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Ah, the invigorating smells of Springtime. The damp, musky nose of the Courtroom. The smoky, sweaty aroma of the Guilty. And the sweet, sweet smell of our daily bread.
In a century where witchcraft runs rampant and American civil law is in its infancy, nothing could be more rewarding than being a trial lawyer.
In Witch Trial, you will do your best to persuade an unpredictable jury of the innocence and guilt of dozens of hard cases. Of course, it really doesn't matter who lives and who dies. Because like everything else, it's all about the money.
Game Synopsis: Every player is a lawyer in pseudo-colonial America. (Actually, the illustrations are about 100 years too modern, but they were free.) You draw from a deck of cards representing Suspects, Charges, Evidence, and Motions, and then play the part of either Prosecutor or Defender in a number of Witch Trials. The Jury's deliberation is represented by the roll of two 6-sided dice, modified by a number called the Jury Value, which you will spend the trial struggling to affect.
If you want, you can "plea bargain" rather than letting the Jury deliberate, and split the "prestige" of winning the case with your opponent. Otherwise it comes down to a roll of the dice, and let the better lawyer win.
Witch Trial is a hilarious romp through the precarious details of our legal system, designed by James Ernest and illustrated with entertaining Victorian clip art. A solid card game just like you've come to expect from Cheapass Games.
When played as a role-playing game, this is one of my favorite Cheapass Games. Really hamming it up makes this one of the games where you will actually laugh yourself hoarse. If you just mechanically play this game without pretending to really believe everything that is going on (while winking loudly as you get paid for simultaneously ruining one poor old widow and defending another), it would be heinously dull. So don't play it if you aren't willing to do some acting. There's just something so satisfying about getting to put an orphan away for good for daring to practice heliotropism...
On top of all that, the mechanics are sound and interesting. The game is well balanced. The method of valuing cards (they become progressively cheaper the longer they sit around, basically) is intriguing. The various ways one can bias the jury in favor of the client or against is clever. Highly, highly recommended.
Witch Trial is certainly among the stronger titles in the Cheapass line. It combines their trademark wit and good humour with effective strategic elements and lively negotiating between players.
Like many good games, you find yourself making lots of quick decisions where each option has its pros and cons. Pay lots for a good card now, or wait and hope it's still there next time around for cheaper? Burn lots of cards in one trial, helping you now but depleting your resources, or save some for later and risk defeat? Or should you cut a deal and be happy with a portion of the money? (The decision to include 'plea bargaining' as part of the game was a wise one, and provides good devious enjoyment!)
For bonus fun, players can pretend to be characters from 'Law and Order' (also acceptable would be 'Law and Order: Special Victims Unit' and 'Law and Order: Criminal Intent', although strangely, not 'Law and Order: Crime and Punishment').
A fun and engaging treat!
She's charged with Wickedness, starting at a Jury Value of six (a measure of how likely it is that she's guilty). Prosecution evidence shows she forecasts weather and doesn't float, increasing her likelihood of guilt. The dogged defender reduces it to the lesser charge of Atrocious Manners. The tongue-in-cheek courtroom drama increases with the appearance of more Charge and Evidence cards which, like Witnesses, change the Jury Value. When both sides rest, roll the dice and add the Jury Value to determine which adversary gets the money. The attorney who has the most prestige (er...money) wins when the Past case is tried. Losers will long remember the cases won against all odds in this Kafkaesque kangaroo court.
Cheapass Games keep getting pumped out at a rapid pace, but I find that many are either shallow or under-tested. Despite this, I am a member of their "Player's Club" so I get everything they produce, under the time honored theory that "the way to get a good idea is to generate a lot of ideas". When Cheapass hits, it is usually worth the mediocre output in between. Witch Trial is a hit and is one of their better designs since "The Very Clever Pipe Game".
The setting is old New England, and players take on the roles of Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys in a series of trials to convict or acquit suspected witches. You get money for defending the suspects, for winning a trial, and for cleverly managing settlements throughout. Once all the suspects are tried, the player with the most money wins.
The game is played with a deck of cards that are of above average production for Cheapass in both stock quality and artwork. The cards include Suspects (who will be accused of witchcraft), Charges (why they are thought to be a witch), Evidence (material that sways the jury one way or another), Motions (actions to change the tide during the trial), and Objections (to cancel the Motions). Players begin with a small amount of money and five cards, and five more cards are laid in front of the deck and are available for each player on their turn.
