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[Review] Calaboose

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Live Oak Games has been running a contest with their abstract SiegeStone games for a while now, but I first heard of them when I got a copy of Ice Lake in a trade. I enjoyed Ice Lake, felt like it was sort of a simpler Robo Rally. I was therefore interested to acquire a copy of their newest game, Calaboose (Live Oak Games, 2005 - Patrick Matthews). Calaboose is a card game with the theme of the Old West; and while not as thematic as Bang!, it does allow a bit of role-playing. It’s basically a set collection game with some luck and bluffing.

Those who despise lucky games like Guillotine may dislike it, but I found it fun and enjoyable - especially since it was fairly short. I'm not sure what the ultimate replay value might be, but for a game that’s easy to set up, teach and play in only a short amount of time I'm sure it will stay on my “play” shelf for a while. The game has a bit of the “take that!” feel, and also elements of pushing one’s luck. I enjoyed it, getting into a Western flavor, and especially liked how fast the game moved.

A deck of seventy-four cards is shuffled, with five dealt to each player. There are three special cards in the deck (two Bad Whiskey and one Jail Break), two Bad Lawmen (value of 5), five Gunslingers (4), ten Cattle Rustlers (3), fifteen Card Sharks (2), nineteen Bandits (1), and twenty Hucksters (0). Each player is hunting down these cretins, trying to bring them in to their own jail. One player is given the Sheriff’s badge to show who goes first, and the remainder of the cards forms a draw pile in the middle of the table. The game is ready to begin.

On a player’s turn, they have three options:
- They may place a card from their hand into their jail. Each player’s jail has five slots, and a player may only place a card in an empty slot.
- They may place a card from their hand into an opponent’s jail. The player may place the card into an empty slot or on top of a card of lower value. For example, I may play a Cattle Rustler on top of a Bandit in another player’s jail. The player whose jail is being “attacked” in this way may defend against the card that is being played by either playing a higher card - either from their hand or one that is in their jail. If a player defends against an attacking card, the attacking card is discarded, and the defending card must be placed in ANOTHER player’s jail by the defender. This card may be defended against, and the cycle continues until a player cannot/will not defend against a card coming to their jail.
- They may turn one of the cards in their jail face-down (locking it) - keeping it safe for the remainder of the game. A player may only lock a card if they have five cards in their jail.
After a player has played their card, they draw a new one from the pile and pass the Sheriff badge to the next player, denoting that their turn is over.

Some cards have special effects:
- Jail Break: A player may play this card before their turn, to discard all cards of one type from their jail.
- Bad Whiskey: A player may play this card to exchange their hand of cards with another player. A player may play a Bad Whiskey to cancel a Bad Whiskey.
- Huckster: While a Huckster’s value is “0”, they can beat a Bad Lawman, who normally has a value of “5”.
- Gunslinger: Gunslingers (value “4”) can defend against each other, sending BOTH of them to the same jail of another player.

Play continues until one player has locked down all the cards in their jail, when a player runs out of cards, or when a card is played that can’t go anywhere. At this point, players score the cards that are in their jails, including those which have been locked down. Each card has a “bounty” value depending on how many of that card a player has. The chart for the cards’ values looks like this.

1 2 3 4 5
Huckster 0 0 0 0 75
Bandit 1 20 30 45 60
Card Shark 2 15 25 40 55
Cattle Rustler 3 10 20 30 50
Gunslinger 4 8 12 24 70
Bad Lawman 5 10 - - -

So, looking at this chart, if I have three Card Sharks and two Bandits in my jail at the end of the game, I would gain a total of 45 points. The player with the most points is the winner, unless players decide to play more than one round - in which case the player with the most points after a determined number of rounds is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The cards are of good quality and have the information on them stored nicely. Each one shows a cartoonish picture of that criminal, the number value in the top two corners of the card, the name of the criminal, a quote about the criminal (for flavor text), any special abilities of the criminal, and finally the bounty chart for that criminal type at the bottom. The cards are laid out very nicely, and it’s very easy for players to quickly understand them. The sheriff’s badge is a large round cardboard token that tells a player what action choices they have each turn and is helpful for remembering whose turn it is - sometimes it can get crazy with people being passed around from jail to jail. The only thing I'm not a big fan of component-wise is the box (it’s one where you slide two halves of the stack in from the side), and those always drive me crazy (splitting the stack in half, hoping the cards don’t push through the flap on the other side.) Other than that, though, it’s a nice package for such a small game.

2.) Rules: The rules are printed on both sides of a single sheet of folded paper and are very clearly laid out - extremely simple to understand. An example of play is included, which helped clarify the “attacks” for me, and I was able to read the rules quickly and understand the game in less than ten minutes. The game is very easy to teach, and I even played it with some younger children (around 10-11); they picked it up in a flash.

3.) Hucksters: The Huckster is an interesting card - as it can beat the Gunslinger, but pretty much is useless. EXCEPT if you have five of them, in which case you score the most points possible - 75. Now, I haven’t seen anyone do this yet, and I'm not sure if it’s even possible. As soon as a player gets four Hucksters in their prison, you can be assured that the other players will do their best to drop a Bandit in, or something, because getting five Hucksters is like shooting the moon. While I've never seen this happen, the option is still there; and players try in every game I've seen to attain this. Is it impossible? Time will tell.

4.) Special cards/abilities: I enjoyed the fact that there were only a few special abilities and cards in the game, and all of them were simple and clearly marked. There was no slowing down of the game to ask what a card did; play just went smoothly and quickly.

5.) Attacking: The way a player can “attack” another player’s jail is interesting. Attacking them with a low number is usually bad for them (unless they get five Hucksters or Bandits), but those low numbers can be blocked easily. And if a player attacks you with a higher number, it makes it easier for you to block attacks in the future. But I've found that Bad Lawmen, while very useful in a hand, are not quite as useful on the table. Once a player gets a Bad Lawman in their jail, they will rarely be attacked by other players; since most people don’t want a Bad Lawman, the lower valued cards are worth more points.

6.) Luck and Fun Factor: Some will accuse this game of having a lot of luck, and they will be correct. But I think that clever play with the cards you have will often make the difference between winning and losing. Yes, sometimes a player will just not draw the cards they need and be boxed in a corner, having nothing to do. But I've found that playing several rounds mitigates these rare situations. And if everyone speaks in a western drawl and uses bad quotes from B movies, the game’s fun quotient goes up considerably.

If you’re looking for a card game with a Western theme, and already have Bang!, then I would recommend this one to you. It’s simple and can be played with kids and adults with no real age gap in strategy. It’s a lot of fun and has a bit of pushing one’s luck. Will you try for five Hucksters? Four Hucksters are zero points, while five are seventy-five. Some people like playing games that have an edge like that. If you’re one of those people, with luck not bothering you - then Calaboose may be just the game for you.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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