Friday 14 February 2020

Friday Filler: Never Bring a Knife

So the heist went like clockwork. You got in, emptied the safe, grabbed the jewelry, and filled all of the holdalls with cash. Now all you need to do is get it back to the rendezvous point and divide the loot. Except… you know that the gang has been infiltrated by undercover cops, either because of an informant or because you are one of the undercover cops. Unfortunately, you only know what you are—a loyal Hardened Criminal or a sneaky Undercover Cop, or a villainous Hardened Criminal or an upright Undercover Cop enforcing the law. Anyone else could be either… And as questions are asked, protestations of loyalty and honesty are made, tempers flare, and the only way the matter is going to be settled is with a showdown shootout!

And if that sounds like the plot of almost any ‘Heist Gone Wrong’ film, from Rififi to Reservoir Dogs, you would not be wrong. It is also the set-up to Never Bring a Knife, a social deduction game from Atlas Games which can be best described as Reservoir Dogs meets The Resistance. Accusations and bullets will fly in this game until one of the gang goes down in a hail of lead and loyalties are revealed, betrayals are suffered, and either the Hardened Criminals are arrested by the Undercover Cops or make their escape from the police. Designed for four to eight players, it should be no surprise that the adult and violent inspiration and game play of Never Bring a Knife means that it carries a minimum playing age of seventeen years old and over. Now this does not mean that younger participants cannot play Never Bring a Knife, the rules being simple enough, but parental permission should be sought. That said, not every game needs to be designed with younger players in mind, and that is certainly the case with Never Bring a Knife.

Besides the short rulebook, Never Bring a Knife consists of sixty two cards. Eight are handy Reference cards, though all of the cards used in play have clear instructions on their use on them. Ten are Role Cards, divided between five Hardened Criminal and five Undercover Cop cards. Sixteen are Wound Cards, used to track each gang member’s Wounds as he suffers them. The first gang member to suffer three Wounds triggers the end of the game. The rest of the cards form the play deck.

The Gun cards inflict Wounds, a gang member suffering a Wound for every two Gun cards which end up in his stack at the end of a round. Armour cards cancel out Gun cards, but only the one each. If this reduces the number of Gun cards in a gang member’s stack at the end of a round, he suffers one less, or even no Wounds. Money cards in a player’s stack at the end of a round can be kept and banked and is expended to heal a Wound or to be able to look at another gang member’s Role card. Crime cards are used to force a gang member to discard Money cards, which will prevent him from paying for healing or to look at other gang members’ Role cards. A Hit can be purchased using Money cards and used to inflict a Wound on a gang member or banked for later in the game, so great for that last inevitable betrayal so in keeping with the game’s genre. An Intel card enables a gang member to examine, but not reveal, another gang member’s Role card. The Mole card forces a gang member to swap his Role card with that of the Boss, which may or not change the gang member’s allegiance.

Game set-up is simple. Each gang member receives a Role card and can look at it. One last Role card is placed in the middle of the table to represent the Boss. He will come into play when the Mole card ends up in a gang member’s stack. The Hit card and the Mole card go into the discard pile and so will come into play in later rounds, hopefully when dramatically appropriate! Each gang member not only gets to look at his own Role card, but also of that to gang member to his left. This is each player’s initial clue as to the true identities of his fellow gang members.

Never Bring a Knife is played over a series of rounds. At the start of each round, each gang member receives four cards. They then take it in turn to play one card at a time. The first card a gang member plays must be on another gang member and the first card played on a gang member must be face up. After that, a gang member is free to play his cards on anyone, including himself, but all cards are now played face down. Obviously, a gang member will want to play Gun cards on his rivals—especially if he knows them to be of an opposite Role, but keep the Armour and Money cards for himself. The former as protection, the latter because they can be used to purchase further actions. Once a gang member has had four cards played onto his stack, he cannot receive any more, but play continues until each gang member has had four cards played on him.

Once done, each gang member reveals the four cards in his stack and resolves them. This can be done in any order and may involve spending Money cards saved from earlier rounds. Wounds will be suffered, Money cards will be used heal Wounds or examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss (in the middle of the table, so this is useful if the Mole card is played at any time), Armour cards to stop Gun cards, Intel cards to examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss, and so on. Money cards and Hit cards can be kept to be used in subsequent rounds. At the end of the round, each gang member keeps any Wounds he suffered during the round which he could not heal by spending Money cards or stop with an Armour card. If at the end of a round, any gang member has three Wound cards in front of him, then he has fallen, and not only does the game end, but everyone on his team—either Hardened Criminals or Undercover Cops—loses and everyone on the other team wins.

Mechanically, play is quick, and the four-card hand combined with the four-card limit on each gang member’s stack keeps everything simple and elegant. A gang member might be killed in a couple of rounds, but a game will probably last a round or two longer than that. Physically, Never Bring a Knife is nicely presented. The rule book is easy to read, whilst the cards themselves are clear and easy to understand. A nice touch is that the artwork varies on each of the Role cards and different designs are used on the Gun cards. This gives the game a little more variety in its look. 

What is interesting in Never Bring a Knife as a social deduction game, is not just that each gang member will need to identify the Hardened Criminals and Undercover Cops in the gang, but will need to keep himself and his fellow team members alive. So the Money cards play as big a role in the game as the Gun cards. Initially each gang member will know about himself and the gang member to his left, whilst also wondering about the gang member to his right who knows whether he is a Hardened Criminal and a Undercover Cops. This is each gang member’s initial clue, the second being the first cards played on each gang member, which may or may not suggest their allegiance. After that, gang members will have to rely on Money and possibly Intel cards to discover who their friends and enemies are.

Throughout the game though, gang members are free to say whatever they want to each other, so they can agree to work together, issue threats, spread lies, debate about the Roles of their fellow gang members, share information, and even outright lie. A gang member’s role will only be revealed to everyone at the end of the game. It is here that gang members are free to roleplay too and given the genre which inspired it, Never Bring a Knife is ripe for film quotes and film-inspired roleplaying, which adds to the flavour of the game. Or, of course, a gang member might have enough of all the talking, cajoling, and threatening, lose his temper and just blaze away with his Gun (cards). Lastly, both the Hit and Mole cards have the capacity to add last minute twists to the outcome of the game if played at the right time, further emulating the genre that the game is inspired by. 

Never Bring a Knife is a fun stand-up, shootout showdown, which fans of heist films will enjoy roleplaying their way through. Its simple rules enable gang members to play out the story of heist gone wrong in hail of bullets, desperation, and recriminations. 

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