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Verräter / Meuterer


Designer: Marcel-André Casasola-Merkle
Publisher: Adlung
Players: 2-4
Time: 40 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus, Patrick Brennan

In 1998, Adlung published the Marcel-André Casasola Merkle game Verräter. Considered by many to be among the greatest gaming values, it packed all the qualities of a board game into just 60 cards. The game was nominated for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres for 1999. In 2000, a "sequel" of sorts was released that used many similar mechanics, again in a small, 60-card format. Whereas Verräter was about the political manoeuvrings during a civil war, Meuterer concerned itself with pirates and mutinies on the high seas. While they are separate games, their similarities beg for a comparison.

Pat Brennan: I had the chance to play these within a few days of each other last week. For mine, Meuterer wins hands down. It has a more fun theme — sailing around the islands, "Ho-Ho-Ho"-ing, leading a mutiny, calling on the ship's boy to help while the captain calls for his maaaaaaaate to help whip the scurvy dogs. Verräter is just pure conflict, add up your cards, see who's won, repeat eight rounds.

Greg Aleknevicus: I strongly disagree with that last line. Verräter is not simply the same turn over and over again. With proper play there's a real issue of timing that must be considered in order to do well. Playing all your cards can be a powerful attack and swing many points your way but it leaves you vulnerable as you regain cards. Executing such a move or positioning yourself to take advantage of another player doing so adds much variety to the "pacing" of the game. If you really think that Verräter is a series of eight similar turns, I suspect that you're not giving enough thought to the effects on subsequent turns of your actions this round.

PB: My implication was that there's only one competition each turn. I'd agree that the decisions differ from turn to turn as your supply cards wax and wane and positions alter. It seems though that a lot of decision-making in Verräter is based on guesswork. If you're early in the round, you need to guess what other players' characters and intentions are, and whether your partner(s) will back you up and play cards accordingly. If you're last in the round, you're guessing who's taken what characters — who took the 5-Diplomat, the 2-Diplomat, the Traitor? Some of that guesswork may be based on position, and some may be psychological. I can understand why that's interesting and enjoyable for a lot of gamers, and I don't mind working through that process in a game myself, but in the end I don't find it satisfying, right or wrong, because it was, after all, guesswork. And when a player hasn't done what was clearly best for themselves, leaving your guesswork in the lurch, you get that unsatisfying Nicht Die Bohne "why didn't you do that" feeling. Followed by the realisation that you've just landed yourself a big problem getting back into the game given the catch a leader problem.

Losing the first two rounds and falling behind in Verräter can be deathly for the rest of the game. If you then choose to be the Traitor and join the strong side, you don't gain ground against the leaders as you score the same as them. Eventually one of the leaders will change to your side in order to go for the victory, but again, you're not catching them. So you have to swap sides — but then you've joined with the other leader and can't catch them either!

Verräter in play

GGA: It's true that some players can be out of a game in the last few turns and this is (perhaps) a failing of the game. However, the exact same thing can (and does) happen in Meuterer so in a comparison I'd say it's a wash.

I suspect from your wording that people were not choosing the Traitor that often. ("Eventually one of the leaders will change to your side in order to go for the victory"). Going for the victory is something that's unlikely to happen until the last two turns and it's my belief that there should have been plenty of traitors by this point. It is true that in the last turn there's likely to be one and possibly two players who cannot win. (This happens most often when you have two players ahead of you in points and on opposite sides from each other.) I don't see this as a problem in the middle of the game.

PB: In contrast, Meuterer allows you to play your own game. With only six conflict cards in the deck, you often don't need anybody's help to successfully mutiny, especially as the Mutineer wins ties. With Verräter, the support of your partner(s) is usually crucial. If they let you down, because they choose to keep some cards for their own later purpose, or turn Traitor, it's a miserable feeling watching your chances for victory slide away, playing all your cards on a losing shot. You're at the mercy of the last player in each round to determine who will win and who will lose as they've seen all the cards played... and they can either beat the score required, or they can't, or worse (for you), choose not to.

GGA: The last player in Verräter can sometimes be in a powerful position but not appreciably more than any of the other players. The main reason for this is that he has the least information concerning the cards handed to him. Imagine you're the last player, you're currently allied with one other player and are handed the 5-Diplomat and the Bauer. Therefore you know that either the 2-Diplomat or the Traitor (or both) have been chosen.

"What if my ally is turning traitor? Well, maybe I can play all my cards and win alone. But then it's possible that another of my opponents is the 2-Diplomat so I might not have enough to win in that case. Hmm, better choose the 5-Diplomat so that I'm more likely to win. Except I don't really know how many cards people will play until after I've chosen! Wait a minute! What if one of my opponents is the traitor and is joining my side? I'll have wasted a turn picking the 5-Diplomat in a fight I was going to win anyway! Maybe I should take the Bauer to prepare for next turn? Ok, I'll do that."

"Let's see the odds start at 10-7 against me. The first player (my enemy) played 5 points, then my ally played 6 points and finally my other opponent played nothing. If there's no traitor then it's 15-13 against me and so I need to play only 3 points to win. Oh, except that the 2-Diplomat might be out there so I'd need to spend 5 to guarantee the win. Ok, but what if my ally is a traitor? Then it's 21 (maybe even 23) against my 7. I'd need to play 17 points to win! Would my ally turn traitor on me? Probably, but why would he spend 6 points worth of cards in a three-on-one fight? A-ha! He knows that the 5-diplomat was passed and if I play that along with 4 points worth of cards then I'd win alone if he added nothing. Except he can't be sure that the third player didn't select the 5-Diplomat himself in which case his cards would again be wasted."

