Gamestuff: Witch Trial

There was no Game Night scheduled for yesterday, but Miscellaneous G™ has an open invitation to crash at the International House of Johnson in the event of inclement weather. Northeast Ohio has gotten a fair amount of snow in the past twenty-four hoursBy “fair amount” I mean that I’ve shoveled and/or snowblown (is that a word?) my driveway three times since 7:00 last night. There was easily ten inches of snow in the unplowed cul-de-sac when I maneuvered the MVoD out of the driveway this morning, and the drift on the west side of Laura’s car was easily two and a half feet deep. and local meteorologists, law-enforcement officials and omphaloskeptics have been advising that we drive as little as possible, so we determined an impromptu Game Night was in order.

We played Witch Trial from Cheapass Games, a game in which each player is an attorney prosecuting or defending suspects charged with crimes ranging from Showing Ankle in Public to Frowning to The Ol’ Hokus-Pokus. The game was a lot of fun and Miscellaneous G™ proved to be quite the bombastic (if not entirely competent or especially ethical) litigator, collecting $635 in legal fees thanks to his showboating in front of the jury. Despite bribing the judge on multiple occasions, I was only able to collect $550. Laura wasn’t quite able to channel the spirit of Jack McCoy and ended the game with a meager $350; I believe that a Law & Order marathon will help prepare her for a rematch.

The game consists of a small “board” that represents the courtroom, an 84-card deck containing Suspects, Charges, Motions, Objections and Evidence, and a rules sheet. In addition to the materials included in the box, players will need to supply two six-sided dice, a single token (such as a bead or a penny) and several hundred dollars in play money, preferably in denominations ranging from $5 to $50.

At the beginning of the game, the deck is shuffled and each player is dealt five cards. The dealer also turns five cards face up next to the deck that can be claimed by players in a variety of ways; I call these cards the lineup. Each turn, a player draws a card from the deck and then may do one of four things:

  1. Buy one of the cards in the lineup. The card closest to the deck costs $20 and the price of cards decreases by $5 as you go further from the deck. The card furthest from the deck is free.
  2. Create a case by matching a Suspect or Charge from their hand with a Charge or Suspect in the lineup. This case (always a combination of Suspect and Charge) is then placed in front of the player and is Pending. It does not cost anything to take a Suspect or Charge from the lineup in this manner, regardless of its position.
  3. Offer to defend the Suspect in one of the other players’ Pending cases.
  4. Force their own Pending case to trial. All the other players must each roll a single die to determine which of them will defend the Suspect; the lowest roll takes the case.

Each time a card is removed from the lineup, the cards are shifted down and the top card of the deck is turned over and becomes the new $20 card.

When a case is brought to trial, the defender receives a fee, the amount of which is printed on the Suspect card. There is also a dollar amount on the Charge card, and that money is taken from the Bank and placed into the Legal Fees pool. The winner of the trial claims all money in the Legal Fees pool.

Each Suspect has a Guilt value ranging from 1 to 6, and each Charge has a Severity value, also ranging from 1 to 6. These values combine to determine the initial Jury Value, which the attorneys will attempt to alter in their favor throughout the three phases of the trial. A high Jury Value is good for the prosecuting attorney, which a low value works in favor of the defense attorney.

In the first phase of the trial, the prosecuting attorney present his case. This is done by playing cards from his hand. Suspect cards may be called as witnesses (potentially shifting the Jury Value based on their Guilt Value); Charge cards can be played to alter the Severity of the crime, also shifting the Jury Value; Evidence cards also adjust the Jury Value, and each card of this type has separate values depending upon whether it is played by the prosecutor or the defender; Motion cards can do anything from shift the Jury Value if the attorney adds money to the Legal Fees pool (Bribery) to ending the trial prematurely. Motion cards can be blocked with Objection cards; there are only three of these cards in the deck, and when an Objection is played, it is transferred to the opposing attorney’s hand rather than being discarded at the end of the trial. Once the prosecutor has played as many cards as he likes, he then rests.

In the second phase, the defense attorney plays cards to shift the Jury Value in her favor. Arguments for the defense are played in exactly the same way as those for the prosecution, and the prosecutor has the same opportunity to block Motions played by the defender, provided he has an Objection card. After the defender has played as many cards as she likes, she then rests.

Finally, the prosecutor makes his closing argument. This is done by playing one more card from his hand, making a final attempt to sway the jury in his favor. If the card is a Motion, the defender still has an opportunity to play an Objection.

Assuming the attorneys have not reached a plea bargain (which each attorney can offer after he or she rests) and the trial has not been prematurely terminated by a Motion, the outcome is decided by rolling two dice. The prosecutor rolls the dice and adds the Jury Value. If the total is 13 or more, a guilty verdict is returned; on a 12 or less, the Suspect is found not guilty. The appropriate attorney collects the Legal Fees, all cards involved in the trial are moved to the Discard Pile, and the next player takes his or her turn.

Once the deck has been exhausted, no player can assemble a case and all Pending cases have been brought to trial, the game is over and the player with the most money wins.

As with many games, once you’ve played a few turns the game mechanic is pretty straightforward and the turns go by quickly. However, despite the fairly simple mechanic, there’s a good deal of strategy to be applied.

Initially, it’s a good idea to build up your hand, collecting Evidence, Motions and other cards that will help you during the trial. In addition to strengthening your hand, you can look for opportunities to create a killer case; certain Suspect-Charge combinations give bonuses to the initial Jury Value, which can give the prosecutor an edge. You’ll also want to pay attention to your opponents’ Pending cases (each player can have only one case Pending); if they’ve got a case but only a few cards in their hand it may be time to jump in and offer to defend their Suspect, especially if your hand is strong.

Unfortunately, any card you play during a trial depletes your hand. You might win a case only to find yourself going to trial on the next turn with little to help you sway the jury. You’ll want to weigh the benefit of pushing the Jury Level to the extreme in order to ensure victory against the risk of being left with a weak hand that you’ll need to spend several turns (and possibly a chunk of your hard-earned cash) replenishing.

The real fun of Witch Trial is the trials themselves. Players are encouraged to act out their arguments as though they were before a real judge and jury, and the potential for hamming it up is nearly limitless. Done properly, trials are part strategy, part improvisational comedy as the attorneys attempt to fit the various cards into their arguments. Why would a jury be more likely to convict a Suspect because she Does Not Float? How can the fact that a Suspect has a Hypnotic Gaze be used in his defense? How on earth can an attorney justify changing the Charge from Wearing a Hat in a Theatre to Smuggling? What sort of Objection can the defending attorney make to a Cross Examination or a Hail Mary? How could Lewis the Bum possibly be used as a witness for the Charge of Infidelity?

Overall, I found the game to be a good mix of strategy and theatrics built around a fairly simple mechanic. During trials, the prosecuting attorney has a bit of an edge: he cannot lose if the final Jury Value is 11 or 12, but can still win with boxcars if the defense attorney has managed to move the Jury Value all the way down to 1. I don’t see this as necessarily “breaking” the game; it just gives players some extra incentive to push their own cases to trial.

With the right group of players, I think the game has a lot of replayability. With the wrong group (i.e., players who don’t particularly care to roleplay during trials) I would imagine that the game—while still playable—might lose some of its charm. I consider Miscellaneous G™ and Laura to be the right kind of players for Witch Trial, and I’d definitely play the game again.

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