There was a time, believe it or not, when I used to badmouth Richard Borg. Of course I didn't know he was Richard Borg at the time—I knew him as the guy who "designed" Call My Bluff. As in "Can you believe the guy who designed Call My Bluff actually won a Spiel des Jahres for repackaging Perudo?" Don't get me wrong, I love Call My Bluff —I've probably played it more than any other game in my library—but winning the Spiel des Jahres for Liar's Dice is like winning Best Original Screenplay for Hamlet. And I felt it was unfair for the award to go to someone who couldn't design an original game. Hoooo-wee, don't I feel dumb now? Little did I know that I would someday become one of Richard Borg's biggest fans, when—in the space of a year—three of his games would rocket to the top of my favorites list. Well, that time has arrived, and the three games are Hera & Zeus, Battle Cry, and, now, Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt Earp is the newest entry in Mike Fitzgerald's "Mystery Rummy" series—or it would be if it were in the Mystery Rummy series, which it is not. As I understand it, this was going to be Mystery Rummy #4, but then Fitzgerald decided to collaborate with Richard Borg on the game and release the revamped version through Alea. Still, it's Rummy, no doubt about that. But a nice theme, a clever scoring system and a couple dozen special cards make for a game that is much more than something you could fish out of Hoyle's.
It will come as no surprise that the players of Wyatt Earp are trying to capture (or contribute to the capture of) seven of the west's most notorious outlaws: Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Jesse James and their ilk. To help in this task each player starts a round with 10 cards, which are of two different types: Outlaw Cards and Sheriff Cards. Each Outlaw Card shows one of seven criminals, and each Outlaw has a corresponding "Wanted Sign" which sits in the middle of the table and holds all of that ne'er-do-well's reward money. And how is the west won? By collecting more of that reward money than any of your fellow gunslingers.
As with most Rummy games, a player starts his turn by drawing cards, then plays melds, and concludes with a discard. In the case of Wyatt Earp, the player drawing cards has the option of either taking the top (faceup) card off the discard pile or the top two (facedown) cards from the draw pile. He may now play as many sets of Outlaw cards as he likes. The first person to play cards for a particular Outlaw must play a set of at least three, but once an Outlaw is "broken" any number of cards of that type may be played. Each outlaw starts with a $1000 reward, and when a set of cards for an Outlaw is played the reward goes up by ([Number of Cards in the Set] - 1) x $1000—so playing a set of four cards for the Sundance Kid, for example, would add $3000 ((4-1) x $1000) to his reward. Played Outlaw cards remain in front of a player (in his "territory"), and the numbers in the upper left-hand corners of the cards show how many Capture Points the player has towards that Outlaw. In addition to playing any number of Outlaw Cards on a turn a player can also play a single Sheriff Card if he so desires. He then end his turn by discarding a single card. When a player discards the final card from his hand, the rounds ends and the players collect rewards.
The scoring system for Wyatt Earp seems unnecessarily complicated, but in practice it works surprisingly well. If the person with the most Capture Points (CPs) for an outlaw has 5 CPs or more than the person with the second-most, that player claims the whole reward. Otherwise, he must share the reward with those who have 4 or fewer CPs than himself. When sharing, the person with the most CPs takes $2000, then each other contributor takes $1000, and so on around the table until the reward is exhausted. So if A has 9 CPs for an $9000 Outlaw, B has 6, C has 5 and D has 2, A, B and C would all share: A takes $2000 and then each player takes $1000 in turn. The end result: A gets $4000, B gets $3000 and C gets $2000. As I said, it seems to be more trouble than it's worth ... but look how well it works out!
The game continues until one player ends a round with $25,000 or more, at which point the player with the most money wins. There is no continuity between rounds (except for the unclaimed reward money that "carries over"), which means that you essentially do the same thing over and over again. All this could make for a rather monotonous game were it not for the inclusion of the Sheriff cards. As mentioned above, a player can play one (and only one) Sheriff card on his turn, but the assortment of different cards makes choosing one a difficult decision. Furthermore, some of the cards require a "Shot" for success. After playing a card that requires a Shot, you flip over the top card from the draw pile to see if it has a bullethole in it's lower left-hand corner. If a bullethole appears, the Sheriff card takes effect; otherwise it is simply sent to to the discard pile. If you make a successful Shot while playing "Stagecoach Robbery," for example, you may add 1 CP to any of your Outlaw piles and $3000 to the reward. Playing "Bank Robbery" and making a Shot adds 2 to your CPs and adds $1000 to the reward, while "Fastest Gun" adds 3 CPs, $1000 and negates all previously played Fastest Gun cards—this town ain't big enough for two Fastest Guns.
Some of the other Sheriff cards allow you to actively interfere with the efforts of your opponents. You can use a "Most Wanted" card to steal a card from an opponent's hand, or (with a Shot) right out of another player's territory. Hideout cards are played on the Outlaw cards of your opponents, thereby negating the CPs they would have contributed. All of these special cards spice up the game immeasurable—so much so that it often seems like you are playing a much more complicated game. And yet new players seem to pick up the mechanics of Wyatt Earp almost immediately; even a rudimentary knowledge of Rummy games makes the rules of Wyatt Earp (scoring system notwithstanding) seem intuitive.
The Sheriff cards, while powerful, are largely self-balancing. It's nice to start a round with a few in your hand, but too many becomes a liability. Unlike most Rummy games, you don't receive extra points for being the one to "go out" (i.e. discarding your last card and ending the round), nor do you lose any points for having in cards left in your hand when the round ends. But the scoring system encourages players to hold on to Outlaw cards as long as possible. After all, playing a set of five Outlaw Cards will add $4000 to the corresponding reward; but playing a set of three only adds $2000, and if you later get two more for the same Outlaw and play them on different turns the reward doesn't increase a dime. So a player who abruptly goes out may leave his opponents holding a handful of cards they had intended to use. The Sheriff cards, useful as they are, make going out much more difficult, since you can only play one per turn. Of course you could discard Sheriff Cards at the end of your turn, but that just means that the next player can snap them up. What's a lawman to do?
A game of Wyatt Earp usually lasts three or four rounds, or about 40 minutes. Were it any longer I suspect the repetitive nature of the gameplay would begin to wear thin. As it is, you have a tidy game full of player interaction, with a ruleset that is similar enough to rummy to make it easy to learn and different enough to make the game feel original. Plus the theme, while largely irrelevant to the game, makes for some fun roleplaying. (Be sure to holler "Draw!" whenever someone begins their turn.) And each of the "Wanted" cards has a short biography for the featured Outlaw, which makes for good reading is someone has adjourned to the restroom.
Of the three recent Borg titles on my favorites list, Wyatt Earp comes in third—due mostly to its derivative nature—but that still puts it ahead of the majority of games I have purchased in the last year. And when taken with Hera & Zeus and Battle Cry, it has convinced me that Borg has earned that Spiel des Jahres award several times over. Mike Fitzgerald, meanwhile, has done us all a service by revitalizing the rummy genre with his Mystery Rummy series. And the two together have come up with an offering that has quickly become a standard in my gaming group. It was a little expensive at twenty bucks (it is, after all, just a card game), but Wyatt Earp is so enjoyable it was a fistful of dollars well spent.
- Matthew Baldwin