I find that I'm faced with this sort of decision 80% of the time in Verräter and it's what makes the game so delicious for me.

PB: Though in instances like this, I can't help but fall into a circular guessing game with myself, and end up saying "I clearly can't choose the wine in front of me...".

I think the example above shows how Meuterer may be more accessible to family and non-gamers due to its theme and "fun" conflict, as opposed to Verräter's "serious" conflict and traitor turning. Both games are difficult to teach compared to usual card games though.

GGA: Agreed. Meuterer is a pretty easy, light game to play whereas Verräter is not. It's a complex, thought-provoking one that requires you to put plenty of decision-making into each turn. I can see how this would not appeal to a number of people. Despite being amongst my favourite games, Verräter doesn't get played frequently as I need to be in the right mood and with an appropriate group.

PB: Which leads to my main point in that I think Meuterer has more replayability. I'll readily concede that the decision-making is considerably easier and less thought-provoking than Verräter. But also the repercussions from your decision-making are more social and friendly as well, and these induce replayability. I think the downsides of Verräter may well outweigh the decision-making pluses.

GGA: I won't agree with you about replayability but I will agree that Meuterer is more social and friendly. Many people are upset by the whole concept of a player switching sides and this can certainly cause hurt feelings. I would argue that these people are missing the point of the game though. This isn't a two-sided wargame, it's not "the Eagles versus the Roses", it's "how can I benefit most from this situation?" If you approach the game with an "Us versus Them" mentality, you're setting yourself up for heartbreak.

PB: Verräter does have a nice "must score now" versus "must stock up on supply cards" decision each round which is mostly missing in Meuterer (apart from the Loadmaster power). By comparison, Meuterer offers the player the ability to alter course (so to speak) more readily from round to round due to the different scoring options — two islands to sell at, gaining control of the ship through mutiny — as opposed to the one-shop-stop conflict in Verräter. This makes Meuterer a more forgiving game, which is another element to enjoyment.

GGA: True, although I see this as a bug, not a feature. I find that it's not so much that you're able to alter course but that you have to. That is, what you've done in one round has very little effect on what you do in another.

The earlier claim that Verräter was eight rounds of the same thing repeated could be more rightly leveled at Meuterer. This might not be such a bad thing though for the reasons you state. The game does tend to be more forgiving as the game essentially "resets" every round. In one round you might be dealt a losing hand, on another you'll be dealt a winner.

The chief decision in a round seems to be deciding if you or one of your opponents has more of a particular card. Should you play them or save them and hope to draw more next round? Whenever anything happens in the game (be it selling cargo or a mutiny) I never feel as though it was a particularly clever move. "Yeah, I won that battle because I drew three combat cards." or "Gee, I can't believe no one had more than two wheat."

The thing I really dislike about Meuterer is that the Action Card selection rarely has any tension to it at all. Most of the time your decisions are painless. Either because the "best" move is obvious or that it's a crapshoot whether you succeed at something or not.

PB: Meuterer does allow you to count cards somewhat to give you an idea of your chances in a round though. You know that there are only four ruby cards and you have two of them, there are eight wheat and three of them just got used, etc.

One of the problems I have with Verräter is that the supply cards are a bit of a lottery. If you're stuck with low cards there's not much you can do. You can't easily acquire new cards, and there's no way to know what the other players might have.

GGA: I totally disagree with this. Too often in games of Meuterer there have been situations where a player was screwed out of selling due to the luck of the draw:

"Let's see, I've got two wheat cards and we're at a wheat port. I think I'll try selling. Oops! Bob has three wheat cards so I get nothing."

- or -

"Let's see, I've got two wheat cards and we're at a wheat port. Hmm, that's not so many, I think I'll wait till next turn. Damn! Bob only sold two wheat, I could have got in on the action!" (Next turn:) "Drat, I didn't draw any more wheat. Hey! Look at that! Joe drew three wheat from the deck so I get nothing."

The above situations happen far too frequently for my liking. It's true that there's a variance in the value of cards in Verräter but a hand of eighteen points does not make a hand of fifteen points completely worthless. In contrast, a hand of three wheat cards in Meuterer almost always makes a hand of two wheat cards worthless.

PB: Despite having an unfortunate commodity hand, the player still at least has the opportunity to score points through controlling the ship. If worst comes to worst, a player's hand can also be completely replaced each round in the hope of a better collection. Verräter forces you to play out the cards you have with limited means of replenishing your hand (and that often at the sacrifice of a scoring play). This of course makes each play more vital but it accentuates the importance of the cards you get. This vitality is an attractive feature in a board game, but less so in any card game when it's hard to overcome the luck of the cards.

GGA: The best answer I can give to this is that both of these games feel more like board games than card games to me. That they happen to use cards as the only components is incidental.

PB: And at card game prices, you really can't go wrong... whichever game you prefer!

- Patrick Brennan
- Greg Aleknevicus

(This debate originally appeared in Strategist magazine.)

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