Saturday, August 26, 2017

Dave Reviews: An Old Game Made New And Better, If Better Just Means Shinier

Stop Thief!

Stop Thief! was originally released in 1979 as the first (citation needed) app-based board game. The app, in this case, was the ELECTRONIC CRIME SCANNER which hinted where the thief in play was and let you attempt arrests by punching in the numbered space on which you stood if you thought the thief was there.

It's Letters from Whitechapel with a computer Jack and investigators that have different abilities. Doesn't that sound cool?

Here's how it works: there's a square board with a large building in each corner. Each thief comes into play with an alarm going off and the app noting what building the alarm is coming from. That narrows down the possible starting locations to a handful--the red crime spaces at that location. Each player starts their turn by pressing the Get Clue button, which triggers the thief's next movement. Like Letters from Whitechapel, there are blank spaces between the numbered ones; thieves skip these, but players need to count them when they move. The thief goes one numbered space at a time, while players use one of six movement cards with varying distances on them. In addition to each character having a different set of distances, some of the shorter ones have unique abilities as well.

Once players think they're on the same numbered location as the thief, they attempt an arrest by inputting the number into the app. If correct, the player receives the reward. If wrong, the player pays $1,000 for bringing the cops out for no reason. Play continues until one person has the winning amount of money (varies by players in the game); a new thief comes out after each capture if no one has won the game.

Letters from Whitechapel is a fucking incredible game. Even though I like playing Jack and there's no way to take on that role here, seeing the similarity in the mechanics was immediately exciting. I wasn't expecting a genius computer opponent, either; for example, because all you have to go on is sound cues, and the thief is free until you make an arrest, a thief that was able to backtrack could just walk back and forth on the street. That would both make no sense and be incredibly frustrating to deal with. You need to run through several different thieves for someone to make enough to win, so relatively quick captures need to be possible, and a super-clever computer might work at cross-purposes with the fun aesthetic.

That being said, I was expecting a little more than this. A thief starts out in the Museum, sneaks onto the street, then goes back into the Museum to steal more stuff while the investigators are surrounding it. He gets caught, then the next one... goes right back into the Museum. I understand this is all done randomly, which was no doubt required for the big calculator-looking thing to work back in 1979, but we have gigs of memory and actual programming competence today. This bit of weirdness doesn't destroy the fun, but it is a bit odd.

The major issue here is thief movement rules. As a PI, you can move onto any numbered space if it's neutral, a crime space, or a door, but not a window. However, thieves do move through windows, which are numbered, thus they can end their turns on a window. If you're next, even if you have them nailed, you can't do anything. You have to wait for them to finish climbing through, run off into the building or down the street, and then try to catch up two or three or four turns later when you get to go again. That is the worst kind of randomness. Even if it sometimes serve the purpose of keeping a player who's running away with things from landing an arrest so someone else can get it, it's just as likely to keep someone who's behind from getting the arrest they need to catch up, which feels incredibly bad.

Worse yet, unlike Letters from Whitechapel, you can't block the thief's movement. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. The only way in which the game would be screwed up by this is if the thief is in a window and surrounded in such a way as to be unable to move, in which case the movement block isn't the problem, the window rule is. Now, in a worst case scenario, you can run up to a window where you know the thief is, stand next to it unable to make an arrest, then have the thief move right through you and run off before you get a chance to stop him.

A simple fix would be to keep the rule that thieves can move through windows while PIs can't, but don't make windows stopping points. Give the window break cue and follow with the appropriate movement sound cue. But you can't house rule any of this, because the app is central to the game and it only knows how to play this way. It's really unfortunate; compared to the original rules, a lot has been improved here, but when you're on the wrong end of this situation it's a 'I wanna choke people' level of frustration.

One final note: Pepper Gonzales is broken in a four-player game (maybe less, needs testing). She has two movement cards that let you take $1000 from other investigators. From a victory perspective, it is absolutely in your best interests to use those cards, reset your movement deck, and do it again. If you take that free $2,000 every three turns, combined with the fact the other players are looking for arrests just to make up the money you're stealing, odds are you can walk in circles and never try for an arrest unless you're sure you know where the thief is and he's in range. But that makes you a complete asshole and no one will have any fun. You should not have to decide between making the correct strategic play and keeping the game enjoyable for everyone.

The potential here was very high. It's still largely potential.

Score: Seven idiot thieves released due to pity for their incompetence out of twelve.

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