The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Witch Trial

Designer: James Ernest
Publisher: Cheapass Games
Players: 3-7
Time: 75-120 minutes
Reviewer: Matthew Baldwin

Of all the great works I read in my High School Lit classes, one of my favorites was The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Someday I'll dig out all those Lit novels I accumulated in high school and reread The Crucible as an adult. But until then, I can just play Witch Trial, a new offering from Cheapass Games. I mean, why just watch the unfolding drama of the Salem Witch trials when you can play the role of one of the lawyers, prosecuting your neighbors and raking in the cash? And at $6, it might even be cheaper to buy Witch Trial than The Crucible paperback.

The Witch Trial box (Yes! A box!) contains a deck of 84 cards and a small playing board. The cards are of moderate thickness (easy to shuffle, hard to deal) and encompass all the elements you'd expect to find in your run-of-the-mill Colonial American courtroom: Suspects, Charges, Evidence, Motions and Objections. Each player begins with six of these cards and $50, while the game board is placed in the middle of the table and the top five cards from the deck are laid out for all to see.

On a turn, a player may take one of four possible actions: Buy a Card, Create a Case, Defend a Case or Prosecute a Case. The buying of cards uses the Showmanager method. (I don't know for a fact that this mechanism originated in Showmanager, but that's where I've seen it before.) The first card costs $20 to purchase, the second $15, the third $10, the fourth, fifth and the final card costs nothing. After a player pays the required amount the remaining cards shift downward to fill the gap and a new card is drawn from the deck to occupy the vacant "fifth card" slot. So you can fork over cash for an expensive card, or you can wait until your next turn and hope that it's still there and available at a lower price, perhaps for free. Another way to get a free card from the lineup is to Create a Case. To do so, you either take a Charge Card from your hand and apply it to a Suspect Card in the lineup or vice versa. You then take the pair and place it in front of you to show that you own the case. If you still have the case in front of you on a later turn you can Prosecute the Case: all the other players roll a die and the person with the lowest roll becomes the Defender. Or you can use your turn to voluntarily Defend a Case that someone else owns. If either of these latter actions are taken, the case then goes to trial.

Trials are the heart of the game and are the only way to make money. First the Suspect and the Charge are put on the game board to show who's getting tried for what. Each Suspect card has a Defense Fund (ranging from $5 - $30) which the defending lawyer gets just for taking the case. Then the settlement fees are established: each Charge card has a Court Amount ($50 - $150) which gets thrown in the pot along with any money players previously spent to buy cards. Finally the initial Jury Value is set by adding the Severity of the Charge (1-6) to the presumed Guilt of the Suspect (again 1-6) and the litigation begins.

As in actual trials the Prosecution goes first. The prosecuting attorney may play any number of cards from his hand, his goal being to make the Jury Value as high as possible. After he rests his case, the defending lawyer can play as many cards as he wishes, striving to lower the Jury Value. Finally, the prosecutor can play one last card before the case is resolved. All types of cards serve some function in a trial. The simplest are Evidence Cards, which simply add or subtract a fixed amount from the Jury Value depending on which side played them. (e.g. the Evidence Card "Works With Children" will reduce the Jury Value by four if played by the Defense, or raise it by two if played by the Prosecution.) Suspect Cards can be played as witnesses and serve as special Evidence Cards: the player rolls a die, and if the number rolled is equal to or greater than the Suspect's Guilt Value then the Jury Value is modified by the Guilt Value. (If the Defense introduced Alsace Lorraine as a witness and rolled her Guilt Value of 2 or higher, he could then reduce the Jury Value by two.) And a lawyer on either side can replace the current Charge Card for the case with one from his hand, modifying the Jury Value to reflect the new Severity. The real twists and turns in a trial come from the Motion cards, which allow the players to do all manner of crazy things like bribing the judge or throwing the case out of court. And when someone plays a Motion, his opponent may play an Objection card which negates the Motion's effect.

After either lawyer rests his case he may offer a Plea Bargain to his opponent. To do so he proposes a split for the money in the pot, and if the other player agrees the case ends immediately and the money is divvied up. (What happens to the Suspect after the deal is made? No one knows. Or cares.) If a deal isn't hammered out by the end of the trial, the Prosecution rolls two dice, adds their sum to the final Jury Value and wins if the total is 13 or higher (and loses if it ain't). Winning in this manner means you get to keep every penny in the pot—an attractive proposition for the greedy at heart.

