Verräter is an example of a good thing coming in a small package. It might look like a pack of cards, but don’t be fooled-- this is no card game. This is a board game that happens to be played with cards. It might just as easily have been given a board and cardboard tiles. Instead we get all the same play value at a fraction of the cost.
This four-player game is a land struggle between the Eagle and Rose factions, each of which starts with an identical set of six land holdings valued from one to ten. These land cards are shuffled and dealt into a circle, creating a variety of potential border conflicts between the two factions. Each player establishes a supply depot at a different land and receives an initial hand of three supply cards valued 2-8. Initially, players sitting opposite each other are partners in the same faction. But that will change.
Each round of the game follows the same basic outline. The current Strategist (more on that later) picks the location of that round’s conflict, which can be any two adjacent lands belonging to different factions. A card sandwiched between two lands of its own faction is thus safe from conflict unless one of its neighbors gets captured by the opposition. With the border conflict chosen, the rest of the round is about each faction trying to take over the other’s land card, thus earning victory points.
Now comes the game’s central system, one so clever it’s already been adopted by Bruno Faidutti for his upcoming game, Citadels. The starting player picks up a pack of six action cards, each unique, and discards one at random. He then looks at the remainder and chooses one to keep, passing the rest clockwise. Each player in turn looks at the set he’s been passed, chooses a card, and passes the rest on until the fourth player discards the last unclaimed card.
An elegantly simple mechanism which belies the agony it creates. Each action card has a different effect, from earning victory points to increasing strength in the current conflict to turning traitor and switching allegiance to the other faction. A player’s choice can depend on his long-term strategy, short-term tactics, hunches about what cards have already been chosen and what succeeding players are likely to choose, and so forth. Delicious.
Once players have chosen their action, each has a chance to play supply cards from his hand to increase his side’s strength in the current conflict. A traitor doesn’t reveal himself until after cards have been played, so everyone thinks his cards are adding to the wrong side. Each faction’s total is added to the value of its land being disputed to get a final total, with the high value winning. The losing land is flipped to the opposite side (one side shows Eagle ownership, the other Rose) and the members of the winning faction earn victory points. The higher the value of the flipped land and fewer people on the winning side, the more points each victor earns.
Players then one card for each depot they own on a land matching their faction- no supplies can get through opposing lands. If a player chose the Farmer card, he draws three cards regardless. Whoever chose the Builder can build a new depot or an estate. Depots supply cards as described above, while estates earn victory points at the end of the game. Whoever chose the Strategist gets extra victory points and chooses the location of the next conflict as the next round begins.
The game ends after eight rounds or on any turn in which all lands are controlled by the same faction. Players gain bonus points for each estate they’ve built, regardless of who owns the land it’s on, and the high total wins.
The relative merits of the cards is a bit uneven. The Builder and the Strategist are always useful, and consequently tend to get nabbed first. The other cards’ utility is highly variable. It’s rare for the last player to have a useful choice remaining to him. Rotation of the start player balances this nicely.
If Verräter had been packaged as a board game, it probably wouldn’t be generating as much buzz as it is. When you consider the amount of gameplay that’s packed into a simple deck of cards, however, Verräter stands out as one of the best bangs for your gaming buck in recent memory.