16/06/2024

Contraband Insider, crime is a secretive business [Review]

Most of us may be familiar with The Departed. Some could be a fan. Perhaps because Leonardo DiCaprio was in it. The rest may just know it by name only, yet longing to watch it even only once. It is an exemplary modern cinematic piece. Full of fraudulent ventures and intricate plots. Indeed, there are plenty of motion pictures I have watched with such a captivating story line. Even so, with numerous series available to stream online. In the tabletop hobby, however, my experience is quite in contrast.

Of course, basing solely on my affair to conclude that lawbreakers and outlaws are not engrossing enough to be the basis for board games won’t do justice. I once also played Capone: The Business of Prohibition, for example. My limited experience and exposure do not signify a meagre interest from the designers and publishers to envision their games with such sleazy yet enthralling subject. On the contrary. There are plenty of titles putting this story under the spotlight.

Contraband Insider is one of the rare specimens in my collection that carries a background story so mature at best, and not-safe-for-work at worst — the dirty and dangerous underworld business. Despite having a different approach with the aforementioned another game, story-wise, both naturally share the similar criminal vibes. Working in a smuggling ring is perhaps a small, small world.

The game carries the narrative of a smuggling business and its association with corrupted officers. A non-fiction and pretty realistic occurrence, unfortunately. Rather than being the head of the criminal ring itself, here, players take the role of the moles within the police force. Their tasks are crystal clear — manipulating the police operations to raid and come back empty-handed, and a bonus when successfully take down the other rivalling gang’s business. Layered lies and constant tension are a mundane routine. 

The game is designed and published by a modest publishing house, Good Spirit Games. Located in Singapore, Geoffrey Chia (designer-slash-founder) travelled to SPIEL Essen, Germany, to showcase Contraband Insider in 2022. Worry not, law-abiding citizens. Despite the name, his creation left its origin country and gained entry to the EU lawfully and legally. There’s not much for you to find about the game on the internet, though. Fortunately, you can check out the rulebook on BGG page.

Surreptitious actions and calculated guesses

Contraband Insider is, in overview, a bluffing game. Period. I mean, what do you expect from a game about several moles infiltrating the police force? Working at the same precinct, even. The whole game revolves around protecting the secret location from the razzia by throwing false leads — in the hope it may usher the sting operation to fortuitously confiscate the contraband from the other business ring. 

This bluffing aspect is enforced via a quick voting among the players. Each of them, except the active player, picks and put his or her meeple on a certain location. The vote result is not directly a final verdict, though. Those selected areas ultimately become the available options to choose for the current bust. Mind you, all players have their agenda — and their interest is to protect their smuggled goods. Hence, as mentioned, this is the part where they will mislead the police force. They most likely won’t plump for the spot where they hide their items, enticing the cops to go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, the active player takes the role of the operation chief.  He or she will then pick one of these locales, and send the raid. With the same nature as the other corrupt polices (read: moles), the leader of the raid would also not pick a location where his or her contraband is stashed. Besides the public area, the secret stash can also be located in the players’ headquarters. Yet, it’s a tricky move. 

To raid the HQ means storming someone else’s private property. It would net a big fish (bonuses), ideally, provided that the contraband is busted. Otherwise, the ‘innocent’ man would retaliate, sue the police, and in the end penalize the active player by deducing points at the end of the game. This part is an interesting touch from Geoffrey. It creates a sort of dilemma. Players need to weigh the risk between loading their goods at home or scattering it all through the town. 

I fancy the voting mechanic that creates no direct concluding outcome. This implementation, however, can make the resolution binding and final, narrowing the scope to one-and-only spot. To make it possible, all moles unite and vote only for the same place to raid. That sounds like a cinch. Especially when playing with the lowest player count. 

Nevertheless, it brings headache to pull this stunt when playing with more players. With more moles in the equation, the contraband is scattered even more, making it impossible to narrow the option down to only one spot. That would be highly improbable to pick a place where the raid comes and goes without finding any of their clandestine commodities. Hence, it would be a great heist when this is successful, and very unfortunate for the active officer. That makes Contraband Insider interesting.

From these interactions, Contraband Insider brings another layer into the equation: collecting information. It is inevitable, so to speak. A bluffing element is always getting accompanied by a deduction constituent. Both are two sides of the same coins. Through the actions from other players, we can definitely narrow down the scope, and make an educated guess on where the illicit goods are stored. In a way, Contraband Insider becomes an investigative game. Geoffrey, the designer, demands analytical and methodical approaches to reckon the secret information from other players. 

The lagging player is not that helpless

Another plus point is how the catch-up mechanic in Contraband Insider keeps the game alive and unpredictable until the end. Even the last player, in terms of points, can still turn the tide to be in his or her favour. This kind of enactment is something necessary in a game of this genre. One may see this as an imbalance, something undesired in any game, but I beg to differ. 

Contraband Insider creates the catch-up mechanic in a way, which is totally fair for all players, but it still enables a huge swing  — provided the lagging player can abuse it as much as possible. The core idea in this game is changing how to gain points at the final round. It becomes a powerful tool, not only for the player falling behind, but also for the leading contestant.

Variation to make Contraband Insider more interesting

Contraband Insider comes as an investigative game, as mentioned previously. This was also confirmed by Geoffrey in SPIEL Messe. Nevertheless, the creator did not stop there. Instead, he also added some game variations to play with. For me, the variant with secret roles is a must-try. It should have been a part of the core game, instead. These secret roles create another uncertainty, which make the game more interesting.

Verdict

Personally, I find Contraband Insider a solid and decent game. It is a refreshing game, something which can cover the need for casual gaming. The ability to facilitate a session for up to five players may be exciting if you have a big playing group. The rule is easy to crunch, and to teach to the other players, too.

I would suggest playing it with the secret roles variant. My opinion still stands, though, it should have been implemented in the core game in the first place.  For me, the core game as-is feels like it lacks something. Although, in another point-of-view, it serves as a kind of tutorial. A hors d’oeuvre, if you would, before digging into the main dish.


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