A player who thinks he can win a trial outright may opt not to offer a bargain to his opponent, or may offer a disgustingly lopsided one. Or perhaps he will offer a fair bargain, instead choosing to save his good cards for a future battle. It's this psychological elements—deciding when to make offers and what offers to make (or accept)—that sets Witch Trial apart from other run of the mill card games. And there are lots of different ways to play Witch Trial: a "Defense Only" or "Prosecute Only" strategy, offering fair Plea Bargains or no Plea bargains, trying to win through a few huge settlements or a lot of small ones, etc. What is successful in one game may fail miserably with a different set of opponents, and what works well on one player may backfire with another. Reading your opponents is crucial, and no small amount of bluffing is required as well. You might try to defend a case despite a hand full of lousy cards if the prosecutor has a reputation for offering fair deals and if you can make him believe you have a reasonable chance of winning. But you wouldn't want to try this tact on a player who routinely fights his cases down to the bitter end (unless you just want to collect the Defense Fund and then lean back in your chair for a snooze while the court puts your client in the pokey).

The bitter end, by the way, comes when all the cards are gone, at which point the person with the most cash wins. The length of Witch Trial seems to be about right for ensuring the the game is usually won by superior play rather than by lucky breaks; that is to say that the number of cases that are tried over the course of a game is just about perfect. That said, the amount of time required to get through all those cases (and to get from one case to the next) is sometimes over long for a game this light. While I have played Witch Trial in a little over an hour, most clock in around 120 minutes. The length of the game obviously depends on the number of players involved, but also on the playing style of those competing. My group, for example, tends to favor negotiation over brawling: it's rare for us even to reach the final "dice rolling" state of a trial. At first I thought this mode of play would shorten playing time, but it turns out the opposite is true. If the two players involved in a trial agree to a Plea Bargain before a single card is played that means they can use the cards in their hands to litigate future cases. If players continue to resolve cases without playing cards, they will have no need to purchase new ones from the deck and the game can drag on for quite a spell. One rule interpretation we've adopted helps this problem somewhat: although the rules don't specify the exact protocol for offering a Plea Bargain, we play that the involved parties cannot haggle. The person offering the deal simply states a proposal for dividing the money, and the other player may either accept it or reject it.

Despite the length, I enjoy this game quite a bit. Although I am a big fan of the negotiation game genre, I have become too mellow to really to enjoy the Intriges and Illuminatis anymore. Instead I have turned to card/negotiation hybrids, such as Kohle, Kie$ & Knete, Dragon's Gold and, well, Witch Trial; games where negotiation is a key element, but the card play keeps things fast and fun and unpredictable. If Witch Trial was pure negotiation or pure card play I'm certain I wouldn't like it nearly as much as the amalgamation it is. The theme adds to the fun, although it is a bit macabre and uneven. The public domain art on the cards, for example, is about a century too contemporary for "Colonial America" (a fact they acknowledge on their website). And if the Jury Value represents the number of people on the 12-person jury currently convinced of the Defendant's guilt, why does the Prosecution need a 13 to win? Nitpicks, true, but enough to irritate your resident "Crucible Lover".

Per the grand Cheapass tradition you do have to supply some of your own equipment (namely dice and money—and you'll need a lot of money, as the coffers of the lawyers get pretty full). And per that other Cheapass tradition, there is plenty of humor to go around. Some of the crimes are laughably vague or trivial, ranging from "The Ol' Hocus-Pocus" to "Frowning". The rules encourage players to roleplay a bit, explaining how the Evidence cards they play fit into their presentation of their case ("Tell us again, dear sir, how the fact that the Defendant can read without moving her lips proves that she is guilty of suicide...") And unlike some other Cheapass products, there's still a great game there even after the novelty wears off.

All and all a recommended purchase. Witch Trial is fun enough, funny enough and cheap enough to keep just about any game enthusiast smiling. And that's good. Because—trust me—you wouldn't want to be caught frowning.

- Matthew Baldwin

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