One of the most popular board games to come out of 2014 was the bluffing game Sheriff of Nottingham. Featured on an episode of Tabletop and rated as one of the 250 best board games of all time on Board Game Geek (at the time of this review), I had high expectations for Sheriff of Nottingham despite never playing the game. The premise of Sheriff of Nottingham is players take turns as the title role of the Sheriff of Nottingham while the rest of the players play as merchants that are just trying to make a quick buck. As many goods are banned from the town, as a merchant you try to sneak in banned goods along with your legal wares. As the sheriff you try to catch merchants that are breaking the rules while occasionally taking some bribes to let some things slide. I have played a lot of board games and Sheriff of Nottingham is arguably the best bluffing game that I have ever played that everyone that has any interest in bluffing games should have in their collection.
How to Play Sheriff of Nottingham
- Each player chooses a color and takes the board and merchant bag of that color.
- Each player is given 50 gold to start the game. The rest of the gold is set to the side in order to make change if needed.
- Players choose whether they are going to play the basic game or the advanced game. If players choose to play the basic game they need to remove the twelve royal goods (have a sheriff’s badge and a gold banner on them).
- If you are only playing with three players, you also remove all of the cards that have the 4+ player symbol in the bottom left corner.
- Shuffle the remaining cards and deal six cards face down to each player. Then take the top five cards from the remaining cards to form a face up discard pile. Take the next five cards and form another face up discard pile. The remaining cards are placed face down to create the draw pile.
- Whoever currently has the most cash on them will be the first sheriff. The sheriff marker is handed to them.
Playing the Game
Sheriff of Nottingham is played in rounds. You will play as many rounds as are needed for each player to be the sheriff twice (three times if you are playing with three players). Each round of the game consists of five steps:
- Choosing Goods
- Declaring Goods
- Inspecting Goods
- End of Round
After the fifth step the round ends and the next player player clockwise becomes the sheriff.
Starting with the player to the left of the sheriff and moving clockwise, each player (other than the sheriff) is given the opportunity to discard cards from their hand in order to draw new cards. Players can choose up to five of their cards to discard and will draw the same number of cards. The cards that the player has chosen to discard are set to the side. Players can choose to take cards from the top of the discard piles or the draw pile. If the player wants cards from the discard piles they must take those cards before taking cards from the draw pile.
When taking cards from the discard pile, players can look through the cards before taking any cards. If a player wants a card from a discard pile that is not on the top of the pile, they must also take all of the cards on top of the card they desire.
After drawing the cards they want from the discard piles, the player will draw the rest of their cards from the face down draw pile.
After you have drawn your cards, you will have to add the cards you chose to discard to one of the discard piles. You must add all of the cards to the same discard pile but you can choose the order of the cards that you are discarding.
After all of the players have drawn their new cards, the players (other than the sheriff) choose which cards that they want to bring to market. A player can choose to put between one and five cards into their bag. The players can choose to place whatever cards they want into the bag but they should prevent the other players from seeing what cards they added to their bag. When you are satisfied with the cards you have chosen, snap the bag shut. Once the bag is closed you cannot change your mind.
Once all of the players have chosen their goods it is time to declare to the sheriff what goods you placed into your bag. Starting with the player to the left of the sheriff each player will declare how many cards they placed into their bag and what type of good the cards are. They then hand their bag to the sheriff.
When declaring your goods you must follow these rules:
- You must tell the truth about the number of cards you placed in the bag.
- You can only declare one type of good.
- You can only declare a legal good (apples, cheese, bread, chicken).
In this step the sheriff decides whether they are going to inspect any of the players’ bags. The sheriff can choose to address each bag in any order they prefer.
Before deciding whether to inspect a bag, the sheriff is allowed to entertain offers from the bag’s owner in order to stop them from opening the bag. Bribes can include the following:
- Any goods (legal or contraband) in your merchant stand board
- Goods in the bag
- Promises of other actions
When making offers the player who makes the offer generally has to honor any deal they made if accepted. There are a couple exceptions though.
- If you make a promise for anything that occurs after the current inspection phase, you do not have to keep the agreement.
- If you make an agreement for a card in your bag and that card is not in your bag, you don’t have to give the card to the sheriff.
If the sheriff accepts a player’s bribe the sheriff must give the bag back to the player without inspecting its contents. If the sheriff is not offered a bribe, they can still choose not to look in the bag. The player who was handed back their bag will open it and place all of their legal goods on the corresponding spots on their board. Players can look at how many cards you have in each legal section at any time during the game. All contraband cards (red cards) are placed face down along the top of the player’s board.
If the sheriff decides to inspect a player’s bag, they open it and look at the cards. Depending on whether the player was telling the truth, one of two things will happen:
- If the player was telling the truth, the sheriff will pay the player gold equal to the total of the numbers in the bottom right corner of all of the cards in the bag. The player will also add all of the cards to their corresponding spot on the gameboard.
- If the player was lying, the player will pay the sheriff gold equal to the total of the numbers in the bottom right corner for all cards that they lied about (even if they were other legal goods). The player gets to keep all of the cards that they were truthful about and add them to their board. All of the cards that they lied about are put into the discard pile chosen by the sheriff.
