Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 45 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
As part of my stupid idea to both acquire and review every Spiel Des Jahres winner I received Fair Means or Foul as a birthday present. I honestly didn’t expect too much of this one, additionally since I’m personally not a huge fan of bidding or auction games and this game is pretty much built around it. Having played it I was very pleasantly surprised and would say that other than Scotland Yard it’s the best of the SDJs up to the date of its release. It goes under a few titles, originally known as Adel Verpflichtet it was translated as “Hoity Toity” and “By Hook or By Crook” as well as Fair Mean or Foul, the title my copy holds.
Gameplay is an interesting mix of pre-programmed actions and bidding. Players all choose to attend an Auction or a Stately Home with cards then reveal them all simultaneously. Players that attend the auction may bid for an antique on offer or try to steal bids made by other players. Players that attend Stately Homes may exhibit their antiques, attempt to steal exhibited antiques or attempt to arrest thieves. Whoever manages to exhibit the largest set of antiques at a stately home exhibition each turn moves around the board. The winner at the end of the game is the player who has moved furthest around the board.
The version I picked up had a minor translation issue with the rules for exhibiting antiques, stating that at least three matching antiques are needed, though the game seems to work better and the rules intend that this is in fact a run of at least three antiques which may also include additional matching cards, or visa versa. Rather than being done by cash or individual tokens bidding during auctions is performed by the use of preset cheques awarded by virtue of player’s chosen colours at the start of the game. These cheques are set to different amounts, so one player will simply have the highest cheque. In theory this evens out since a player with the highest high check will have the lowest low cheque but in practice its rather less even since the lowest cheques only tend to make an appearance when players find themselves the lone bidder in a one-person auction turn. There is a strong advantage to gaining an early lead since other players are forced to exhibit to catch up, making them easy pickings for some nasty thefts. Since players have to chain together their antiques in order to exhibit them it also makes weak links in the middle of powerful chains extremely high value targets.
Overall gameplay is extremely satisfying, the constant back and forth of thief usage is entertaining and provides a good range of table talk in a game that could otherwise be super dry. Tactics are surprisingly varied and bluff and double bluff remain viable and interesting throughout the game. While auctions tend to take up a large part of the early game then have lesser and lesser importance as the game goes on early exhibits and late auctions can still have a powerful effect. Once you’ve amassed a good powerful collection via cunning auction usage and the occasional outright theft its also extremely satisfying to use it over and again to literally race ahead of your opponents. Even more satisfying if you can read your opponent’s attempts to steal from you and detective them.
As an SDJ winner Fair Means or Foul makes absolute sense in that the award tends to have at least one representative of each game type somewhere in its history and certainly bidding/auction games are a large enough sub section to be represented (on a total side note I suspect this is the reason for the 2019 nominations since social deduction is a growing genre totally unrepresented in the SDJ). On the basis that it’s a genre I personally don’t enjoy and I really quite like Fair Means or Foul it suggests it’s an effective gateway game to more complex bidding games, something that the SDJ is meant to encourage. Additionally, Fair Means or Foul adds some Eurogame to the basic bidding format with its hidden action selection, a little bit of worker placement in a way with the thieves and detectives and the board itself making what is essentially a scoring track look like a traditional race game. All in all, it makes total sense as a winner and is additionally a strong game even today.
In conclusion then, if you get the chance to pick up a copy cheap I’d totally suggest doing so. If you’re a bidding fan then it should be at least an education, if not then the extra layers of non-bidding bluffing and manipulation of hands and sets to gain advantage might well pull you in to the genre, working as a gateway game within a gateway game. Don’t overspend on it but if you see a good copy you’ll not likely be disappointed by the play you get out of it.