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House Ruled: Saboteur

posted Sep 8, 2012, 8:37 AM by Good Idea Games   [ updated Sep 10, 2012, 8:27 PM ]

Saboteur is a broken betrayal game for 3+ players. Published by Z-man games in 2004, Saboteur has a simple goal- to force players to cooperate to accomplish a goal, despite efforts of a secret saboteur who threatens to undermine their mining operation.

 Unfortunately, it has a couple of -reparable- design flaws that will completely kill the game for any set of thinking and communicating players, and as a game of betrayal, play should be focused around thinking and communicating during the game. All players have even odds of drawing damage and repair cards that can be played on each other to prevent or restore one’s ability to play path cards. These are used to hinder the saboteur, or by the saboteur to stop a player from the majority.

 The game uses a fixed set of 44 pathway cards that must be played within a 9x5 grid (minus 1 starting card and 3 goal cards). Of these 44 path cards, only 14 allow forward progress. These are the cards that will allow the majority to win the game, and with 7 forward cards needed to reach the score zone, playing these valuable cards in any way other than a straight line to the last row, becomes very suspicious.

 Furthermore, the deck has 9 cards that are dead ends (always bad) and 9 cards that are turns (usually bad). If a turn card is used to change forward progress to Horizontal anywhere but the last 2 columns of play, the player becomes suspect. If a dead end is EVER used, the player is either the Saboteur or foolish, and must be stopped either way. 

 The gravest issue in Saboteur is that the players have NO REASON to ever play a bad card. The rules allow players to both skip their turns, and discard a card if their hand is not adequate. This functional alternative to playing a bad card means that IF a player EVER plays a card that closes a pathway, or otherwise reduces options, that player is the Saboteur or hasn't done the math.

 As a game of strategy and betrayal, if players agree during the first turn to never play forward tunnels unless it brings them closer to the goal, and to not break each other’s equipment unless a player has violated the group’s best interest, then the majority will win most of the time. There is still some competition between players in the majority to be the player who reaches the gold first, but with this agreement in place, it will reduces the potency of the Saboteur to one or two plays before they are completely shut down.

 So a game about communication, strategy and social nuance falls apart if players strategize or communicate.

 To fix Saboteur, we need to provide incentive and excuse for players to make sub-optimal plays.

                Completely abolish the ability to skip a turn or discard.

                If a player is in a position where they have no plays, they must reveal their hand, and then discard a card at random. They may then draw a new card, and end their turn.

 Card Counting also becomes an issue, as frequent players will rapidly learn the exact balance of important cards.

                3 paths should be removed at random before play begins.

                This will also make the game a little tougher for the majority, as this may reduce their ability to reach key locations.

                Shuffle an extra Role card, with an extra Saboteur.

                This will increase suspicion in the group. After roles are handed out, the remaining one is discarded.

If players are feeling a bit combative, we can use a popular house rule...

                Any players with broken equipment do not get any gold at the end of a round.

                This encourages majority back stabbing, and creates some "noise" that the Saboteur can use.

After a little house ruling, Saboteur is a fast, low-pressure betrayal game that plays out several rounds within an hour. It’s an approachable choice for a group looking for a  game with a strong social element that doesn’t require nearly the commitment of some of the heavier kings of the genre (such as Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Battlestar Galactica). Rounds of (House Ruled) Saboteur can pleasantly fill the time between heavier games, or occupy a corner for a part of the evening, rather than the entire party.

edit: subsequent play tests with large groups had many circumstances where players were left with unplayable hands. This situation has been rectified.