On your turn, you draw a card and then can buy one of the five face-up cards, with the cost increasing for those farthest from the stack (like Showmanager). Or, if you are ready, you can create a case by pairing a Suspect with a Charge, but one must be from your hand and the other from the face-up cards. If taken this way, you don't pay for the face-up card. When you create a case, you place the pair of cards in front of you and it will be tried later. If you don't take a card or create a case, you can choose to defend a case that has already been created by someone else. This is how the cases go to trial. Lastly, if the case you created last turn does not get defended before your next turn, you can force a defender by having everyone else roll a die for the privilege.
The trial is, of course, the heart of the game and it is where the card play and action excels if played in the proper spirit. Each suspect has a Defense fee that is paid to the Defender, so you get some cash for defending even if you lose the case. The court is then stocked with the Court Fee shown on the related Charge, and this is what the winner of the case receives or what is divided in the case of a settlement. Then, the initial "jury value" is set. This defined as the sum of the "guilt" rating on the Suspect and the "severity" rating on the Charge, and this is always a number from one to twelve. A small Jury sheet keeps track of the ever-changing jury opinion. Once the money is set and the jury shows their initial sway, the trial begins in ernest.
The Prosecutor starts and makes his case by playing Evidence cards that affect the jury's opinion. The "Avid Reader" evidence, for example, adds two to the jury opinion if used by the prosecution, and subtracts 3 if used by the defense. Motion cards can also be played, and they allow specific actions to be taken such as drawing a new card or bribing the court. When finished playing the cards desired, the prosecution rests and can offer a settlement that must be accepted or rejected by the Defense: no haggling. If not accepted, the Defense takes the reigns and plays cards to move the jury in their desired direction. At the end, they too can offer a settlement for acceptance or rejection. If rejected, the Prosecution gets a final argument, meaning they can play one single card, and then offer a final plea. If this too is rejected, the jury decides by rolling two dice and adding the result to the jury's value. Any total 13 or higher and the Prosecution wins: the suspect is a witch! Less than 13, the Defense wins. The winner takes all of the court fees.
The flow works very well, and the cards are quite clever and offer the opportunity to have fun. Of course the game can be played sterile by simply moving the jury for each card played, but it is meant to be played by dramatically revealing each piece of Evidence or Motion like an old Perry Mason episode. As a result, a trial could go like this:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the court, Ms. Blythe Stutterkin (Suspect), known to own cats and go shopping by herself, is hereby charged with Unpopularity (Charge), making her sure to be a witch! I intend to prove this to all of you, by additionally sharing what I have learned over my weeks of research. First, she is an Avid Reader (Evidence)! Of course this makes her unpopular! Next, she has a Hypnotic Gaze (another Evidence card)! Can there be any doubt? I rest my case. Mr. Defense attorney, I will gladly offer you $15 of the $100 court fee to accept your loss now and end this charade!"
In this example, the guilt plus severity ratings would have given the jury an initial rating of six. The Evidence would have raised the rating by two for the Avid Reader card, and four for the Hypnotic gaze card. At this point, the jury is at 12 making it a sure win for the Prosecution without a defensive effort. Depending on the hand of the Defender, the plea may be good enough or they may have enough tricks in their hand to reverse the tide.
During the trials, Suspect cards can be used as witnesses, with a dice roll determining if they are effective. Motions can really upset the balance, including a melodramatic "Drama" card that lets you choose the new jury by a roll of the dice and then rest your case immediately. The game plays fast, and being forced to defend a case as a public defender when you have no good cards will get you the small defense fee but get the Prosecutor much more in court fees. On the other hand, early on it may seem risky to create a case with a weak starting jury position. This is almost always wrong if you have a reasonable hand, because it is only by creating or defending cases that you get the opportunity to be part of the money making.
Throughout the tongue-in-cheek drama, card management becomes a serious issue as does knowing what kind of an offer to make and how to respond. It is a bit like the card splitting in San Marco; you want to make an offer that won't be outright rejected but also that will make you happy whether accepted or not. The cards have enough humor and interesting ideas that the play stays fresh for multiple plays, but as you'd expect the game does get repetitive after a while. As an added plus, the game comes in the newest packaging for Cheapass, a very sturdy fold-together box replacing the white envelopes. Witch Trial is a good filler, and one that makes you wish Cheapass would do more like this and less like, well, most everything else they do.