Dale Yu: Review of Swindler


  • Designer: Matthias Cramer
  • Publisher: Edition Spielwiese / Pegasus
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 45-60 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Pegasus at SPIEL 2022

Life in London isn’t easy. The city is run by moneybags, though, and now it’s time to seize opportunities as swindlers and cutpurses to claim your share of their wealth.

Swindler combines press-your-luck with take-that mechanisms for a fun and thematic game set in Victorian London. Each round, players must steal from one of the five moneybags, drawing tokens from the chosen bag. Each bag is filled with coins, jewelry, and other loot — but each bag also contains at least one skull! If you draw a skull, you’ve pressed your luck too far and got caught in the act. Not only will you lose the loot you stole that round, you also lose everything you stole from the same bag in previous rounds. The moneybag not only found your hand in their pocket, but they also recognized the small but precious ring on your finger…

It’s wise not to sit on the loot too long in case you get caught. Dealers will pay you for the loot you turn in, giving you points. You can also use your loot to complete orders, but one of your fellow swindlers might be faster and push you aside to complete a task, costing you valuable points. Thankfully, you don’t have to swindle on your own! Hire accomplices to gain advantages or affect the other players with disadvantages.

The player with the most points after a set number of rounds will be recognized as the most notorious swindler of London and thus win the game.

To setup the game, each of the five bags is seeded with the tokens that match the color of the bag.  The order deck is constructed with A cards on top and the B cards on bottom.  The top 4 cards are placed on the board for all to see.  Three dealer tiles are also placed on the board.  Each player gets a player board (male on one side, female on the other), and the reservation markers that match.  In reverse turn order, players draft a Master Thief card which will give a unique special ability.

The game is played in rounds where the active player goes through the same 5 steps – until at least one player has finished the appointed number of orders.

1] Reserve Orders (optional) – you may place your reservation markers on any of the orders on the table.  This allows you the chance to fill the orders and score points.  However, if you cancel the order yourself or if another player later puts their reservation marker on this card before you fill it, you lose 2 points.

2] Steal from a money bag – Choose one of the money bags and draw tiles from it one at a time. As long as you get loot, you are successful and can keep drawing.  If you draw a skull, your have been caught, and you must return all tiles with that color back to the bag – these tiles might have been collected on a previous turn.  If you stop before getting caught, you keep all the things you took.

3] Actions (optional) – you can fulfill an order – depending on the type by either simply having the right loot or by discarding tiles back to their respective bags.  Score points as shown on the card or take coins as shown.  In a 4p game, once you have completed 3 orders, you become a Master Thief and can now use your Master Thief ability.  You can also sell loot to dealers.  Place your loot tiles onto the corresponding spaces on dealer tiles to earn the marked points. If you complete a tile, you get a 2VP bonus. 

4] Replenish Dealer Tiles and Order Cards – Completed dealer tiles are discarded and new tiles are put in their place.  Finished order cards are also removed, and new orders are dealt so that there are 4 available.  If a Police Raid card is drawn, players may have to discard loot tiles, or if they have collected too many Wanted posters, they might lose a turn.

5] Hiring Accomplices (optional) – for 1 coin, you can hire accomplices which grant special actions. For each one you want, pay the coin and draw the top card from the accomplice deck.  Read the card, and in any later turn, you can play it when it makes sense.

The next player then takes their turn.  Once a player has finished 6 orders, the current round is completed so that all players have the same number of turns, and then the game ends.  Each coin left over is worth 1 VP. Each reserved order which has not been fulfilled still costs you 2VP.  The player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of the player with most orders filled.

My thoughts on the game

Matthias Cramer is a designer who has made a number of games that I really adore – Helvetia and Glen More for instance.  Swindler is probably not going to join that group of games.  It is clearly sold as a press-your-luck game, and well, that’s exactly what you get.  If you’re the best at drawing tiles out of the five bags, you’ll be on your way to success.  Sure, there is a bit of skill/strategy by looking at which bags likely give you the best chance of avoiding a skull or getting the loot you want; but in the end, just draw well and know when to stop.

But in the end, every turn ends up the same. Pick a bag, hope you draw well, repeat.  Be lucky and you’ll be happy.  Suck at drawing, and it’s gonna be a long hour (or possibly more).  There is no catch up mechanic here, which to me, makes the game enter a death spiral.  Once you fall behind in the scoring, the only way to catch up is to try to draw as many tiles as you can in order to fill more orders.  Of course, this only increases the chance of drawing a skull and busting.  Not only do you not score the orders, you’ll also end up taking a good number of -2VP penalties as other players knock you off the order cards you couldn’t fill because you suck.

Then, as your opponents succeed a bit more, they’ll become Master Thieves and get to use the special ability on their Master Thief card, which will only increase their skills while you continue to struggle along getting caught at every opportunity.

The luck doesn’t end there – there is also a complete luck fest when paying for accomplice cards; you get mystery meat from the deck, and hopefully it works for you.  Once the accomplice cards are in play, unfortunately for me, many of them have take-that mechanics that cause players to discard loot tokens, or maybe allows a player to steal half of the tokens that i’ve successfully stolen. 

To be fair to the game, we have had games where everyone seemed to do about the same, and it was a competitive game.  Additionally, I brought my review copy to a recent convention, and while I wasn’t in the game, based on the amount of laughing, hooting and hollering I heard, the game seemed to be enjoyed by the participants for sure.

For me, there is too much luck and focus on the press-your-luck mechanism for something that can take an hour or longer.  And, to top it off, there are randomly drawn cards with take-that actions.  If this was a short game, say 15-20 minutes, I’d be more tolerant of the swings in the game; but at an hour or more, this doesn’t work for me.  Of course, YMMV, and you might be more tolerant of that level of luck than I am.  This one definitely is not for me.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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