this thing's incredible

This $10 Strategy Game Has Made Me Enemies on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Photo: Erin Schwartz

The first time I played Saboteur was in college at the apartment of friends who played ultimate frisbee, a group of bookish jocks who hosted beer-pong games but rinsed and reused the Solo cups to cut down on plastic waste. The second time I played was with a group of Swedish students in Paris’s Cité Universitaire, where I’d been invited by a philosophy graduate student who had approached me at a bar to talk about Virginia Woolf. Two different vibes; both times, the game ended up in the same place. After one or two rounds, the group was completely immersed, throwing accusations and ready to ruin friendships for their team to win.

The premise of Saboteur, an inexpensive, whimsically mining-themed game designed by Frederic Moyersoen and produced by German games company Amigo, is relatively simple: Players work toward a shared goal, but some of their number — the saboteurs — are secretly working against the majority, the miners. The most similar popular games are Mafia and Among Us. Although Saboteur is a tabletop game, the basic unit of play is the same, which is talking to your friends to figure out who’s working against the group.

Although Saboteur can be played with as few as three people, I find the sweet spot is five or more players, the point at which you can have two or more saboteurs. (Being the sole saboteur is tricky but thrilling if you manage to pull it off.) Players build a tunnel from a starting point toward three goal cards, only one of which contains the “treasure,” the win condition for the miners. On each turn, a player builds a section of the tunnel or plays an action card, which can involve gaining information about the goal cards, preventing another player from building more of the tunnel, or destroying a section of the path. Earlier turns tend to pass without as much discussion; toward the end of the game, a turn can stretch out for minutes while players debate what to do. Still, rounds typically don’t run more than 15 minutes, which makes it a good party game.

Like Mafia, Saboteur scales well to the skill level and competitiveness of its players. I’ve heard it mentioned as a good babysitter game, and the rules are straightforward enough for kids to enjoy playing. But with a group of seasoned liars and scammers, it can get downright Machiavellian with increasingly baroque tests of fidelity, side deals, and emotional appeals to the friends you intend to betray. You can talk and strategize as much as you want or stay closed-lipped and try to avoid attention. I tend to aggressively meta-game, and as a saboteur, I spread misinformation about what constitutes a bad move with a zeal that would get me banned from social media.

Saboteur is especially good for bridging the gap between games nerds and non-games-nerds — the people who apply military strategy to a friendly game of charades versus the people who check out if the rules are more than a page long. There is a Saboteur world championship; per Moyersoen’s blog, the winner of the first title succeeded by proposing “interesting deals to the other players which were also at his advantage.” But it isn’t difficult for a novice to develop a winning strategy on the fly — all that’s required is a good read of your friends and an aptitude for bluffing.

As someone firmly in the games-nerd camp, I am constantly trying to trick my friends into competitiveness with mixed results. (Non-games-nerds are the majority, but games nerds are wily.) In a recent interview with Dutch gaming blog Spellenwijs, Moyersoen describes a similar experience in his youth. “Although I had a lot of brothers … most of the time they didn’t really want to play along. By the time I had explained the rules of the game, they preferred to go outside,” he says. Saboteur is the rare game that suits both — and for the games nerds, yes, there is an expansion pack.

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The $10 Strategy Game for Liars and Scammers