Grifters designer Jacob Tlapek describes the game as “a deckbuilder without a deck,” which is somewhat accurate but probably sells the game’s mechanics a little bit short. Grifters gives you more control over the flow of cards from your hand to the table and back, reducing the randomness of the deck shuffle and the uncertainty of when a key card or two might come back around. However, that loss of randomness gives the game a rote feeling where the optimal move is obvious and it’s easy to predict what other players are going to do.
Grifters is set in the same dystopian universe as Coup and The Resistance, with players here running crime syndicates of various operatives in the form of cards. Those cards can be used to gather money or more cards or can be used to complete “jobs” available to all players with the right combination of cards in hand. Each player begins the game with six cards: three base cards called “ringleaders” and three random cards from the deck. There are three colors of cards, red, green, and blue, with some thematic differences, but the color matters primarily for job completion, as you must be able to play three to six cards in the right set of colors to complete a job and claim its reward.
On a turn, a player can choose to play a single card to his/her “hideout” (tableau) and use the text on the card, or play a team of cards to match the colors on a job and claim it. A hideout has three spaces for different nights, and a refresh area to the side; at the start of a turn, the player advances all cards by one night, with any cards on night three moving to the refresh area to be restored to his/her hand after the turn. That leaves night one empty for whatever card or cards are played in this turn. This means that you always know where your cards are, and can see how long until you get something back—or can reclaim them with certain cards that allow you to reclaim a card sooner or to play it a second time directly from your hideout.
The full game includes twenty jobs in five sets of four, also organized by color but without any direct connection to the colors of the cards. Each stack of four has the easiest job to complete on top, with a small reward, usually three coins taken from the central coffers. Later jobs require more cards to complete, with slightly better rewards, some of which allow you to steal a coin or two from other players or draw an extra card from the deck. The real point of the jobs is the bonus points you get at endgame if you complete more than one job from a color-stack—two points for two matching jobs, four for three matching jobs, and eight if you complete all four jobs of a color. With winning scores in the 30s, an eight-point boost is likely to make the difference in who wins.
Grifters is better with more players—with two, it’s basically solitaire—but even with three or four, there just isn’t enough breadth in the decision tree. It’s nearly always better to complete a job whenever your hand allows it, and a couple of the cards (such as the Femme Fatale, which allows you to advance cards another night in your hideout and take a second turn) are so overwhelmingly powerful that playing them is the obvious choice. Players also spend much of the game in tickytack moves like taking one coin from every other player, or stealing someone’s card (using the Inside Man card) only to have that person steal it back shortly thereafter. The game needs more complexity, and more reason to build up the deck rather than racing through jobs before other players can swipe them.
Grifters takes 30-45 minutes for a full game and the rules were no problem for my ten-year-old on her first play. Despite the creepy (in a good way) artwork and dark theme, the subject matter is fine for older kids, although I suppose jobs like holding a pop singer for ransom might upset the younger set. (My daughter just ignored the job text and focused on winning.) The publisher, Indie Boards & Cards, also put out the beautiful card game Kodama: The Tree Spirits earlier this year, and is about to release the very promising Aeon’s End in January, but Grifters might need an expansion pack or two to measure up to its comrades.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.