Many months ago, the Krewe was sent a copy of Nanty Narking to review. The intention was to have the article done for the Kickstarter campaign of the game, which ran from September 3rd until the 20th. Unfortunately the game got lost in the black hole that is UPS, and we only recently received it. But as the saying goes, ‘good things come to those who wait.’ Perhaps it was fate that delayed the game then, since Nanty Narking is old British slang for ‘a good time.’
(Disclaimer: Board Game Gumbo was provided a pre-production copy of the game for the purposes of this review. The retail version of the game will contain different components than those shown here. See the end of the article for a complete list of differences between the version we played and the one available at retail.)
I freely admit that I was unfamiliar with PHALANX games when Nanty Narking made its’ belated arrival. What I did know was that the game was a re-theme of one of their earlier games, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork, and that it was designed by Martin Wallace. Being mostly unfamiliar with Discworld, I was much more intrigued by the game’s new theme, that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, along with some other Victorian-aged literary and historical figures. Playing a game designed around the struggle between Holmes and Moriarty, and featuring historic and literary figures such as Jack the Ripper and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is much more my speed. And, of course, any game by the illustrious Martin Wallace is worth playing in its’ own right.
How Does it Play?
Playing Nanty Narking is actually rather simple, and begins with each player being dealt a random Personality card, which is hidden from the other players. These cards define what objective that player is trying to accomplish during the game, and are both mechanically and thematically interesting. Sherlock Holmes, being the master detective that he is, is simply trying to bide his time and gather as much information as he can. To that end, he wants the game to run as long as possible, and wins if the deck of action cards is emptied. Moriarty, on the other hand, wants eyes and ears everywhere in London to feed him important information; he wins the game when he has agents in a certain number of areas.
After being dealt their Personality cards, each player is dealt 5 action cards from the top of the deck. The action cards are actually split into two decks, with deck one shuffled separately and stacked on top of deck two. There are no mechanical differences between the two decks of cards, but the actions on the cards in deck two are slightly stronger, and their background is a different color to differentiate them. By playing these cards, players are both trying to achieve their personal victory condition as well as deduce their opponents’ and stop them from winning. Your first few moves may be purely to your own benefit, but the game quickly devolves into trying to balance your own motives with foiling the plans of others.
Each card played results in at least one action on the board, sometimes multiple ones. Playing Col. Sebastian Moran, for instance, allows you to perform two Assassination actions as well as a Building action. Actions must be resolved from top to bottom on the card being played, but the only mandatory action is the Random Event action; each other action can be performed, or ignored, at the player’s discretion. While the action cards are basically just there to facilitate you and your competitors’ attempts to win the game, I really appreciate the attention paid to the theme of the game. If you are familiar with Sherlock Holmes than you know it’s entirely appropriate that Moran is involved in assassinations, or that Inspector Lestrade removes trouble markers from the board. The nine possible actions are shown and detailed on the Player Aids provided in the game.
Perhaps the strongest action in the game is the Play Another Card action, which allows a player to potentially chain multiple cards together and take many more actions than their opponents. Here, perhaps, is one of the few weaknesses of the game, which is actually fairly common in games that rely on a deck of cards; luck of the draw. Playing a game of Nanty Narking and seeing only one or two Player Another Card actions during the game is a noticeable disadvantage. As with other games of this kind, the assumption is that ‘luck of the draw’ always evens out in the end. Whether you personally agree with that sentiment or not may affect your level of enjoyment for the game. However, while getting those particular types of cards is certainly helpful, they are by no means required to win; strategy has far more impact than luck in this game.
Regardless of how many cards you play on your turn, you always draw back up to 5 at the end of your turn. If you have over 5 cards in your hand at the end of your turn, however, you do not discard any cards. Then play rotates to the next player and play continues until, at the beginning of their turn, a player has achieved their secret objective. When that happens, that player is declared the winner. The game also ends if the Action card deck runs out, in which case the player acting as Sherlock Holmes wins. If the Action deck is depleted and there is no one playing Sherlock Holmes, then the game goes to final scoring where each Agent a player has on the board, along with each of their Buildings, is worth a certain number of points; the player with the most points wins. There is one other way for the game to end, but it involves the resolution of a card in the Event deck, and even then under specific circumstances.