If at any point a player doesn’t have enough gold to pay their penalty, they must give goods cards from their merchant stand equal to or more than the amount they owe (using the numbers in the top right corner). If the player is out of legal goods they will have to give the player contraband cards. If they still owe money and don’t have any cards left in their stand, the rest of the debt is forgiven.
End of Round
The player who was the sheriff in the round passes the marker to the player on their left to indicate that they will be the sheriff in the next round.
All of the players will draw cards from the face down draw pile until they have six cards in their hand.
End of Game
The game ends when everyone has been the sheriff two times (three times in a three player game). When the game is over the players will discard all of the cards in their hand as they aren’t worth any points.
Players will calculate their score as follows:
- Each card in your merchant stand (legal and contraband) are worth as many points as the number in the top right corner.
- You will receive points equal to the value of the gold you have remaining.
- Players can also score points for being the king or queen of a good.
To determine the king and queen of each good you calculate one good at a time. Each player counts up how many cards that they have played of each good. If you are playing the advanced game, the royal contraband goods count for as many of the corresponding good as is printed on the card.
The player who has the most of a good will earn points equal to the king’s bonus. The player with the second most of the good will earn points equal to the queen’s bonus. If two players are tied for the king’s bonus, the king and queen bonus are added together and split evenly between the tied players (rounded down). If there is a tie for the queen’s bonus, the tied players share the queen bonus (rounded down). The king and queen bonuses are as follows:
- Apples: King’s-20 Queen’s-10
- Cheese: King’s-15 Queen’s-10
- Bread: King’s-15 Queen’s-10
- Chickens: King’s-10 Queen’s-5
The player who scores the most total points wins the game. If there is a tie, the first tiebreaker is the player with the most legal goods. The second tiebreaker is the player with the most contraband goods.
My Thoughts on Sheriff of Nottingham
At its core Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game. While there are set collection and negotiation mechanics in the game, the driving force behind the game is being able to bluff the other players and detect when the other players are trying to bluff you. You could theoretically play Sheriff of Nottingham without bluffing at all but I think you are going to have a hard time winning the game unless you get really lucky. Bluffing every so often allows you to play more cards which adds up giving you a distinct advantage over someone that rarely if ever bluffs. You have to be smart about when you choose to bluff though as if you always bluff, the other players are going to catch on pretty quickly.
Being able to bluff is important but being able to detect whether other people are bluffing can be almost as important. When you are the sheriff the only way you can score points is either catching another player bluffing or getting players to pay you a bribe in order to not look at their bag. Being able to read when other players are lying gives you a big advantage in the game as catching someone bluffing can potentially give you a lot of money. You also don’t want to let players sneak in prohibited goods without getting some sort of bribe as you will fall behind the other player. It could be even more costly to look in someone’s bag that was telling the truth though. Especially if the player placed four or five cards in their bag you could easily lose around ten points for your mistake. If you are not great at reading the other players you basically will need to be good at guessing whether they are bluffing.
In general I wouldn’t say that I am a big fan of the bluffing genre. I don’t mind the genre but there are many other genres that I prefer. Despite that I actually really liked the bluffing mechanic in Sheriff of Nottingham. I think the reason I liked it was that it is straightforward and works really well with the game’s theme. When you add in the bribing mechanic, which I will get to next, there is something compelling about trying to sneak prohibited goods past the player that is the sheriff. I have played quite a few different bluffing games and Sheriff of Nottingham is easily the best bluffing game that I have ever played.
I think Sheriff of Nottingham would still have been a good game without the bribing/deal making mechanic but the mechanic truly pushes the game to a whole new level. There is just something compelling about the deal making aspect of the game that makes the bluffing mechanic even better. A sheriff may know that you are bluffing but they may be willing to let you get away with it if you kickback some of the benefit to them as well. These type of deals can be really beneficial to both players as they can both benefit out of the arrangement while the other players get nothing. The bribing becomes even more interesting as players can offer a bribe to the sheriff making it seem like they have contraband in their bag when they don’t. This strategy actually works well if you can trick the sheriff into thinking you lied since they will have to pay you quite a bit of money. If the sheriff falls for this once they will also be much more likely to be hesitant towards looking at your bag in the future.
Where the bribing becomes really interesting is in the different types of deals that you can strike with the sheriff. While most of your bribes will likely just involve money, you can just as easily bribe them with cards or other actions. One of our groups most popular bribes was to give one of the cards from the bag to the sheriff as this allowed the sheriff to share more in the benefit of whatever illegal smuggling was being done. Usually players have to deal in good faith but there are a couple loopholes that you can exploit to trick the sheriff into taking your bribe. Offering a card from your bag that doesn’t exist can be an enticing offer to the sheriff that you don’t have to follow through with. Since we started to become leery of making these type of deals the sheriffs started to demand first choice of card from the bag. With so many different ways to make deals, the players that are the best at making deals can gain an advantage in the game.
