then pile back up’ method, as it is hard on the cards, but I soon settled on a slightly clumsy weave/dovetail shuffle as the most reliable method to do it, making it easier once I had a regular technique. Having said that the size and shape makes shuffling tricky, I don’t know that I’d recommend changing it. The shape makes a lovely unique look and works great for the interlaced card/sapphire gem layout while the size makes all the switching around of cards during gameplay a bit easier to handle than smaller lighter ones that tend to slip around a bit, considering you don’t have to hold many of them, but are picking them up and putting them down a lot (I had worried about them blowing about a bit with a fan in the room while I was playing, but didn’t have a problem).

This was really enjoyable overall, and not just because of my good luck in the first game. I think it’s one my family will be asking to play again in the future, and hopefully because of the shiny gems and not in hopes of destroying my slow and careful play style in building up steals. A well-balanced deck and interesting gameplay with concise gameplay rulebook is a winner.

Last steal of the two-player game! – keep in mind my game was a prototype, and the pieces are not final versions.

UPDATE: After chatting more with Jackbro, they confirmed that being able to use the visible symbols to make line-ups as well was part of the game as a big ‘Push your luck’ strategy in as well as being able to line up unseen ones. With one of my players being a youngster though (while the game is 10+, they’re a board-game savvy 9 1/2), as I mentioned they relied on the visible part too much and it didn’t work well. But I really liked that the game was built well enough that we could easily adapt it to what worked for my group.

But that’s not all – Jackbro are also still making changes to this prototype, more than I expected, including testing some changes to what is and isn’t visible on the cards, and a misdirection component on what you can see on the card backs. They’re keeping me informed, and I’ll let you know more if there’s a big change.

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