The year is 1920. The United States has just passed the 18th amendment prohibiting the sale and drinking of alcohol. This “noble experiment” was a culmination of major movements and political parties at the end of the 19th century. It was an attempt to reduce social and domestic violence and crime that seemed to run rampant throughout the countryside. Ironically, it led to the largest organized crime ring the country had ever seen, led by Al Capone in Chicago until its repeal with the 21st amendment in 1933. Today, some of the hippest joints you can hang out at in New York City are the remnants of that decade. They are speakeasies.
Speakeasy Blues, the latest release from Artana Games, embraces all of the tropes the ‘Roaring ‘20s’ has to offer. “Prohibition, bootleggers, gangsters, jazz flappers, and many societal changes” are all elements of the game describes designer, Adrian Adamescu who partnered with Daryl Andrews to work on this project. For Adrian and Daryl, a rich accurate history is essential to Speakeasy. “It makes you feel like you’re a part of the 1920s” and they say it makes the game “more engaging.” Everything in the game, from the name of your joint to the people who visit your speakeasy and the items you collect are real and researched aspects of the game, designed to build a narrative that is believable but can also vary from game to game.
In Speakeasy Blues, you are running your own gin joint, navigating the world of crime, jazz and nightlife. To do this, you will maneuver dice between a dice pool and the game board, planning for the actions you can see coming up and managing when players beat you to the punch. The dice are organized in pairs, defined by colors. These colors serve as a reminder for players that dice go on and off the board in pairs.
Every die has the same set of symbols on it, representing one of the six actions you can take. These actions include recruiting personalities to hang out at your place, racking up favors with your preferred crime syndicate (the people supplying you with the goods to stay in business), buying off the police so they leave you alone, and collecting sets of cool stuff, because you have find a way to hide the money you’re not getting taxed on. A seventh action, the soiree, offers players an opportunity to regain money and reputation using any side of the die. This is essential, as sometimes players will not be able to afford actions offered to them by the dice.
What is striking about the dice system is how it functions regardless of the player count. The dice pool consists of ten dice. Six of them are rolled and assigned a location according to their facing side before the game starts. The other four are rolled and form the dice pool. The game starts with the first player taking two dice off the board, rolling them into the dice pool and then choosing two new dice of the same color to use as their actions. The board will always have four blocked spaces that a player must work around to accomplish their turn. A larger player count will only increase the length of the game slightly, not how this mechanic works. For me, this is clear evidence of a well balanced game and the hallmark of a great design team. It is also a thoughtful response to many other games that might frustrate players where rules require math adjustments to components to account for the number of players at the table; sometimes the most frustrating part of game setup.
When asked about the feeling Speakeasy Blues evokes when it’s played, Daryl commented, “like all good Jazz, some people will think it’s is mellow.” Adrian followed that saying, the “game mechanics are smooth but gameplay is not always peaceful.” While most of the game will focus on you building up your own lucrative establishment, sometimes success will require you to take subtle, or not so subtle, jabs at your competitors. The section of the game board labeled crime is a reminder that success in this industry meant a willingness to get your hands dirty.
The art style is in line with the theme as well. Bringing a reduced Art Deco flavor to both the game box and components is Don Whitson, a watercolor artist, and Heiko Günther. On his website, Don describes the hope that his artwork will inspire people to dive deeper into the subject matters that catch their attention. Here, the soulful woman on the box cover is a great example of this, as the game is named after that specific painting.
Looking deeper into the world of the ‘Roaring ‘20s,’ we find a decade blended with musical flare and personality; with artwork that was just starting to define what we know today as Modern. Don’s style carries through to the card art and the game board, which are simple and easy to read. Daryl stated he sometimes chooses a person from that row of cards based on who they are as opposed to their perceived ability. Card art that reflected character depth could have made this a more compelling feature of a game and is a shortcoming in the design. The simplicity on the game board, however, is elegant and functional.
This game is another great example of a system built with the intention of reducing language dependency. While some of the symbols do not have a clear connection to the action they represent – like the butterfly represents people, or a top hat representing a soiree – other symbols, like the gun, represent the crime action. The key to the symbols is there are very few of them. So while, there are some you may have to commit to memory, the task is not overwhelming.
Reduced vocabulary allows players to immerse themselves in the game in subtle ways, getting them more invested and helping them relate. A great example of this is the money. There are two types of money in the game; a small bill and a stack of bills. The stack of bills is not defined by the game. If you count the number of bills in the image of the stack it is five large, but the number five is not printed on the chit. So players can make that stack of bills be whatever number they want it to be. In fact, when my wife and I played, we unconsciously made them equal the same amount. This just to say that players have the allowance to make the money tokens whatever value makes sense to them.
Artana Games has published a game that artfully blends gameplay with historical narrative. When I play Speakeasy Blues, I feel like I have leaped (Quantum Leap style) right into the middle of a day in the life of a night club owner’s life. Charles Lindbergh, Josephine Baker and Man O’ War are household names to me. Navigating my relationship with the mob for alcohol and making sure my local police officer gets his take are just a few of the things on my to do list for today. All the while, I listen to “The Lion” bang out some tunes on that keyboard, I am secretly hoping for the day when we repeal the 18th.
This game was provided to Play Satellite in the form of a review copy. Title image provided by Artana Games