Teaching Time: 1 mins
Playing Time: 15 mins
Setup Time: 1 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Website: Bandida - HELVETIQ
I’m a big fan of the aesthetic of Oink games (A Fake Artist Goes to New York, Ocean Adventure), little pocket-sized games with very satisfying contents and design. Helvetiq have a bit of a line of games that have a similar aesthetic going on but for whatever reason don’t seem to have hit quite the sort of gamer cool zeitgeist. Bandida is my first experience with the range and it doesn’t have quite the same finish, but it is in the ballpark. Still, its low price and pocket sized which is what I like to hear from my solo games, so I’m giving it a look.
Gameplay is in theory pretty simple, there’s a card with a set of exits representing the titular lady bandit’s cell, your job as player is to draw cards with patterns of tunnels on and connect them to those exits to build up a little network, either to trap the bandit or to force her to escape (quite why you need to force her to escape is never clearly explained, one would assume that it was an option she would be delighted to take and failing when all she has to do is walk out the exit because you haven’t yet shut off literally every other option is a bit of a gear grinder). There is a third option using a Bandida set and a Bandido set to re-unite the two captured bandits. Some cards have powers to draw or discard cards, play more in a go or remove placed cards. If you achieve your goals before the cards run out you win, if not you lose.
Firstly, returning to that comment about the finish not quite being up there with Oink games. Part of what is so delightful about these little games is how everything fits in just right to the box, they trigger a little doll house mentality, getting everything back into the box as its meant to be is sometimes a little mini-puzzle in and of itself. The contents of the Bandida box are just a weeny bit too much for it to sit properly closed. Not a lot, not so that you’d notice in general, but its sat on the table next to me as I write this, and there’s just a little bit of give when I press down on the lid to where it should be if everything fitted just right. It’s a tiny thing, but after all these are tiny boxes. There is a little bit of this sort of thing in the cards and rules, also in relation to the dead-end cards. To explain, the cards are rectangular, with six exit points, three in the outside edges of each the imaginary squares that would make up the rectangle. Every card has at least one exit in each of those imaginary cubes apart from the “dead end” cards, signified with a hand holding a flashlight blocking one of the ends of the card. The issue in the rules is that nothing explains what this extra icon does, mainly because it does nothing, a dead end would do just the same job, but it does add some pointless confusion. The issue in the card design is that its basically a slightly ungainly way of having a dead end, but even more annoying when its just a way of only using one end of the card since using both ends is a rule that’s really only apparent to the designers.
The game itself is pretty tough to play, but it’s a hard question of how much of that is because the game is an interesting puzzle or just because its something that is largely dependent on card combinations and ordering. For example, the game has “alarm” cards that have to be played as soon as discovered and can reduce your hand size from the three of the start of the game to two, if a player hits that early and then keeps pulling cards that add extra paths rather than reduce them a playthrough can quickly become disheartening as paths spiral out of control and multiply to the degree when re-racking is hugely preferential to playing on. I’ve had plays where the five or six paths of the opening were down to one or two paths after the first three or four cards and others where they grew into seven or eight paths in the mid-game and never felt as though my skill or understanding of the game had anything to really do with the difference. Learning card frequency gives some edge over the game, but not really enough, particularly when options are quite limited.
The issue with the game is that the skill ceiling comes when sessions can be bought to a single path quite quickly, but once only one path remains then the player has only one option, resulting either in carrying on with that only path, shutting it off for the win, or multiplying paths back out again. The upshot is that skill can bring plays to a certain point, but then players are at the mercy of card draws for the actual win or loss.
As a solo game it works mechanically, but presumably loses a lot of the fun of discussion and blame. One of the objects that the cards can trigger bans players from speaking for a round of play, clearly not catering to the one player count (unless you’re particularly committed to literal self-talk). Oddly enough, many co-op games with limited communication around planning fall flat as solo experiences because the communication is inevitably unlimited, but it doesn’t seem to make a massive amount of difference here, which rather implies that the multi-player limited communication effectively just obscures the fact that the game isn’t very learnable.
Bandida is a filler game for certain, but not in a good way. It’s a lot closer to a process than a game, players pull cards and put them into the puzzle, knowing that it’s the power of the deck that will decide their success or otherwise rather than their own skills. It will kill time, but not in particularly enjoyable way. As a solo player I either want to engage with a puzzle or a story, and occasionally to enjoy a relaxing process. There is no story to Bandida, not even an emergent one, there are rarely puzzle moments, since there’s not right or wrong answers. Sometimes three or four pieces can be put together to wait for the last part to slot in and shut off some paths, but as has been mentioned, when the paths are shut down on the way to victory the reducing options removes the puzzle element in return for pure luck. As a process it’s a frustrating rather than relaxing one.
Personally, I often judge games on whether I’ll be keeping them in regular rotation or shoving them into deep loft storage, and that judgement is often based on how much space they take up on the regular rotation shelves. Bandida takes up a tiny amount of space, I could easily drop it in a coat pocket or a corner of a shelf or storage box. It’s going in the loft.