There are several other elements in Nanty Narking that I will not explain in depth for the purposes of this preview. The placement of Trouble Markers, the special actions of buildings, the event deck, Advanced rules, etc. While these are all very interesting, thematic, and essential elements of the game, I do not consider them necessary to understand the basic concept that Nanty Narking is aiming for. The resolution of action cards is really the meat of the game, along with the deduction of your opponents’ personalities. All of these other elements are both mechanically and thematically interesting, however, and they all add another welcomed layer to the depth of the gameplay. Buildings, in particular, are rather interesting in that they give you once a turn abilities (like getting more money from the bank), but are susceptible to both Event cards and action cards that can destroy them. The Event deck itself is also very entertaining, if a bit chaotic, but ultimately I am glad that the Random Event action is mandatory; having a Zeppelin crash in an area of London and wiping out all of the pieces there adds a significant wrinkle to a tight game. The Advanced Personality cards add yet another victory condition to each player (a Lord might win with enough controlled areas OR by having built a certain number of buildings), which makes divining who is playing what character even more difficult and entertaining.
So what do I think?
I find that one of the hardest things to do in board gaming is simplicity. When you make a simple game, it has to be nearly perfect. Additionally, there is always the desire to heap more mechanics onto a game than is necessary, whether in an attempt to add excitement or placate a certain player base.
Nanty Narking is not the simplest game I have ever played, but it is exactly as simple as it needs to be to make the vision of the game complete. Because of that there are no extraneous mechanics or rules getting in the way of the gameplay. The game flows beautifully, and each turn you must balance what you want to do with the threat of another player winning. Sometimes that means you can act purely out of self-interest, but more often than not you have to play a card that is not ideal for you in order to stop someone else from winning. Or, at least, you think you’re stopping them from winning, because they may have an entirely different Personality card than you thought they did.
For me, the game is a perfect blend of deduction and action selection, and because of that I give it my highest recommendation. Perhaps because it is a re-theme it won’t be considered for any ‘Best Of’ lists when it comes out, but that would be a shame. Fulfillment is expected in October of 2019, and I’ll be comparing every game that I play from here to there against the excellence of Nanty Narking.
There are quite a few differences between the version the Krewe played and what will be available at retail. Partly this is because PHALANX has done an admirable job of listening to its’ play testers, and Kickstarter backers, and making quick adjustments to the product. The board, for instance, was a problem for a lot of backers; the graphical layout is not the easiest to read at a glance. Because of this, PHALANX has redesigned the board to make it easier to differentiate areas, as well as making it slightly larger.
There are several changes to the rulebook that you would expect from a game in development versus one going to release. The largest is the mixup between Agents and Minions in the rules, which has been fixed. There are also several variant rules added to the retail edition that we have not played, along with additional Personality cards.
The figures that came with our game were 3D printed resin, but will obviously be plastic for the retail release. Here’s hoping that they do not lose too much definition with the change; mass produced plastic figures never look as good as resin figures, but there are companies that come really close.
Kickstarter backers got a free upgrade to a set of metal coins, but even if you didn’t back for the Kickstarter you can get them as an extra add-on. There is also a canvas mat that entirely replaces the board, but it alone is $45. And here’s where the real shocker comes in; the game itself is almost $80. That’s before shipping, before the canvas mat, and before metal coins. And according to PHALANX, that’s $25 less than it will be at retail. So we’re looking at about $103 for Nanty Narking at retail, and that’s a hard pill to swallow. I consider this a likely contender for Game of the Year, and even for me that price gives me considerable pause. Whether you’re willing to drop that kind of money on a sure thing, however, is entirely up to you. Because that’s exactly what I consider Nanty Narking at this point, a sure thing.