The bluffing and deal making mechanics are the driving force behind Sheriff of Nottingham but there is also a set collecting mechanic that plays a pretty big role in who ultimately wins the game. The set collection mechanics come into play in a couple of different ways. First you likely want to try to collect goods of the same type in your hand as it lets you play more cards on your turn without having to bluff. More importantly the set collecting mechanics come into play by giving out bonus points at the end of the game. Basically players are trying to collect more of each type of good than the other players. The goal is to slightly beat the other players in a good so you can then play cards of other goods so you can possibly get two or more of the bonuses. I have always liked these type of mechanics as it rewards players that are able to manage the margins of different sets to maximize their bonus points.
While Sheriff of Nottingham’s mechanics are great, I think its greatest strength may be how simple and accessible it is. The game is a little more complicated than your typical mass market game but it is one of those games that act well as a bridge between mass market games and designer/modern board games. The game has more mechanics than your typical game but they are quite straightforward. I would estimate that the game would take most people around 5-10 minutes to explain to new players. Because of how simple it is, I don’t understand why the game has a recommended age of 14+. Sheriff of Nottingham is a great family game in my opinion. The only somewhat questionable thing about the game is that it requires the players to lie but I don’t see a problem with lying in a game when it is in good nature and everyone knows that it is just a game. I wouldn’t recommend playing the game with really young children but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t play Sheriff of Nottingham with children around ten or so.
While Sheriff of Nottingham is a great game it is not quite perfect. There are a couple issues that keep the game from being perfect.
I think the biggest problem with the game is that it is not going to work well with every group. Being a bluffing game, for the game to succeed players need to be willing to bluff. If a player refuses to bluff in the game, the game likely will become boring quickly. If a player(s) never bluffs they have no need to ever make any offers with the sheriff. The sheriff can’t really do anything other than letting them proceed without looking in their bag as they know they aren’t bluffing. At the same time the game suffers if the sheriff is never willing to take a bribe. These killjoy sheriffs hurt the game because you are basically forced to tell the truth or risk getting caught. This leads to you taking few risks which defeats most of the game’s purpose. Players that are unwilling to embrace the game by refusing to bluff or take any bribes can really hurt the game. If only one of the players is like this you can overcome it but if a majority of the players are like this, Sheriff of Nottingham is probably not going to be that enjoyable.
The second problem that I had with Sheriff of Nottingham is that the game tends to rely on a little more luck than I would have liked. The game’s luck mostly comes from being able to draw cards of the same type. A player that is able to draw a lot of cards of the same type is going to have a pretty big advantage in the game. If you can regularly get three to five of the same good, you will be able to play a lot of cards on your turn without even having to worry about bluffing. This means that you won’t have to make many bribes and you might even be able to trick a sheriff into checking your bag which will give you money in addition to the cards you were able to play. While a good player can somewhat offset this with good bluffing and catching the other players bluffing, the player who is luckiest while drawing cards is going to have a built in advantage.
The final problem with the game mostly comes from what type of game it is. Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing game and thus it is not going to appeal to people that hate bluffing games. Without the bluffing/deal making, Sheriff of Nottingham is a pretty generic set collection game. If you hate bluffing games I don’t think you will like Sheriff of Nottingham as you have to embrace this aspect of the game to truly enjoy playing the game. I wouldn’t say that I am a huge fan of bluffing games and yet I still really enjoyed Sheriff of Nottingham.
Before wrapping up I want to quickly talk about Sheriff of Nottingham’s components. For the most part I thought they were quite good. They aren’t as good as some of the more expensive designer games but there isn’t a lot to complain about either. First of all I love the game’s artwork. The artwork does a great job bringing its own style to the game and is really well done. The game mostly just uses cards and cardboard pieces but they are of a high quality. I also really liked how the bags snap shut but this leads to them sometimes being hard to open which leads to wear around the areas where the bags snap shut.
Should You Buy Sheriff of Nottingham?
While I wouldn’t consider myself to be a huge fan of bluffing games, Sheriff of Nottingham overcomes that to still be a great game and easily the best bluffing game that I have ever played. The bluffing mechanic is key to the game as getting away with bluffs and catching other players bluffs gives you a big advantage in the game. The bluffing mechanic is surprisingly fun and works really well with the game’s theme. The ability to bribe the sheriff to look the other way makes the bluffing mechanic even better as it opens up a lot of options for the players. Besides the bluffing mechanic the set collection mechanics are interesting as you are trying to build slight majorities in several goods. Sheriff of Nottingham’s mechanics are fun but the best part of the game is that it does a great job being accessible for the whole family. Sheriff of Nottingham is a great game but it is not quite perfect. If the players aren’t willing to get into the game (refuse to bluff or take bribes from the other players) the game suffers as it becomes just another average set collection game. The game also relies on luck a little too much with regards to being able to draw cards of the same type of item.
Sheriff of Nottingham is a great game that I would recommend for almost anyone. If you and your group hate bluffing games, Sheriff of Nottingham is unlikely to change your mind. Otherwise I think you will really enjoy the game as is it accessible and is the best bluffing game that I have ever played. If you are looking for a lighter bluffing game I would find it hard to find a game better than Sheriff of Nottingham.