Teaching Time: 2 mins
Playing Time: 4 mins
Setup Time: 1 mins
Value For Money: Low
Having Kickstarted in 2019 to the tune of $14k from around 350 backers Sideshow Swap was the sort of solid workmanlike success from an independent company that makes my heart soar a little. I backed it because it set itself up as a 2-8 player social deduction game and I really wanted to see a 2-player social deduction game work. So, the short question is, does it? Short answer, yeah, pretty much.
Gameplay is as simple as you’d expect, cards representing circus sideshow acts are dealt, one to each player and five into the center of the table with the others being left out the game. Acts are rated from 0-15, so with two players that’s 9 of them set aside and a large window for variation. Players then gain money and tickets and take turns either playing tickets, which costs money, or swapping their act card with one in the center of the table. Play goes on until the tickets run out, then the player with the highest scoring act wins.
In feel it has the basics of a social deduction game, it revolves around trying to identify face down cards, and part of that is about bluffing by your actions, which is what’s at the heart of social deductions. It doesn’t have eliminations and isn’t purely about looking at someone and telling if they’re lying. It can be, but unlike a true social deduction Sideshow Swap doesn’t force you to tell the truth or lie, if you do so, that’s your own table talk choice. Its possible that you could call most games that require bluffing and reading players based on their actions forms of social deduction, its probable that top poker players would be strong at Ultimate Werewolf. It might not be for purists, but then I’m not sure how many hardcore social deduction purists there are out there, and its more than close enough in feeling for me.
The player count does deserve a mention, because it’s almost certainly where a lot of those interested in Sideshow Swap will be looking. Firstly, it works very nicely with two players, secondly, it covers that count of six and seven players which seems to be a bit of a no-man’s land in tabletop gaming. Two or three to five players and you’re covered, eight or more and the social deduction field will have you well served, but six players and you’re struggling so it has done well to position itself there. As player counts go up so does the chaos of the game, much of which revolves around tracking the value of a card you saw as it circles the table, which is hopefully the sort of party chaotic action that you were looking for when playing a game with six or seven people.
There are a couple of odd choices in the box worth mentioning. Firstly, the rules are presented on a series of thick boards rather than a normal booklet. Presumably this is because the rules are so short that they would otherwise be on a quite flimsy leaflet and the makers wanted to protect it from party damage. Its arguably a nice touch, but it does feel weird the first time, and frankly, every time you go to look up one of the few rules, which isn’t often. The other possible reason for the choice of boards is that they were including them anyway to show off the performer art. Two of the four thick boards are nothing but the art and backgrounds for the performers, which is nice, but not really necessary. It’s understandable in a way because the majority of the fun art is on the performer’s cards, which spend most of the game face down on the table with many players only seeing a tiny handful of them during play. The majority of the actual game is spent looking at the tickets which are fine, but quite plain. I can understand then wanting to show off the art again, and wanting to brighten the table up a little when the game is in play (when set up it’s a range of beiges and sepia tones, which I happen to think is the choice of all truly brilliant designers). It doesn’t need it though, the gameplay is such that you really don’t mind, you tend to be looking at the other players more than your cards anyway.
The game is smart and neat, possibly smarter than many players will realise, but that is very much the fate of most party games. Mainly it revolves around the tickets, the purpose of which are to both allow you to operate in the game and at the same time throw a spanner into your plans, or a bag of them. It creates an interesting tension in that once you’ve got yourself into a good position you don’t generally want to touch the little buggers for fear of a red ‘auto play’ ticket ruining your set-up, but the game doesn’t finish until either a player uses all of theirs or the stack is gone through and players must either play a ticket or swap their performer each turn. So if you have a high scoring performer but a ticket in hand that forces you to swap it, or too little cash to play all your tickets without something changing, you’re forced to risk drawing or the even more high tension challenge of giving away your game winning performer with the intention of re-claiming them later. In general, it all works very nicely. There’s a solid arc of confusion, the sense that you’re working along, learning card information and the game processes and then finally the sudden realization that the game is about to force you to do one of several things you don’t want to do and we’re very much off to the races.
Sideshow Swap is a cracking little game. Its not going to burn down the world, though it probably deserves more success than its likely to get (not that I’m not hopeful of seeing it in full distribution), but it should be proud of itself. If you ever find yourself struggling to search out something for a games evening for an odd number of players, give it a thought, and if you ever feel yourself wishing you could engage in a bit of social deduction with just the folk you share a room or two with, it’s an easy choice to pick up.