Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 40 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: High (remaindered)
I’m writing this review during lockdown, which means that other than playing on Table Top Simulator physical play has been limited to my wonderful wife. This means I try to avoid visiting too many heavy weight games on her. Luckily, I pick up plenty of games when they’re remaindered or in charity shops that I’d not play normally, and they’re getting some plays now. What’s perhaps more odd, is that they’re getting reviews as well. I picked up Smugglers (at a reduced, reduced, reduced rate) because it was made by Klaus Teuber, legendary designer of the legendary Settlers of Catan. Teuber is a prolific designer, and he made this one with his son Benjamin. While not as prolific as Prof. Knizia, Teuber is rather broader in his style and popularity of game, even his multiple Spiel Des Jahres wins (four, a feat that only Wolfgang Kramer surpasses) go from the plasticine molding oddness of Barbarossa to the euro game daddy that is Settlers of Catan. On the popularity side, his game Speedy Delivery has racked up fully 11 ratings on Board Game Geek since its release in 1994. All that said, from where in the Teuber oeuvre does Smugglers come? I’d say somewhere towards the Barbarossa end of things.
Gameplay is simple enough to play with younger children, though a little multi stage and twiddly to allow them to play alone. Each turn players grab little acrylic gems and stuff them into a ball of ‘intelligent putty’ a rubbery clay like substance. They then roll the balls so made down a little ramp through a gap in a cardboard fence, with a different gap chosen each time. If your ball goes through and it’s the largest one to do so this round (or second largest depending on the player count), you gain a point based on the colour of the gem that you stuffed in the ball, if it doesn’t go through, or isn’t one of the largest you go into the ‘inspection round’ where other players try to peer at your ball to guess what sort of gem you stuffed into it. If they guess wrong you still get your point, if they guess right, they get it instead. If you get enough points of a single colour (red or yellow), or more points of any colour, you win, which is about it.
It has, to say the least, strengths and weaknesses. Primary among the strengths is its simplicity, sculpt a little ball, big enough to be the biggest, small enough to get through the fence, and you win. Everyone can understand that and it’s a simple joy eyeballing the balls before they roll, wondering whose is biggest, and then seeing them squeeze through or block up the hole, is really fun. Frankly, had the game been just that, it would probably have worked a little better, but it isn’t, and truthfully, all the fiddling around the outside sort of weakens the central idea. Secondarily as a strength is that its all wonderfully presented, in particular the little see-saw used for weigh offs between balls that can’t be identified by eye is a little delight and finding an excuse to use it a real pleasure.
Weakness wise and first of all, ball sculpting is done against the clock with a sand timer, for no real reason I can ascertain. Its possible that people would spend too long adding and subtracting clay from their balls otherwise, but personally, I’d rather have that process costed and gamified rather than trying to having it removed by a timer. Looking over and seeing that someone else’s ball is larger than yours, then deciding whether to try to out do them or if they’ve overshot and won’t make it through the gap is the only truly grabbing part of the game, removing it as a consideration seems a real mistake.
Secondly are the gaps in the fence. Each turn you roll a dice and use the gap that many spaces along, unless you roll a 5 or 6, in which case you wait until players have sculpted their balls and then roll again after sculpting. This has two results, one, it adds a rule to the game; two, it can mean that you play the whole game with only one of the two overall grades of hole (they come in roughly small or large). Now, the holes do vary in their grades, but if your first ball happens to very barely skid through the smallest small hole and every hole ends up being of the small grade, there’s very little leeway for your opponents to beat your now perfected ball. The rules don’t require ball detritus to be mashed into their parent clay lumps, and players potentially insisting on it through a game feels a little petty. Since half the point of the game is to force players to switch between large and small balls, adding and tearing off clay from their balls, including a mechanic that potentially totally removes that part of the game seems strange, particularly since the only upside seems to be to stop people from memorizing the hole sequences. Not a problem I would have foreseen with this sort of game usually.
Lastly, there is the inspection part of the game. Once balls have failed to make the grade passing through the fence an opponent has to peer at the ball and guess what’s within. While its possible to sculpt a ball so badly that this could actually be achieved by sight, its almost certain to be guesswork. There are three possible gems that could be in the ball, red or yellow, linked to the two colours of points, or purple which are a once per game option allowing points to be stolen off other players. Each has a slightly different option for if you hid them and got inspected rightly or wrongly. In general, it’s an option that seems a little misplaced. In theory it should be a matter of bluff, since if you get inspected and your opponent guesses wrong you still get your point. In practice, since you don’t get inspected if you get through, bothering to bluff is based on a central lack of self-belief, and even if you do, the possibility of a double bluff is obvious enough to make bluffing at all largely pointless. The whole process of the inspection feels like its from a slightly different game, and it doesn’t honestly make much sense here. If there had to be a step to make revealing the contents of balls interesting, and I understand the idea of doing so, a wider range of gems with effects based on where you and your opponents end up graded would have been a much stronger option to my mind. A gem which scores multiple points if you end up in the second-place seat and none anywhere else would be a moment of real tension.
Smugglers is a diverting piece of fun to play a few times with small children (or I suspect, slightly drunk adults). It is ultimately a missed chance though, extra complexity has been added onto the wrong parts of the game, end loading the process away from the most exciting and fun parts. Sculpting has been shortened rather than gamified, making the moment of hitting the fence less exciting as it lacks build up, tension and a clear idea of the positions of the runners and riders. The moment of reveal has its excitement reduced by only mattering for the fence losers and has the most mechanical part of the game clamped onto it for no specific reason. If you pick it up cheaply (it seems to have been widely remaindered so it’s a likely option) and have attic space to spare feel free to pick it up. Maybe there was a plan to release extra gems with an expansion since there is certainly room in the box to do so, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever find out.