Heimlich & Co.

Players: 2-7

Age: 8+

Teaching Time: 5 mins

Playing Time: 30 mins

Setup Time: 2 mins

Value For Money: Mid

Luck: Mid

Complexity: Low

Strategy: Mid

Price: £30

Recommended: Yes

Website: Top Secret Spies - Rio Grande Games : Rio Grande Games

Wolfgang Kramer is a giant in games design, not least down to no less than three Spiel Des Jahres wins. On top of that, the scoring tracks around the edge of the board so ubiquitous in modern euro gaming are so associated with him that in Germany they are known as “Kramer tracks”, and he has a claim to the origination of the meeple, albeit neither by name nor standard design, with Heimlich & Co. Re-released in various guises such as Top Secret Spies and Detective & Co, Heimlich & Co. is an interesting and clever design. It has aged better than many SDJ winners, is a paragon of game design and is enough fun to be worth picking up even if you’re not an SDJ competionist.

Gameplay is technically roll and move, though its often rightly held up as one of the examples of when the mechanic can be a good idea. A set of coloured meeples are set on a looping track and randomly secretly associated with the players. Around the track are situated a range of buildings each worth a set score (and in one case, minus score). A safe is situated in one of the buildings and moved when landed on by the players. If a meeple lands on a building when the safe is in it the meeple scores for the building. Players roll dice and split the result among the meeples as they wish. Once a meeple reaches the end of the scoring track the player, if any, associated with it wins.

The strategy of the game is both simple and obvious but quite subtle. Since all players are allowed to move all meeples, if a player is too obvious at moving their own marker to high scoring buildings, then it is fairly easy for other players to stop them from scoring. However, if a player never makes their own piece score, they are unlikely to win. As such the game is one of bluff and mis-direction, a social deduction game in essence but with a more solid mechanical basis and evidence for deduction than most. As a work of game design, it is brilliant on a few levels. First and simplest, it allows for an unusually wide player count range, two to seven, without in any way effecting play time, balance or rules. This quality is baked into the design at the base level but makes excellent sense in widening the game’s appeal and quality. Many games suffer at certain player counts, usually the count that they seem to be most played at, while Heimlich & Co. works at any count, making a wider spread of games enjoyable and increasing the quality of the average player experience. Secondly it takes one of the most familiar and maligned mechanics in tabletop games, roll and move, and makes it work intelligently. This has the rather neat quality of making it appealing to players only familiar with roll and move games and those who malign roll and move, to see if it really does make it work. It makes the game easy to learn and understand. Lastly, the game actually manages to deliver on the simple and intriguing promise it initially makes. It has so many hooks for players, roll and move with real choices, hidden identity and shared control but it manages to deliver on every one of them.

The base game is a simple and effective one of bluff, its slight issue is that there is a very effective strategy of double bluff that involves a player simply and blatantly rushing their own piece ahead such that it couldn’t possibly be their piece until an insurmountable lead is built up and realisation comes too late to do anything about it. An alternative game mode is offered where identifying which player owns which meeple at the end of the game is given points which neatly undermines such a strategy while not hugely unbalancing the rest of the game.

As an SDJ winner, Heimlich & Co is of a weight, complexity and game length that make perfect sense. Its mechanics are clever enough and its genre unique enough that it fits in perfectly. It lacks the table presence that marks out most later winners. Of course, its designer alone means that it fits in with the pattern of the awards, but it was Kramer’s first win.

The result is a simple game with satisfyingly smart underlying principles which allows plenty of table-talk and interaction. Its subtlety and depth are those of any bluffing game, which is to say, dependant largely on the human element. The random elements don’t overpower what strategy there is and the game is, at its root, rather fun.