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Are you always having trouble with your workers? Do you have difficulty in getting your work done because all your workers are unionized? And are you angry that everybody else seems to earn loads of money from "friends' services", while you are paying more and more in taxes?
If so, it's about time you played Schwarzarbeit.
Here's what it's about. Uncle Sam is waiting for you to blacken the names of those committing the crime of tax-evasion. Sure, you too have two or three skeletons in your closet, but there's no need for anyone else to find out about them...
Schwarzarbeit is great fun to play! It's a deduction game, but not in the classic sense of, say, Code 777 or Black Vienna. The differences are: this one is shorter, clocking in at about a half-hour; it relies on memory rather than note-taking; and it does require some flat-out guessing in the early parts of the game. While some might complain about the uncertainty, it's exactly that which makes the game so much fun to play.
Each player represents a different employer. There are 20 workers available in the game, each appearing three times in the deck and each represented by a letter of the alphabet. One set of the 20 are designated for weekend shifts, and these are separately shuffled and then two or three (depending on the number of players) are dealt secretly to each player. These represent that players illegal, under-the-table workers. The object of the game is to acquire as many squeaky-clean workers as possible who do not work under the table for anyone, and to denounce as many of the other player's illegal workers (never your own!) as possible, which actually scores more points.
The game begins by turning up two more cards than the number of players. On a turn, a player asks her righthand neighbor how many of the workers/cards she could legally employ. A player cannot legally employ one of her own illegal workers. So for instance, if one of her weekend workers is represented in a set of five, she answers (out loud), Four. Then the active player must either (a) take one of the cards face-up to her playing area as a new and hopefully clean worker or (b) take one, turn it over in her playing area and thus denounce the worker as illegal. A new card is drawn, and the turn passes to the next player. Thus, each player learns something on her own as well as others' turns. As the game goes on, more and more additional clues are available as to which workers on the table are legal and illegal. For example, certain inferences can be drawn simply from the choices made by other players on their turns. Also, because the players' illegal workers come from the weekend shift cards, any time a weekend worker card appears among the choices, players can be confident that the worker is not illegal.
Additionally, each player is given two lawyers that she can deploy once each per game. Lawyers are sent to defend workers unjustly denounced by other players. At games end, lawyers representing innocent parties earn two points, and lawyers representing guilty parties lose two. The trick here is that you not only have to believe the worker was unjustly accused, but remember the workers location since denounced employees are all placed upside down. Also, each player has one detective in the game that allows him one chance to denounce an employee out of turn. The game ends when the card supply cannot be refilled properly. Players lose points for defending guilty parties and for incorrectly denouncing workers.
The theme is comical, and the game is both light and challenging at the same time because it really taxes the memory. Schwarzarbeit has drawn repeated requests for play in our lunchtime group. One small downside is that, with more players, the game becomes more random because it ends sooner and because more cards are placed face-up on a turn, making deductions harder and more guesswork necessary. But while it's best for three, it's still a really good with four or five players.
A friend once told me that playing Code 777 was like taking the LSAT. For those unfamiliar, the LSAT is a standardized test typically required for entry into US law schools (it stands for Legal Scholastic Aptitude Test). This is not a compliment to the game, but the point is well taken in that logical deduction is something that good lawyers, as well as good game players, must do well. Schwarzarbeit is the newest deduction game to hit the market, and unlike auction games or majority games these are usually few and far between. The fact that two older out of print games and one classic, Code 777, Black Vienna, and Cluedo establish the standard for this genre is telling.
What makes Schwarzarbeit even more tempting is that it comes from the fertile minds of Freidemann Friese and Andrea Meyer, teaming for the first time publicly (although both participated in Ludoviel, too, released at the same time). At Essen, Friedemann told me that he and Andrea challenged themselves to design a game in one evening, and this was the result. If they can do this with other types of games, let's hope that they spend more evenings together!
Each player takes the role of a game-related company owner (game store, game publisher, etc.). There is a market for labor and each company must try to hire as many legal employees as possible. But there is a black market for labor, too, and hiring illegal workers will cost you while ferreting out all the illegals in the game is the most efficient way to victory. Each person in the labor market is represented by three cards, one showing them working in the daytime, one in the evening, and one on the weekends. At the beginning of the game, the weekend cards are randomized and each player gets some that only they see. These make up all the illegal workers in the market, and of course you know yours but your goal is to determine everyone else's while hiring the legal workers whenever you can.
After the illegals are passed out, all of the cards are shuffled and cards are placed into the table center to represent the labor market. On each player's turn, the player to their left states how many of the current labor market employees he could hire or denounce as illegal. For example, if I am the one stating and I know my illegals and nothing else, these are the only employees that I could not hire or denounce. If there are six employees in the market and I state five, then everyone would know that one of the employees showing illegally works for me on the weekend.
After getting that piece of information, the player must either hire one of the employees or claim one as being illegal. If they hire them, the card is placed face up in their playing space. If they denounce them, the card is placed face down and no one, including the player who takes it, can look at the card for the rest of the game. The game goes on like this until there are no more employee cards to draw, and at that point players score positively for each legal hire they made and for each correct denouncement they made, but lose points if they wrongly accused legal workers or did anything with the workers they started with. High score wins, of course.
In addition to this basic play, each player begins with two lawyers and one detective. The lawyers can be used on your turn to defend an employee that has been accused by another player. The lawyer cube is placed on the card and it stays there until the game end, scoring if it is a proper defense but losing points if wrong. Remember, though, that accused employees are placed face down in front of the players, so I may not know that an incorrect guess has been made when chosen but learn so several turns later. At that point, to use my lawyer effectively, I not only need to make the correct deduction but also choose the right face-down card! The one detective allows a player to denounce an employee in the market (meaning a card in the center of the table) even out of turn. Basically, if I have deduced that a certain employee is illegal, and that card comes up as the labor market is refilled, I can activate my detective to take that card and put it in my accusatory stack.
As this is going on, no one takes notes. So, you have to stay sharp throughout to keep a record of who may be illegal and then gets cleared through the data process or gets confirmed through it. Since the illegal workers are always the weekend cards, any weekend card that shows up in the labor market confirms that this employee cannot be anyone's illegal. Beyond this, properly synthesizing the statements each player makes about who they can vouch for is essential. The scoring makes it useful to take some prudent risks, since you gain three points for each correct accusation you make but only lose two points if you make wrong guess.
The 20 employees are lettered A-Z with missing I, O, Q, X, Y, and Z. This can make it easier to remember who is who, although the graphics and names of the employees make this game worth owning even if you don't like the concept. That is because each of the employees is a mixed name from known game designers, and their graphic is something that directly or obliquely refers to some of their work! For example, Richard Rosenberg is a bean magician, Doris Dorra paints with a mop and buckets, and Maureen Moon is decked out in Red, White, and Blue and wears a US flag necklace.
If you like deduction games, this one has enough punch and requires enough brain power to warrant a good look. If you don't like these kind of things, at least look at the cards for some fun. Deduction games are among my favorite types of games, but I'm not a lawyer so maybe it's because I don't confuse them with my work. Schwarzarbeit is a game that I hope to see make the play list for quite some time.